meditation #4

Due to a fit of severe, generalized thesis-panic, I’ve been clocking in long hours on the floor this past week, staying until past 3am. I love being on the floor during these wee hours when nobody’s around— the peace and quiet allows me (and my fellow workaholic friends) to be incredibly productive.

It’s also allowed me to realize that the floor is haunted.

Room 50 at 3am, ie definitely a scene from the collegiate remake of Paranormal Activity.

While the clamor of shop chaos and 100+ students fades away with the sun, the floor does not still— there are still layers of suspicious whirs, murmurs, and higher frequencies barely perceptible to human ears.

So for this week’s meditation, I tried to (tele)communicate with these ITP spirits.

The first time I suspected a supernatural presence on the floor was during pcomp, when my Arduino would pick up signals literally from thin air. So I decided to break out the Arduino again, and set one up in the middle of the floor for a few hours while we worked on thesis, got pea soup and curly fries at Cozy’s, and lamented the state of our graduate school lives.

My Ghostbusters setup.

It would have very exciting if I could simply port the serial input directly to an Axidraw and have them drawn in real time, but this would have taken a lot more work than my one-track thesis mind could allow. So instead, I took the Arduino readings, wrote a python script that translated them to SVG commands, and fed that into the Axidraw:

Alright, so obviously what the Arduino was picking up on was probably not ghosts, but rather signals from the millions of devices on the floor—but it was the night of Quick and Dirty, and I’d like to think that there were still reverberations in the air from the nervous energy/exhaustion of the class of 2019 and our electronic projects.

digital divination

Last year, as part of my thesis, I created several trackers in python and javascript to track various metrics: expressions, blinks, attention values from an emotion recognition API; word counts, backspace counts, and keystroke dynamics from a keylogger; sentiment analysis on those logs; browser activity through a Chrome extension.

Basically, I collected data on anything I could think of that might even be slightly emotionally charged, because I wanted to try to predict depression-adjacent emotions: mood, morale, stress, and fatigue. I ended up training RNNs for this task, which now make predictions every 15 minutes or so, as the data comes in. Before any of that happened, I did a quick analysis of this data (for my own benefit) to see if there were any correlations emerging. At the time, there was only about five months of data, so it wasn’t very meaningful, but since I was extremely short on time this week (due to thesis and this data science class at Steinhardt that’s way out of my league—sorry), I decided it would be appropriate/least fatal to revisit my dusty old Jupyter Notebook for homework this week—presently, I’m almost at one year’s worth of data.

Visualizations of the correlation matrix (at five months) and slightly more recent ML results can be viewed here. I’ll update it at some point… after I graduate.

Mood:

Another one of my trackers is an hourly self-reported questionnaire on my present emotional state (the data from which was used as labels in the training process), including an item that is a 1-5 scale rating of general “mood”. According to Pearson correlation, these are the digital behaviors that could prophesy positive mood:

  • avg_engagement (0.214871): this “engagement score” is from the emotion recognition API Affectiva
  • expressions (0.198212): my tracker counts the number of expressions that Affectiva registers in the minute that it records every hour
  • Joy_score (0.150085): this “joy score” is a sentiment analysis result from IBM Watson’s Tone Analyzer API on my hourly keylogs
  • stepCount (0.120612): not a digital behavior, but tracked digitally by the Google Fit app
  • avg_valence (0.101866): another Affectiva score on overall positivity of facial expression

These are the behaviors indicative of negative mood:

  • Fear_score (-0.107625): IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis score for fear
  • Sadness_score (-0.128840): IBM Watson’s sentiment analysis score for sadness
  • feedly_activity (-0.133028): I oftentimes mindlessly turn to Feedly, my RSS aggregator, when I’m exhausted an in need of a break
  • heart_rate (-0.145422): not a digital behavior, but calculated by openCV
  • tv_activity (-0.222593): I only really watch TV when I’m exhausted and want to dissociate from the world

Morale:

Another item from my self-reported questionnaire; these are the indicators for positive morale:

  • productivity_score (0.167960): a score calculated by RescueTime
  • backspace_count (0.123373): from my Keylogger
  • Joy_score (0.114208): sentiment analysis score from IBM Watson

Indicators for negative morale:

  • uniqueword_ratio (-0.127617): keylogger calculation of unique words/total word count
  • heart_rate (-0.151213)
  • feedly_activity (-0.167261)
  • tv_activity (-0.352525): I wasn’t kidding about the dissociation thing

