I am not an algorithm

One has to be careful with words like “algorithm.” A term once used mostly by mathematicians is now common parlance; people worldwide are aware that Facebook, for example, uses an algorithm to serve up content from our friends and families every day. An algorithm might be the reason you see a particular ad based on your demographics and online habits. But the word is becoming overused to signal anything that has to do with technology, and I also fear I’ve been using it out of bitterness lately.

Most recently, you see, algorithms came to my mind because I had the distinct sense I was being called upon to be one.

Algorithm (n): a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer.

In a marketing role, I followed sets of rules to make sure goals were achieved: business rules that governed which bits of data to keep and which to discard so the database could be kept clean; innate common-sense rules to target precisely the right people for laser-focused email campaigns.

While working quickly with a low margin for error, I sometimes felt like the process itself rather than a human carrying out the process. The goal was to execute this flawlessly, like a search engine returning just the right answer to a query. My comfort zone was stretched and my reasoning abilities challenged – both good things – but my pesky humanity got in the way of the level of exactness that was required.

It turns out that canvassing for Jim Johnson, the candidate who spoke to me the most in the New Jersey primary election, was a way to get both near and far enough from the professional setback to make sense of it. 

The actions involved weren’t very different than sorting through a list of leads in order to categorize them, although there was a wonderful hamstring-stretching walk in between addresses. A clearly established set of rules determined what I marked on the canvass packet: not home, refused, undecided, or supporting [candidate]. 

Maybe a program could do something like this, but as a person, I was able to address the concerns of a woman who said she might be able to volunteer but had recently broken her foot (phone banking only, please); a man who said he wouldn’t be voting for anyone because his friends were hiding from deportation and no one was helping, someone who needed to be told where to see a recording of the latest debate.

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I could notice the local color of a block – the stickers showing support for a police or teacher’s union, or, in a more frivolous sense, the paintings on mailboxes or pocket gardens lining the streets on a sizzling day in May. Not all these interstitials led to greater insight, but I think they helped broaden the picture.

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Technology is something I love, but my right brain continually runs up against the hard wall of its the need for exactness, its low tolerance for errors. Even my left brain craves more structure when it comes to the way I am trained. I think both sides would be happy if I were in a supportive, communal space where ideas could be tested and there was reassurance that a mistake was just a step toward greater discovery.

I’m still searching for this place. 

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Never forget

It was autumn, but the air still pulsated with the strange warmth of an extended summer. It was 2001. My mother called me into her room with a tone in which I had never heard her speak. It was dim in the room, where months earlier I spent listless hours looking out the window at neighbors’ clotheslines, wondering what the future would mean.

Her tone was somewhere between bereavement and business meeting, and I straightened my shoulders in response to its unmistakable conferral of adulthood.

The United States was about to go to war. Later that evening I might see bombings on TV, and it was important to be aware of the situation and all that it meant.

Although in the years to come we had different opinions about the war in Afghanistan, and later Iraq, the space of time in which my mother briefed me on the defining international conflict of my time is underlined in red in my memory. She pulled out William Strauss and Neil Howe’s The Fourth Turning. Like someone having their astrological chart read, I learned of my place in a rising generation, one that would have to fight a “Total War.” Did that mean the enemy would be an unquestionable evil? Did that mean the lines would not be clear and the end would not be definitive? Well, I don’t remember what the book said, but the idea took root in my head and now it has resurfaced.

It was autumn and there was a red tree that stood in stark relief to a picture-perfect blue sky. I was married and in graduate school after working as a journalist. Yet, I still couldn’t afford to be far from my origins. This generation, to say the least, did not have the easiest coming of age.

We slept in, and then I assembled a pantsuit out of coordinating separates in the excitement of voting for Hillary Clinton. Prosperous businesslady: the ultimate cosplay. Snark aside, I deeply and sincerely supported Hillary, this election had been the most important to me, personally, and all signs pointed to her triumph. Why not shimmy in a pantsuit?

