Big Data, So What?

I got the chance to interview friend and fellow Bruce Schneier for Radio Berkman 218: The Threats and Tradeoffs of Big Data, talking about his latest book Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Capture Your Data and Control Your World. I had the pleasure of seeing Bruce walking around Berkman with his book-in-process binder at all times over the last year and got a chance to read some drafts, so focused on some of the nuts and bolts of the book writing process, his audience, and his aims for impact. I highly recommend both Bruce's book and the rest of the Radio Berkman podcast.

Reading Dada Data and the Internet of Paternalistic Things on Radio Berkman

Dan Jones, audio production extraordinaire, pulled together some interviews with authors who contributed to the Berkman Center Internet Monitor report this year, including myself. I got a chance to read my speculative fiction piece about the internet of paternalistic things, and I had a great conversation with Dan about some of the inspiration behind the story. Give it a listen—my section starts around 33:00, but the whole podcast is really worth listening to.

Dada Data and the Internet of Paternalistic Things

This piece of speculative fiction exploring a possible data-driven future first appeared in Internet Monitor project's second annual report, Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World. Check it out for more from my Berkman colleagues on the interplay between technological platforms and policy; growing tensions between protecting personal privacy and using big data for social good; the implications of digital communications tools for public discourse and collective action; and current debates around the future of Internet governance.



My stupid refrigerator thinks I’m pregnant.

I reached for my favorite IPA, but the refrigerator wouldn’t let me take one from the biometrically authenticated alcohol bin. 

Our latest auto-delivery from peaPod included pickles, orange juice, and prenatal vitamins. We never have orange juice in the house before because I find it too acidic. What machine-learning magic produced this produce? 

And I noticed the other day that my water target had changed on my Vessyl, and I wasn’t sure why. I figured I must have just been particularly dehydrated. 

I guess I should have seen it coming. Our Fountain tracking toilet noticed when I got off hormonal birth control and got an IUD instead. But I thought our toilet data was only shared between Nest and our doctors? What tipped off our Samsung fridge? 

I got a Now notification that I was ovulating a few weeks ago. I didn’t even know it had been tracking my cycle, let alone by basal body temperature through my wearable iRing. I certainly hadn’t turned that feature on. We’re not even trying to have a baby right now. Or maybe my Aria scale picked up on some subtle change in my body fat? 

Or maybe it was ComWarner? All our appliances are hooked up through one @HomeHub. I didn’t think twice about it because it just worked—every time we upgraded the dishwasher, the thermostat. Could it be that the @HomeHub is sharing data between the toilet and our refrigerator? 

I went into our @HomeHub interface. It showed a bunch of usage graphs (we’ve been watching a “below average” amount of TV lately), but I couldn’t find anything that looked like a pregnancy notification. Where was this bogus conception data coming from? 

My iWatch pinged me. The lights in the room dimmed, and a connected aromatherapy candle lit up. The heart monitor on my bra alerted me that my heart rate and breathing was irregular, and that I should stop for some meditative breathing. I sat down on my posture-tracking floor pillow, and tried to sink in.

But I couldn’t keep my mind from wandering. Was it something in the water? Something in my Snap-Texts with Kathryn? If it was true, why hadn’t my doctor called yet? Could I actually be pregnant? 

I turned on the TVTab to distract me, but I was bombarded with sponsored ads for “What to Expect When You’re Expecting 9.0” and domain squatter sites that search for a unique baby name. 

I searched for similar incidents on the Quorums: “pregnancy Samsung refrigerator,” “pregnancy Fountain toilet.” Nothing. I really wanted to talk to someone, but I couldn’t call Google because they don’t have customer service for @HomeHub products. I tried ComWarner. After waiting for 37 minutes to speak with a representative, I was told that the he couldn’t give out any personal data correlations over the phone. What bureaucratic bullshit! 

It can’t be true. Russell has been away in Addis Ababa on business for the three weeks. And I’ve still got the IUD. We aren’t even trying yet. This would have to be a bio-correlative immaculate conception. 

I tapped Russell on his iWatch three times, our signal to call me when he is done with his meeting. I was freaking out. 

I could have really used that beer. But the fridge still wouldn’t let me take it. What if I am really pregnant? I opened up Taskr to see if could get an old fashioned birth control test delivered, but price was three times as expensive as it normally would be. I considered CVS, but I thought better of it since you can’t go in there anymore without a loyalty card. It was far, but I skipped the self-driving Uber shuttle and walked the extra mile to the place that accepts crypto, where I wouldn’t be tracked. I think. And that’s when I got the notification that my funding interview for my new project the following morning had been canceled. 


Read more in the Berkman Center’s Internet Monitor 2014: Reflections on the Digital World.

Gifting Ideas: Enter Through the Gift Shop

I spent the weekend with a bunch of wonderful and creative people at metaLAB's Enter Through the Giftshop workshop. We were encouraged to document the process throughout the weekend, so I wanted to take a moment to reflect on it and document it here, too. The goal of the weekend was to rapid prototype a gift that we could give to a particular museum (or to humanity as a whole). 

Outside the gift shop, museums, libraries, and other kinds of collections invite appreciation more often than participation. What can people do to make these collections their own—to lure them into the public, beyond the granite walls and bronze doors of storied institutions?

With the tools of social media, mobile devices, markers, and construction paper, how can we get objects in different places talking to one another—and to address issues of vital interest to audiences beyond the ones these collections typically serve?

I was interested in part because I like spending time in museums myself, especially when I travel. I've also been trying to getting back in touch with my humanities background recently. I've been thinking a lot about technology criticism as it relates to cultural, literary, and artistic criticism that runs parallel with museum institutions. I'm very glad I joined.

