Let’s talk about true things

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Listen to the spoken audio version of this essay.

Somehow, between learning about sixteenth century France and shaking my head at politics on Twitter, I found myself reading very old printed ephemera thinking, these are basically the same thing.

I was supposed to be reading on Parisian typefounder Claude Garamond, but I found myself pulled into grand arcs of history. All around this man’s life were social, political, and theological movements like none that had come before. Movements that led to his ideas and letterforms becoming typographic norms that took over French printmaking during his life, and the rest of Europe shortly after. 1 The Fifteen hundreds was a period after the old feudalistic social orders had been up-heaved again and again. First from the Plague, with outbreaks killing a third of a population at a time, and then with the invention of moveable type — mechanizing communication. For the first time in millennia, land and food were cheap and a person’s labor was valuable. Newfound abundance freed people from the burdens of manual labor, who went on to begin entirely new industries and trades. All this while the printing press spread literacy and unlocked the silos of classical knowledge. 

Although it may not have been responsible for the powderkeg, the printing press played a crucial role in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. The printed word permitted written communication to take new forms, and it lit that match on the social order, and it presented innumerable challenges to the new social orders that it helped to realize. 

For the French people in particular, this increasing literacy, wider access to books, and French translations of scripture and classical texts meant that a people who had always lived under a theocracy were able to think for themselves. They were able to study the discrepancies between scriptures and doctrine, and with access to the wealth of classical philosophy, they had a path for questioning what is and what must be. At the center of this were the printers — who found themselves profoundly influenced by the ideas that ran through their presses. 

When the French Wars of Religion pushed out Humanists and Protestants, many of Garamond’s contemporaries fled France spreading the influence of Garamond’s (now ubiquitous) typographic ideas throughout Europe. 

This history fascinates me because it encapsulates so much of what is happening now:

The way that new media democratizes information is, by any standard, bizarre and fantastical. At any moment, we can access more information than could ever be read. Online, we can publish without needing to consider cost or labor. From the idealism of the early Web and the founding of opensource and copyleft communities, we now have a public that, through rampant piracy, is challenging the ideas of property and copyright. 

Social media has made it possible to forge communities between people from across the world and to reconnect with distant friends and family. And to suddenly realize some of those people are bigots. Okay, so it’s not all good. Anyone who has been trolled or gone into the comments section knows this.

Pamphlets, for their time, were a lot like this. They had their value, and the earliest forms of news came from them. They were also an extremely brief and disposable form of mass media that traded nuance for reactionary writing. Because they were often outlawed for their disruptive — even seditious — writing, pamphleteers had to do their work at night, printing and posting their messages for townsfolk to find in the morning. People had to learn to cope with and account for this medium and type of writing, for both the good and the bad that it can create. The thing for us to know is that it took over 200 years to get a handle on. 2 Today, if someone is on a street corner handing out pamphlets, posting flyers, or shouting in protest — whether we agree with them or not — we can say for certain that they have an agenda. We had to learn to qualify the information we receive this way, and how to apply skepticism to it and to attempt to understand a writer’s message, rhetoric, and bias. If that sounds silly, let me put it another way. Reading and listening are different; you get more from a voice than just the words. For a newly-literate public, the cues for misinformation were different than what their society prepared them for. It took a hundred years from printing press to the standards and ethics of the press. It took the slow cultivation of a public that desired to read on “matters of fact”, 3 of editors who understood how to be impartial, and of a government willing to abide a free press.

Today’s public may not agree on much, but I think everyone can agree that something is different about the problems facing us this decade compared to the issues with mass media and internet-based communication we have faced before. We have never been more connected and less informed. News feeds exhaust our attention with a rapid succession of shallow information, while push notifications, meant to keep us connected and up-to-the-minute, pester us continuously. The ability to be reached at a moment’s notice means that we are interrupted, always. 

