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 STANFORD UNIVERSITY – We now live in what is being called the Information Age, because with the invention of the internet and digitization humans can access, exchange, and act through massive quantities of knowledge more easily than in any previous time in human history.

 A unique aspect of digital information, however, is that much of what we accept with certainty is nothing more than a virtual representation generated by a mathematical algorithm. Take for example the modern operating room where the surgeon and patient implicitly trust a 3-D image of the patient’s retina that the surgeon uses to map her incision points. Every day, devices like TVs, mobile phones, and satellites present people with showers of digital imagery from which they glean information and knowledge.  But how did people come to believe what they see on the screen?

Stanford humanities professors Michael Marrinan and John Bender work together to understand modes of representation that came before the digital revolution and also includes it.  Bender, an English professor, analyzes how writers represent life with words, and Marrinan, an art history professor, investigates how artists depict reality through their paintings. Their combined areas of expertise bridge the components of a pervasive kind of visual representation called a diagram. By combining elements of the written word and the artistic rendering, a diagram allows its creator to illustrate a process while enabling its viewer both to visualize knowledge and to use it to make new working objects. The professors suspected that by exploring this long-standing model of visual representation, they might find out how modern society arrived at an almost ubiquitous confidence in the digital reproduction. Their combined research effort resulted in a multi-disciplinary perspective on, as Bender and Marrinan explained, “why people trust the algorithms that create the information.”” The book they co-authored is called The Culture of Diagram (Stanford University Press, 2010).  (More details on our digital world view)

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