Letter Writing Meets Big Data in 'Dear Data'

Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press)
Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press)

In the world before ours, before our texts, emails, 140-character thoughts, before we could have conversations with long-distance loves during a morning commute, in that world, communication was something different, something more challenging. I’d hesitate to call it more meaningful—there can be meaning in even the shortest hello if we want there to be—but there is something more, let’s call it more purposeful, in the act of communication in a pre-electronic world.

Researcher William Decker describes how reading pre-telecommunication letters “requires acts of imagination and empathy, but even casual attention to their commonplace expressions reveals a sense of space and time different from our own.” To sit, to write, to send your thoughts to someone and wait, patiently, while your letters finds its way, and to play this process out in reverse while you await response requires an amount of purpose that we may have lost in an instant-communication world. But there’s something more to Decker’s statement, the idea that reading this pre-electronic letter writing reveals something unknown to a modern reader. We get a glimpse of something new; words we may not have known, a voice we can’t imagine, a new way of thinking, a different way of seeing. We are experiencing their world through ours, and perhaps even seeing our world slightly differently.

In their new book, Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press), designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec are seeing their worlds in new ways. The book, a collection of postcards the two sent to each other over the course of a year, explores the very mundane data of our lives: drinking (Week 18), complaints (Week 7), swearing (Week 37), or times we wish for privacy (Week 51), and beautifully visualizes them.

From Dear Data website

 

As the two write in the book’s introduction, “We would spend the week noticing and noting down our activities or thoughts, before translating this information into a hand-drawn visualization.” Through the process of examining their worlds in new ways, and noting emotions, sounds, and thoughts Lupi and Posavec, like the pre-telecommunication era Decker writes about, reveal a sense of space and time that we’d never considered. Through their weekly postcard exchange the two got to know each other, and themselves. The world around them was data to be collected, to be examined. They continue:

Besides finding data in the world around us, we are all creating data just by living: our purchases, our movements through the city, our explorations across the internet, all contribute to the “data trail” we leave in our wake as we move through life.

Lupi and Posavec’s explorations are alternatively funny (Posavec’s strategy for remembering the animals she spotted on her bike ride ending in a shouted “Give me my PHONE!”) and vulnerable (Lupi’s privacy week postcard, presented as a sort of erasure poem— the absence of words adding weight to the revealed ones), and at all times thoughtful. In an era where our personal data is constantly being amassed, studied, packaged, and sold back to us as ads, initiatives, or motivators there is something very powerful about taking it back. And not just taking it back in the way that wearable technology promises to quantify our lives, but taking it back in quiet, tactile, and let’s not forget, analog ways.

Dear Data is a nice reminder that even in this hyper-technological, ever-connected world, there is a beauty and simplicity in returning to a way of connecting that both roots us to our world and to one another.

DataMatters Interview Series: Biome Arts

Biome Arts started the way that many things do—by asking questions. What would happen if we combined this with that? What would happen if I bring my talents into your field? And in the case of Biome Arts, what would happen if we bring the visual, the digital, the sonic, and the sociopolitical into our art practices? What could we create then? The Biome Arts collective was founded in 2014 by Sally Bozzuto, Saito Group, and Chihao Yo and brings together writers, artists, designers, engineers, architects, and activists whose work speaks to the ways that art, technology, and social justice intersect.

The result of the collective’s collaborations has been two large-scale installations that live at the junction of technology, art, and activism. Their first project was Eco_Hack 2014, which included the structure The Forest Pavilion. This structure served as a multimedia gathering and performance space that also housed several interactive, immersive digital and data art installations.

This year, the team is back with Eco_Hack 2016. They are in the process of constructing Greenhouse Theater aboard the floating food-forest and art installation, Swale. This space, like The Forest Pavilion, will function as a central hub on the project and will also serve as the data center for the space collecting, visualizing, and projecting data gathered from the plants growing aboard.

I met with four of the members of the collective to talk about their upcoming project, data privacy, and how they’ve melded technology, activism, and art into their practices.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Continue reading “DataMatters Interview Series: Biome Arts”

High Tech Meets High Fashion

l1Ni1rE5At our visit from IBM Watson specialist Armen Pischdotchian last month, we learned about all the ways that cognitive computing was changing our world. And while Armen was pretty thorough in his workshop, we were still surprised to see Watson on the red carpet. But there it was, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual gala, in the form of a “cognitive dress” designed in partnership with Marchesa. The designers used  the technology to create a dress embedded with color-shifting LEDs that responded to followers emotions.

From Quartz:

Prior to the gala, Watson analyzed Marchesa’s social media to translate followers’ sentiments into colors. It turned emotions into information, and created a color palette for the LEDs from that analysis. In real-time during the gala, Watson processed the huge volume of tweets surrounding the event, and changed the color of the dress according to the emotions in them. Rose signified joy, coral meant passion, aqua was excitement, lavender denoted curiosity, and butter indicated encouragement.

The project, which IBM describes as “a partnership between man and machine” required Marchesa designers to feed hundreds of images to Watson; the technology responded with suggestions for design and color. In the past, Watson’s forays into fashion have mostly been on the back-end, helping brands like North Face and Melborne Fashion Week better serve the needs of their customers, so this shift to the design side of things marks an interesting shift.

We are constantly quantifying our days-our steps, our sleep patterns. To that end, this dress feels like a natural extension of that; another way to make sense of the flow of information that washes over us. Data has always been at its best when it’s telling a story, when it’s something more than charts and numbers, so the blend of data visualization, fashion, and emotion seems natural in a way. It’s another story to tell. I suppose that we can’t know right now just what story partnerships like this will be telling in the future.

Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938) for Miyake Design Studio (Japanese, founded 1970) "Flying Saucer" dress, spring/summer 1994 Courtesy of The Miyake Issey Foundation Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope
Issey Miyake (Japanese, born 1938) for Miyake Design Studio (Japanese, founded 1970)
“Flying Saucer” dress, spring/summer 1994
Courtesy of The Miyake Issey Foundation
Photo © Nicholas Alan Cope
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 02:  Karolina Kurkova attends the "Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology" Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 02: Karolina Kurkova attends the “Manus x Machina: Fashion In An Age Of Technology” Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 2, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Larry Busacca/Getty Images)