Having just spent a great deal of time enjoying the dialog surrounding the "democratizing knowledge" forum, it occurs to me that a little reading-response paper I turned in yesterday is more in tune with some of the interests here than I might otherwise have thought. Re-posted from my personal blog... This is far from a polished piece of writing; my hope is more that it helps me find folks to continue the conversation with.
As the continuation of an online dialog in 2006, the Architectural League of New York published a series of pamphlets that explore the ramifications of pervasive computing on advocacy, activism and socialities. #3 in the series, titled “Suspicious Images, Latent Interfaces,” is a conversation between Benjamin Bratton and Natalie Jermijenko. Find the whole series of pamphlets as pdfs at www.situatedtechnologies.net .
In discussing the emergence of ‘data visualization’ as the dominant mode of ‘pervasive computing’ (in 2006), Bratton claims that, “In fact, parameters of facticity are further mystified by the visualization. Part of the progressive narrative for pervasive computation and ecological governance is of a world in which every square inch is in some way constantly outpouring infinitely communicable information about itself, and that this would overwhelm inherited layers of expert systems—certain people in certain circumstances that collect data from certain instrumental means—enabling the world to declare itself as a functionally open “data continent.” From this new basic infrastructure a new kind of political institutionality could emerge.” (12)
Jermijenko’s response is centered around her sense that the intent of these types of visualization strategies take as their unspoken aim the representation of the unrepresentable, or, in her words, “sensors (0n experimental trees) mak(e) explicit some of the environmental variables to which they are exposed, we would therefore somehow be able to make better sense of those trees” (12). Both scholars are on point here, but in focusing on the role of data visualization per se they may be missing their most damning critique. It is true, as Bratton and Jermijenko go on to say, that the tree really doesn’t need sensors and graphic renderings of data to tell it’s story, in order that trees might participate in the political economy: trees are “active dynamical systems, and they do have these very visible growth responses” (14). Yet the notion of providing a voice for the voiceless goes much further into the problematic ideology of “advocacy” than it’s current incarnation through glossy data visualizations: indeed, the very notion of an “advocate” is that there is a subject who is permitted to speak (to power) on behalf of a non-subject (either an object–as in an object of the court, or an objective fact of science–or a subject that has lost his/her right to self-representation. Interestingly, it is questions of representation and the shifting terrain of power dynamics that are at the center of this debate about the prevalence of certain kinds of representational strategies. The question can usefully be widened: who is allowed to speak for whom? Is representation an adequate response to a data-intensive world? Mightn’t data visualization be but the death throes of the rotting system of representationalism that stifles our endeavors from the political realm to the scientific to the arts and back again? Who is a “documentary film maker” in the era of youtube? Who isn’t an electronic engineer with a $50 arduino? Do we need animal rights activists to tell us that slaughtering whales is a bad idea? No. We need a completely different set of power relations: one without power.
Jermijenko and Bratton rightly question the ethical viability of artists and designers acting as advocates for ecosystems: the very notion effaces the ecosystem’s inherent agency. This suggests to me that if the tools of pervasive computing are to be useful in constructing a world worth living in, it will not be in their facility to tell the story of an (constructed) object to an (imagined) public: rather, it must be in their capacity to shift the ground of activity amongst specific publics.