Tuesday 31 January 2012

Visualisation in Music and the Internet

There is a long tradition of trying to represent the meaning of music in a visual way - very similar to attempts to render meaningful visual representations of the unfolding of life on the internet. The most striking attempt to render the unfolding of a piece of music was made by Heinrich Schenker in the early 20th century. But Schenker's graphs are interesting and relevant to a broader discussion on visualisation because what they try to convey is the meaning, or rather the essence of the musical unfolding over time: it is an attempt to somehow compress time and convey the fundamental characteristics of the musical work in a representation around which confusions and ambiguities can be distilled and discussion concentrated on the salient points highlighted by the graph.

If the musical work were the unfolding of a business (or a university) or the unfolding of a learner's progress, one might imagine that a graph of those unfoldings would be of direct benefit to making decisions, to focusing discussion and to taking control. The fundamental objective of any visualisation is decision and control.

Schenker's approach in producing his graphs is phenomenological in the Husserlian sense. The distinctions between background, middleground and foreground (the different levels in the diagram above) are effectively different levels of 'bracketing-out' of phenomena: the higher you go up the graph, the more is removed.

But importantly, this bracketing-out process has most deeply been driven by a an underlying theory.. an underlying ontology, and at some level, this is quite a mystical thing with Schenker. But it is the ontological position that he adopts that renders his work meaningful because it gives it coherence. Schenker has invested his graphs with an idea - and his graphs are interesting because his idea is interesting, and still resonates for us today.

This is the distinction between Schenker's approach to musical unfolding and the current approaches to the visualisation of the unfolding of life on the internet. The images which have emerged of internet communications have been produced through an automated process, and through the construction of complex algorithms which plot data and draw lines according to simple rules of correspondence and relationship. In being automated in this way, these images also have their ontology... they also rest on an idea. But the idea of these auto-visualisations is never inspected: it is instead hidden behind the magic box of techno-wizardry. Its opaqueness results in the resulting images being pretty, but on the whole no less open to interpretation than the original time-based phenomena: they do not contribute to decision and control.

We need to ask "What is the idea invested in these images of internet communications? " And in response, I might suggest that there are some key issues:

  1. communication is a matter of information exchange
  2. meaning is conflated with the amassed exchanges of information
  3. agency is reduced to communicative utterances
  4. reflexivity is subordinated to utterances
  5. utterances made away from the internet can be bracketed-out
  6. a visual representation of information exchange is an aid to decision and control

There are obvious problems here.
But I suspect that visualisation will remain a 'flash in the pan' (even if it's a pretty flash) until deeper questions about the ontology of an approach to visualising the unfolding of online life are addressed.

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