Further still, social media has become a potent cocktail that exacerbates our worst tendencies by gamifying the spread of ideas. We’re inherently tribal, so signaling identity features prominently in social media and all the Likes, Upvotes, Retweets further entrench this mindset. Extreme views send the clearest signals and spread the furthest, correlating with more sharing and a longer life on social networks 4. When we reward each other for sharing morally and emotionally loaded messages, the most striking and impactful messages will promote authoritarian ideals. In a war over information and attention, vile and derisive wins every time 5. I believe that we have trained ourselves into an instinctual, heuristic mode of thinking which, after ten years of prolific smartphone use, is having repercussions well beyond the confines of devices and networks. Because we, as cultures and societies, do not yet understand the limits of these channels, how to optimize information for them, or how to qualify the information there. 

And, I wonder: how long will it take for us to have a healthy relationship with electronic mass media or with everything a smartphone can do? Because of an upheaval to the way that we find, select, and interact with media, the landscape of new media is fundamentally different than what society is preparing us to deal with. News doesn’t come passively anymore so we are forgetting to inform ourselves, and we are missing the cues that would otherwise prompt us to think critically about information and its sources. There may be some lesson we can take from earlier eras, but for all the personal value that I have gained from this history, a roadmap is unlikely. 

  • [1] Haley, “Claude Garamond.”
  • [2] Andrews, The History of British Journalism.
  • [3] Andrews; Barker, “The Newspaper Press of England: Its Origin and Growth”; Hunt, Massey, M.P., and Blakey, “The Newspaper Press”; Ward and Ward, The Invention of Journalism Ethics.
  • [4] Brady et al., “Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks,” 7315.
  • [5] See Vox 2018, “Why every social media site is a dumpster fire.”
Literature reviewed
  • Andrews, Alexander. The History of British Journalism: From the Foundation of the Newspaper Press in England, to the Repeal of the Stamp Act in 1855. Vol. 1. 2 vols. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1859. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/uc1.c024315313.
  • Barker, Johnson. “The Newspaper Press of England: Its Origin and Growth.” Edited by Henry Pitman. Pitman’s Popular Lecturer and Reader 1, no. 10 (October 1863).
  • Brady, William J., Julian A. Wills, John T. Jost, Joshua A. Tucker, and Jay J. Van Bavel. “Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114, no. 28 (July 11, 2017): 7313 – 18. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1618923114.
  • Camaj, Lindita, and Arthur D. Santana. “Political Deliberation on Facebook during Electoral Campaigns: Exploring the Relevance of Moderator’s Technical Role and Political Ideology.” Journal of Information Technology & Politics 12, no. 4 (October 2, 2015): 325 – 41. https://doi.org/10.1080/19331681.2015.1100224.
  • Haley, Allan. “Claude Garamond.” In Typographic Milestones, 25 – 30. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1992.
  • Hunt, F. K., W. Massey, M.P., and R. Blakey. “The Newspaper Press.” In The Edinburgh Review. A. and C. Black, 1855.
  • Lin, C. A. “The Effects of the Internet.” In Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research, edited by Jennings Bryant and Mary Beth Oliver, 3rd ed., 567 – 91. Communication Series. Communication Theory and Methodology. New York: Routledge, 2009.
  • Stoycheff, Elizabeth. “Under Surveillance: Examining Facebook’s Spiral of Silence Effects in the Wake of NSA Internet Monitoring.” Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 93, no. 2 (June 2016): 296 – 311. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699016630255.
  • Vox. Why Every Social Media Site Is a Dumpster Fire, 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZSRxfHMr5s.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A. “Journalism Ethics.” In The Handbook of Journalism Studies, edited by Karin Wahl-Jorgensen and Thomas Hanitzsch, 295 – 310. New York, NY: Routledge, 2009. https://www.supportuw.org/wp-content/uploads/wwa_2010_ward_journalism.pdf.
  • Ward, Stephen J. A., and Stephen Ward. The Invention of Journalism Ethics, Second Edition: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond. Montreal, CANADA: MQUP, 2015. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/uh/detail.action?docID=4396130.
  • Yang, Fan, and Fuyuan Shen. “Effects of Web Interactivity: A Meta-Analysis.” Communication Research 45, no. 5 (July 2018): 635 – 58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650217700748.

