Saturday, June 25, 2005

inscriptions, maps, models and mess

In my study of wifi networks (in particular how wifi is made political, public, social and a site of resistance and power) I have been undertaking a critique of how representations and in particular inscriptions are used in sociological research. The concept of inscriptions, the devices that produce them and the practices in which they are embedded form a framework for much sociological analysis of representations in science and technology and I have been keen to see how I might learn from these approaches. From early ethnographic studies in the scientific laboratory (Latour and Woolgar 1979) to later research focused on scientists and the entire laboratory itself (Latour 1983, Lynch 1985, Law 1986, Knorr Cetina 1999) to technological design and innovation studies (Callon 1986, Cockburn and Ormrod 1993, Bijker 1997) and even the visual culture of engineers (Henderson 1999), despite their methodological differences, all share an interest in how scientific fact or technological artefacts are socially constructed. In general they deal with the various ways machines or the configuration of artefacts produce an inscription, how it travels along a defined process, enrols actors along the way and is ultimately used to persuade others within and beyond the walls of the laboratory or office. People do ‘jobs’ with inscriptions so irrespective of their content they present a juncture for the study of the complex network of actions, practices and interactions.

Ok. But how does this relate to my work? Well I have been looking at the wifi node maps created by volunteer wifi community groups – in particular - and considering the ways in which these representations make wifi political. One aspect (amongst many) that I find interesting is the way in which inscriptions clean up and are cleaned of the messy, complex and largely repetitive design/experiment/information process. For example once Latour and Woolgar (1979) understood the inscription process they saw the laboratory more clearly. No longer was it a messy, complex and complicated site. They started to see individual actions, objects and activities as processes from which inscriptions in the form of texts, charts, graphs and more were created. ‘Thus the observer could even make sense of such obscure activities as a technician grinding the brains of rats, by realising that the eventual end product of such activity might be a highly valued diagram’ (1979: 52). Nice, huh! These inscriptions were then cleaned of the residue of everyday experiments, removed from repetitive painstaking procedures and used as objects of power to influence and persuade others.

This brings me to the actual point of my post - the current Tate Modern exhibition featuring the many sketches and models of architects Herzog & de Meuron. Situated in the Turbine Hall the exhibition reveals ‘the by-products or ‘waste’ produced during the course of the architect’s work’. Whilst many things are still cleaned and thus concealed, such as gender relations and the everyday rhythms of the process, much more of the everyday mess of 'doing architecture' is on show. The exhibition blurb says:

‘Made of an astonishing range of materials, these artefacts tell the story of how ideas take shape and form, through a complex process of experimentation and detour, to evolve a new architectural language for building.’

An abundance of architectural models, design sketches, castings, die cuts, shapes and textures cover a series of tabletops. All sorts of materials are represented; glass, paper, cardboard, fibreglass, plastic, foam, wood in all sorts of configurations from the abstracted idea right through to the scaled model (but not necessarily in a linear fashion). Materials on each table, with a little imagination describe a path through which ideas were formed but there are no climax shots, no images of finished objects. The sheer amount of material (over 1000 models) illustrates how important modelling is in the process of design to architects. And these are only the ones that were deemed of value to keep, unlike these ones spotted by Dan in bins outside the AA, which leads into a whole other post .... but it's an exhibition well worth seeing. It's on till 29th August.

- kat