Images as Social Agents and Historical Ledgers in Knowledge Systems
Abstract: In studying the production, dissemination, and evolution of human knowledge, researchers often treat language as the primary locus of communication and conceptual innovation (for sensible reasons). However, in many human knowledge systems, images act as the primary sites of conceptual generation and change. This is particularly evident in science, and especially in microbiology, where images created with the aid of technologies like microscopes are essential for creating knowledge about otherwise invisible entities. It is because of their status as key agents in complex social and knowledge systems that images are also historical ledgers; they act as records of the specific contexts, actions, goals, and assumptions held by their producers, reproducers, and collectives through time (if one knows how to look). A single image can capture within itself traces of many aspects of knowledge generation, so by studying the right groups of images through time, one has a potentially powerful method for reconstructing the production and evolution of knowledge in complex socio-technical systems. In this talk, I will discuss how the co-evolution of images and concepts has shaped human knowledge about biological entities like cells and microbial biofilms. Along the way, I will talk about how to combine qualitative historical methods with quantitative network analyses to find the right images to study, as well as the image-centric computational tools that I want to develop for studying the evolution of complex knowledge systems.