“All of the thinkers and authors in history–in ONE graph!” he writes breathlessly on his website. Which sounds, quite frankly, overwhelming. I’d almost rather reread my doorstopper of a high-school Western civ book. But Griffen established some organizing principles that make The Graph of Ideas less dizzyingly complex than it seems at first blush: Each node represents one historical figure, and the nodes are color-coordinated to represent specific eras or fields of expertise (red for 19th- and 20th-century philosophers; orange for fiction authors; purple for comedians; and so on). Like-minded people are grouped together, and linked to all their influences, as well as everyone who has influenced them. The more influential a person, the bigger his or her node. Here, for instance, is Nietzsche, philosophy’s god among kings:
The big takeaway? “Everyone is the collective sum of everyone else,” Griffen tells Co.Design. “We often think great thinkers, scientists, and authors sit in isolation in some cloister waiting for that eureka moment to come to them in a lightning storm. The truth is, the process of discovery forces us to consciously or unconsciously draw on all of our known, and perhaps more significantly, unknown antecedents of knowledge and wisdom to come up with new solutions to the problems we’re facing today.”
Of course, such a graph–with its sweeping scope and its countless value judgments–invites swift nitpicking. The first thing I noticed is that Camille Paglia’s node is red (she’s a philosopher, really? Of what, raging hyperbole?) and it’s about the same size as Slavoj Žižek’s. Surely there’s no comparing Žižek’s contribution to the history of ideas and that of a woman who goes around lambasting Lady Gaga for not being sexy enough.
Griffen’s method sheds some light on the miscalculation. All the data comes from Wikipedia. More precisely, Griffen pulled every Wikipedia profile that had an “influenced by” or “influences” field, and that’s how he determined the connections and the size of each node. That also explains why there are quite a few people missing: Where are all the athletes? And the sculptors? Haven’t they helped shape the arc of western thought?
“I was limited [by] the dataset,” Griffen says. “Most of the people are philosophers and authors primarily because these are text-driven endeavours. Presumably fans of philosophy and books have entered in the information which sort of makes sense given their overrepresentation in the graph. Sports fans are unlikely to enter these into Wikipedia and so they are underrepresented. Similarly with artists but to a lesser extent.”
In other words, the chart is less a comprehensive map of ideas, and more a comprehensive map of what people care about enough to plug into Wikipedia. “As Wikipedia grows more people are going to be represented in the graph,” Griffen says. “The more people, the bigger the landscape of ideas. Unfortunately, until it includes every human who has ever lived, it will be incomplete.”