Mediation theory and the design with urban systems data

In the process of working with large systems data, data visualization has become a powerful tool for both the representation of information as well as for the exploration of datasets and results of statistical analyses.

In a paper I recently presented at the Hybrid City Conference, I propose to frame the data driven visual artifact in terms of its character of ‘mediation’ and how it conditions processes of mutual constitution between humans and their world.
In the postphenomenological perspective within the philosophy of technology, a central focus is the analysis of the kinds of relations that human beings can have with different technologies and how reality’s presence to humans is shaped by technologies (Ihde, 1990). The two dimensions for this analysis that Paul Verbeek discusses, based on Don Ihde’s work, are hermeneutical and existential (Verbeek, 2005). In hermeneutical terms, artifacts mediate the way in which humans have access to the world in terms of the role they play in the human experience. This dimension is concerned with questions such as the way in which others are present to us when we communicate to them through information technologies or how we have access to the world through tools such as the microscope, a night vision system, etc. In existential terms, human existence is mediated by artifacts and the focus is on questions such as how information technologies impact our social relations or how the cellphone conditions how we structure our day.

In this paper I analyze a specific case of urban systems data visualization as a tool in the context of mediation theory and explore how this theoretical framework developed in the philosophy of technology can inform the design process of this kind of data driven interactive tools.

But before we delve more into this, let’s get back to the visual design component for a moment. Data visualization techniques can be used for presenting data in a specific way determined by the designer/developer as well as for exploring the data by offering the user direct manipulation with regard to what data is filtered/visualized and in what way. When affording exploration, a data visualization is a tool for seeing the world in a different perspective.

As a conceptual metaphor, the macroscope has been invoked to describe tools that “help us understand complex systems” (Thackara, 2006) in the wider design field as such and in the context of data visualization specifically (Börner, 2011; Ciuccarelli, Sessa, & Tucci, 2010; Stefaner, 2015). Joël de Rosnay, the source of this inspiration, in his eponymous book, describes the macroscope as being a tool for the big picture, a tool that enables humans to see and understand the connections between the parts and the kinds of their relations: “Today we are confronted with another infinite: the infinitely complex. We are confounded by the number and variety of elements, of relationships, of interactions and combinations on which the functions of large systems depend. […] Now a new tool is needed by all those who would try to understand and direct effectively their action in this world […] I shall call this instrument the macroscope (from macro, great, and skopein, to observe)” (Rosnay, 1979). In this perspective, data visualization as a macroscope becomes a tool – similar in nature to the microscope or the telescope – that stands in between the human and the world. A tool that conditions the very way a human perceives the world and interprets it. A tool that mediates a human experience of the world.

As a tool for exploration of aspects of the world, a visualization of urban systems data stands in between the human observer and the world. As a conceptual macroscope such a tool takes on a mediating role. How such a mediating role plays out, how a tool mediates between the world and a human observer is of great interest to designers in the process of transforming systems data into artifacts. They will shape users’ interpretation and experience of the world they operate in and condition their behavior and actions. A better understanding of this mediating role can inform the design process as well as clarify the role of the artifact for the user.

While much attention has been given to the representational character of data visualizations, these data visualizations themselves become a tool at the moment of enactment, a tool that affords a new way of perceiving the world and ultimately of being in the world.

The postphenomenological perspective articulates different kinds of relations between humans and their world, afforded by technologies, while putting particular emphasis on the mediation character of tools and technologies. Ihde proposes four different kinds of such relations that can exist between humans and their world when artifacts are involved (Ihde, 1990; Verbeek, 2015):

1) Embodiment relation
This case is closest to Heidegger’s case of present-at-hand equipment and which Merleau-Ponty later expands further as embodiment (Merleau-Ponty, 1962). The tool that mediates between human being and world withdraws from awareness in its use, it is transparent and becomes one with the human experiencing the world. The world is perceived through the artifact. Examples for this kind of relation are eyeglasses, microscope, telephone, etc. We look through eyeglasses rather than at them.

