Tuesday 22 November 2011

Visualisation and Allegory

The most powerful way of coordinating the attention of a large number of individuals is to tell a story. In a highly complex world however, it is often difficult to identify the story to tell: there are indeed so many stories, and often the narrator is tied up in the narrative. But at any moment, I think it is not impossible to identify the story. This is, after all, what great artists (particularly novelists and play-writes) do. When an artist creates a story, they create a thing of beauty which has a life of its own, but whose inner life resonates with the life that we see around us. For example, the political situation in a local university was described to me as being like 'King Lear'. Immediately the questions arise: who is Regan? who is Goneril? Gloucester? or the fool? These are particularly powerful questions because they invite a deep entry into a form of life (in the play) and the reflection on the form of life of the real. And the invitation is powerful enough to draw in a wide range of stakeholders, to whom the story can be told, and the comparisons made. There are two questions which I think emerge from this:
a. can the coordinated engagement with such a story result in control?
b. if we are not to summon up Shakespearean allegories, what other forms of story telling are there that might also impact decision-making?

In response to the second question, I have been thinking about visualisation. Increasingly visualisations are being used to tell stories about the dynamics of communications in the social web. Typically these take the form of "such-and-such is 'hot' or 'not'" or "an emerging trend", etc. Clearly such stories can be useful for decision and control: what to invest in, what to drop, how to steer policy, etc all become decisions that arise from examining such trend data.

All of which raises the question as to the stories we might tell about the day-to-day management of institutions. As I pointed out in a previous post (http://dailyimprovisation.blogspot.com/2011/11/how-could-form-of-life-be-visualised.html) the challenge of decision and control is that it has requisite variety in its flexibility to adapt to fast changing, technologically-driven environmental changes. But Shakespearean plays won't do for the sort of fast-changing environment that management faces (despite King Lear being useful in unpicking university politics). But the visual data from real-time systems might provide a way of linking a kind of visual allegory to real-time decision and control.

Visual data reveals symmetries in the same way that symmetries are revealed in artistic creations like plays. It may be in the symmetry that the sense and coordination between allegory and reality occurs. An allegory is in essence a 'powerful symmetry'. And this is what I think a visualisation of complex real-time data might also be. As our practice increasingly revolves around computers, and the data of our behaviour becomes richer and richer, something deeply creative emerges in our capacity to realise 'powerful symmetries' in the form of allegorical interpretations of what is happening and what needs to be done. The creative aspect in particular is important. The neuroscientists would have us believe this is a right-brain function. Ian McGilchrist would argue that most of what transpires within our techno-educational environment makes demands on our left-brains. Therefore, perhaps the most interesting thing about allegories expressed through visualisations is that in some way they might be corrective.

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