Unaccounted Work of Computational Simulation: A Case of Diffuse Objects

EASST4S/ Conference Talk. Aug 18, 2020
Panel: Re-animating the Sociocultural Life of Computer Graphics
Panel co-chaired w/ Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal

Paper Abstract:
How are computational simulations put to work? How might we study and account for what lies in excess of simulations? Why should this excess be accounted for? This presentation responds to these questions through ethnomethodological work in the community of Blender3D, the largest and fastest growing free and open source (F/OSS) 3D graphics pipeline. Rather than considering simulations as entirely technical, I take as a starting point that various computational artifacts are social and cultural achievements (Sismondo, 1999; Hulme, 2013; Hastrup & Skrydstrup, 2013; Dourish, 2016; Finn, 2016; Seaver, 2017). Tending to these social processes aims to both decenter the myth of simulations as standalone technical objects and their inherited computational commonsenses. I choose particle-based simulations as a heuristic to track simulations’ excess. Particle-based simulations of diffuse objects are implemented in areas as wide ranging as air pollution studies and animation. Taking a material-semiotic approach (Law, 2004) for my analysis I conclude that the particle-based simulations function in ways that belie two common tropes in Blender3D and similar platforms: That the goal of the software is to (merely) produce ‘real-enough’ effects and that the approaches for this goal must privilege ‘efficiency’ and ‘flexibility.’ Instead, I demonstrate how ‘anticipation’ and ‘calibration’ emerge as just a few of many kinds of crucial and messy attunement work that goes unaccounted. I conclude that if we ignore these lapses in accounting in sites that are meant to uphold flexibility and artistry, we risk reproducing divisions between what is “technical” and what is “creative” when we scale up and across other domains.

Panel Abstract:
Computer graphics has a long, multivalent, yet under-critiqued history of influencing technoscientific development, from its role in the rise of scientific computing to its use in creating the visions that fuel our sociotechnical imaginaries. This panel addresses this gap and contributes to scholarship that extends STS’s interest in the social and cultural lives of technological artifacts (Jasanoff 1996, Pickering 1997, Lenoir 2000, Subramaniam 2014, Braun 2014). More specifically, this panel considers the nebulous two-way loops that run between (visual-)cultural production of technology and technological production of visual cultures. The four panelists—Joel McKim with his sociotechnical analysis of operational architectural renderings, Daniel Cardoso Llach with his media-archaeological examination of Computer-Aided Design systems, Akshita Sivakumar with her ethnographic interrogation of the ‘work’ of making simulations functional, and finally Ranjodh Singh Dhaliwal with his institutional history of computer-graphical infrastructures— all together investigate these very feedback loops by thinking about the objects and practices involved in computer graphics’ mediation of scientific knowledge and cultural experience.

Scholars on this panel combine methods and concerns from STS, history of science, design studies, media studies, communication, and animation studies to decrypt some of the mysticism involved in our graphical heyday. Together, they examine the cultures birthing computational graphics and these graphical technologies’ sociocultural impacts. In doing so, they explore how computational epistemologies not only get inherited, but also morph into new instantiations when these objects come in contact with the commitments of various fields and worldviews which acquire and subsequently reproduce them.