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Topsight and Information

What is topsight and why does it matter?

Topsight is what comes from a far-overhead vantage point, from a bird's eye view that reveals the whole—the big picture; how the parts fit together.

—David Gelernter, Mirror Worlds

The word seems almost to explain itself. That's because you can see what it means. And that's hugely important because seeing information is basic to understanding it. Topsight, as defined by David Gelernter, is the thing most often missing from our information.

Presentation does not equal comprehension. As Jakob Nielsen said, "Web content is intellectually bankrupt and almost never designed to comply with the way users behave online." Comprehension is far from automatic. The way users behave online is to create intentional and accidental connections via movement. Much of this movement creates superficial topical connectivity, but that superficiality is also the result of present formatting protocols. The fact is, users pinball around information, bouncing off one fact or topic onto another.

In this context, then, topsight means ensuring that information is designed for the bounce. This is one way of turning presentation into comprehension. In other words, if information has topsight, it takes into account possible pathways and overviews of the information—what we often call seeing the big picture. Elsewhere I describe our typical use of information as cultural agnosia, seeing the discrete parts but never seeing how they work together to create the whole. Topsight is actually seeing the parts in context of the whole, and the whole in context of the parts. Topsight matters because without it comprehension is incomplete. With the info-waters rising daily, people are not only inundated; incomprehension also creates frustration and confusion.

Agnosia: (literally, without knowledge) Associational brain disorder that prevents correct interpretation of sensations despite functioning sense organs. In the book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Dr. Oliver Sacks brilliantly describes first meeting a patient he would later diagnose as having agnosia, the inability to create a whole picture out of discreet sensory impressions:

"It was obvious within a few seconds of meeting him that there was no trace of dementia in the ordinary sense.... And yet there was something a bit odd. He faced me as he spoke, was oriented towards me, and yet there was something the matter—it was difficult to formulate. He faced me with his ears, I came to think, but not with his eyes. These, instead of looking, gazing, at me, 'taking me in,' in the normal way, made sudden strange fixations—on my nose, on my right ear, down to my chin, up to my right eye—as if noting (even studying) these individual features, but not seeing my whole face, its changing expressions, 'me,' as a whole."

This is it exactly! This is precisely what we do with our information. We catch a sound byte here, a stock quote there, a headline about the correctness of bombing Iraq, an op-ed about its folly—but not seeing the whole picture, its changing expressions, me or it, as a whole. Could we all be suffering from cultural agnosia?

Even on the Web, a notoriously unphysical environment, physically locating perception above content lets you see the larger picture. The starting point for making the page think like a network is to get above the information. (This dynamic applies to managing and organizing almost any kind of complex information.) So how do you do that?

By building an information map that provides topsight. I call this tool the Information Balcony.

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