Visualising relations, Part I

Nests and networks

Tom Lee
7 min readJul 12, 2021

(I want to thank my colleagues in the Visualising Transitions research group in the School of Design at UTS, Anne Burdick, Jacquie Lorber-Kasunic, Abby Mellick-Lopes, Kate Sweetapple and Cameron Tonkinwise for inspiring this piece of thinking)

The metaphor of ‘the nest’ is often used when discussing the relationship between scales and lines of influence. The most common instance is perhaps the notion of a ‘nested hierarchy’ or ‘nested set’ a term which is common in both information and biological sciences, though with reasonably widespread disciplinary and vernacular applications.

Nesting hierarchies allows for the twin consideration of distinction (vertical) and inclusion (spatial).

One of the tangible examples of a nested hierarchy is the Russian doll metaphor: a series of doll-like cups graded in size from small-to-big that fit inside one another.

Nesting scales is also common in frameworks for understanding large-scale cultural phenomena: the social, the future, technological change, for example. It maps, perhaps imperfectly, onto terminology and theorisation associated with macro-to-micro (sometimes with meso the ‘doll’ in the middle) and structure- or system-to-individual: the structure contains the individual and is in this sense more encompassing, difficult to change and more important to account for.

Frank W. Geels’ ‘multi-level perspective’ (2006), which is used to understand socio-technical change, borrows from the conceptualisation of nested hierarchies in evolutionary economics. ‘Landscape’, ‘regime’, and ‘niche’ are Geels’ three dolls going from big to small, which he describes as follows: “The relationship among the three concepts can be understood as a nested hierarchy, meaning that regimes are embedded within landscapes and niches within regimes” (2006, 172).

Multiple levels as a nested hierarchy (Geels, 2002a)

In the fields of futuring and design fiction, nested heirarchies are sometimes used to build the different layers of conjectural worlds, sometimes called storyworlds. Candy and Dunagan’s (2017) ‘Experiential Futures Ladder’ descends from the macro level of Setting, through Scenario in the middle, to Stuff at the bottom. Setting is “the theme or kind of future”; scenario: the “specific narrative proposition and sequence of events”; and stuff: “the circumstances of encounter; particular events given physical form at 1:1 scale in various media” (Candy and Dunagan 2017). Candy and Dunagan (2017) describe this as a ‘ladder of abstraction’, a term borrowed from Hayakawa (1947), who in turn was influenced by engineer and mathematician Alfred Korzybski’s notion of ‘structural differentiation’, also a three tiered model of abstraction: ‘parabola’, which relates to events of the submicroscopic world “an instantaneous cross-section of a process”; ‘disc’, which means an experience of an event; and ‘labels’, which relate to verbal and non-verbals symbols for experiences or stuff. The point of his model was to show how humans necessarily make abstractions in the perceptual process, indeed that perception is abstractions (aka necessarily partial) all the way down.

Korzybski’s ‘structural differential’

While I don’t want to dwell too much on it here, Korzybski’s conceptualisation of nested phenomena is slightly different to the model that ends up in Candy and Dunagan via Hayakawa. Perhaps most importantly, scale doesn’t seem to operate in the same way: the less abstract ‘event-level’ for Korzybski is neither big nor small exactly, but a “cross section of a process” that is beyond direct human experience. By contrast, in the Experiential Futures Ladder, the more abstract levels are described as big or macro. Furthermore, in Korzybski’s conceptualisation, the ‘label’ level, which is the most abstract, isn’t really big or small. Korzybski’s model doesn’t seem to map as readily onto top-down, big-to-small, hierarchical models and could in this sense offer value to futurists and worldbuilders looking to reconfigure their abstractions.

Some ‘anti-nesters’ have emerged in the discipline of sociology. The field of Actor-Network Theory or ANT, is in part a theory defined by abstaining from the nested models of abstraction that describe ‘the social’ according to system-to-individual conceptualisations:

We tend to think of scale — macro, meso, micro — as a well-ordered zoom. It is a bit like the marvellous but perversely misleading book ‘The Powers of Ten’, where each page offers a picture one order of magnitude closer than the preceding one all the way from the Milky Way to the DNA fibres, with a photo somewhere in the middle range that shows two young picnickers on a lawn near Lake Superior. A microsecond of reflection is enough to realise that this montage is misleading — where would a camera be positioned to show the galaxy as a whole? Where is the microscope able to pin down this cell DNA instead of that one? What ruler could order pictures along such a regular trail? Nice assemblage, but perversely wrong.” (Latour 2005, 185)

Latour continues:

