Defining “Model”

[Research] (05.12.08, 4:22 pm)

Recent thoughts have led me to start thinking about how one might define “model” in a more precise and accurate sense. This is a first jab, so the definition may change a bit, but I think that the following set of qualities will probably remain important. I am also trying to construct a definition that will be useful for a scientific perspective, as well as perhaps an abstract literary one. This may be unusual, but I think ultimately more valuable:

Components of a model:

  1. A set of instantiated entities that are the objects of the model. These entities may have properties or qualities that define them.
  2. A set of rules or concepts that govern how these entities interact and function.
  3. An interpretation function which maps from the real world (or from another model) onto the set of entities.
  4. A set of operations or procedures that can take place, changing the model’s state. One operation might be a time-step, others might be triggered externally, making the model interactive.

At a sufficient layer of abstraction, there may be no difference between entities and rules, but I distinguish them here to draw attention to the fact that entities describe the “what” of the model, while the rules will describe “how”. The separation of these seems to be important, but is also a significant difference between the traditions of object oriented programming. An object oriented approach to models probably could work, but would require some effort to resolve ambiguities.

Models and information: The information content of a model is stored in its entities and properties. It makes sense that, in observation, not all of the data content of the model is necessarily visible. Some of the procedures that may be enacted on the model might make bits of information visible to the interactor. Frequently, in terms of interacting with it, the interaction might also change the model’s state. The result of this is a construction of a black box, which may not be fully known or understood unless the model is open. A consequence is that some models may not be interpreted directly, but rather require interactors to make their own models of the model’s operation and structure.

A further consequence of the interpretation of models is that individuals build their own unique models of other systems, and the individual construction of a model is an intrinsically creative act. Developing a model is equivalent to the interpretation of something. In communication of models, there is a process of interpretation, re-presentation, and re-interpretation. As a result, communication turns into a giant game of “telephone”, where a model will ultimately change throughout its communication. Additionally, when someone begins to form a model of something, concepts might be blended with other knowledge and ideas, forming a hybrid model that is influenced not only by the presented model, but also by other internal and associated knowledge.

Models and metaphors: Linguistically, metaphors are often used to describe systems analogically. When metaphor is used to describe something, it invokes references and associations that connect the antecedent to the metaphorical term. Similarly, while models may be used to describe and represent something abstractly (which is not metaphor but representation), models may also employ structures (in the formation of their properties or rules) that are metaphorical of some other system. The resulting effect of this is that systems will reference each other through endless regression of metaphors. The use of metaphor is also a tool that an observer or constructor may use to interpret or develop a model.

Models and adaptation: When applied to adaptation (specifically of some other work or media artifact), there is a double-use of models. An adapted work will have a simulated model, and also a representative model. The first of these reflects the mechanics of the adapted material, while the second uses visual or context association to connect the adaptation to the original work. The two of these are separate constructions, but for an adaptation to be successful, both need to be addressed.

In games, there is a phenomenon known as “skinning” which takes the representational model of a game and replaces it with representational model from some other system (for instance, replacing chess pieces with characters from a popular cartoon). Jesper Juul writes about this in Half-Real, however, while the fiction or representational layer may be replaced, it also must be consistent. If the chess pieces are being replaced with characters from a cartoon about a family, it would not make any sense for the king piece to be represented by one of the minor characters, as opposed to, say, the head of the family. Even though representational layers are considered to be “arbitrary” they require a consistency in their analogy without which the adaptation falls apart.

Models and art: Contemporary art is interesting in how it relates to model establishment and interpretation. Art takes place at a highly symbolic level, and makes use of multiple layers, as is the case with adaptation. An art work or installation might make use of some internal model or system, but that is expected to be connected externally to other networks and layers of meaning. Analogy and metaphor tend to be used extensively in the interpretation of the work. Generally, the meaning only becomes clear when it is connected to other systems of meaning located in the history and traditions of art, philosophy, politics, and popular culture. This is notable because the connections and meaning are not established within the work, but rather outside of it. This places the work as one model, which is self contained, but makes metaphorical connections and relations to other external models. Bringing this in mind makes clear that isolated models are also tools for discovering meaning (as well as consequences, information, and relationships) in other, broader models and systems.

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