I’ve made a few science explainers in my day, but my dream is to create, or co-create, or just be involved in creating something with the simple majesty of Charles and Ray Eames’s “Powers of Ten,” which used a “long zoom” to physically visualize the abstract nature of exponent numbers (as well as the scale of the universe from the cosmic to the micro-cosmic). Well, I guess I should have learned to code and gotten a job at BERG London, because they’ve gone and done it.
“How Many Really?”, Berg’s latest interactive project for the BBC, uses the currency of our always-on, digitally connected age–social networks and “friend” lists–as raw material to visualize the real-world scale of huge numbers throughout history. Ever wonder how many people died during the Black Death? The site will tap into your Facebook or Twitter account and use your own social network as the starting point in a “breadcrumb trail” that visually compares your friend list to the number of people who perished. Unless you’re Ashton Kutcher, the stark difference in magnitude will astonish you.
There are loads of other figures to visualize on the site, not just morbid ones. But the basic concept driving the visualization–using the numbers we care about most these days as yardsticks to contextualize the ones we don’t–is, in a word, genius. Alex Jarvis, one of the BERG designers who created the site, explicitly states that his team leaned on “Powers of Ten” for inspiration. (As Jim Jarmusch said, “Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that fuels your imagination.”) But like that classic Eames film, BERG’s creation is humble in its simplicity: it’s not a fullscreen animation full of music cues and flashy art, but a small slideshow-like window that takes you on the journey. Or rather, lets you take the journey yourself.
That’s what makes “How Many Really?” a worthy successor to “Powers of Ten”: it updates that 43-year-old film’s visual language for the vernacular of our current age, which is not static or passive but interactive, networked, and data-driven. Like “Powers of Ten,” it feels as simple and personal as a sketch, as refined as a mass-appeal product, as mind-opening as fine art, and as noble and humane as a public works project, all at once. The Eames studio integrated the competing demands of art, commerce, design, and education like no one else since, and BERG is the only outfit on earth that reminds me of them.