In “A Sea of Data: Apophenia and Pattern (Mis-) Recognition” we are introduced to the ambiguous world of data and pattern recognition. We are informed that the National Security Agency´s main problem is “how to extract information from the truckloads of data”. It highlights the phase of “sense-making” in relation to gathered information, and the difficulties in discerning, filtering, refining and decrypting overwhelming amounts of material. Drawing an analogy to ancient Greece, where “sounds produced by male locals were defined as speech, whereas women, children, slaves and foreigners, were assumed to produce garbled noise”, the article further emphasizes the fundamentally political dimension of all attempts at pattern recognition, whether administered by technology or other agents.
I find this conversation incredibly important, as it clearly highlights technology as an extended arm of the human mind, with all attempts at pattern-finding in data as deeply intertwined with human bias and ideology, whether acknowledged or not. It makes me think of an article I recently came across, entitled “Re-searching Design and Designing Research” by Randolph Glanville, who makes the bold claim that all scientific research is a subset of design, with the researcher as the designer of the experiment. “The experimenter designs the experiment, and if it doesn´t work (well enough, in his opinion) redesigns it. The experimenter forms the outcome and assembles different observations into a coherent whole (relating them together).” “The whole process is deeply embedded in circularity, particularly the greatest of all scientific circularities: the active involvement of the experimenter (the observer)”.
The “researcher as designer” ties in with other readings I´ve come across, that highlight this designerly nature of science by pointing to its inherent nature of creating simplified models of a complex reality, that can only really “prove” that there is a repeated relation between a certain set of elements within the designed frames of the experiment; whether this be a certain scale, a certain relation to time, or certain conditions that always involve the observer.
Tying this discussion back to the “A Sea of Data…” article, I find that these readings both illustrate the paradigm shift we are going through in terms of our relationship to science and technology, where the claimed “objectivity” and belief in the human ability to establish “objective truths” through the means of science and technology is being questioned from all angles.
Continuing the discussion around these topics through the lens of design, I believe could greatly assist in acknowledging the inherent “creative act” in everything touched by human interpretation, whether this creative act involves destruction and oppression, or values focused on sustainability, dignity and human worth. Turning away from “what is true and what is false” and looking at the effects of the role of the “designer” as well as that which is “designed” in relation to for instance the automated pattern-recognition of a new technology interpreting data, I believe would greatly help us in terms of revealing hidden ideologies built into “objective systems” – thus give us the power to redesign these systems, in the service of other agendas.
This post was originally written as part of the course “Design for the century” taught by Ed Keller and Melanie Creen at Parsons/The New School.
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