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social hacking

My response to Assignment 3 (extensions and customizations) is a series of proposed provocations that explore the following question: where is the line between connection and codependence?

These ideas emerged from my own thinking and crystallized in a conversation I had with Kyle. I’m interested in this question about social boundaries from two different angles / places in my intellectual and personal life. On the one hand, a lot of my work this semester (particularly in my thesis) has revolved around this idea of creating private spaces in public.

In that process, I’ve been thinking about intimate spaces like prayer shrines, phone booths, bathroom stalls, ATM machines — objects and environments and structures in public life where we are allowed moments of privacy. But looking more closely at these structures (literally and metaphorically), I’ve realized that while we may seek privacy in the haven of a bathroom stall, we are quite literally only separated by a thin wall from the person next to us.

This idea is also inspired by my relationship with my sister, who is not only my blood relative but also my best friend and roommate. Not only do we share a tremendous amount of intimacy, closeness and history, but we also coexist socially with one another and have overlap between our friends and social groups.

We have a mutual recognition of the ways in which our closeness borders on codependence, and have worked throughout our lives to figure out the ways in which we share and are similar, and the ways in which we are different. (I also found a statistic that siblings are made up of 99.5% of the same genetic material).

Below are three mini proposed projects that revolve around ‘hacking’ my relationship with my sister, automating our intimacy / communication, and pushing the boundaries between connection and codependence.

Provocation 1: Domesticity for Two

The first provocation in this series has to do with the fact that my sister and I are roommates, so we inhabit the same domestic space as one another every day (mostly). We have separate bedrooms with doors that close but there are also many other ways we share and express intimacy with each other within that space: sharing food, sometimes sleeping in bed, borrowing clothes, etc. On the flip side, there are, of course, unspoken boundaries around things we do not do together or in the same space — go to the bathroom, have sex, get dressed, etc.

This idea is a series of domestic objects meant to be shared by two people that ask questions about the line between connection and codependence — where the boundaries between two bodies in a space begins to break down, or at least become fuzzy. I thought about different ways that we could engage in these really private activities not only together, but doing so while having to somehow manage or negotiate the presence of another person. I thought about making something like a shared toilet, but then landed on three things that felt slightly more subtle.

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This week, I did 1.5 assignments — a web prototype for my thesis project, and a small experiment in response to the surveillance project prompts that I would like to develop into a more fleshed out project.

Project #1

My thesis is a participatory installation that connects two people through the metadata of their memories. Based on a given prompt, users are invited to anonymously contribute a handwritten memory and scan it in the machine. When you submit a memory, you get back a print of someone else’s memory based on common language. I wanted to test people’s feelings about inputting a memory, and their relationship to the output, so I made a simple web prototype that does just that. I pre-populated my database of memories with handwritten memories sourced from my friends, networks and supplemented by Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. (I have a lot more to say about the strangeness of paying people for their memories, but I could write a separate post about that).

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The web prototype is below along with some documentation from my testing.

http://rlieberman.github.io/MemoryMachineDemoV1/

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Project #1.5

For the surveillance assignment, I used my thesis project as a jumping off point to think about surveillance in a broader sense. I was interested in the suggestion to collect the same piece of information from 100 people, and this got me thinking about the various ways in which private information can be hidden in public. We leave traces of ourselves everywhere — from our Instagram feeds, to the DNA we leave behind in our environments every day. I’ve thought a lot about if we can reconstruct or reverse-engineer portraits of people — some sense of who they are — from the things they leave behind (much like Heather Dewey Hagborg’s Stranger Visions, a project that has influenced my thinking a lot).

I am interested less in data and more in human stories; in the idea of leaving private things in public (or having private moments in public spaces), and in the possibility of using as a glimpse into somebody’s interior. That ranges from things like bathroom graffiti to Post Secret(postsecret.com) So for this assignment I decided to turn to Craigslist as a place where people post things — objects, personal ads, listings — that might contain stories, or at the very least, pieces of personal information.

I had a few different ideas — the first was to scrape Craigslist for listings in which people leave personal stories with objects they are selling; the second was to scrape all the items being given away for free (to see if you can see people in the things they no longer want), and the last was to scrape the mirrors being sold on Craigslist as a way to inadvertently collect pictures of people’s personal spaces / domestic interiors.

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I decided to go with the last option and create a simple scrolling, one page website with a gallery of images of mirrors and interiors from Craigslist:
http://rlieberman.github.io/MirrorInteriors/

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Technical approach + Challenges

I also thought this would be a great opportunity to learn how to scrape a website. I looked into some off the shelf tools (such as import.io) but because of the wayCraigslist creates their pages, it didn’t work and I couldn’t grab the images.

I realized that Craigslist posting images are not in the HTML but are dynamically created in carousels for each listing, so it doesn’t show up as part of the page content when doing import.io or even scraping with BeautifulSoup. I haven’t yet figured out how to interface with the page’s Javascript to grab the images programmatically, so I had to figure out a hack for the time being.

In the meantime, I used Python’s beautiful soup to scrape a list of 100 search results that gave me 100 most recent mirror listings in the form of URLs. This allowed me to easily go through and grab the image for each one manually but sped up the process. I hope to keep working on this to figure out how to do purely automated scraping of the images (with a bit of manual curation thrown in).

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Something I thought about here is also the balance between automation and manual work. There’s a lot of crap and repeat postings on Craigslist, so it was important to me to comb through all the images and select just the ones I wanted. I also want to figure out how I can push this project to be more than just a series of images.