Stress:

Positive indicators for self-reported stress:

  • current_tabCount (0.500686): hourly count of total tabs by my Chrome extension; I’m a crazy tab hoarder in general, but the tendency definitely is exacerbated by anxiety/existential angst…
  • current_windowCount (0.481969): see above
  • windows_created (0.106337): I wasn’t kidding about this browser thing either
  • tv_activity (-0.157775)
  • heart_rate (-0.255155)

Compulsions:

Positive indicators for self-reported compulsive behavior:

  • tv_activity (0.146173)
  • uniqueword_ratio (0.094941): this is weird…

Negative indicators (also weird):

  • tabs_activated (-0.128082)
  • tabs_created (-0.133961)

Oracle Deck

I like tarot as a method of fortune-telling because the cards can act as triggers to the most salient parts of your consciousness, structuring them into a narrative of your existing desires, perhaps previously unexpressed. These unearthed desires may henceforth direct your intentions in its direction, thus becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I wanted my oracle deck to play with this idea of shifting mental states to produce new interpretations and therefore (hopefully) clarity. When learning about cleromancy last week, I especially loved the medieval decks that had silly poems accompanying each card. Personally, reading poetry transports me wholly to different emotional states, and I thought it would be interesting to have a deck where the cards put you into a different headspace from which to interpret and reframe your query.

This may or may not have partially been an excuse to reread my favorite books of poetry… but I think it worked out well enough. My oracle deck contains three suits: Before, Betwixt, and Beyond. These suits emerged organically while I was considering my poetry collection and the emotional themes of each author. Li-Young Lee, whose poems wrestle with memory and the reemergence of past trauma in the present, is my “Before”; Mary Oliver, whose poetry reveres nature and exalts the present moment is my “Betwixt”; and Maya Angelou, who transcended hardship/racism with unfailing optimism and strength, is my “Beyond”. Reading the works of these authors leaves me reflective of the past, grateful for the present, and excited for the future, respectively.

So I combed through a book per author, transcribing poems that emotionally resonated with me into a json file:

Then, I wrote a simple python script that received an input (your query), and chose a random poem for you to meditate on. The lines print one at a time, with pauses after each, to make it a slower, unfurling experience.

Null Hypothesis Significance Testing (p value approach)

  • p value is the probability of observing data as extreme (or more) as observed assuming that the null hypothesis is true
  • should be used less, should be made clear that they are of limited value
  • a statistically significant result is one for which chance is an unlikely explanation

Effect sizes

  • Effect sizes tell the reader how big the effect is (something p value doesn’t do)
  • import to report the units of measurement of the effect size
    • 2 distinctions:
      • effect can be reported in units of the original variables, or in standardized units (mean on a test is 3 correct answers higher in one group than in another, vs one group scores one standard deviation higher than another)
      • between effects for the differences between group means and effects in terms of proportion of variation or association

Causal and associative hypotheses

  • Causal
    • implies that changing some aspect of the environment will tend to create some difference
    • to have this, it’s necessary to think about manipulating some aspect of the system
  • Associative
    • describes how variables relate to each other in the absence of manipulation
    • sampling is critical for investigating associative hypotheses

EROFT reading

All known peoples on earth have practised some form of divination. It has had a critical role in the classical world, ancient Egypt and the Middle East, in the Americas, India, Tibet, Mongolia, Japan, China, Korea and Africa (Loewe and Blacker 1981; Peek 1991).

Over the years, many so-called inductive or rational forms of divination have been compared with Western scientific techniques. 

  • psychological tests, eg Rorschachs
  • diagnostic procedure
  • sociopsy— comparable to biopsy

They suggest that in Orisha ceremonies, certain distinguishing drum rhythms and oriki chants are used to attract particular energies, create certain moods, and evoke certain responses.

This alternative way draws its knowledge from “women’s ways of knowing,” from intuitive thought, from dreams, from nature, from the deep recesses of the human psyche. This way of knowing is performative in nature, rich in symbol, ritual, and metaphor, evoking responses that lie deep within the human psyche. For many, it all started with divination as a
sacred compass locating self. For others it started with the rhythm of the drums, the lure of the dance, the transforming experience of symbolic interaction with an unseen, unknown, other dimension of power, the ritualistic replenishing of the primal life force ashe, or the awesome realization that “Words uttered in a particular sequence, rhythm, and tone can bring a rock to ‘action,’ cause rain to fall, or heal a sick person a hundred miles away” (Teish 1988, 62)

First ritual

Inspired by my bemusement over Benjamin Burroughs’ seemingly contradictory claim that Facebook is at once “less about networking and more about broadcasting” and “a salient example of digital third places”, I decided to challenge it—that is, my own bemusement—with this week’s ritual.

