seeing systems


a network of jasmine climbs up the fence across the system of trees, forging new paths

“Sorry, what was that? I didn’t quite catch it, I think my wifi is dying or something…”

I lean in closer to my computer screen as if it will help hear better. We’re in the midst of discussion in my speculative design class. Seven of us are seated in our respective homes, crowded around our laptops with our notebooks out on the side, sketching out thoughts as we bounce critiques back and forth about our ongoing projects. We’ve been tasked to model our class in the past, present, and future.

Models have been ever-present and incredibly important to build an understanding around current events. Through examining data, scientists can visualize patterns and project possible futures, providing insight for actions and provoking further questions.

Before this year (or this quarter, really), I hadn’t realized how important models are for not only scientists but also for artists and designers. In my mind, design and models intersected only at the higher-level visualization phase where colors were selected and text was laid out. My spec design professor helped me see otherwise; from the first day of class, she emphasized modeling as a critical skill for designers in every field, whether visual design, product design, experience design, or something entirely different.

Artists have a responsibility to make systems visible, my professor says, referring to the need to not only examine the world we live in and the structures defining it with a closer eye, but to also spend time mapping it out for broader visibility through creating models. Systems often tend to be invisible, and its only when they fail that we notice them.

My previous coursework in cognitive science and human-centered snapped into clearer focus because of the language provided to me through this art class, and vice-versa. I’ve tried to challenge myself to examine my physics, biochemistry, and marine ecology courses through systems thinking, and I’ve found that reading both scientific research manuscripts and previously-boring textbooks has become immensely more enjoyable when searching for invisible systems I may have taken for granted otherwise. I think about where we rest in the world right now and how my own understanding of it has been shaped through video-called class discussions centered around struggling nodes in our systems and new supportive networks being built to mediate the cascading effects. I think about the privilege I have in being able to sift through articles and literatures and piece together my understanding from the safety of my room.

In adjusting to an online world, my perspective on the role of art in science has shifted; I used to think it was a much more unidirectional relationship, but I now see visual media as not only a means of promoting communication and accessibility, but also a means of deepening our understanding of scientific knowledge and its social contexts.

So when I sit down to model my speculative design class in the past, present, and future, I think about the networks of knowledge bringing the education system to life, I think about my stuttering wifi, and I think about what I would do next to fix it.

a quick quarantine free-write. thanks for reading, sending you good wishes wherever you may be!

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