The Adventures of Teen Bloggers

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For my thesis project at ITP, I built The Adventures of Teen Bloggers, a creative-nonfiction graphic adventure that lets you become a real teen blogger from the heyday of LiveJournal.

With the project, I want to highlight the tension between the value our online data has as historical documents and the embarrassment we feel about the things we shared in a prior phase of our lives.

Upon starting the game, players are asked to pick a LiveJournal account. Any extant LiveJournal is a playable character in the game, though I encourage players to play with their own account if they had one. Players are then placed in a high school hallway, where they must navigate the world only saying things that their selected LiveJournal user wrote on their blog.

The game is a work in progress as I continue to research online archiving. Specific next steps are outlined on Github; the source code for the project is there as well. You can play the game here.

Below is the presentation I gave on the project during ITP’s Thesis Week.

Soil as Medium Final Project Proposal: Compost Pile Composter

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My first idea for a final project was to take the “fake compost fake rock” from my midterm project and make it real. After a little more thought, I decided that I wanted to deal with the action of composting more directly. Getting people to cover up unsightly pipes in their yards with an equally unsightly fake pile of compost is funny, but I’d like to work on something that is ultimately productive.

As a variation on the theme of things-that-look-other-versions-of-themselves (I associate such items with museum gift stores), I’m going to modify an indoor compost bin to look like an outdoor compost pile. In ReNatured we frequently talked about the frustrating idea that “nature” is something separate from the streets, sidewalks, parks and empty lots that form our urban environment. I hope that this project will help to break down that divide. (And I’ve also been meaning to start composting in my apartment, so this solves that problem too!)

My intended audience for this project are those whose vision of good design means clean, expensive and high-polish. By playing around functionally (but not formally) in the museum-gift-store-product vernacular I want to show first that the appearance of a compost pile is nothing to be afraid of and second that it’s mostly a non-issue with a worm bin anyway.

My materials will be the Worm Factory composting kit and custom-printed vinyl stickers that I will cut and apply to the Worm Factory. I’ve ordered the worm kit, so the remaining weeks will involve designing the stickers and then printing, cutting and applying them to the worm bin. Tangentially related will be my own use of the worm bin, which I hope to get set up once it arrives.

Thesis Project Progress

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything about my thesis project here, and as ITP theses are wont to do, it has evolved quite a bit. I’ll post more details in due course but I wanted to post some screenshots of what I’ve been busy with.

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Soil as Medium: Midterm

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We had a quick midterm for Soil as Medium, for which the assignment was to make a speculative design piece dealing with some of the issues we’ve covered so far in the class. Between this class and the Fungus Among Us, I’ve been thinking about how I can acknowledge the complexities of the many interacting systems that we humans would prefer to simplify.

I am reminded of the perennial favorite SkyMall, purveyors of everything from PajamaJeans to a combo smartphone charger/UV-sanitizer. SkyMall commoditizes our dreams of the Good Life in most high-end fashion, sparing no modern problem from the simplifying power of technology. Lawncare is, of course, one of those modern problems, but one in which oversimplification of the problem has proved harmful enough to disturb a refined yet delicate system.

For my midterm assignment, I’ve redesigned four SkyMall home and garden offerings to be a little more aware of the complexities of soil science. All images can be enlarged by clicking.

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Fungus Among Us: Final Project Progress

Like the bionts of a lichen (except on a much different timescale), my final project for Fungus class is evolving. Specifically, I’ve changed my mind on how I want to include humans in the Big Lichen Picture. Instead of incorporating humans literally and visualizing the human-fungal symbiosis, I’ve decided to take the eight perspectives laid out in Trevor Goward’s Re-emergence essay and present them as human-relatable analogies.

I’ve found that in my capacity as a temporary theoretical lichenologist, philosophical thought seems a lot less intimidating than usual. By examining the lichen from eight different perspectives, I think we can also shed some light on how to view ourselves and our relationship with the systems that compose our existence. My final project has thus become a series of posters that transpose Trevor’s eight lichen perspectives. I’ll extrapolate on this in my final presentation, but for now, here is some work-in-progress:

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Humungi

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Last weekend, Mike and I spoke with Derek Woods, a theoretical lichenologist. We discussed how the academic field of biology is not currently designed to answer the basic biological question “what is lichen?” and how theoretical lichenology approaches the question. Our conversation gave me a lot of material to draw from in forming my final project.