Other things I want to add to finish up the page are:
– more image results
– images are being squished – cropped rather than squish them
– make photogrid responsive
– add the lightbox

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Kate Crawford, The Anxieties of Big Data
Reading summary for discussion by myself, Zoe Bachman and Nicola Carpeggiani.

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“surveillant anxiety” = twin anxieties, those being watched and those watching

  • there is anxiety among those surveilled and the anxiety of those surveilling, exists on both sides, in a feedback loop
  • idea of anxiety being the pervasive feeling of now
  • what are the associations with anxiety? anxiety is something to be diagnosed, medicated


the myth of big data = more is better

  • people think that the more data you have, the more you gather, the closer you get to truth
  • BUT all that data is not enough
  • data accumulation is outpacing people’s ability to deal with it
  • “black holes in data”
  • “These moments demonstrate why the epistemic big-data ambition — to collect it all — is both never-ending and deeply flawed. The bigger the data gets, the more small things can be overlooked.”
  • big data vs small data = big data can only be comprehended by machines, small data is more human scale
  • amount of information versus quality of information


the result: people what to blend in

  • mass surveillance meets mass consumerism
  • normcore (K-hole) = the cultural ideal of disappearing
  • leads to the question – what is normal? how do you shed your subjectivity? who has the power / privilege to shed their subjectivity?
  • normal is being open to only a certain group of people, some people will always be other no matter how hard they try
  • “The act of fitting in with the mainstream is the ultimate camouflage”
  • This is where she talks about the OWS people dressing like tourists

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there is a vicious cycle / the dynamic between surveillers and surveilled

  • “On one hand, the fear that there can never be enough data, and on the other, the fear that one is standing out in the data. These fears reinforce each other in a feedback loop, becoming stronger with each turn of the ratchet. As people seek more ways to blend in — be it through normcore dressing or hardcore encryption — more intrusive data collection techniques are developed.”
  • the more people try to hide, the more surveillers try to watch

what solution does Crawford put forward? does she propose one?

  • proposes that the first thing we need to do is talk about it, to “recognize the condition and trace its contours”
  • reminds me of climate change, idea that you have no agency as an individual

Questions for the class:

Who has the ability to blend in or pass when they’re marked as other? Spectrum of blending in – talks about the OWS people dressing as tourists to the people who are doing hardcore encryption. What are the barriers to blending in?

Does the feedback loop ever end? Is it infinite?

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For this week’s assignment in Social Hacking, we were asked to recreate Steve Lambert’s piece I will talk with anyone, in which he sits in a public place and offers himself up for conversation with people who pass by. We were encouraged to reinterpret the piece in our own way; I had a few different ideas that ranged from lo-tech — handing out free sandwiches in Union Square park (which I did as a social experiment in a college art class) — to working with livestreaming platforms like Periscope.

I knew I was interested in doing an experiment that explored the question of how people relate to their own image, particularly their face. When I was doing my project Periscope Portraits back in the fall, I chatted with people on Periscope and asked to make 3D portraits of them. When I did this, it ended up being a social experiment more than anything, and I found that people were very protective over their own image. I’m not sure if it’s because they had particular sensitivity about their faces, or if they just had a moment of realization that these fleeting moments were going to be preserved in three dimensions. But regardless, I noticed a pattern.

Would I be willing to give images of my face to people I had never met? I decided to flip the script, so to speak, of what I had done and put my face at the center of the project.

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I started out by posting a few different ads on Craigslist, under Free Stuff, Missed Connections and Services. I was inspired by projects like Ingrid Burrington’s Center for Missed Connections, and exploring this digital space for loneliness, or at the very least a desire to connect with someone. A couple hours later, one of my ads was removed because it supposedly violated their Terms of Service (interesting in itself) and besides that, I only got one reply.

I decided to change things up and post a series of fliers around the Village with the same ad, and a phone number (Google Voice – not my real number) instead. Part of what is powerful about this experiment is the idea of disrupting the social norms and codes of the space or platform you’re working in. On Craigslist, sending an intimate photo (whether it’s a face or something else) is already part of the usual behaviors of that environment, and so I realized that working in physical (“IRL”) made more sense.

I posted 15 fliers in total. In a way, the scariest part was putting up the fliers — I was afraid I would get yelled at, and in the process I noticed the lack of public (physical space). I also encountered a few moments of alarmism when I was printing my fliers. What if somebody is able to find you through your face, or trace your phone number?

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I got me thinking: is this information any more than we put online? We post selfies and intimate photos all the time on social media, effectively broadcasting them to an audience of strangers, so why is this any different? Is it “creepy” because its from a flier (public space), thus disrupting the social norms? Is there something about a 1:1 dynamic (sending a picture of myself to a single person) that is more intimate? I’m not sure, but this is all part of the experiment.

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For our pre-class assignment, we were each assigned a different exercise to get us thinking about the themes of the class. I got If Face than That, a page that automates an action triggered by your facial expression. Using clmtracker to read facial expressions and assign them happy / sad / angry / surprised, plus the service If This Then That, we were asked to set up some kind of action.

I’m incredibly close with my family (especially my mom and my sister). And despite the fact that my parents live just a few blocks from ITP and my sister is my roommate in Brooklyn, I speak to them via phone or text every day. With my mom in particular, I find myself calling to update her on the state of my inner emotional life — texting her when I have a problem, or am happy about something that happened. So I thought, what if I could automate this and send my mom live updates on my emotional state using face tracking?

That is exactly what I did. I left the page running for only a short while, but in that time, I sent my mom over 20 time-stamped emails with an update that I was happy plus a photo of my face. She was very confused.

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