Modeling Modeling

As I continue to engage with modelers and ask for their perspectives on the role of modeling in our understanding of ecological systems, I’m finding myself looking for ways of thinking about models and modeling – I’m looking for models of models. What is a model? What is its relationship to the people who produce it? To the ecological things and processes it is intended to represent? Here are a few thoughts that I’ve come up with that I will explore as I continue my research and writing.


First, models are representations. Abstracted, simplified, objects and systems that stand in for other objects and systems. If I were building a table-top model of a town (images of the movie Beetlejuice come to mind), I would look for materials that visually resemble the elements that make up the town – small toy cars, foam, fragments of wood and metal, colored paper, and so on. I would rearrange them into a pattern that resembles the overall pattern of the town itself – aligning roads and buildings in line with those of the town, arranging trees and grass in relation to these. I would pay attention to detail, but would also avoid details where they might get in the way – there is an art to abstraction, selecting the right details to convey the overarching pattern without getting bogged down in them. All of this to create the effect of looking at the town from afar – from a high mountain or airplane.

In fact, representation and modeling are essentially synonymous. All forms of representation – drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, etc. – can be seen as kinds of modeling. There are, of course, non-representational styles and modes of expression – even these might be a kind of modeling, but what exactly is being modeled is more difficult to tell. In any case, this brings me to the second way of thinking about modeling. Models are objects. It’s easy to forget that models, maps, and other representations have an existence independent to themselves because we always tend to think of these things in relation to the thing they are meant to represent. Questions like how accurate a representation is it, what it can tell us about the thing or system, these are questions that link us back to the original object. Rarely do we ask of a model what it means in itself and what it does independent of its relationship to the original. A painting evokes a sense of wonder and awe, a sculpture disturbs, a drawing reminds. Although passive in themselves, these objects act upon us simply by being, and in that sense the model is part of the thing being modeled.

As object, models are generally heterogenous – made up of many different kinds of materials. Different materials enable different modes and methods of representation, and so a model is an assemblage. The modeler must assemble relationships between these different materials in order to construct a representation. Even the modeler herself is part of the assemblage in many ways – putting her body into the work, her fingerprints in the clay. It’s the relationships between these materials that is productive – that makes the model more than just a pile of stuff.

Objects also grow old, decay, get covered with dust, and fade away – the relationships that hold the assemblage together wear down. So modeling, if it is to remain present, is also a process (agencement). In the same way that the model is never whole or perfectly accurate (models are always wrong, I keep hearing), a model is also never complete. The hobbyist continually works on her table-top model of the town, always looking for the right materials, trying to keep up with the changes time takes on the town. At times the model is a snapshot of time, but even then, there must be a continual engagement with it in order to keep it up – paintings need retouching, sculptures must be cared for, etc. Often, the model is left behind, forgotten, or discarded. It has served its function or the work required to restore it is too excessive and it’s better to build a new model instead. In all of these cases, there is a set of processes at work, either wearing the model down over time, or keeping it continually fresh and new.

I’ve used examples of artistic representation here, but all of this is true for the models I work with as well. These models are numerical – composed of elaborate equations that are too complex for individuals or even large groups of people to process. The equations represent different processes within the ecological systems – the interaction of nutrients in the ground and in water, the flow of water over the land, the effects of nutrients on organisms, and so on. All of these are objects apart from the specific systems they represent – one model can be adapted and transferred to another system as necessary. They are also themselves being represented in computer systems as the movement of switches and electrical current – this is what allows them to be computed. These elements – computer systems, numerical functions, etc. – are assembled in relation to one another to produce the larger model. Finally, all of this must be continually made and remade – new functions are introduced, computing power is increased, our understanding of the relationships between elements changes, etc. Models are always kept new or are set aside as obsolete.

There may be many other models for models, but these four complement one another and can be assembled to produce a broader picture of modeling. The test now is to see how my model of models fits with the data I’ve been collecting, and then to see what effects or functions the model can have in the larger world.


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