Is There an Ontologist in the House? A Review of ‘The Book of Trees’ by Manuel Lima

"Tree of Consanguinity," 1471, by Loyset Liedet (1420-79)

“Tree of Consanguinity,” 1471, by Loyset Liedet (1420-79)

Roy came in late to the Comics Grinder offices and dropped off his latest offering. He smiled his wry little smile and said, “You and your ontology issues!”

What about my ontology issues? When did I tell him?

Issues about ontology don’t get discussed much outside of certain circles. Stray away from these rarefied circles that are invested in such discussion and you could go years, maybe a whole lifetime, without ever needing to concern yourself ever again with that tiresome chit chat often foisted upon someone who enjoys reading by someone who fancies themselves no mere book lover but someone superior, someone who regularly uses the word, ontology!

This type most likely wears a beret, or perhaps a cloak, maybe nurtures an odd facial expression, or sports a baffling attempt at an English accent. Where are the true believers, sans the affectation, that make me want to go back to thoughts of ontology? Well, how about Manuel Lima? Yeah, how about Manuel Lima!

Manuel Lima. Ah, yes, he’s the new Edward Tufte. You know, the pioneer of data visualization! Tufte is the guy who created and popularized the colorful graphs, charts, and dazzling configurations of data that demonstrate, at a glance, such things as how stupid Napoleon was to invade Russia. Lima picks up where Tufte left off and has taken data visualization to the next level, per se.

Is it art? Yes! Lima is something of an artist, the next generation to create and continue to popularize these weird infographics we’re supposed to be so enamored with. “The Book of Trees” was released this month. This is a follow-up to his critically acclaimed book from 2011, “Visual Complexity: Mapping Patterns of Information.” For this new book, the synthesizing of information overload finds the perfect model in the humble tree. We come to see how everything old is new again.

Lima shares with us much of what has inspired him: how artists over the ages have dealt with data. It’s not too far removed from how we clever contemporary souls like to see it presented. Stop and contemplate the art of Loyset Liedet (1420-79) who painted family trees with each ancestor quite literally seated at their assigned spot on a branch.

As I stop and contemplate this rather strange image, I can imagine a really good TED Talk showcasing it, something about dealing with the shock of the new by way of the shock of the old.

"Treeviz," 2007, by Werner Randelshofer

“Treeviz,” 2007, by Werner Randelshofer

But literal family trees are only the beginning. The name of the game is seeking clarity, in terms of ontology, the search for the meaning of reality, of existence, as expressed by Aristotle. What is the essence of this or that thing or being? It takes on the aura of a noble pursuit, does it not? And it is a quite a noble pursuit. And so, with our purpose clear, we find in this marvelous book example upon example of how trees can help make the world more clear to us.

But trees have complex branches and, as we clearly see with each passing era, those branches get more and more complex. Ironically, it becomes more of a challenge to see the data for all the branches! But they are beautiful to behold like an example of a hyperbolic tree from 2007 by Werner Randelshofer, “Treeviz.” It shows the usage patterns of an e-learning and file-sharing platform hosting one million files. Why should you care about something like that? Sometimes, art is never having to ask.

“The Book of Trees” is a 208 page hardcover, published by Princeton Architectural Press. You can get your copy at Amazon right here. And be sure to visit Manuel Lima’s Visual Complexity website here.


Filed under Art, Art books, Book Reviews, Books, Data, Design, Infographics, Information

3 responses to “Is There an Ontologist in the House? A Review of ‘The Book of Trees’ by Manuel Lima

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