The Republic of Reality

represent |repri-zent|
verb [with obj.]

  1.  be entitled or appointed to act or speak for (someone), especially in an official capacity.
  2. constitute; amount to.
  3. depict (a particular subject) in a picture or other work of art
  4. formal state or point out (something) clearly

“Now that we are no longer fooled by these maneuvers, we see spokesmen, whoever they may be, speaking on behalf of other actors, whatever they may be. We see them throwing their ranks of allies, some reluctant, some bellicose, into battle one after the other.” – Bruno Latour

If knowledge is representative, this sense of representation (4) should not be too closely equated with (3) depicting or (2) constituting. It is better to emphasize its affinity with (1) acting or speaking on behalf of a reality.

Knowledge represents reality by being its spokesman in deliberation, conveying the considerations relevant to that reality, and negotiating for where that reality will figure into whatever is being discussed. If a representative speaks well for a reality, the reality will cooperate and reinforce his claim of representing his constituency. If he misrepresents a reality, the reality will undermine and discredit his representation by refusing to cooperate as the representative promised it would.

Again: our knowledge does not depict reality or make little idea-models that correspond to a reality — with our knowledge we politically represent a reality and conveys what it does and will do with respect to a problem. We are standing in for a reality and representing it in its absence.

Of course, it pays to confer with any reality we are seeking to represent, and be good students of that reality so we can represent it ever more faithfully. When we are representing people we may have conversations with them. Or we may immerse in their lives, interact and participate so we can get first-hand first-person knowledge of what is going on. If we are representing non-human things we might have to watch, form hypotheses, interact, experiment, revise — again, so we can be taught by the reality how to represent it.

And, as Latour never tires of pointing out, every social situation is a heterogeneous collection of human and non-human actors.

Since design is nearly always intervening in some social situation in order to change it, what design researchers really do in the field is confer with the full social reality in order to understand it and fully represent it. And once hypothetical solutions are found, design researchers return to the social situation to confer with it about how it might react to them. Good designers are like good politicians — always shaking hands, knocking on doors, staying in touch, winning support.


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