Tuesday, 15 November 2011

How could a "form of life" be visualised? (and why ought we to do it?)

I think of all the questions I've come back from the Heinz von Foerster Congress in Vienna with, this is the one which fascinates me most. After wonderful presentations by Louis Kauffmann on time and observation, Alfred Inselberg on Parallel Coordinates (see picture above), Pille Bunnell on distinctions and domains and Bernard Scott on Pask's contribution to psychology (in which he also talked about von Foerster's analysis in response to Luhmann's question "how recursive is communication?"), I'm trying to connect issues concerning time, anticipation and visualisation in a way which might be practical and applicable to learning technology and other areas.

First of all, we would have to ask "why visualise?". I don't think "because we can" is a good enough answer. A better answer is to connect visualisation with the issues of decision and control. Astrid was reading on Wikipedia about the reasons why the first world war was so destructive the other day, and read that
"More than 9 million combatants were killed, largely because of great technological advances in firepower without corresponding advances in mobility".
Now we have even greater technological power in the form of trading systems and global finance which is "firing" on mechanisms of national governance and coordination which are too slow-moving to react: consequence = crisis and destruction. The solution must be better mechanisms of governance and control, and that means better and quicker ways of reaching informed judgements. Currently, our methods for presenting data attenuate its complexity, and consequently this increases the complexity of decision-making because  the attenuated data is open to so many interpretations; politics and ego then win out in terms of the favoured interpretation and favoured decision.

The visualisation of complex data tries to address this social coordination problem by presenting something very complex without attenuating its subtleties whilst providing people with tools for exploring its complexity and reaching consensus more quickly than at present. Hans Rosling's 'Gap Minder' is perhaps the best example of this sort of process.

But to what level of complexity should we go? I think our aim should be to visualise a "form of life" because only by appreciating the rich diversity of "forms of life" and their relationship to individual action and the 'family resemblances' (another Wittgenstein phrase) between different aspects of life can we get a sufficiently rich picture of the world that meaningful decisions might be made.

But a 'form of life' is a nebulous thing. There are many aspects of the form of my life which are in my head, and which nobody else could possibly inspect. On the other hand, those things which are in my inner life do have an effect on the communications that I make and the actions I take, and these things are observable. In an online world, the amount of 'behavioural' and 'communicational' data is vast. Leydesdorff has brought techniques from cybernetics to try and make sense out of this, and I wonder that there may well be a way forwards here. Also I suspect that modelling a form of life is closely related to identifying the degree of 'conviviality' in a society.

Current approaches to visualisation don't I think address the deeper issues of coordination and control. They tend to wonder in self-amazement at the degree of interconnections between things (twitter feeds, facebook posts, etc) without really thinking:
a. what does it mean?
b. how might it be useful?
Those are the central questions, and now the thinking needs to be done to really exploit the visualisation tools we have at out disposa to give ourselves better mechanisms of human control so that the balance between technologies of the market and globalisation and the technologies of governance and control once more have requisite variety.

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