2) Hermeneutic relation
In a hermeneutic relation with the world, a technology mediates by affording the interpretation of the world. Technology and world form a unity, we read the world by experiencing a form of representation provided by the tool which in this case does not withdraw, does not become transparent. It provides a representation of the world, it requires interpretation and must be read. Examples would be maps, brain activity represented by an MRI, hygrometer, etc. The world is perceived by means of the artifact in this case.

3) Alterity relation
In both the above first cases of mediated relation, tools transform the experience a human has of the world, they mediate between humans and their world. The third kind regards technology as quasi-others, with which humans can interact. The relation is in the world but between humans and artifact which is present as itself in this relation. Examples being the vast amount of objects such as, dispensing machines, toll booths, etc.

4) Background relation
In Ihde’s fourth kind of relation, technologies are considered that are in the background, that form a closer tie with the context of our perception. Air conditioning units and central heating, refrigerators and lighting systems are not at the center of our perception of the world but they condition the context of our perception of the world. They rise to awareness mainly through their absence or malfunctioning.

Peter-Paul Verbeek extends these four types of relations by three more categories in order to consider new kinds of technologies which do not fit well in any of Ihde’s four types (Verbeek, 2015). They are:
5) Cyborg relation
This relation regards technologies that are even more intimate with the human body than embodiment, such as brain implants. Not only do they withdraw from awareness, they are literally subtracted from what can be perceived within the domain of Ihde’s micro-perceptions.

6) Immersion
The recent embedding of technologies with sensing, actuating, and computational capacities in the built environment goes beyond what can be described as background relation. Through these technologies the background becomes activated itself and part of interactive processes.

7) Augmentation
Finally, technologies such as smart-glasses or heads-up displays (HUD) can be neither considered only embodied nor hermeneutic, while a person perceives the world through them, this happens also through a process of interpretation and reading of the layered representation that is added. These technologies have been referred to as augmented reality and Verbeek uses this term for this last kind of relation.

Verbeek illustrates the application this mediation theory can have for designers, intent to give shape to artifacts and he focuses in particular on the field of industrial design and on the object and process of that discipline (Verbeek, 2005). In my paper, instead, I explore the possibility of applying the perspective of tool mediation to hybrid artifacts whose nature lies in actively bridging the digital and the physical domains.

As a case study a visualization system for urban energy data is used to analyze the mediating roles that the case study system is involved in. We can distinguish between two levels of mediation: On the first level, this data visualization tool is made up of connections (data streams) to technologies (electricity system and connected devices, temperature sensors, occupancy monitors, etc.) that are present in the environment and that condition themselves the relation between humans and their environment in different ways. On a second level, the visualization tool itself is a technology that mediates between users and their world. The co-presence of these two levels of mediation is a key characteristic of connected hybrid artifacts. These are artifacts that appear as such in front of the user, affording direct interaction, at the same time as they are connected to other technologies. While these connected technologies can be spatially remote, there exists a real-time connection that forms a constitutive part in the existence of the hybrid artifact. Both levels of mediation are required. It cannot exist without appearing in the world as a tool as such, but can neither do away with its digital connections to other technology systems in order to unfold its functionalities.

Read on here for more details.

– Börner, K. (2011). Plug-and-play macroscopes. Communications of the ACM, 54(3), 60-69.
– Ciuccarelli, P., Sessa, M. I., & Tucci, M. (2010). CoDe: a Graphic language for complex system visualization. Proc. Italian Assoc. for Information Systems (ItAIS).
– Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the lifeworld: From garden to earth ((560)). Indiana University Press.
– Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of perception. London ; New York: Routledge.
– Rosnay, J. D. (1979). The macroscope: A new world scientific system (1st ed.). Harper & Row.
– Stefaner, M. (2015). Process and Progress: A Practitioner’s Perspective on the How, What and Why of Data Visualization New Challenges for Data Design. In (pp. 391-404). Springer.
– Thackara, J. (2006). In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. The MIT Press.
– Verbeek, P.-P. (2005). What Things Do: Philosophical Reflections on Technology, Agency, and Design. Penn State University Press.
– Verbeek, P.-P. (2015). COVER STORY: Beyond Interaction: A Short Introduction to Mediation Theory. interactions, 22(3), 26-31.

Header image from:
Rosnay, J. D. (1979). The macroscope: A new world scientific system. Harper & Row.