Any zoom of any sort that attempts to order matters smoothly like the set of Russian dolls is always the result of a script carefully planned by some stage manager. If you doubt it, then go visit Universal Studios. ‘Ups’ and ‘downs’, ‘local’ and ‘global’ have to be made, they are never given. We all know this pretty well, since we have witnessed many cases where the relative size has been instantaneously reversed — by strikes, revolutions, coups, crises, innovations, discoveries. Events are not like tidy racks of clothes in a store. S, M, X, XL…But we never seem ready to draw the obvious consequences of our daily observations, so obsessed are we by the gesture of ‘placing things into their wider context’. (Latour 2005, 186)

Latour’s argument seems particularly compelling in light of the recent pandemic, where the small (micro-organism), in a sense became very big — though persisting with the tiered model of scale in this way is misleading, COVID didn’t ‘become’ big, it was made big through a multitude of different forces. Latour’s critique might also be accused of a wilfully crude rendering of macro-to-micro models for change, emphasising a rigid, unidirectional and hierarchical quality that is absent in research that uses such models in ways that also account for dynamism and subtlety.

Latour’s alternative to the nested to model for visualising relations would appear to be something like ‘constellation’ — at least in the visualisations used in “‘The whole is always smaller than its parts” (Latour et al 2012) — or indeed ‘the network’, though Latour and other ANT scholars have insisted on not equating ‘network’ with a visual model:

A network, in ANT, does not imply a network-y shape, that is, a web of interconnected horizontal lines. Nor does it have any special affinity with the Internet, computers, or technical networks. Rather, a network simply is an assembly of actors that share information and coordinate action. It has no necessary size, shape, or scale…Network, in this sense, is shorthand for including as many actors as feasible in our research, the researcher included, and tracing the complexities of their interactions. (Felski 2016)

Nonetheless, network-y diagrams continue to proliferate.

Network visualisation used in Latour et al (2012)

Latour has also highlighted the problem with networks that relates to conceptualising space:

they are extremely poor metaphors since they remain entirely made of nodes and edges to which is often added some conveniently drawn potato-like circles… Visually there is something deeply wrong in the way we represent networks since we are never able to use them to draw enclosed and habitable spaces and envelopes” (2010, 5).

Evoking a spatial dimension is perhaps one of the often inexplicit advantages of the nest metaphor in this sense.

Latour (2010) proposes Peter Sloterdijk’s conception of ‘foam’ as an alternative metaphor for ‘the social’ to networks. Sloterdijk argues that attentiveness to the multiple, dynamically connected and yet discrete spatial environments of modern humanity sets his foam theory apart from other conceptions of the social:

The familiar suggestions for solutions offered by such concepts as division of labour (Smith, Durkheim), capital context (Marx), imitations and somnambulism (Tarde), interdependency (Simmel), sacrifice (Girard, Heinrich) or progressive differentiation and communication (Luhmann) all suffer from the same deficit: they do not adequately address the spatial qualities of social cells or the immune system character of primary spaces. (2016, 235)

This deficit is evident in the countless network diagrams which are arguably the dominant visual form used to describe social change (try a Google search for crude evidence). The absence of the space-shaping agency of social relations is completely absent in such diagrams — I suppose you could say, in networks there is no account of human ‘nests’, though ‘nested hierarchies’ offer little more in this regard.

(Sigh, I didn’t want this to end up in a discussion of Latour Vs Sloterdijk, but it seems to be inescapable when discussing networks, spatial metaphors and the social.)

In Part II, I discuss some examples that visualise processes and living space.

List of works cited
Candy, S., & Dunagan, J. (2017). Designing an experiential scenario: The people who vanished. Futures, 86, 136–153.

Geels, F. W. (2006). Multi-level perspective on system innovation: relevance for industrial transformation. In Understanding industrial transformation (pp. 163–186). Springer, Dordrecht.

Geels, F. W. (2002). Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: a multi-level perspective and a case-study. Research policy, 31(8–9), 1257–1274.

Latour, B., Jensen, P., Venturini, T., Grauwin, S., & Boullier, D. (2012). ‘The whole is always smaller than its parts’–a digital test of G abriel T ardes’ monads. The British journal of sociology, 63(4), 590–615.

Latour, B. (2010). ‘Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist’. International Seminar On Network Theory: Network Multidimensionality In The Digital Age, Feb 2010, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Los Angeles, United States.

Latour, B. (2007). Reassembling the social. An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (2016). Spheres Volume III: Foams, W. Hoban (trans.), Los Angelas: Semiotext(e).



Tom Lee

Technology, landscape, narrative, poetics, design. Senior lecturer in Design at UTS, author of Coach Fitz.