Looking for what's not there: negative space and networked systems

Rubin's vase

by Dierdre Pearce

There’s increasing public concern about the impact of technology on human relationships: voices in the media, government, community groups and from individuals are challenging networked technologies’ influence on human relations, behaviours and access to resources. They demand that technology companies take more responsibility for the impact of their product on societies, and there is increasing appetite for legislation which compels technology industries to be more responsive to issues of privacy, reliability, fairness and transparency.

Leaders in computer science and engineering, in education, research and industry, are also examining the state of the disciplines - how do we participate in public debate about these issues? What ethical standards do we expect of each other? How do we prepare the next generation of scientists and engineers for such an environment?

I am a former scientist now doing a PhD in visual arts and I’m working on a project which spans the School of Art & Design and the College of Engineering and Computer Science. My research involves ways in which visual arts strategies could be used to explore complex problems involved in the way networked technologies mediate human relations. In particular, I’m interested in how they might be used to create experiences which can be used by students as the starting point for discussion.

The experiences, or ‘encounters’ are designed in response to an idea that networked technologies are so pervasive that it can be useful to look for what is missing rather than look directly at the systems. In artistic composition, the space around and between the subject(s) of an art work is known as ‘negative space’ and this space helps inform our understanding of the subject in the composition. I am interested in what we might learn about networked technologies by looking at their negative spaces - the gaps, omissions and spaces between nodes. I want to use this as the starting point for exploring how and why such absences were generated, and what might be different if the factors resulting in these absences were challenged. I am interested in how fundamental perspectives of science and engineering have shaped the way digital technologies have developed, and the encounters will counter or ‘intervene’ in these by creating new ways for participants to think about their relationships with the physical spaces, social structures and knowledge of their discipline. Through the encounters we will also reflect on ways personal and disciplinary perspectives might shape the way networked technologies have developed.

Our starting point will be a Google map version of the campus, focusing on the buildings occupied by the College of Engineering and Applied Science. We will examine what is represented and what is missing from such a document, and explore what underlying values, behaviours and structures might be involved in creating, and also addressing, these voids. During the encounters we will be off-line, and participants will place their phones in a locked pouch for the duration of the experience. This action and its performance is a scripted part of the encounter.

I am proposing to run a series of these encounters in weeks 2 to 5 of semester 2, 2019, resulting in a collection of documentation, including new versions of maps, personal stories, evidence of shared meals, photographs, videos and drawings. I may also run similar encounters later in semester 2 and again in semester 1, 2020, including some with participants from other academic colleges. I am keen to work with student organisations and staff to develop these encounters and am talking with them during mid-semester 1 2019.

The documentation would be used to prepare a handbook for use by student groups and staff who would like to use a similar strategy at other occasions, to prepare documentation for my PhD examination, and for use in exhibitions, including one during O-week 2020. Outcomes of the research would also be shared with participants as these materials take shape.

Updated:  17 Apr 2019/ Responsible Officer:  Head of School/ Page Contact:  Ben Swift /Licence:  CC BY-NC-SA 4.0