To elucidate the various possible ways to perceive lichen (as laid out in Trevor Goward’s [Derek’s mentor/collaborator] “Re-emergence” essay), I want to replace the lichen’s photobiont with humans and imagine the “humungi,” a symbiosis of humans and fungi. Lichens exhibit properties that neither the fungi nor the algae/cyanobacteria exhibit on their own, such as an extended lifespan and the ability to thrive in unfavorable environments. What might humans be capable of if we fully submit to fungal symbiosis?

Elements and Components:

  • Lichen: Fungus and algae/cyanobacteria
  • Human fungal pathogens
  • Biological systems
  • Philosophy
  • Fine Art

Interactions and Actions:

  • Infection
  • Amplification
  • Symbiosis

Mechanism:

  • Drawing
  • Sculpture, 3D printing

Thesis Progress: Building a Chatbot a Day

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My thesis project continues to evolve as I explore the world of online adolescence. I rewrote my thesis proposal statement, originally posted here, to better address the “big ideas” I want to address. Here it is:

It can be uncomfortable to revisit adolescent journals, now knowing that they were often nothing more than vapid rants. However, they served a purpose: to establish a sense of self and to define the author’s identity both to him/herself and – in an online world – to the public. The public nature of blogging sites old and new help to reinforce this. Furthermore, it enables us, as adults, to recall this transitional adolescent identity in a way that previous generations have not. What does it mean that I can pull up 14-year-old Sam with only a few clicks? That, as a child of the internet era, I am never far from an earlier version of myself?

Sarah suggested I use people’s old online journals to allow them to talk to their adolescent selves, so now I’ve started to explore chatbots. Chatbots have been around for decades, from ELIZA in 1966 to the chatbot that I think most of my peers would remember from their adolescence: SmarterChild. With the ultimate goal of using the corpus of old blog entries to enable a conversation with your prior online self, I’m now building “a chatbot a day” to give me a feel for the capabilities of chatbots and how people want to interact with them. You can talk to my chatbots here.

Sam’s Amazing List, a Thesis Project Proposal

Sam’s Amazing List is a web-based essay that, through expositions, interviews, videos and photographs, revisits and responds to an online journal I kept at age 14.Using web standards (HTML, CSS & JS), I will create an immersive online personal essay that uses archived websites, video, audio and other media (produced by me) to explore the role of the internet in adolescence through the lens of the original Sam’s Amazing List, a website I maintained on Geocities during my freshman year of high school.

The form of the story will use web tools old and new. I will conduct interviews with old friends. Readers will be able to log in to their old accounts on bygone websites in situ so our internet histories are entwined. I will create vignettes relating to people, places and events noted on the original Sam’s Amazing List and incorporate them into the essay. Ultimately, the essay will be presented as a single-page immersive web experience that embraces the internet as both subject and object.

In recent weeks, I’ve been researching topics relevant to this project:

  1. Analysis of the adolescent psyche, specifically the “imaginary audience” / “personal fable” theories and research specific to web-based self-expression in adolescence.
  2. Looking at internet history by conversing with peers about experiences on the web and performing exercises in which I document my initial reactions to my old websites.
  3. Exploring and prototyping new forms of online storytelling with sites like MetaFilter and tools like TouchCast as inspiration for ways to present rich annotation. I’ve also built prototypes to that end.

I’ll be posting updates here as I enter the production phase of the project.

Focusing In on Fungi

For Fungus Among Us, I’ve focused my research to lichen. Two aspects of lichen I find interesting are:

  • They are a composite organism, a fungus and a photosynthesizer (algae or cyanobacteria) living together as one. In Mycelium Running, Paul Stamets says “after hundreds of millions of years of evolution, fungal alliances have become part of nature’s body politic. It is time for our species to partake in this ancient mycological wisdom.” What does lichen look like if we substitute the photosynthesizer with a human? Could anything be gained from a living as massive colony of humans and fungi, each dependent on the other?
  • Lichen grows incredibly slowly. Lichenometry is the use of lichen to date exposed rock. This chart (source) says that 3cm of lichen grown on the Colorado Front Range implies a rock that has been exposed for about 500 years. What strategies can I employ to capture the beauty of lichen in a garden if I might not live to see it realized?

I’ve found a few lichenologists online that I will reach out to. I just need to figure out what to ask them! Mike and I have also decided to team up on this part of our research.