Once it got dark, anxiety spiked. At the home of good friends, we started our dinner to the remark that it felt like the last meal before a war. The numbers were too close, and although I still believed Hillary would prevail, it was hard to ignore the unease. Expected red states formed a bleeding gash across the electoral map.

Four hours later we were staving away panic attacks, holding back and releasing tears, feeling a physical sickness. The sensation is akin to what Richard Wright’s Bigger said in Native Son about white people taking up residence in his stomach.

“Every time I think of ’em, I  feel ’em … It’s like fire. And sometimes I can’t hardly breathe.”

I’ve lived through some hard nights, but none like the night of November 8, 2016: reeling from a fast-acting dose of the fear the suppressed live with on a daily basis, in disbelief that this adamantine yet emotional woman who was the bedrock of my hopes for the past year had her dream shattered and, when those emotions ebbed for bits at a time, realizing what it all meant for the future of democracy. My husband slept fitfully but I couldn’t sleep at all.

A black square icon flashed on my screen with words I will never forget:

We lost

But it’s not over

It’s never over

Win or lose

The next day was an overwritten caricature of a Very Bad Day. We walked together and sat together, compared our reactions, and from the depths of our brokenness, offered the support we could.

Almost a week later, the emotions are still raw. The most horrifying developments coexist with the deepest compassion, the most energized dissent and the most cathartic art. I feel similar to the way I did in 2001, and I believe that our true Total War is against the enemy within.

It’s against hatred and dehumanization of immigrants. Refugees. Black people. LBGT people. People with disabilities. Women, especially black and trans women. There is no more use of euphemisms, for first drafts of our criticisms. White supremacists don’t do subtle.

We are determined not to normalize Donald Trump. Or Mike Pence. Or – and I can’t believe I am typing this – Steve Bannon.

In the coming days even those who resist the administration will disagree. And we must fight the risk of becoming jaded, of losing the spirit that powers the resistance in these early days.

The resistance will be hard. But we have to fight.

 

 

 

 

What does the design of a smartphone assume?

Hooray for classes that get you to produce blog content.

As noted in the last post, I’m still a bit blog-blocked, but I’m also back in school. This means more Media Studies work and technology observations! Here is a post I wrote for a class on Interaction Design. We’re reading Janet Murray’s “Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice,” and she has exercises to get the wheels turning, like this one.

Choose a digital or mechanical artifact you use regularly and identify the cultural values that have shaped it. Does the design incorporate assumptions about privacy, space, leisure time, or other aspects of life that might vary across societies or groups? Does the artifact include features that reflect historical values, such as stricter gender roles? What activities does the artifact assume to be the most valuable? What related activities does it ignore or support less completely? How would the design be different if it came from a different cultural context?

Believe it or not, both of these were considered mid-range smartphones at one point.
Believe it or not, both of these were considered mid-range smartphones at one point.

Since I spend most of every day within arm’s reach of a smartphone, its features often feel unnoticeable or “transparent.” It is only when I’m having technical difficulties or need to replace my phone that I am forced to appreciate just how much it has transformed my everyday rituals. This design exploration helped reveal underlying assumptions behind the device.

The traditional function of a phone – making calls – is available but not encouraged by the smartphone’s design. One of the most striking features is how the front of the phone is entirely taken over by a screen used for web browsing and interacting with the content in various apps.

Calling and texting is de-prioritized by this physical setup. The screen will display a touchpad when I select the phone feature, but this only happens when I have the clear intent of making a call. Normally the touchpad is hidden, leaving an open canvas punctuated only by the icons that can be tapped to open apps. A keyboard can be brought up on the screen when I am messaging someone, but it is also a vehicle to type when tweeting or writing a caption for a photo on Instagram.

