Telling stories is telling lies

The satellite lamps show the behaviour of the GPS network. Each lamp shows how certain the network is of its position by changing the brightness; the brighter the lamp the more certain the position. That means interacting with a system of 32 satellites orbiting just under 16,000 miles above our heads.

In my understanding of the objects there’s no translation into metaphor. They tell no stories and, presumably, tell no lies. They make visible a thing I cannot see, even if I traveled to a satellite to take a look.

07 September 2013

After seeing these at the Immaterials opening in Brighton on Wednesday night I spent a good few days by the beach thinking about the legibility of pervasive, invisible, essential networks. A well-placed reference to the Eames Office by Timo at Improving Reality meant I spent the rest of the weekend thinking in narrative terms about the things we could do at GDS to describe the infrastructure we’re linked to.

(I’m not convinced that it’s work that should be of GDS, but we’ve got access to some of the best people in the world at making things on-, with-, and of-the-web, so we should ask them how they’d describe it.)

To do that probably means abstraction though. It probably means metaphor. And that’s a troubling place to have to go because these things are so important. Whose metaphor? Whose abstraction?

(That was another big theme of Improving Reality; the systems we’ve built are the product of choices, choices borne by those in positions of knowledge and power and privilege.)

Objects like the lamps avoid some of those problems. As with any good visualisation of data, they don’t need the functions of story to make a reality evident. They simply are.

I hope there’s a model for talking about this stuff tucked into the GOV.UK style guide: “Always avoid metaphors… you can generally get rid of them by breaking the term into what you are actually doing.” That’s hard when we already describe the network by borrowing terms from systems developed over thousands of years, but it’s not impossible.