Design Thinking Workshop – Group Notes

How might we foster an ecosystem of neighborhood-based online groups to promote connections and solidarity?

In times when mutual aid networks at the local level are necessary to survive a global pandemic, it is time to reclaim local online networking spaces from the racist vigilanteism enabled on certain security-focused applications.

Our group (Jack, Karyn, Lily, Mariel) discussed ways to make this happen, and, thanks to Karyn’s good eye on Zoom, we discovered we could use the whiteboard feature. Here are our low-fi Post It notes(?)

Twitter exposure data

For my media diary, I built a Chrome extension that scrapes the DOM for every tweet in my newsfeed, and ingests them into a growing dataset.

Parsing the DOM was challenging, because Twitter has intentionally made it very difficult for people to access and control their own timelines. Class and ID names are encrypted, and there is a hairball of nested <div> and <span> tags.

Nevertheless, I was able to extract 1) the screen_name of who posted the tweet, 2) if the tweet was promoted, 3) the domain and url of the link in the tweet if it had one, and 4) a rough approximation of the tweet text.

Unfortunately, due to some database problems, I was only able to scrape 357 unique tweets over the course of the week. Of these, 15.2% where ads.

To start, I did some exploratory word clouds of the words used in those tweets:

A word cloud of the text body of the tweets I was exposed to

And then moved on to look at only the promoted tweets

A word cloud of the text body of the promoted tweets I was exposed to

Next, I looked at the top accounts I was exposed to

The top twitter accounts I was exposed to

Mostly academics, which makes sense given how I use Twitter.

The top brands (promoted accounts) I was exposed to.

Mostly sparkling water? This was very puzzling to me.

Finally, I looked at all the domains from links I was exposed to

The domains most linked to in tweets I was exposed to.

These mostly correspond to media platforms and news channels.

Overall, I was surprised how unsophisticated the ads I was exposed to where. Only on account, Explorium_AI, seemed to personalize an ad to my profile. The rest seem very generic.

Other than the ads which are bizarre, the rest of the content I encountered makes lots of sense given the accounts I follow and media I enjoy to consume.

Now that I’ve got the pipeline set up, I’m excited to keep the experiment running and update this periodically with that I’ve discovered.

Cynthia’s Data Diary – Sunday 2/23

Phone:

  • Health data — steps taken, miles walked, flights of stairs taken
  • Map data — GPS location
  • Photos — photo of several flowers, a few dogs, screenshots of a few articles I read
  • Browser — Read the news (NYT, Slate, Nymag, New Yorker), browsed Twitter newsfeeds, liked a number of Tweets, browsed Instagram (mostly dog videos)
  • Texts — text conversations I had with a few friends where I sent them the screenshots I took from a few news articles
  • Messaging apps — Sent messages on FB Messenger, WeChat, Signal
  • Overall — Roaming data, connected to home wifi and used 4G, battery life data

Laptop

  • Microsoft Word — Wrote a few lines of a poem
  • Browser — purchased a pillow on Amazon

iPad

  • Watched a few episodes of show on Hulu

Transportation

  • Swiped bus pass twice

Services

  • Swiped in at the YMCA gym
  • Entered library but did not swipe library card (but not sure if presence was recorded in some other way?)

Purchasing

  • Swiped QR code at Whole Foods for Amazon membership, pretty sure all my motions are recorded the moment I step into a Whole Foods
  • Credit card data — CVS visit, Whole Foods visit, online Amazon purchase

Appliances

  • Smart fridge — I don’t think our fridge has Internet connectivity but it does record things such as the amount of ice left and when the filter needs to be replaced

The chronology of the phoneless

In 2020, the screens in our pockets serve many roles in parallel. They are our mailboxes, our cameras, our lifelines. For these important functions, and plentitude more, they have become inseparable from us – a necessity for modern life. Yet when I went without my own for 24 hours I found myself not missing these critical functionalities. For in addition to serving the functional roles of organizing and processing the social information around us, our screens act as cartographic beacons, helping us navigate the temporal and spatial eddies of life.  Our screens are timekeepers, calenders and maps. These uses, with simple substitutes (e.g. watch, notebook, intuition), feel less salient than the variable rewards and addictive nature of social media, email and texting. But on that sunny Presidents day I realized those were the features that I missed the most. I made the accommodations I knew I needed to make it through. 