Some of my most engaging museum experiences have been sparked by having a particular goal in mind when attending. I am reminded of an undergrad course with Gordon Teskey where we wrote about one object after spending an extended amount of time with it in the Sackler. There is a special purposefulness when going through the museum with some objective, not just to walk through, but to actively filtering and consciously curating your own time in the space. That's what I loved so much about the set up of the weekend.

The first day was devoted to spending the afternoon in a particular museum. I ended up in the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard. We each walked in with a set of four prompt cards that had been generated that morning to inspire and provoke our museum experience. These served as a really interesting lens for focusing our attention in new ways that carried through the rest of the weekend.

I had the particular pleasure of working through an idea that started with cards I had, developed as a theme in our message to carry on our work the following day, and really integrated into the thing we ended up prototyping. The thread ran through the weekend, and through the project itself, and I was surprised to discover the cohesion that emerged from the process that was otherwise very open ended.

Our project spawned out of a few sets of prompts, in particular. One card prompted me to spend time going back and forth between two objects. I had decided that this in itself was an act of curation, because the card didn't tell me what relationship the two objects should have with each other, and so I had to choose something myself. At first I started off with an object that was compelling, just kind of a gut, aesthetic reaction. I walked around the rest of the museum with that in mind, and then decided what to go back to at the end, and then decided what to pair it with. I spent more time with the objects around it and became really interested in the dualism in the wildly diverse designs in the Moche vessel exhibit. The dualism explained in the exhibit documentation sparked my imagination, and I was excited to find this similar posture and style across these two vessels, one a slave and one a warrior. The objects were not placed next to each other in the exhibit, but in thinking through my prompt, I was motivated to document my own comparison in an Instagram photo that put them side by side.

The other prompt that deeply inspired our prototype was a card that asked to count all the birds in the museum. Kristen Orr had done this in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and tallied upwards of 140+ birds there. She described how interesting that experience was of following this one thread throughout all the work, especially in such an eclectic and diverse collection with little context for the objects on display. She also brought in her own experience of rearranging collections by color when they are otherwise curated taxonomically. We liked the idea that curation in museum contexts are all about choices, but we wanted to be able to layer on other individualized, subjective choices that could guide and focus a personal experience.

The thing that inspired our project came out of something at the MIT Museum. In the first afternoon, we had reconvened to talk about our museum experience and share what we learned and reflect on what we liked. One of my partners described the "Please Empty Your Pockets" airport security scanner installation, and began to describe how he had used his camera to scan the scanner. I nodded vigorously as he described it and jumped to say that I had done the same thing. The next day I found someone else who had done it as well. I really wanted there to be an easy way for the museum to collect those interactions. All it would take in this case is a hashtag to collect the videos on YouTube to gather a pattern in the subjective interaction instincts we all had shared at the same exhibit.

All of these elements led to the idea that we wanted to work on something to enable an experience of self-curation, or DIY curation as a lens for the subjective experience of the museum-goer. We ended up proposing something that would be both a gift to the museum goer and a gift to the museum itself. We targeted the gift towards the Peabody, because of the fraught relationship with subjectivity in Ethnology collections and their dated displays as a way of introducing the subjectivity of the museum goers.

Our proposal was MYSEUM, a mobile app designed to record and integrate your personal museum experience. We want to capture and expose the documentation that people already naturally do when they visit and collate it both for personal use and for exposing it back to the museum and to other museum goers. We wanted to build the platform to integrate things like YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, tagging, note taking apps, audio, etc. to not only capture what you are already sharing, but to pull it together in a personal inspiration board or scrapbook of the experience. Museum goers will take notes and record elements they want to keep from their visits, including impressions and reflections on what the encounter inspired. The app might come with prompts like our museum cards to spark a particular kind of open-ended experience for self-curation.

Should the gift be accepted, we would like to use the personal curated experiences to present an installation that shares the subjective museum experience collectively to inspire other visitors, perhaps something like a grid view of text, images, and video. And at the end of a visit, the app would output either a print out or an archived report of the visit so that you could take it with you and have a record of the experience. We likened this to print outs to the roller coaster images that are take home souvenirs of the experience, linking it back to the gift shop theme. 

Walking away from the weekend, my most interesting takeaways had to do with the prototyping and collaboration process. I'm not always gung-ho for group activities, but I was so impressed with how wonderfully the interactions were run, and how productive and creative the brainstorming was. That is due in part to the organizers, especially Tim Maly, and in part because of the wonderful group of people the event attracted to participate. In the second day we were given a lot of leeway in how our groups operated in the design iteration process, so we did a lot of figuring out what was going to work for us as we went along. Throughout the weekend, we were encouraged to document things, so we did a lot with cards and brainstorming and organizing and selecting and culling. All of that was pinned up to the wall as we presented to the larger group after, so we ended up talking a bit about our collaborative process. 

Brainstorming cards organized and thematically categorized after with blue cards - one step in the design process.

Brainstorming cards organized and thematically categorized after with blue cards - one step in the design process.

I was also really pleased when other groups revealed similar ideas in common with our process. At least three other group's proposals directly engaged with themes and implemented elements we had talked about  but had edited out in the process of refining and specifying our prototype. Ideas we had wanted to pursue still had a life of their own outside our group, even though we couldn't pursue them all in focusing back on our "self-curation" prompt. It really was a "great minds" moment to see all these parallel tracks running together.

I also had a lot of fun shifting modes this weekend. As a writer and a critic I'm often operating at a meta level, commenting on things around me and thinking about what they mean. This weekend was a unique opportunity for me to spend time doing something creative, if not in actually building the thing we prototyped, but in building an idea together.