the real world (at a glance)

How do you encapsulate a single moment on earth? How do you quantify the human experience that exists during that moment, creating a record of global human history? Telephone conversations, emails, love letters, business trends? How do you present it?

Artist Jonathan Harris pondered these big notions and drew some interesting, very contemporary insights. “Ultimately I decided that news photographs do the best job of summarizing the stuff that matters on earth, on a very broad scale, at any given moment,” he says. That led to 10x10, a curious piece of new media art that aggregates and analyzes the top 100 words and images in the world every hour and displays them in an interactive ten-by-ten grid. (You may have already heard about it; within days of its November 4 launch, it was the 10th most popular link on the web, according to one site. CNN and USA Today and others soon took it beyond the blogosphere.)

This information visualization project is a bit of Google News with a dash of Google Zeitgeist. It does what thousands of blogging news junkies do, but in a more structured and visual way. And more than just feeding the addiction, it puts this snapshot of our world into context, a larger – and with no human intervention, raw and objective – perspective. As the website points out, it’s “often moving, sometimes shocking, occasionally frivolous.” It’s reality – at least as reported by the global news media.

Harris' inbox has been flooded by emails from people around the world moved by 10x10's unique - and often upsetting - view of the world. One day in particular that moved the masses: the day Yasser Arafat died. "Most days, the grid is filled with a variety of images on all sorts of topics," he reflects, "but every now and then something so important happens that the whole world pauses and looks. Arafat's death was one such event, and for one day, 10x10 was covered almost entirely with pictures of him. Moments like that you know you're watching history being made, and I find that quite powerful."

[excerpted from my upcoming article in Photo District News (PDN), February print issue]