I wore my watch, wrote down my appointments the day before, and intentionally made no plans for the morning – knowing my lack of an alarm clock would make any pre-10-am ventures futile. Yet as I went about my day, I could shake the feeling that something was off – something was missing. What is my watch was running slow? What if I wrote down the wrong place for a meeting? My screen had been my ground truth. I could also double check it to verify information, and that act of checking has come to bring a sense of recenteredness and control. Without my screen, without the knowledge that I could check if I wanted to, I was floating. Perhaps it was this sense of being untethered, or perhaps it was the fact that it was the first warm and sunny day in Boston in over a month, but it felt liberating. 

I was surprised by how much psychological influence my screen exerts on me. Even if inactive or off in my back pocket, its potentiality lingers. It has grown to be a part of me, an extension of my senses. Thus to sever this connection felt like a mild, socio-cognitive flavor of phantom limb syndrome. An ant on a log. I liked this. It felt novel and refreshing and uncomfortable. Now, I appreciate my screen more, as a useful and fun bundle of information. And in this appreciation, its implicit embeddedness into my life and body has been denaturalized. 

Addiction is far too complex a term to cleanly map to the life of a modern information cyborg. In some aspects, it fits. We are dependent on our screens, and do experience discomfort when they are taken away. Yet by that definition, we are also addicted to friends, food and clothes. Other definitions attempt to square away addition with harm and negative outcomes. But these notions are too prescriptive for the complex way screens impact our lives. We may indeed enjoy the chronology of the phoneless, as I did, but it is by no means a better way to live absolutely. 

Assignment 1: No Phone, No Problem?

Right after I powered down my phone, turned off the lights, and slid into bed, I knew I wouldn’t be able to complete the 24-hour phone challenge, at least not for all 24 hours. I had to wake up on time. Upon this thought, I shot up from bed because I needed — a strong emphasis on needed — my phone’s alarm clock to predictably blare chimes at 9:00 am. Without a roommate or a trusty alarm clock, I knew I would miss my early morning classes. I reached into my desk, begrudgingly switched on my phone, and navigated to the alarm clock. I was off to a bad start. 

On top of this, I thought that using my high functioning laptop weakened the challenge’s legitimacy since I could perform most phone tasks on my laptop. I could text. I could check my email. I could even open up TikTok on my laptop. I felt like a cheater. At the same time, as I reassuringly told myself, the act of taking out a phone, of swiping down to see recent messages, constitutes an “addiction” and this challenge tested for just that. In his article, “How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds,” Tristan Harris smartly compares our phone addiction to slot machines. With a computer, it’s definitely harder to become addicted to a task, or a slot machine-like notification, especially after sliding the laptop back into the bag. Bearing this in mind, I reluctantly kept my computer accessible during this challenge.

There are three things I absolutely need to have on me before I leave my room. That is, I need my Totoro wallet with my keys and ID, my Vaseline chapstick for those dry winter days, and my phone. It’s no wonder that the next morning when I walked out of my room, my pockets felt surprisingly lighter. Without my phone, I hurried to my classes, knowing I couldn’t jam out to my favorite Spotify tunes or cruise to Michael Barbaro’s voice on The Daily. My ears felt empty, like they could and should be filled with viscous sound and voice and music, and that bothered me. In this newfound phone silence, I ended up perceiving sounds around me like the buzzing construction and the chirping, energetic tourists. Somehow, I still felt melancholy without my phone, until I started looking around me. Why was every other student on this campus wearing Airpods or headphones? Where was the chit chat, the smiles, the friends stopping to exchange catch-ups? These environmental observations and contrasts, both frustrating and real, could only have manifested without the presence of my phone.

There were other things I missed that day. I missed Shazaming a song I grooved to at a restaurant and I missed photographing pictures of food for future memories and Yelp. I missed telling the time and being on time and I missed sending texts to my friends when I thought of them during the day. This only convinced me that I was not only addicted to my phone, but my brain had also hard-wired functions of my reality to an all-knowing, all performing app. My phone contained my memories and pieces of my livelihood I felt eerily drawn to, and I didn’t enjoy that feeling one bit.

And yet through this challenge, I became acutely aware of the benefits of less phone time. Time passed slowly in class, but I remained more present and aware of what other students were saying and how people responded to each other. I glanced at my computer a lot less during class. To tell time, I glanced at the top of the Cambridge Savings Bank while traversing Harvard Square. I even finished all my reading for the weekend in one day, which is unheard of for me. If I had extended this challenge to a week or a month, I could foresee myself caring less about the apps I use in social situations and more about my general mental health and personal relationships. The no-phone challenge reinvigorated my want to use my phone less, connect with people in my classes and in my dorm, and overall make me less reliant and more skeptical and inquisitive about the apps I use every day.

Jess Eng is a third-year Undergraduate at Harvard studying Folklore and Mythology and Statistics.