This entry explores historian of science John Tresch’s cosmic things and cosmograms as two species of technical objects. The two concepts are meant to explain various notions of scale when studying postmodern world-views that attempt to arrange and order the universe of possible things.

Furthermore, by situating these two perspectives on cosmic arrangements, Tresch suggests that the “cosmos” itself may be the location of all signifiers, and not the technical objects. The metal exercise of a cosmos can thus be a useful tool for explaining how shared meaning is constructed and embedded within postmodern technical artifacts. (Tresch, pg.91)

Key Concepts

Cosmic Things
In his 2007 article, “Technological World-Pictures,” Tresch describes cosmic things to mean seemingly banal technical artifacts that can be revealed as worldy systems through their interconnected relationships to other things. These things thus create an entire cosmology through reflexive boundaries. He further relates this to Heideggar’s poetic revealing, or poiesis, “As suggested by the etymology by which ‘thing” originally meant ‘gathering,’ the jug, or other humble entity like a bridge, is a focal object for a historical group whose use concentrates their shared modes of relating to each other and all the entities of the world—their entire way of being-in-the-world,” but is careful to note that poiesis nevertheless focuses too heavily on the static nature of the objects being described. (pg.89)

Cosmograms, on the other hand, represent large systems that can be otherwise treated as common things for study. Cosmograms, “represent the universe as a whole to themselves and to others in objects—in concrete, visible artifacts…[cosmograms] have been built in order to make explicit what a ‘cosmic thing’ can be shown to imply.” Tresch notes that, in order to codify and simplify complex systems, “human groups have always created external depictions of the elements of the cosmos and the connections among them.” (Tresch, pg.92)


eco.jpgSystems in Nature
Tresch notes that cosmograms are closely aligned to how Nature has been organized to create “usefulness” through Heidegger’s notion of enframing, “With the appearance of a ‘subject’ to whom all of nature must be represented, the road is cleared for an ‘assault’ by man. (Tresch, pg.85)”

Bill McKibbin, Kate Soper, and other writers in the modern environmentalist movement, closely align with Tresch’s view that cosmotic approaches have shifted public understanding of Nature for better or worse. In the shift to a third nature, such critics have noted that postmodern constructs of Nature have taken the turn to a model resembling technological simulations of interconnected nodes, “where different species or types are interbred to produce new strains or variants. Combining the practical and the symbolic, the material and the social, discourse stresses the hybrid qualities of social life. Hybridity draws attention to the ways in which the physical and social worlds interact and combine in a multiplicity of ways.” (Gold and Revill, pg.76)

dig_eco.jpgSystems in Data
Sophisticated information gathering technologies in the last decade have created concrete and bounded data sets within vast databases. However, these data sets can be viewed as similar to Tresch’s cosmic things. Danah Boyd writes about these connections relative to the era of Big Data, which marks, “a profound change at the levels of epistemology and ethics. It reframes key questions about the constitution of knowledge, the processes of research, how we should engage with information, and the nature and the categorization of reality. (Boyd and Crawford, 2011)

Viewing Big Data as a cosmic world-view within discrete cosmic things may be useful for provoking researchers to address the designs, methods, and assumptions embedded in large-scale information architectures. Considering the postmodern construct of Big Data as a cosmos also asks the question of what can and cannot be obtained from these ideologies.

(Image credit: Thomas Peterson, 2010: http://000fff.org/the-power-of-digital-ecoystems/)


Boyd, D. and Crawford, K. (2011). Six provocations for big data. Social Science Research Network Working Paper Series. A Decade in Internet Time: Symposium on the Dynamics of the Internet and Society. Presented at Oxford Internet Institute.

McKibbin, R. (1989) The End of Nature, New York: Vintage.

Soper, K. (1995) What is Nature? Oxford: Blackwell.

Tresch, J. (2007). Technological World-Pictures Cosmic Things and Cosmograms. History of Science, 98(1), 84-99.

Wilson, A. (1992) The Culture of Nature: North American landscape from Disney to the Exxon Valdez, Oxford: Blackwell.

Gold, J. R., & Revill, G. (e.d.). (2005) Representing the environment. Geography. Routledge.