Meaning Guide

Lessons learned from bringing death to life

Two weeks ago I drew out some general principles from the work of Tim Urban.  Some of Tim’s most popular (and scariest) posts deal with the subject of mortality and the preciousness of time.  They’re not just popular – they’re probably among the most popular blog posts ever written.

Now maybe I’m going out on a limb here, but I just can’t imagine these posts having become anywhere near as popular as they have done, had Tim limited himself to words.  The thing that grabs your attention and sticks in your brain are the image sequences, like these:


And so on … The emotional impact of these graphics rises as you see things you can relate to.  If you are 34 years old then you will probably witness another nine US presidencies:

Or another 60 superbowls:

The final image in the set – how much time with parents you have/had already used up by your mid-thirties – is particularly sobering.

What’s happening here?  Well, duration is an abstract concept that we can’t experience directly.  We only see the effects of time, not time itself.  So by turning a duration into something concrete, whether abstract diamonds and boxes and circles or stickmen presidents and footballs, we transform it into something that feels a lot more real.  This is yet another example of the general principle, that the more closely we tie our communication to experiences of the world that we all share, the more meaningful it becomes to more people.

Going a little deeper, because time isn’t something you can touch or feel directly, the only reason we think of it as something you can count is because at some point in the distant past someone started counting stuff that was happening over and over (sunrises and sunsets, the passages of the moon and the stars, the seasons).  If you think about it, the images above join in the same tradition, as we articulate the timings of superbowls and presidential elections, along with birthdays and company accounts and religious festivals, relative to the passage of the earth around the sun.

We are so used to thinking about the abstract concepts we have grown up with as being true and real in themselves, that we forget that they are only abstract descriptions of embodied experiences.  08:03 doesn’t exist, and neither does 2018, or the afternoon.  They are symbols that we have invented to make the experience of time easier to quantify, to think about and to communicate.  I suspect the sort of mindset that intuitively understands this is probably also the sort of mindset that finds it intuitively easy to communicate abstract conepts to diverse groups of people.  If meaning comes from connecting with experience, you have to be able to see through the abstractions to the experiences to be able to connect with them.

Oh, the irony of using abstract words to describe doing the opposite!  If this all sounds a bit heavy, you can probably get by by copying the work of people like Tim Urban who do it well.  Here’s David McCandless, for example, also using coloured squares to bring Clay Shirky’s concept of cognitive surplus to life – another particularly scary diagram …

And think how many fewer views this TED Talk would have got if the speaker had used a series of numbers to illustrate all his statistics, instead of a grid of little grey circles:

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