Latour: What does an Aesthetics of Matters of Concern Look Like?

Last night the Barker Center at Harvard hosted a lecture by Bruno Latour entitled Mapping Controversies: A Political Architecture of Knowledge. Previously Latour has fought ardently for the place of objects, things, in our discussions of politics and this lecture is an extension of those thoughts.

"If you can, with a straight face, maintain that hitting a nail with and without a hammer, boiling water with and without a kettle, fetching provisions with or without a basket, walking in the street with or without clothes... are exactly the same activities, that the introduction of these mundane implements change 'nothing important' to the realization of tasks, then you are ready to transmigrate to the Far Land of the Social and disappear from this lonely one."

The discussion last night focused to the tools needed to make the parliament of things more possible. A central part of Latour's argument is that up until very recently we have existed primarily in a world that centers on quantitative matters of fact. Lately, however, facts are becoming more and more contested. The realm of facts is being blurred by matters of concern. In the US this is something that we are all too familiar with in the form of the creationism vs. evolution debates. Evolution was considered a fact until the concerted efforts of religious extremists developed a body of "scientific evidence" contesting its factuality and this issue is now up for grabs, currently the object of heated rhetorical battles. Concerns have worked their way ever deeper into our lives to the point that even the primal act of eating is a matter of concern. Is this beef creating excess methane, is this fish over-fished, is my coffee fair trade? Indeed, coffee is no longer simply coffee and fish are not just fish, the things of our world are now bound into a much longer chain of issues.

Latour suggested very eloquently that arguments of facts are simply the "residue of statistics" and the way that those statistics are visualized. Here the designer is called to action. What we do, how we represent the world, shapes the discussions we have about it. So here's the question: if we are used to a world of facts how can we begin to cope with these matters of concern as they become the default? As Latour put it last night, "what does an aesthetics of matters of concern look like?"

Michael Hays, noted architectural historian, chimed in to suggest that the 20th century was largely an era of collage, both politically and aesthetically. This seems like an apt description: in the palatable pluralism of contemporary politics when we "agree to disagree" and always resolve conflicts of interest in a binary way, there are always just winners and losers. But what of contemporary politics and current-day image making? Hayes further suggested zooming, that critical ability of visualizations as diverse as Google Earth, video games, Photoshop, CAD and others, would become the defining factor of our contemporary aesthetics. In a zooming environment you enter into discussions of scale and resolution, highlighting the thresholds between various zoom levels as key sites of decision.

Latour claims to be unhappy with smoothness but I think this stems from the fact that smooth zooming is a relatively new phenomena and we are still grappling with its implications. Smoothly zooming between one view of a map and another, I argue, is primarily a user interface shortcut and a way to help link two things cognitively rather than a thing in itself. The zoom levels are the data and the smoothness the metadata.

But for this argument to hold water we have to already acknowledge that two different zoom levels of a map are actually two different maps. At every level of zoom a chain of decisions about what to show and what to leave out must be made. The tools that we use to zoom in and out of data, be it maps or CAD drawings or whatever, make specific decisions about what to show and how to depict it at each zoom level because it's not feasible (or productive) to represent all levels of detail all the time. Testing this assertion is simple: what does the street level view of Google Maps do for you? What does the global view do for you? The latter will certainly not help you navigate a vehicular path from A to B and the former will not do a very good job of articulating your position relative to the entire planet.

In other words, perhaps the problem is not smooth navigation between states but the lack of statefulness that many smooth interfaces suffer from. In architecture we name these various levels of zoom: urban plan, site plan, floor plan, detail. Although each of those drawings is ostensibly representing the same bundle of ideas, a particular building, they are each the result of very specific decisions about what to show and what to withhold. As a profession architects benefit by being able to teach each other what details are appropriate to a site plan and what may be more appropriate to a floor plan. The discourse of architecture is built upon this kind of basic knowledge and so it's not necessary to explicitly state what has been excluded or included in any particular drawing and why because that comes with your professional understanding.

In the public arena, as scale becomes a more and more prevalent way to understand the world, we (the big we) need to do a better job of revealing the metadata with the data. Although metadata is always useful, it's particularly important to articulate this information in a zooming interface because the default appearance is one of full disclosure but in actuality a small portion is being articulated at any one time. One of the benefits of smooth zooming is to help articulate the thresholds between one particular zoom level and another as data fades in and out of the visual field or increases and decreases in resolution with the change of scale. Here the very act of fading, a visual effect, helps call attention to the change of state.

Near the end of the discussion Latour claimed for himself the title of Compositionist, which I like quite a lot. He chose this word in contrast to a position of the multiplicity of post-modern hypertext where many and multiple views occupy the same plane. Can there be such a thing as informed relativism? Is it possible to be objective or even mostly objective without tethering oneself to absolutes? Like data selected revealed or hidden at each individual level of zoom, can we use composition as a tool that is neither deterministic or relativist?

If we are indeed entering an era of concerns rather than facts we had better hope that resolving our conflicts in a careful, non binary way is possible. We had better hope that the various sides of a conflict may be composed in such a way as to resolve the conflict without simply bludgeoning one side out of the matter by default. It should be exciting for many readers of this blog to note that composition, the primary act of judgment executed by the designer, is gaining new currency outside the realm of points, lines, and planes.