While these elements downplay some traditional “telephone” functions, it appears that legacy conventions are still valued by the design. The central button on the home screen brings me to a screen where I can make calls and search through contacts. Although the makers of the phone realized a typical user might not spend much time with the phone making calls, they valued the human connection element enough to make this one of the central default icons.

Assumptions about privacy, space, leisure time, etc

The device assumes that privacy is important, but leaves it to individual interactors to set privacy levels or educate themselves about security risks. A passcode, which can be alphanumeric or gestural, locks the phone, but the interactor must first create and store the code. The device itself does not prompt this action, although it is conventionally known to be a good practice. Once a code is set the phone can be locked with the touch of a button, and it automatically locks after a certain amount of idle time.

Privacy guidelines are even more murky in other situations. When in range of wifi networks the phone encourages the user to connect, but there is no warning dialog about the known security issues with wifi hotspots.

A smartphone is also designed with built-in assumptions about space and leisure time. The 4.7-inch screen on my phone is small enough to fit in my hand or be tucked into a large pocket. Its makers assumed that portability is essential, but that the user would tolerate more size than the phone’s forerunners had in order to use the screen. The screen was advertised as having a “self-healing” quality, and important parts of owning a smartphone include buying a case and having a protection plan. These details show that smartphones are build with the assumption that they will be brought with the user through their daily life, and will likely get damaged.

Although many of the apps can be scrolled through at a leisurely pace and I can document a vacation, play games or listen to music on the phone, I don’t conclude that it was build for a consumer with an excess of leisure time. Because of fast download speeds and the ease of scrolling through timelines on social media apps, the phone supports activities that are done in short bursts of time. Smartphones make email always accessible and the default notification noises sometimes work to prevent the interactor from “zoning out” or “unplugging.”

How the design would be different if it came from a different cultural context

The features of a smartphone which encourage constant use fit in with social trends in America, but might look different if phones were designed for various cultures. “For many Americans, cellphones are always present and rarely turned off,” according to a recent Pew Research study. Guidelines and protocols around acceptable times for cell phone use are still developing, but Mobile Research Intelligence, a Seattle-based research group that tracks and measures consumer use, found that Americans spend an average of 4.7 hours a day on their smartphones. The same group found that “Phoners in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico spend the least amount of time on their device – about two hours a day.”

In cultures which do not value or encourage constant mobile phone use, there could be more flexibility in the design with less pressure to make phones indestructible. In a culture which values leisure time and a slower pace of life, the phone might be larger and support tasks that require concentration such as writing, elaborate games or art, rather than quickly loading apps which help “kill time” or can be accessed quickly. Whole new habits and rituals might develop around using the phone less throughout the day, or as a meditative artifact rather than an “on the go” device.

Smartphone design also assumes access to electric outlets in which to charge batteries. In areas where power is scarce or cultures which value energy conservation, more development might be devoted to making solar powered smartphones or rechargeable batteries. Habits and rituals might develop around shared chargers or proper battery care that do not exist in a culture in which phones can be easily plugged in to recharge. If the culture was more attuned to communal well-being than individual responsibility, the individual user might not have to work as hard at securing their phone. Public wifi networks might be either be designed to be safer, or the phone itself might advise the user of security risks.

I’m sure I missed something in there. What else stands out about smartphones (or any other piece of technology) when you step back from daily use and think more deeply?

Deep summer + what to expect

I was full of steam and energy when I started the WordPress Blogging 101 course. The closed community for course members, and the free resources for everyone on The Daily Post had me inspired, excited and (not going to lie) reading blogs until 3 a.m. on the regular.

But during the second week of the course, I was on a mini-anniversary-vacation. Beach! Date! Local winery (unfortunately not Instagrammed because the sun was in my eyes as we strolled through the vines and met another couple with the same anniversary)! I was unplugged and in a mental place far removed from blogging.

I also had a health issue and saw an ENT for the first time. It was a minor issue, but I think I have medical trauma, or medical things bring out my trauma, so that took up a ton of headspace.

