Research Lenses

Fluid Encodings is an inquiry into the many different ways of encountering through observation: seeing, listening, noticing, reading, and witnessing. Through the lens of information design and visualization, this practice seeks to offer reflections on the art of intimate, enriched, and deep observation and reclaim that art as a vital act of civic expression. These reflections aim to reorient ourselves to subtlety, defend complexity as an ethical imperative, and interrogate the cartographies of space that exist between the assumptions we hold in our encounters with the world and one another.

The work of Fluid Encodings is organized around the following research lenses:

Technologies of Seeing

Data visualization is one of many “technologies of seeing”: technologies that make choices (both deliberate and not) about what can be, should be, or is worthy of being rendered visible in the eyes of others. In visualization, we make design choices about what data to collect, how to analyze them, and how to express them through visual encodings, and these choices determine whose voices or identities get privileged or displaced in public discourses. Likewise, other design-motivated practices, like archival work and photography, are similarly driven by choices of visibility that determine what is kept and what is left out. All such practices of design are tightly wrapped up in questions of seeing; each can offer lessons to one another about what it means to think of seeing as a political and compositional act, especially at a time when “crises of seeing” threaten the integrity of our individual and collective identities. This lens interrogates the role of visualization as an act of bearing witness, particularly when situated in a world in trauma, transition, and uncertainty. (In 2020, Steven gave a talk at TEDxNortheasternU: “The privilege and responsibility of seeing radically“).

Ethical documentation

In moments of profound social change, the burden of responsibility to capture, or document, the expression of that change should not fall on those who are speaking. With that being said, in many contexts, those who do have the power to document — through design, journalism, photography, or any other media — often do so from a position of privilege, without being aware of the ways that privilege mediates the methods through which they document. Such documentation then becomes something that is consumed by distant observers, who may perform that observation from positions of privileged abstraction. This lens seeks to consider the act of documentation through one question in particular: If data visualization and information design are also regarded as media for documentation, what does it mean to perform that documentation in a way that is ethical, self-aware, participatory, and situated in the complexities of systems of privilege?

遡り · Sakanobori · Undoing

Since the start of 2020, much of global affairs has endured a process of undoing: the failures of social institutions and systems rendered visible and deconstructed in the light of racial, political, economic, and epidemiological crisis. Many different modalities of inquiry and practice offer different ways of bearing witness to this process: restorative justice, participatory design, and more. In Japanese, the verb sakanoboru means to go upstream, go back in time, or trace back to origin, and this word offers a reflective and generative framing through which to reckon with design as a necessary actor in the undoing and reconstruction of those systems. This lens, inflected by Japanese traditions and methods for documenting trauma and disaster in Japanese history, considers what it means to deliberately participate in that process of undoing, through using information design and visualization as a medium for deprivileging canonical perspectives to make space for those voices that must be a part of the rebuilding that follows.

More Work

Kanji Metamorphoses

Kuzushiji, cursive Japanese characters used in classical Japanese texts, are known for their difficulty. Mastering them requires years of training, and some scholars devote their entire careers to learning how to read them. Why are they so notoriously difficult? The reason is that kuzushiji can and often do look very different from their modern equivalent. This project examines just how different kuzushiji are from modern Japanese kanji by visualizing transformations between modern kanji and kuzushiji stroke patterns.

Derived Row Geometries

How many different ways are there to derive a tone row? In 12-tone music, a particular ordering of the twelve chromatic pitch classes — the row — is used as the basis to compose a piece. Some composers were interested in ways of generating a 12-tone row from a single set class: a collection of unordered pitch-class sets where all sets are the same size and relate to one another by transposition or inversion. In a derived row, a single set class partitions the chromatic scale into discrete, non-overlapping segments. This chart uses visualization to show all possible partition geometries of tone rows for valid set classes, revealing the symmetries and asymmetries of derivation.

Atomic Narratives

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. A few days later, on August 9, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Japan, in Nagasaki. Shortly thereafter, Japan surrendered, ending World War II. If this sounds familiar, it is for good reason: this is the standard narrative of the end of World War II that is often found in high school history textbooks. But what would it mean to examine those narratives in a new way, with a critical lens that challenges the authority to which they lay claim? In this project, we analyzed excerpts from U.S. and Japanese high school history textbooks to explore their parallels and differences.

Sono Toki

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0-9.1 earthquake struck off the coast of Touhoku, Japan. The Japan Disasters Archive (JDA), a project from the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies at Harvard University, seeks to archive websites, news articles, video, images, and other media related to the March 11 disaster and its aftereffects in the time since. There are many different ways to capture the experience of a disaster. In this series of visualizations, one subset of media from the JDA — a collection of testimonials about individuals' experiences of the disaster — is mapped and annotated. The testimonials portrayed here are responses to the question, What were you doing at the time the disaster struck?

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