Revealing Hegemony: Agonistic Information Design

Money and politics have always gone together, and wealth has wielded influence since the beginnings of democracy. So it is not surprising that elected representatives are influenced by the individuals, corporations, and interest groups that fund their campaigns. With improved access to data and new ways of expressing information, novel computational forms illuminate in greater detail and with new cleverness this age-old entanglement of money and politics. For instance, the computational visualization State-Machine: Agency (Carlson and Cerveny 2005)1 depicts the relationship between United States senators and their campaign contributors (figure 2.1). In the digital project, senators are represented as either red or blue circles, depending on their political party affiliation, and the size of their circle is determined by the total amount of campaign funds received. The circles are placed on the screen relative to the amount of funding received from one of three variable funding sources. Each funding source is represented by a plus sign, whose size is determined by the total number of dollars contributed to all campaigns. Funding sources such as lawyers and law firms, which contributed $744,660,550 to all Senate campaigns in 2007, are visually represented as proportionately larger than funding sources such as public- sector unions, whose contributions totaled $7,935,381. A senator who received more funding from lawyers and law firms than from public- sector unions would thus appear closer to that representative plus sign. Using menus in the interface, users can select different combinations of funding sources, resulting in the display of different images. Each new image reveals a different pattern of associations between senators and campaign contributions.

In many ways, State-Machine: Agency is familiar as a computational visualization. It draws together and renders a complex set of data; it makes use of standard visual cues such as shape, size, and color to assign

Figure 2.1

Max Carlson and Ben Cerveny, State-Machine: Agency (2005), http://state-machine .org

significance to the data; and through a simple interface, it enables user interaction (by manipulating variables, users can explore the data and generate new representations based on their interests and desires). But beyond these familiar qualities and mechanisms, State-Machine: Agency is distinctive in ways that make it exemplary of adversarial design. Foremost, the visualization assumes a decidedly political stance. Because of this explicit political stance, it diverges sharply from the tradition of visualization as a scientific technique that is presumed devoid of bias. This political stance can be immediately perceived in the title. In computer science, a state machine is a model of a set of possible behavioral relations between input, output, and action in which the status of the system is known, stored, and available to be operated on by procedural means. The title thus draws an association between an algorithmic process, which suggests a notion of the determined or expected, and the ways in which a particular political state operates. In case the perspective is not clear from the title of the project, the introductory screen to the visualization states, "Money drives the American political system."

The political stance is not expressed only by discursive means. The political stance is an integral part of the visualization itself, expressed through the interactive qualities of the visualization. Clicking and dragging on a representative circle allows the user to pull a senator away from a funding source momentarily, but as soon as the cursor is released, the circle bounces back into place, its position defined by its relation to the selected funding sources and their comparative contributions. The design of the visualization does more than simply present data. It expressively renders the associations between data, illustrating in an interactive form the notion that politicians are bound to their positions, which are defined by those that give them money.

Visualizations such as State-Machine: Agency are a distinct kind of computational object that is emblematic of computational information design. They merit attention because they have become one of the most recognized forms of expressive computational media and constitute an area of considerable design activity. Far extending the purview of their origins in the sciences, computational visualizations have become a familiar cultural form. They commonly appear as a means of explanation in popular visual media, such as print advertising and television news programs. Within some Web sites, computational visualizations have transitioned from being explanatory support material to being the content itself. The New York Times, for example, has developed a series of computational visualizations that are self-contained "news stories" of a new kind. The Naming Names (Corum and Hossain 2007)2 visualization is one such example. The visualization allows users to explore who referred to whom in the Democratic and Republican debates in the early part of the 2008 United States presidential election. By interacting with the visualizations, users can discover patterns of referencing among candidates over time. The inclusion of the quotes in which a candidate was named further allows users to develop an understanding of the context of the references. Through this combination of the techniques of information design and the capacities of computation, Naming Names intimates a notion of visualization as a kind of journalism.3

In addition to their use in news media, computational visualizations are also embedded within other media forms as aesthetic elements or as tools for learning, play, or reflection. Contemporary films, particularly those involving science fiction, regularly use computational visualizations and other forms of information design as visual props to contribute to a contemporary technological aesthetic. As design critic Peter Hall (2008, 122) notes, "Cascading veils of information, as famously depicted in the 1999

film The Matrix, have become a defining signifier of our age." Visualization and the aesthetics and practices of computational information design express a cultural moment in which information is abundant, and designers are challenged to make sense of and manipulate that information for social or cultural effect.

Because computational visualization and computational information design are common cultural forms, designers and artists are experimenting to extend the contexts, content, and purposes of information design in new directions. Consider The Dumpster (Levin, Nigam, and Feinberg 2006),4 which depicts breakups mined from an online journal service, allowing users to surf these moments, or consider We Feel Fine (Harris and Kamvar 2005),5 which depicts emotional states gathered from blog postings and allows users to sort and combine feelings and demographics into ever- changing representations of mood. These visualizations are noteworthy for their visual and interactive inventiveness. They elide distinctions between art and design as artists engage the practice of information design and designers veer from rote communication toward authorial expression. They also broaden the scope of information design beyond representing the objective and factual to attempt to represent the subjective and affective. In doing so, such experiments by designers and artists simultaneously utilize and interpret the forms and processes of information design toward new ends.

Some of these experiments by artists and designers are political in an unequivocal sense: they expose and document power structures and networks of influence. This is evident in State-Machine: Agency, which depicts a set of financial forces that are exerted by special-interest groups through campaign funding. In such works, artists and designers employ the principal qualities of computation toward decidedly agonistic ends. Those principal qualities and the tactics by which they represent and perform political relations are the subject of this chapter.

 
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