Varieties of Political Expression

All of these computational information design projects engage with content that is political in nature, and all of them seek to show patterns of financial influence in and across elections, governance, and corporate organizations. These visualizations are agonistic because they provide access to hegemonic conditions, making them seen and knowable. But even within this tactic there are varieties of political expression that can be differentiated.

A social network visualization is not inherently political, but its form lends itself to visualizing hegemony because it can represent the relations between a heterogeneous array of entities. More generally, a visualization is not political or more political just because it employs computation. Although the design of Unfluence leverages the principal qualities of computational media more thoroughly than They Rule or Exxon Secrets does, that does not necessarily make it more agonistic. Indeed, its provocation is arguably less than that of They Rule or Exxon Secrets. When users view the image of a network in Unfluence, there is nothing in the form of the representation that is explicitly contestational. In contrast, consider the images of the networks in They Rule and Exxon Secrets, where the networks are presented as visually distinctive images that are politicized by means of visual design. The form is manipulated to communicate decidedly politicized perspectives. In the design of They Rule and Exxon Secrets, On provides visual anchors via icons that give meaning and assign identities to the actors within the network, visually casting those actors in roles that evoke negative connotations and that are unquestionably political. The board members in They Rule grow fatter as they join more and more boards, conveying associations to excessive consumption, and the institutions in Exxon Secrets are overlaid with larger and larger dollar signs as the contributions they receive from Exxon increase. These anchoring icons in They Rule and Exxon Secrets leave the user with few doubts about the political positions that are expressed through these visualizations.

Using visualizations to express political positions introduces a bias into the form, thereby distancing these visualizations from their social scientific counterparts that strive to report without prejudice. From an agonistic perspective, the bias in these expressions is appropriate, not problematic. Centrality, or neutrality, is impossible in agonistic pluralism because the broad and divisive differences of positions are considered to be constitutive of the political condition (Mouffe 2005b). Bias is required to do the work of agonism. A visualization that is agonistic cannot just present the facts. An artifact of information design is made agonistic by the extent to which it identifies and represents contestable positions or practices. Given that the tactic of revealing hegemony is meant both to document hegemonic conditions and also to rouse and shape future arguments and action, artifacts and systems engaged in this endeavor combine political content with unabashedly biased visual representations that work vigorously as provocations.

Unfluence and the project that began this chapter, State Machine: Agency, are both concept works. They are responses to a solicitation for projects from the Sunlight Foundation, and they show how social network visualizations can provide an awareness of the entanglement of money and politics and of the structures and patterns of influence. These projects do important work as demonstrations, but it is worth noting that Exxon Secrets functions as something more. Of the visualization projects discussed so far, Exxon Secrets connects most strongly with common notions about the practice of design. With Exxon Secrets, an artifact has been constructed for and situated within the context of a project beyond itself. Exxon Secrets provides an example of how agonistic information design can fit within a broader political project as a component of communications and advocacy efforts. It shows how social network visualizations can reinforce an adversarial stance between two sides of a political conflict—the climate-change debate. The visualization is called on to do a particular job—to provide evidence for an argument that corporate forces are aligned against climate- change research and legislation. Situated within the Greenpeace organization, the visualization does double duty—as a resource for those already engaged with the issue and wanting to understand more about the influence of these networks and also as an incitement to those unfamiliar with the issue, drawing them in and providing pathways to gather more information or take action through Greenpeace (figure 2.5).

Exxon Secrets also provides an example of how procedurality can support a practice of agonistic information design by enabling the replication of politicized forms across issues. As with Unfluence and State-Machine: Agency, the project They Rule can be considered to be a demonstration because it provides a compelling example of the potential of computational media to evoke the political. This potential is most fully realized when the visualization is used for multiple political provocations. That is, the capacity of procedurality is most acutely evident when On reuses the code base from They Rule for Exxon Secrets, shifting with relative ease from charting the associations among the boards of Fortune 100 companies to charting the associations between individual corporations and their relations with institutions around an issue. This requires the accessing and parsing of new datasets and the designing of new icons, but the core structure and capabilities remain, carried in the code, and can be applied over and again. This capacity for the procedural transfer and thus repeated instantiation of tactic and form from one contested topic to another is one of the outstanding qualities of computational information design.

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