Arts, Humanities, and Complex Networks

Mind the Graph! A Discussion on the Design of the Network

by Paolo Ciuccarelli

Abstract

As communication designers we are often asked to bring complex scientific issues in the hands of non-expert stakeholders: people that are neither expert of the domain of interest nor familiar with the very nature, the structure and the dynamics of complexity. It’s the case of Controversy Mapping in Social Studies, where the aim is to preserve the richness of the controversy and, at the same time, to represent it in a understandable way for the public(s). From one side, network visualization seems to be the natural device to put Actor-Network Theory in action; on the other, the limits of network visualizations suddenly emerge in engaging the public: a graph can be scary, impenetrable and repulsive. Even though the solution is not obvious, it is a communication problem, and, as such, can be solved.

A deeper issue emerges, even with experts and highly motivated users. Network visualizations have become a powerful conceptual and cognitive research tool for many disciplines, including, more recently, those soft sciences that embraced digital technologies. Digital Humanities is one of these domains trying to exploit the heuristic potential of network visualizations, often importing and “practicing” the quantitative methodology —network analysis— embedded in the visualization pattern. If we accept that humanistic inquiry is based on the recognition of knowledge production as a constructive process, where ‘making’ is a fundamental step and interpretation —not truth— is the goal, visualization is more a matter of creation than representation; it’s about building the pattern, not just finding it. Data and graphs are not objective representations of pre-existing facts: they are the generative, qualitative and uncertain processes that allow scholars to craft out novel interpretations from tacit knowledge spaces. That is where a fruitful and tight collaboration between designers, (soft) sciences scholars and experts may be established.

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