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Visualisation in the age of computerisation

09:00, 25 Mar 2011 to 17:00, 26 Mar 2011
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Saïd Business School
The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) organised a two-day conference on 25-26 March 2011 at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, with support from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the Oxford e-Social Science project, Digital Social Reserach, eResearch South and C4D. 

About the conference:

The theme of the conference was the permeation of science and research with computational seeing. How does computer mediated vision as a mode of engagement with information as well as with one another effect what we see (or think we see), and what we take ourselves to know? 

Speakers included:
• Peter Galison, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University
• Michael Lynch, Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University
• Steve Woolgar, InSIS, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford
Summarising discussants:
• Anne Beaulieu, Virtual Knowledge Studio
• Paolo Quattrone, IE Business School and Fulbright New Century Scholar
For more infromation see she conference programme

Background and themes:

Visualisations abound in all forms and phases of research and knowledge production and communication. From the graphical user interface of our computers, to equipment and instrument displays, to the screens of our smart phones, knowledge communication of all kinds is increasingly visual. In design, engineering, science, education, medicine, the humanities and social sciences, the increasing pervasiveness of visual images is due largely to computational techniques. To be sure, computers have been in common use in science and related domains since the advent of the desktop computer. Over the past decade, however, plain text commands, programming languages and numerical engagement have given way to the visual form, from the reproduction, modification and synthesis of images to the visual representation of that which formerly could not be seen. 
There has been an unprecedented rate of innovation in computational imaging and visualising techniques to render physical and non-physical data in visual form, including techniques for multi-dimensionality, the development of algorithmic techniques for image processing, the production of hybrid visual objects and an apparent photo-realism for non-existent entities and objects. The emergence of the Internet-as-database, with complex and massive quantities of data mined from online social and spatial processes given visual form, has gone hand-in-hand with these advances in making new phenomena and data visible.


  1. Changing Notions of Cognition 
    Traditional ideas about cognition have long been rejected in favour of an understanding of interpretation in terms of in situ material practices. It is thus recognised that mentalistic precepts such as "recognising patterns", "identifying relationships", "assessing fit and correspondence" etc are better treated as idealised depictions of the activities involved in generating, managing and dealing with representations. In science in particular this move established the importance of the muddled and contingent efforts involved in the practical activities of making sense (Lynch and Woolgar, 1990). Yet the advent of new modes of computerised visualisation has seen the re-emergence of claims about "cognition" (McCormick et al, 1987) and about the role of visualisations as "cognitive aids". In what ways are our understandings of the material basis of cognition challenged by the emergence and use of new computational artefacts? 
  2. Changing Notions of Objectivity
    Scholars such as Galison and Daston have described the involvement of technologies in science in terms of the historical flux of epistemic virtues in science, tracing a trajectory from idealised images that required intervention and specialised craftsmanship to more mechanical forms of recording. A later hybridisation of these virtues has been claimed to occur when instruments, and, later computers, allowed active manipulation versus passive observation (Hacking 1983, Galison 1997). Other researchers suggest that the computerisation of images accounts for an epistemic devaluation of visualisations in favour of their mathematical manipulation which the digital (binary) format allows (Beaulieu 2001). Now that computers are inextricable from visual evidence, a situation described as “instrumental cognition” (Pomian 1998) or "thing knowledge" (Baird 2004), we ask what is the impact upon the epistemologies of practitioners?  
  3. Changing ontologies of scientific vision
    Science and Technology Studies (STS) has documented the manner in which visually inscribing phenomena makes 'the everyday' of science work (Latour and Woolgar 1979, Lynch and Woolgar 1990). STS suggests that much of what enables science to function is making things visible through the assembling of inscriptions for strategic purposes, and has focused on disclosing the innervating components of science through observation in the 'wet-lab' or physical sites of production. While vitally important for providing the blood flow of science, such visual representations are often black-boxed as self-evident.Now, researchers often confront visualisations assembled entirely on the computer or web-based 'spaces', seemingly black-boxed again. In the age of computerisation, can we adequately document the ontologies of scientific representation, how they are composed and deployed? 

Participant comments:

Thank you to everyone who attended or participated in the Institute's Visualisation conference. As a result of everyone's contributions, the event was a remarkable success. Below are just a few highlights from the overwhelmingly positive feedback we received.
'The Visualisation conference was a huge success! We have had many compliments already and acquired many new friends and supporters as a result!'
'Thank you for a great conference on Visualisation in the Age of Computerisation. As I mentioned to some of you, the workshop was one of the best I have attended, both in terms of the quality of the keynotes and papers presented, and in terms of the scholarly exchanges it brought into being.' 
'Many thanks for putting on such a timely and stimulating meeting!'



Steve Woolgar View profile

Steve Woolgar is a Senior Research Fellow (part-time) at Saïd Business School, University of Oxford.
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