If you're like me, and in the habit of overconfidently wandering into a new neighborhood without consulting a map, the lead-in to IBM's centennial exhibit [ibm.com] may be hard to spot at first. En route, there's the pristine square of Lincoln Center to get lost in, flanked by marbled and gilded institutions of New York's cultural elite.
The site itself lies on a ramp into a subterranean gallery, and the fairly recognizable LED wall, hidden through a thin rake of trees, is subdued in bright daylight. In order to enter the free exhibit, one must pass through a nominal ticketing system for scheduled viewings, beginning with a 10 minute video and the rest of the half hour to interact with the content. Before getting a chance to spend time in the outdoor space, I'm ushered into the interior gallery by a fleet of smiling volunteers.
The darkened room is mirrored on either side and set with circular arrangements of display screens -- of a size and presence that seem to be schooled in Mark Rothko immersion techniques. In a well-orchestrated arrangement of sound, typography, and moving image, the opening film sequence narrates the timeline of our technological history, unsurprisingly (but also rightfully) featuring IBM visionaries and products. A captive audience is plunged into darkness and light, and the effect is kaleidoscopic -- at once distracting and mesmerizing. The narrative continues by outlining the basic stages of IBM's problem-solving process, setting us up for the sections we will later explore: SEEING, MAPPING, UNDERSTANDING, BELIEVING, and ACTING. Even going in with critical eye, for the duration of the film it's impossible not to suspend disbelief to accept the soundness of their vision - a history of technology improving society, and the march towards a world of known-knowns.
Following the video, the screens transform into interactive stations of the aforementioned categories. SEEING gives us an illustrated timeline of our increasing abilities to assess more about world through technologically extended senses. Each metric - from early speed and altitude measurements to the nano-units our instruments are tuned to today - can be clicked on for a more detailed description. In a visual folder, MAPPING curates the various benefits of visualizing information and juxtaposes historical and contemporary examples. Also pulling examples from the past and the present, UNDERSTANDING poses a set of challenges as questions, which, when selected, reveal case studies that are working towards a solution. BELIEVING offers a collection of inspirational videos by larger-than-life icons from disciplines situated at the edge of innovation. To navigate through ACTING, a dark globe dotted with red markers can be spun to reach locales where information innovation is on the ground and running.
We may transition quite seamlessly between phone, laptop, and desktop screens in our daily lives, but the formidable 7' exhibit displays seem to exert a more tangible effect on the body, automatically putting viewers in a position of awe. There's much to be said for the satisfying physicality of moving through the space and swiping screens with the entire arm. But given that many of our touch-screen experiences are informed by our app-loaded and internet-connected devices, using this type of interactivity sets up our expectations for a certain explorability and depth of content. Despite the richness of the subject matter and slick navigations, the number of examples often seemed sparse and there were usually no more than two or three layers to dig down into. Though, to be fair, adding more complexity would've made it difficult to see everything in the 30 minute window.
I revisited the exhibit at night to have a better experience of the outdoor portion, where the LED wall seen after dark works a quite different kind of magic.
Each pixel is actually quite large - fitting the tip of your index finger if you were to go up and touch it (which of course I had to, and wasn't yelled at for it). Far from making the display seem dated, the low resolution gives each point of light a sense of agency, like an emergent intelligence mysteriously coming together to present us with cohesive moving images. The information that dances on the screen is locally sourced (including a beautiful 3D map of solar potential in Manhattan) and often real-time (traffic patterns on Broadway, airborne particulate pollution). The content here corresponds nicely to the rest of the exhibit, a testament to the production by SYPartners, Ralph Appelbaum, and Mirada (Guillermo del Toro's transmedia company). Infosthetics readers may also recognize Casey Reas's hand in the outdoor data wall, who was brought in with a number of other artists and programmers to bring it to life.
Fans of James Gleick's The Information will be familiar with the scope and general trajectory of the THINK exhibit's story, which leads us to present day engagement with the quantification and visualization of everything that can be turned into data. Marshall McLuhan lauded the company some 40 years ago for discovering that "it was not in the business of making office equipment or business machines, but that it was in the business of processing information," which helped IBM keep it's forward gaze. While Apple and Google have been the more visible innovation giants in recent years, it's worth reminding that IBM has been leading the charge -- both in socially progressive employment practices and in shaping what we consider technology today -- for a century now. Even if the company has receded from the limelight of popular tech culture, we get the occasional insights from showcase projects like chess-playing Deep Blue, Watson on Jeopardy earlier this year, and this exhibit. While the rest of the world is finally catching on to the growing importance of making big data understandable and meaningful, we already see it done well here at Lincoln Center and can look forward to what IBM will be contributing to the field next.
IBM THINK exhibit at Lincoln Center closes October 23. It's free to attend, and the schedule and more information can be found here.
(All photographs by Mimi Rojanasakul)