The Atlas of Experience
March 2, 2022

What can we learn about data storytelling from The Atlas of Experience?

By Tony Boobier

Continuing our focus on data storytelling, let’s consider other media & The Atlas of Experience.

Regular readers may recall that guest blogger Tony Boobier has mentioned this classic before. In this post, Tony explains its creative genius & how it’s an example of a more visual (non-chart) form of storytelling.

Tony is a global mentor, advisor & author on topics including AI, Analytics & Insurance. He has shared his stories with us before including the journey of a package from South Africa & Santa’s reset. More seriously he is also the author of two books about how AI will change the world of work & banking. So, over to Tony to share his review of the Atlas of Experience & why he loves it…

How to engage data storytelling audiences

The greatest way to find engagement with any observer is to create an effective narrative.
What is the relevance of data to an individual (company, or organisation)? In other words, why is what is being said ‘important’? One of the biggest challenges is the variety of ways that information is absorbed. Some people are more aural, visual or tactile learners. Aural people are more inclined to enjoy podcasts. Visual people like a chart. Tactile people well, to be honest, I’m not sure that the technology sector has entire ‘cracked’ that segment. What might ‘tactile’ analytics look (or feel) like?

Personally, I like my stories to be visual. But that doesn’t mean that I’m a sucker for graphs and charts. One of the most interesting and compelling narratives that I have come across in a couple of decades is a book called “The Atlas of Experience. It charts an individual’s experience as if they were travelling across a landscape. You may only get it second-hand nowadays, sadly, but it is an understated classic.

It is, to be honest, the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen or read. I would give up all the books I have ever written, published and unpublished, and every blog and tweet, to have written this book.
The Atlas of Experience provides a map for an individual who travels through personal experiences. Not in the form of a flowchart or a decision tree, or anything as crude as that. Rather it is as if the individual is crossing physical terrain. The maps of experience, all 21 of them, are drawn in ‘subjective projection’ and ‘unimaginable scale’.

Traversing the Atlas of Experience landscape

Take for instance a journey, perhaps in business. The map of the ‘Mountains of Work’ takes us to a junction called ‘Turning Point’. There we can choose between ‘Grin and Bear It’ which ultimately leads to ‘washed out’ and ‘exhausted’. A different road leads us through villages that include evocative names such as ‘Persistence’, ‘Reluctance’, ‘choice’ and (if you take the right route), to the city of ‘Success’. There is an airport there on the outskirts of town called ‘Freedom’, by the way.

The ‘City of Change’ with its many districts includes ‘Tradition’, ‘Comfort’, ‘Evolution’ and ‘Revolution’. It even has a subway line. Getting on the train at ‘Doubt’ could lead you to either ‘Boom’ or ‘Bust’ dependent on your timing. Get on the Circle Line and you might even find that history tends to repeat itself, and you are back where you started from.

The sad events of the pandemic might perhaps even take some to the region of ‘Mortality’. This perhaps makes us think back. So, maybe we revisit the hamlets of ‘Old Love’, ‘Old Wounds’, and ‘Old Ideas’ or drift happily towards the city of ‘Good Old Days’. But we shouldn’t be downcast. The ‘Map of Pleasure’ gives us the chance of a day trip up to the coastal resorts of ‘Day out at the Seaside’ and ’Let’s do Lunch’, whilst looking across the Sea of Plenty to the harbour of ‘More Wine’.

What has this Atlas got to do with life today?

Reflecting on more recent times, you can find the village of ‘Hate’ on the Map of Passion. It’s located close to the villages of ‘Pity’ and ‘Ugly’. At least a day’s journey from ‘Smile’ and ‘Laughter’. The authors didn’t create a place called ‘War’. Maybe they just hoped that it didn’t exist, not even in their imagination.
It’s all a form of intellectual nonsense, by the way. An atlas, as the authors themselves refer to in their introduction, never just shows you where you are but rather it ‘fires the imagination‘. But perhaps your organisation needs that right now?

Without a map, you would never know where precisely you are. But you need to figure out where you are going. Visual arts and storytelling in the current climate can create a sometimes threatening vision of the future. An element of my 4th book, to be released this summer, will consider the role of ‘The State’ going forwards. As in the Atlas of Experience, it’s a reminder that there are often different routes that can be followed.

So, to summarise, data storytelling seems often to be retrospective in nature. But the real narrative needs to be forward-thinking and not necessarily negative. The ‘old world’ of analytics was nothing more than descriptive or ‘backwards looking’. The current world is now about prediction and prescription. About insights and decisioning. The challenge is how to make that narrative provide a positive vision of the future. One which plays to a market that is ecological, environmental and socially aware. Beyond that, one which delivers on its promises. What a great story or narrative that would prove to be!

Many thanks, Tony. That has got me thinking what would be the map of my experience at work? Perhaps you can ponder that for yourself. Plus, how might this example of a visual metaphor inspire you to be more creative than just using charts/graphs? Which visual metaphor would work for the stories you need to tell your stakeholders?