I spent a bit of time today playing around with a programming language that I’m not overly familiar with as I’ve only been using it for a couple of months now. Going through all the regular hello world, and basic applications just to get a handle on all of the nuances of the language I fell upon a bounding ball example that I butchered to see what the language could do. In the process turned out an example of how patterns can hide and how mass amounts of information can help to see those patterns.
You will need the latest version of flash installed in your browser to see this example. You can get the latest version from here (If you can see numbered buttons below, then you don’t need to download anything)
Basically you click on the buttons on the left to select a number of balls, then click in the middle of the blank area to start scattering the balls.
Thinking of the balls as pieces of information, first click on 1, then click somewhere in the middle, you can see that the ball starts from where you clicked, but other than that there isn’t a pattern at all. It could be that the ball always goes in the same direction at the same speed. With just a single piece of information it is impossible to see patterns as there is nothing to compare against.
Clicking on the next few sets of buttons, 10, 25, and 50, and scattering the balls each time by clicking in the middle of the space, you start to see that generally the balls will always start from where you clicked, and all the balls seem to travel in random directions, at random speeds. This is about as far as you can get with recognizing any type of pattern with this much data. There are quite a few bits of information now, so you can start to compare against others and it is possible to track each individual piece of information, compare that information to any other piece of information, and measure differences or similarities between any number of pieces of information. Yet it is still difficult to see any major patterns showing themselves.
Now the 500 button, after scattering the balls it appears that the entire area is just full of information. It is now difficult to track an individual piece of information, also making it difficult to be able to compare information, but after a couple of seconds watching the balls move around you start to see very obvious grouping of the balls. Patterns jump out at you and are actually difficult to miss.
With 1500 balls you would just expect that the entire area would be full of colours and with it being nearly impossible to track individual items you would expect that it would also be near impossible to see definite patterns, but again just like with the 500 balls, slowly but surely, the balls start to group themselves and you see definite patterns in the whitespace surrounding the balls.
So what is happening here?
When you are viewing enough information that your brain can easily track it all, you pay attention to the information itself. In this case the balls on the screen. When there is an overload of information, your brain stops registering the individual pieces of information and starts trying to make sense of it all as a whole. In the case of the balls, your eyes stop watching the balls themselves, and starts to watch the white spaces around the balls, pulling out patterns easily.