Living With Data, 2.0

I'm excited to revive the Living With Data series, this time on Gizmodo. I love that their motto is "Everything is technology"—that certainly jibes with my approach to technology criticism.

One of the goals behind the series is to surface more examples of how data and algorithms impact our lives through personal stories. Gizmodo has a really active readership, so I'm eager to see what questions and stories arise from this inquisitive community.


Here's an excerpt from the first installment: 

I came across it the other day as a sponsored post in my Facebook news feed. It caught my attention, given how on point it was—It’s true, I am an American, just recently moved to Singapore. However, I’m not the type to wear my passport on my sleeve.

Still I wondered, what data and what advertising processes made it possible for this very-long-tail item to find its way to my eyeballs? 

How did this hyper-targeted ad reach me? And was it algorithmically generated content to begin with?

 Read more.

Check out the archives of the series, originally published at Al Jazeera America. Stay tuned, and don't hesitate to share your questions and curiosities with me for future installments!

Tiny Letters from the Little Red Dot

Jumping on the newsletter bandwagon, Nick and I are writing missives from Singapore, detailing our urban adventures and culinary exploits here. The first installment just went out today, Wafting durian. Here's an excerpt:

mall and management office perfume
after the rain breeze
bread talk
new carpet smell in Yale-NUS

Subscribe for more observations, stories, and insights.

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Researching with the Tow Center

I'm pleased to share that I'll be joining this amazing cohort as a Research Fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism. I have been inspired by a lot of the work coming out of there, especially on Algorithm Accountability reporting that influenced the aims of the Living with Data series. In the coming year I'm further exploring the idea of constructive technology criticism. Here's the project description in detail:

Constructive Technology Criticism
Tow Fellow: Sara Watson
Contemporary technology criticism is a product of the internet, characterized by oversimplified binary questions, clickbait headlines, and sensationalizing explorations of moral panics and progress narratives. Technology criticism has the potential to play an operative role in shaping the design, adoption, and policies around emerging technologies. Sara’s work explores how Constructive Technology Criticism can improve the broader cultural discourse about technology, not only commenting on the technologies we have, but also influencing and shaping the technologies we want.

I'm grateful to the Knight Foundation for funding this work, which I've been thinking a lot about over the past year and I'm grateful to have the time and space to dive into it in greater depth this coming year. 

I'll be working virtually from Singapore and hanging out with the cohort in Slack, and in NYC when I can get there. And I'm also still affiliated, mostly virtually, with the Berkman Center this year. I'm planning on sharing a lot of the work in process, asking for feedback on reading lists and syllabi, building up style guides, etc. Stay tuned here and on the Tow Center blog for updates.

Metaphors are the new...

A couple weeks ago, I got to talk with the fellows and gathered friends of Data & Society about some of the work I've been doing on the metaphors we use to talk about data. It's an interest that came out of my thesis research on how the Quantified Self community was talking about their relationship to their personal data, and continues in a piece I wrote for DIS Magazine's Data Issue this year.

Here's the video on YouTube. Stay for the discussion with the audience in the second half (but just listen to the audio!). We ended up focusing on how it's not just data that we need metaphors for, but also the processes and systems that use and make sense of the data. We have just as much, if not more, trouble grasping the concept of algorithms and how they work.

Huge thanks to Tim Hwang for inviting me to come down to New York and to Data & Society for providing the space and minds for a great conversation. I'm hoping that this work will continue to shape the public discourse we're using to talk about data issues going forward, especially as those framings shape policy and law, and more importantly, the way we all think about our stakes in our data.

e-flux Futures

I dabbled in a little hopeful data futurism for DIS magazine's contribution to e-flux 56th Venice biennaleSTYLES AND CUSTOMS IN THE 2020S. As part of the journal’s ‘super community’ theme, in which “people comprise the planetary computer backend,” DIS crowdsourced predictions for the 2020s. Rather than be pessimistic about the way things are going and put forth predictions for a dystopic 2020, I offered a few hopeful outlooks of constructive solutions for technologies I think raise interesting near-term concerns.

Fortunately, the FTC modernizes the definition of antitrust to address both vertical and horizontal monopolies across markets, thus breaking up Google into three hundred companies. Commercial personalization gets its Snowden moment when a BlueKai data broker whistleblower outlines the extent of the industry’s manipulative, exploitative, and discriminatory targeting practices. Internet of Things companies form a self-regulating body and sign a common Code of Conduct charter outlining what they will not do with customers’ data.

Read more from the rest of the DIS contributors.