Summer Thesis Thoughts: Version 1

June 17, 2008

Throughout the first DT year, I have had an increasing focus on how data visualization can be used to reveal an overarching pattern or even a message about social epidemics and behaviors. In my Spring Major Studio final paper, I wrote about how the social significance of data visualization as executed through a variety of medium has brought to light and made legible the significant key issues of social trends and interactions within distinct environments. By studying the observed micro behavior of these interactions, universal macro patterns become visible to the outside observer, allowing informed decisions and conclusions to be made about these exchanges. It is most interesting to see how the human condition has been captured through forms of data visualization by means of collecting moments of discrete personal content focusing on anecdotal knowledge, which has created an eye-opening awareness of how people are interacting with each other and their environments in distinct situations and cultures.

Through analysis of data visualization as a technology and the social situations of which it has been applied, it will be pivotal to discover what moments will potentially have a significant impact on an audience and how these moments can not only be visualized in order to experience the impact, but also for discovering needs and benefiting the greater good of specific communities.

Delving full force into brainstorming topics for this summer’s research, I have found that most of the emerging concepts explained below are things that I have either recently struck a strong interest in me or just can’t get out of my head. I’m trying to explore and then narrow down my focus based on what seems to be the most interesting to me, an audience, and then what gets the most success and reactions from my prototyping iterations that are soon to come once I can formulate proposed questions based on my current topic explorations. For now, here are some things I’ve been thinking about (all stated in complete, free association format!)

Concept 1: The growing epidemic of fractured attention caused by information overload, and the need for our brains to function like artificial intelligence

As I’ve been searching for a compelling social epidemic to focus on, an article in last Sunday’s NYTimes (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/technology/14email.html?em&ex=1213588800&en=55640a5b320f7f60&ei=5087
) made me aware that there was one right under my nose this whole time. There is a growing problem in people not only in the business world but also in our personal lives that we are constantly being inundated with emails, IMs, Twitters, phone calls, etc that cause us to break concentration from whatever it was we were focused on, tend to that momentary social outlet, and then take out time that would have otherwise been spent on being productive to refocus and try to remember where we were in a task. There have been many studies done to show that the amount of true, productive work accomplished in a day in most office jobs is being cut significantly by disruptions due to email or other information overload. There even is a new non-profit group that was just established to focus on the awareness and prevention of this issue: The Information Overload Research Group > http://www.iorgforum.org/

Not only are they working to do studies on this issue, but they are also addressing the question of whether or not self-discipline is enough to keep us away from easy-access, technological distractions. Do we need a constant remind of what our broken concentration looks like? This is something I may want to elaborate on. A book titled Distraction by Maggie Jackson looks into this trend, especially the distractions that technology has helped bring about. She states that “many distractions turn out to be self-initiated: It appears that we just can’t wait to read the next email or blog entry or check to see what might be happening in anonline discussion.” The same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.

This article http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121323271772766645.html?mod=googlenews_wsj states that “The fractured attention comes at a cost. In the United States, more than $650 billion a year in productivity is lost because of unnecessary interruptions, predominately mundane matters, according toBasex . The firm says that a big chunk of that cost comes from the time it takes people to recover from an interruption and get back to work.” Our brain functions are changing in accordance with the development of technology: “Mike Gunderloy at WWD writes “The more you allow yourself to be ping-ponged around from IM chat to email to what you should be working on to social network to phone call, the less likely you are to ever hit a flow state.” Mike’s post touches on what I consider an even greater issue with the interrupt-driven information overloaded world most of us work in – the impact that has on the creative flow of ideas. NathanZeldes of Intel wrote in Infomania: Why we can’t afford to ignore it any longer that “because of Infomania, employees are not creating new ideas to the extent they could.” Flow takes time to achieve, and it is fragile. If a programmer’s flow is interrupted it can take a large amount of time for her to regain the state, sometimes up to an hour. That’s an hour of lost productivity to your team. If a programmer is interrupted many times during the day she may never reach this state. Without this state, creativity is crippled.

