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Vantage Points

Once you have a sense of organization, however casual, you can relax with that knowledge and begin to examine the information from different vantage points, which will enable you to understand the relationship between bodies of information. Ask yourself: How can I look at this information? Can I move back from it? Can it be made to look smaller? Can I see it in context? Can I get closer to it so it is not recognizable based on my previous image of the subject? Can I look at the detail?


We come. We go. And in between we try to understand.

– Rod Steiger


Whatever problems you have in life—personal relationships, putting together a business deal, designing a house—can be illuminated by asking these questions. How can I pull myself out of the situation? How do I see it by changing scale? How can I look at the problem from different vantage points? How do I divide it into smaller pieces? How can I arrange and rearrange these pieces to shed new light on the problem?

Each vantage point, each mode of organization will create a new structure. And each new structure will enable you to see a different meaning, acting as a new method of classification from which the whole can be grasped and understood.


Classifying Lassie: The Dog Story

I could contact Avanta, an Italian company that makes stuffed animals, and ask them to make me a set of 296 life-sized dogs representing a male and a female of each of the 148 breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club. (My book Dog Access, produced in 1984, the source of the following illustrations, showed all the approved breeds at that time, arranged by size.)

To make dogs understandable to people, I could put this extra-ordinary bevy of stuffed animals on a gymnasium floor and organize and reorganize them. I could put flags on them denoting their country of origin and tie ribbons around their necks, colored according to which of the six different major groups in which they belonged: sporting dogs, hounds, work dogs, terriers, toys, and nonsporting dogs.

Then I could arrange them from the smallest to the largest, from the shortest to the tallest, from the lightest to the heaviest, from the shortest-haired to the longest-haired, by their level of viciousness, popularity in the United States, population, price, and the number of championships they have won.

Figure 19
Illustrations by William McCaffrey

Every time the dogs are arranged in a different way, you can start seeing new information about the relationships. You might see that the most popular dogs are the shorter-haired ones, or that the most expensive dogs are the small dogs, or that in certain breeds the females are bigger than the males. As you observe these different types of dogs, you'll discover patterns, and finding and recognizing patterns is what leads to understanding. Each way I arrange these dogs tells you something different about them; each mode of organization provides additional information. The creative organization of information creates new information. The dogs don't change, but the information about them does. And it takes no prior knowledge or understanding to comprehend.

You can do this with many things; it makes your mind work differently because it shows the importance of relaxing and thinking about the arrangement of information before you make it complex. It's a process of simplification, not complication. And you realize that by simplifying, by taking one point of view, one slice, you can make something absolutely clear. Whereas if you tried to say this dog is the most popular in Wisconsin, and is of medium height, and said all these things at once, you would never get the mental map in your head, nor would you retain the memory of the information. Each way that you organize information creates new information and new understanding.

Figure 20

I could organize these dogs alphabetically...

Figure 21

Or by category (country of origin, for example)...

Figure 22

Or by time (for example, the year in which the breed was officially recognized by the American Kennel Club)...

Figure 23

Then again, I might arrange them in a hierarchy by weight in pounds...

Figure 24

Real learning about the dogs comes from comparing organizations. For example, you can see that the Afghan hound is taller than both the Labrador Retriever and the Komondor, but is outweighed by both.


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