Artifacts of Interaction: design research proposals


Meme me

A cultural commentary realized through interaction, and one designed around the framework of an entertainment experience.

Memes, in the form of captions on a select handful of images, are an inherently participatory phenomena. A user selects from a handful of images with strong cultural connotations and then expresses, through that meme’s archetype, their thoughts and anecdotes.

The term also describes wider forms of Internet-based subculture. Some that are scripted and repeatable, or emergent and absurd. But all memes are an expression of old behaviors in a different cultural context.

Why collect a wall of memes?

First because memes matter (see Luckett and Dennett). They are often very short lived, and so any collection of them would become a snapshot of an almost exact moment in history. Next, because memes, if not largely enjoyable, are at least infectious. Meme was a term originally coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene to describe thoughts that are able to self-propagate through a population and which are also honed by that population into more “virulent” forms.

Harambe memes are an example of this, and they dominated 2016. Once disassociated from the tragic events in Cincinnati, the word itself became a means for discussing race relations and the popular media, as well as an explosively infectious and inherently meaningless form of meta-humor­ — laughter because people won’t stop laughing.

This is the key part in the belief that such an installation could be successful. Happenstance alone cannot ensure a meaningful level of participation. In order to research design in environmental and participatory installations, participants must be willing and gain some value from it. With Meme Me, the enjoyment comes from the absurdity.

Meme Me is designed to be a novel, absurd, and sharable experience.

This is done in light of the goals of the project and the constraints and considerations of the site.

First, the installation collects graffiti. It is this interaction that houses the design experiments and challenges. The immediate hurdle for any interactive site is getting people interested at all, but the next are directing those interactions and accounting for bad behavior.“Meme Me” takes those bad behaviors on the nose. It is presented as an art installation in order to disguise its utility as design research to uncover the ways participants might subvert, spoil, or diminish such interactions. And asking people to graffiti memes is, unquestionably, a provocation — there are ones for hate speech, like “Hitler did nothing wrong” and “Pepe,” and their use ranges from absurd, dark humor to genuine expressions of hateful bigotry.

Study tips

An installation about sharing, taking, and leaving your mark.

​Study Tips” combines a bulletin board concept with constructive disassembly as an interactive component.

The installation encourages the public to take pieces, move others around, and leave behind messages. In this, is the design experiment and part social experience. The notion being tested is if such artifacts will influence further participation.

Popular distributions demonstrate a trend in human behavior, where success is heavily influenced by the reactions of other people. This study would look into how “seeding” influences participation rates.

Constructive disassembly and artifacts of interaction

The interactions in this plan give students an opportunity to share advice and ideas — and a chance to observe if and how participants voice humor or cynicism. This last point is important, because, as with the Meme Me installation, it requires significant forethought to mitigate trolling and undesired outcomes.

Since the installation would be in place throughout the last month of the semester, while students are preparing for exams and finals, it presents a timely opportunity to talk about studying. Good working and studying habits are often unintuitive, such as the advice that shorter studying sessions with more time between them increases memory retention. They can also be novel and incredibly personalized, and these tips are the true goal of such a collection.

Here, a passerby is prompted to remove a pencil which leaves behind the loose string holding it. They then write a piece of study advice on the provided paper, and finally to hang the paper at the end of the wall. The loose string and written notes become the artifacts of those interactions, and further invite participation with the site.

Noise, sensory toys, and ADHD

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What is the nature of noise? Is it the murmur of twenty people talking, the roar of a hundred cars, the hum of a thousand air conditioners?