I recently contacted a member of the Information Overload Research Group who is willing to answer my further questions on this issue and be a point of contact. He also linked me to the web page where many members and interested commentators on this issue are posting and collecting articles.

As I read more articles about this issue, I was lead into another interesting question: Is easy access to the internet changing the way we think (the way our brains work?).

A few interesting quotes I found from this article talking about how our minds are now being expected to function flawlessly as they were artificial intelligence and programmed to do so.

-“When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

-“The idea that our minds should operate as high-speed data-processing machines is not only built into the workings of the Internet, it is the network’s reigning business model as well. The faster we surf across the Web—the more links we click and pages we view—the more opportunitiesGoogle and other companies gain to collect information about us and to feed us advertisements.”

A few more quotes from another article: http://www.43folders.com/2008/06/14/nyt-businesses-fight-email-monster-they-helped-created

-“As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” Foreman concluded, we risk turning into “‘pancake people’—spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”

-“as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”

“stop trying to eradicate human communication problems by introducing waves of new technology or made-up rules of social engineering. A company with email problems is also experiencing people problems. Until you understand why the wetware isn’t working like you’d expected, don’t go nuts with top-down technology solutions and over-clever edicts.”

Perhaps this type of anecdotal data will be compelling enough for my thesis focus? We’ll see.

Concept 2: News media ethics and how it forms our news media culture, thus the constantly generating image of America.


My first semester mini-thesis project was semi-focused on this, more so the supply and demand of news in an era where we can tailor the news we read online to what we want to know about at any given point, thus completing ignoring mainstream top new stories. You can find more about this in my Interface blog posts. There have been several articles out lately about problems with journalism ethics:



Concept 3: Track eye movement to see if it’s possible to read emotions through simply looking at patterns of eye movement, or look at how vision response interfaces can be applied in a way to stimulate brain activity in people with the inability to communicate by voice or by other more robust physical signals due to paralysis or injury.

I recently read a article in the NY Times magazine about a young soldier who was injured early on in his stay in Iraq and his progression through rehabilitation:


He can hear fine, but is almost completely paralyzed and can only communicate by blinking his eyes or making slight sounds with his throat. Part of his therapy is to increase his brain activity so that he may be able to get some of his motor movements functioning again. What I found particularly interesting about him was that there was a place in the article where his mother holds up his clothes to ask him what he wants to wear to his next doctor’s appointment, and that he spends most his days watching cartoons. It’s not the fact that he’s watching cartoons, but that he is able to visually comprehend what is going on around him as observed from the consolation he gets from watching a visually stimulating cartoon. If he can watch cartoons, is it possible that he may be able to play a game by exploring multiple levels of an interface by only relying on very simple eye movements? I am interested to explore the possibilities of using visual response interfaces to stimulate brain activity and rehabilitation, and also provide a way to engage in forms of entertainment for this audience other than just watching a scripted single path visual interface, and overall improve the quality of life and help with disorientation, a common side affect of brain injuries.

What i found compelling about this article was the constant references to his eye movement and how it revealed something conscious and alive in him and was the most vivid indicator of what is going on in his mind that he cannot otherwise communicate in any other way. The article mentioned that “Sometimes he fluttered his eyelids a little bit.” And his eyes seemed to focus on her, at moments. Those were about the only signs of awareness. “The day I met him,” Zollman told me, remembering Shurvon’s arrival at R.I.C., “I realized he was so in there.” With sharp features accentuating brown eyes that appear almost as large as his, she said she felt a connection — “he was really present” — with something behind his still and silent carapace. She asked him about the tattoo on his left forearm, a panther with the words “Trini Boy” near its paws. Fondly she recalled his voiceless reply: the intense brightening of his eyes.

I found a paper about how to make a low-budget camera to track eye movement that with a semester of Physical Computing may be possible – maybe. Not sure if this is worth pursuing yet, but I need to learn more about this field in general and what innovations have been touched on already to see where the gaps lie.


One comment

  1. very nice article

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