Also, I’m in a pretty important wedding party and planning has kicked into full gear.

The result of all that is that I have done nothing for my baby blog since the last post, and I’m struggling to gain motivation.

DeepSummer

It’s deep summer, in a year where my summer is not confined by the limits of an office. The crisp, contained academic year is like the shore I can’t see from a boat that has been flung out into untrammeled waterspace. Emotions, not facts, have crowded my mind. Words are rafts that are hard to hold onto, and I miss the faces and interests from which I feel adrift. Other nautical metaphors.

Despite this gulf, I’m sure I’ll catch up. All the lessons are voluntary, anyway, and I still have the emails.

Coming to this blog in the hopefully-near future:

– A new and improved About page

– An updated header, taking into account the wonderful feedback other bloggers left on my current design choice

– Blog posts based on prompts and challenges

– Some writing on symbols and why they matter. To get started on that thread, peep these links:

How We Changed The Facebook Friends Icon” – Caitlin Winner

“As a woman, educated at a women’s college, it was hard not to read into the symbolism of the current icon; the woman was quite literally in the shadow of the man, she was not in a position to lean in.”

GLAAD on tumblr: “Munich and Vienna have installed traffic and crosswalk signals that depict loving LGBT couples for this weekend to celebrate Pride!”

Connecting the dots? Deeper thinking? That will hopefully happen some day soon. For now, enjoy the loosely scattered thoughts, like sunflower petals strewn across a path on a 90-degree mid-July day.

The first step in design education no one will tell you about

When you’re a beginning or self-taught graphic designer, it’s only natural to do a Google search for advice. The Internet is full of tutorials that will tell you how to make a sick tattoo design, apply effects so button graphics look shiny, and lead you through the process of re-touching your glamor shots.

If you ask Google what for first steps in becoming a designer, they might take you to this list of beginner Photoshop tutorials, which does seem legit.

But those tutorials will only tell you how to master the technical elements of Photoshop. It’s kind of like being in the social media world and learning how to craft the perfect, shareable Facebook post… according to Facebook’s algorithm. Once that algorithm changes, your post will be invisible unless the qualities that make it shareable are, in a sense, timeless.

Good design is not based on knowing how to work a program like Photoshop. Although it’s important to be familiar with the the tools and master them, there’s a first step that will provide a better foundation. And it’s not very “graphic.”

Paper before screens

This is going to sound old-fashioned, cheesy and elementary, but the best first step is to pay attention to the design around you. Magazine ads, billboards, logos you see in your everyday life. How do they make you feel, and why do they make you feel that way? Is it the colors, the way the lines lead your eye to a certain point, the shapes in relation to each other? Maybe take pictures of designs that especially grab your focus.

Most likely, what you remember stands out because of one or more of the Gestalt Principles of Design. A group of German psychologists came up with these principles in the 1920s to describe their theory of how visual perception works. People respond to elements like repetition, similarity or continuing paths, which simplify and unite visual compositions. Smashing Magazine and Creative Bloq have good roundups of the principles.

Next, before you worry too much about how to reflect these principles in Photoshop or other image editing programs, take to paper. Use whatever you have and noodle around with free sketching and coloring. Try to come up with something that’s soothing or exciting to you. Work with whatever media you prefer, and don’t worry about feeling self conscious. I’m 30 and do this with pens and crayons,* so…

Here are some examples of my process, during a routine time I like to call #analogevenings.

Not only does it help me figure out what works in design, it is a great stress reliever. I do it while watching Netflix, as a respite from a day spent looking directly at computer screens (including tutorials).

Of course, this method may not work for you and that is perfectly fine, but if it does I would love to hear about it, and to have more people using the #analogevenings tag to make it a bit of a trend. Because as we all know, once there’s a hasthag for something, it’s official – #hasthagoritdidnthappen. (Kidding, mostly.)

*Also: adult coloring books are a thing now!