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The Psychoeconomy War Room Table [Theory]


One of the interesting cultural by-products to have emerged from the American assassination of Osama bin Laden is the public’s sudden fascination with situation rooms. As noted by Alexia Tsotsis on TechCrunch last week, the photograph of Obama and his national security team taken during the raid has received millions of page views and inspired both serious commentary and dumb meme photoshop tomfoolery. Additionally, given the gravity of the action and the secrecy that allowed it to be executed so seamlessly, the media has revelled in celebrating every minute detail of the planning and management of the operation.

I’d been meaning to plug a project proposal by the Argentine artist Gustavo Romano that will be developed at the upcoming Visualizar’11 workshop in Madrid. Considering its mandate, it is undoubtedly the perfect moment to discuss this venture and I think it will serve as a useful point of entry into a related discussion on the visual representation of conflict and power relations.

Given the theme for this year’s edition of Visualizar is “Understanding Infrastructures”, the projects that have been selected for developmentexamine a range of supply chain, consumption and finance-related topics. The above image represents Gustavo Roman’s proposed The Psychoeconomy War Room Table (PWRT), a tangible interface for exploring global economic data. PWRT will utilize the open source computer-vision framework driving theReactable Live! musical instrument to create a collaborative workspace for exploring (quantified) international relations. Roman outlines the goals for his project as

… try[ing] to display the relationship between two or more countries in the world in terms of some specific social and economic variables. The proposal builds on the metaphor of the table of the War Room, the room where are discussed possible tactical moves in a military confrontation. Using a multitouch surface,reacTIVision and fiducials, persons using the table may choose to place different flags on stage of the global economy and they can visualize the relationships between these countries. We will use data related to flows of assets (goods and financial capital), human flows (migration and tourism), energy flows (fuel and food), information flows (corporate media and alternative media). We will collect the data from public websites like the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, the CIA, etc.

I think this is an utterly brilliant idea and look forward to seeing the proof-of-concept interface that Roman and his team prototype next month. Imagine being able to manipulate the contents of the World Bank data catalogue and browse the interdependencies between nations – it would be both engaging and illuminating. Given the project is currently only an elevator pitch, I’ll make a point of mentioning the work that emerges when the results of the Visualizar workshop are posted online later this summer. It is worth noting that PWRT is part of Roman’s larger Psychoeconomy project, an artistic platform for exploring global issues.

For those within striking distance of Madrid, you might consider applying to work on PWRT or any of the other selected projects. Medialab-Prado is accepting applications through June 12, the workshop runs over the second half of June.

The still of Dr. Strangelove in the lower right corner of Roman’s PWRT collage gets me thinking about how depictions of these strategic ‘command’ spaces have evolved over the decades. The above image is a still from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s opulent 1963 film Cleopatra that hypothesizes what ‘real time naval imaging’ might have looked like during the Battle of Actium (31 BCE). For those unfamiliar with the downfall of Mark Antony, the military leader sailed his flotilla into a trap set by his nemesis Octavian (who had obtained vital intelligence from a defecting general). As Antony’s naval forces were decimated the strategists remotely monitoring the battle at their ‘war room table’ set the appropriate ship models aflame. The interesting thing about this fictional case study is—as it is pre-screen—it functions as a tangible interface…

…and the scale models of Cleopatra bring us back to the inescapable reference of wargaming. The cleverest of the anonymous internet situation room photo edits was a tight crop of the intensely-focused Obama wielding a Playstation controller alongside a Brigadier General hunched over a laptop; drone mishaps notwithstanding, perhaps this is our caricature of warfare for 2011? The absurd addition of a gaming controller brings to mind a 2006 sound bite by Henry Kissinger where he described the (pre-makeover) White House situation room as “uncomfortable, unaesthetic and essentially oppressive” – in this image, wargaming is pure playbour.

I still contend that the most engaging game mechanics that I’ve encountered is the visualization of empire in Sid Meier’s Civilization series. The above screen capture is the city management interface from Civilization V, where you see the players’ borders butting up and flowing around those of their neighbours as well as detailed informatics that reveal the yield of the landscape and chart out where expansion will occur. There is sufficient depth in Civ that competing nations are required to develop extremely nuanced trade and diplomatic relations to acquire needed luxury items and natural resources while forging strategic alliances. However, the game kind of falters in failing to represent these complex flows of goods, materials and capital visually – at times it can be quite difficult to determine exactly what is going on. This is why I’m so fascinated by the PWRT as it aspires to provides a handy interface for exploring the global economy as a field of vectors rather than relying on stale geographic representations of borders and trade routes. In Newsgames, Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweizer describe this kind of open engagement as an exploratory graphic that

…shows data that is meant to be synthesized by the user independently of the creator’s expectations. Both [Edward] Tufte and Benjamin Shneiderman encourage the use of information graphics to offer multiple levels of granularity for maximum flexibility. Tools or controls allow the reader to arrange, filter, or zoom data.

Can the complexity of international relations be distilled down to a work surface or game environment? Presumably, but exploring this kind of data can only be as revelatory as the interface it is delivered in.

About this article: The Psychoeconomy War Room Table (And Other Situational Awareness Vignettes) first appeared on on 2011-05-11.

About the Author: Greg J. Smith a Toronto-based designer and researcher with interests in media theory and digital culture. Extending from a background in architecture, his research considers how contemporary information paradigms affect representational and spatial systems. Greg is a designer at Mission Specialist, blogs at Serial Consign, writes a column on emerging technology for Current Intelligence and is a managing editor of the digital arts publication Vague Terrain. He currently teaches in the CCIT program (University of Toronto/Sheridan College) and at OCAD University.