Is it an annoyance; a distraction? An unidentified squeak, an overheard phone call, a flash of movement outside the window? Noise is everywhere, and for someone with ADHD, distraction is an ever-present obstacle.

These questions are born out of a design evaluation of headphones. Their form, their use, the experience of buying and using them, and the role they serve in my life.

I am quite attached to my headphones — and they are nearly always attached to me. But, it may be interesting to note that I rarely, if ever, listen to music. I listen to podcasts, a habit which came out of a difficult transition in my early career, when the workload of several publications was consolidated into my responsibilities. With multiple, overlapping and conflicting deadlines, I could not afford to become distracted, and in trying to navigate that problem I found that listening to podcasts allowed me to stay focused and entertained while doing tedious work.

I used to think of my headphone use as a habituated, anti-social behavior, but in studying the function that they serve for me, I saw, as Paul Bennett puts it, “the blinding glimpse of the bleedingly obvious” that they are a productivity tool. This led me to researching attention and distraction, then ADHD coping mechanisms and cognitive behavior therapy, and finally the therapeutic function of fidgeting and sensory toys.

Current understandings of ADHD model it as a deficit in the neurotransmitter, dopamine, and an under-stimulated brain will seek out immediate stimulation while the person’s higher-functions are fairly helpless to intervene. Exerting will-power to stay on task doesn’t stimulate like the squirrel outside the window, so even with the ADHDer in their own driver’s seat, they are left to drift out-of-fuel and dozing at the wheel.

But the squirrel isn’t the answer either. Squirrels are never the answer! (Sorry, Mr. Squirrel.) While distraction is a loud impediment to focusing attention, it is not actually noise and that is the problem.

White noise and ambient sounds are not distracting because they have no content while drowning out the signals that do. Instead of an impediment, true noise is a loud nothingness which fades into the background.

But it also occupies a sense, and this is its true value. It puts parts of the brain not needed for higher cognition to work and floods the brain with dopamine!

In 2015 a school in Pasadena, Texas was facing a test-score crisis. Third and fourth graders at Turner Elementary were failing in huge numbers. While it concerned everyone, it surprised no one. These kids were picked out as an unusually hyperactive group every year since kindergarten. But with the start of the 2016-17 school year, Turner Elementary started using standing desks, balance boards, and foot pedals to engage the students with a physical activity while learning in a classroom. And the results have been tremendous. Other school districts which have used “fidget furniture” have seen higher grades and greater engagement from students. One school told the Houston Chronicle they had seen an improvement for 50 percentage points in math scores since adopting physical activity and fidgeting aids into the classroom in 2014.

Inspired by my research, “My Whole Life” is a design project telling a person’s experiences with ADHD through expressive typography and his own words.

Just Let Them Fidget” is a new idea in education, but some preliminary studies back the idea.

Fidgeting, it is thought, aids learning because stimulating the motor cortex and moving around releases epinephrin and dopamine. In fact, ADHD children are naturally fidgety. So much so that it is a diagnostic criteria of the disorder. The authors of the 2016 study suggest that fidgeting is a learned behavior for coping with the disorder’s symptoms.

And just like listening to white noise, fidgeting occupies a sense or portion of the brain with a mindless task. The extra activity in the brain allows the person to stay attentive while reducing the potential for external and internal distractions.

Because the difference between ADHD sufferers and a neuro-typical person is the frequency and intensity of problems everyone has, I can derive broader conclusions from investigating ADHD. And as a designer, investigating the ways that people fidget, self-soothe, or cope with sensory issues provides valuable insight into the ways senses can be engaged in other applications to a desired effect. Things like leading people through a composition or a space, attracting attention without overwhelming, and imbuing design work with elements that reinforce or make natural the desired outcomes.

In my design work, these have manifested as an interest in wayfinding and directing action, as attempts to combine type and image into succinct — not redundant — meanings, and as a profound, if also obsessive, understanding of noise and texture.