Representation – 1 down 4 to go

I’ve been threatening to do this for ages. Occasionally, it has been known for me to get, as my Grandmother would put it “arsey”, about how people represent things and ideas.

Typically, the arseyness emerges as a result of some bewildered enthusiast taking a list of their favourite trendy words – drawing boxes around the words, rearranging the boxes into a shape and connecting bits of the shape with a random selection of colours, lines, arrows, balls, stacks, rainbows or a world of primary school sketchograph style patterns – and announcing the decorated list as a model!

Intellectually the equivalent of a three year old little girl in mummy’s clothes, hobbling into the room on high heels, proudly displaying a face full of lipstick applied in the dark.

I’m such a meanie, but ironically a fashion model, is a far more accurate portrayal of what a model actually is than almost all other instances of things called a model? It’s phenomenological, but I’ll get to that later. I’ve sat through this rubbish for decades and I have to make a stand, as unlike the three year old, this sort of misrepresentation is not a harmless endeavour.

The reason we need to represent things, is so that we can think about those things, work on them and communicate about them when it’s not possible for the thing to be present, in the room, so to speak. So we replace the thing itself with something that represents it: pictures and symbols that describe it, diagrams that simplify it, stories that situate it in time and place, metaphors that behave like it and sometimes art in all it’s glorious forms, to stimulate the sensation of it.

One thing to get out of the way at the beginning … “all models are wrong, some are useful”. That is bullshit. If it’s wrong, it’s not a model, it’s either a half arsed attempt at creating a metaphor that doesn’t work well or something else that is better described by one of the other words above.

Pictures & The Thing Itself

The first way of representing something is by using the thing itself. In essence the amount of representation used is zero: R0%. This is great for situations where you don’t have to represent something because it is there. You can look at it, touch it, sit on it, pick it up and flip it over. If you can’t bring it into the room, show people a high definition picture (or a series of pictures called a video) of the thing itself. Let’s call that R20%. The lowest resolution pictures you can use are made up of clunky symbols, called words. Don’t laugh, the word bed looks like a bed, aeroplane like an aeroplane and there’s three ways to look at Boobs.

Funnies aside, I am making a point. Representation and specification are closely connected albeit in a complex relationship. By specification I mean the volume and granularity of the information that forms the representation, such as the resolution of the picture or the intricacy of the words used to adequately describe it. What resolution of image is necessary to be able to distinguish the thing, from another similar thing? Brace yourself!

Imagine a tiny Brick made of clay, a few millimeters in width in the palm of your hand. It is a Brick. Now imagine that we use a whole pile of those tiny Bricks to make a House Brick, which is typically made of clay and the width of your hand. Now use a pile of those House Bricks to build a 4 story Brick Shaped office block 100m wide.

Now stand back and point at the Brick! The thing that’s really a brick will be made of clay and be brick shaped. From the far side of the valley the building is the Brick, from the doorway the walls are Bricks, and focusing in on the doorbell, it’s surrounded by tiny Bricks. Some people will find that imaginary zooming easy, others not so much!

basket-newark-ohio-longaberger-headquarters-front
The Longaberger Company

Don’t laugh at the idea, the adjacent picture is of the headquarters of a maple basket manufacturer from Newark called Longaberger courtesy of Wikipedia. My analogy wouldn’t have worked with baskets made of baskets, so just go with the bricks. What something is, is certainly dependent on where you look at it from.

While you think about that, have a cup of tea and imagine taking a small heat-proof handle, attaching it to one of those tiny bricks and stirring your tea with it. Bugger, is it still a Brick or is it now a spoon? I’ll leave function and effectiveness out of this for now.

Understanding things as they actually are is hard enough. Let alone replacing the thing itself with some words and pictures. Brick, more specification, house brick, more specification office block designed and built in the shape of a brick using house bricks made of tiny bricks (which they actually are microscopically speaking).

Most people get stuck here, at the simplest representations, confusing each other by getting wrapped up in words, before they’ve even considered how to represent something authentically, in a way that other people can understand.

So if the thing is not in the room and you need to represent it faithfully, my suggestion is that you use great pictures and a small number of unambiguous words that describe the thing as it is. Minimise any opinions and that’ll do, most of the time.

Feel free to consider this form of representation ontologically or even typologically, but before your brain blows, I think that’s enough!

One Representation down, four to go.

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