I haven’t been active on social media for a few years now. My usage peaked after I moved to NY for my first job: I was a naive, introverted Midwestern girl, barely 22-years-old, newly single, with no friends and no social skills outside of the classroom; I naturally turned to Facebook and Instagram for human connection. Becoming reliant on social media basically means developing a hardcore addiction to its fickle yet relentlessly available stream of validation. It was devastating if my posts went ignored; I deleted the ones that accumulated less than double-digit likes, and continued posting more of what had been celebrated previously. The act of posting itself came with its own sick thrill (a mix of terror and pride), which could be reproduced to a degree by compulsively checking back in on the post at every opportunity, watching the “likes” count rise (or not). “Broadcasting” really is the best word for what I was doing: broadcasting evidence of my existence to everyone I’d ever known, then hoping for collective approval in return. I was like a boring, self-absorbed comedian with severe stage fright, returning to the mic day after day, desperate to trick everyone in the audience into laughing as if it was the only way I could feel good about myself.

So I was a pretty dysfunctional user, to say the least, and unfortunately didn’t realize how detrimental this was to my mental health until it was too late. That’s the thing about depression: even when it’s spiraled to a point where you hate everything about yourself and suicidal ideation is the only thing playing on every channel, at the end of the day, the truth is that you are obsessed with yourself. And social media is truly the best and worst outlet for the self-obsessed: best, because it’s essentially a big ol’ stage chanting your name; worst, because the audience never laughs hard enough.

Four years later, I set out to see if I could use Facebook completely differently—as a “third space” rather than a tool for broadcasting. Sure, Messenger isn’t exactly made for broadcasting, but it’s also not what makes Facebook, Facebook—it’s just a knockoff of the American Online paradigm. What I wanted to see is if I could somehow co-opt the Newsfeed into a third space; the broadcasting feature would just help to bring people into it.

My plan was simple: a collective gratitude practice. Every night, I would post a list of what I was grateful for that day, and beseech readers to do the same in the comments. I thought this would be an effective exercise because

  1. it had the potential to foster intimacy by…
    • requiring a little vulnerability (posting publicly is no small thing)
    • encouraging people to share joy and feel joy for others
  2. it shifts the dynamic between user and their audience
    • the content would be mundane in contrast to the big life announcements that are usually reserved for such broadcasts, thereby making it feel disarmingly low-pressure (theoretically)
    • it turns the focus on the audience and their participation, rather than me and my big announcement

Before submitting the first post, I had a moment of complete regret/panic for what I was about to do; it felt like I was about to text That Greenpoint Guy (you know, the unkempt but witty musician who only told you he loved you after the sun set and he’d had a couple to drink, which was somehow enough to keep you emotionally attached for six years. Yes I made terrible decisions in my early twenties) and fall into an emotional, codependent black hole all over again.

But then I just hit “Share”, for science.

Things of note from the fallout:

  • More people liked than commented
  • Two comments were just praise and didn’t answer the prompt
  • One comment was a gif and didn’t answer the prompt
  • One person DMed me instead of commenting
  • Thanks to a bizarre Facebook feature that displayed my post as a chat box whenever there was activity happening on it, I was able to witness in real time as “a friend” typed something, then stopped, then restarted—this continued for several minutes without actually producing a comment in the end, suggesting that perhaps even simply commenting on a post is as nerve-wracking as sharing the actual post itself:

It’s for these reasons that I started to scheme a different approach: same exercise, but through Messenger. I know, I know, but the broadcast-y nature of the Newsfeed seemed to be a major pain point in the way of engagement. Also, posts seem to get completely buried under ads (when did fb start serving so many ads?). I hypothesized that most, if not all, of my friends would humor me with their participation if I contacted them through a direct message. It would also afford for longer conversations, which are tedious and thus entirely avoided in comments sections.

Plus, the public interest in this experiment fizzled out nearly immediately:

Note the dreaded SINGLE DIGIT “LIKE” COUNT. Yeah, I was pretty done with this daily act of public humiliation.

So instead, I wrote a python script that collects moments of gratitude throughout the day in a json file; at 10:30pm, it launches an npm package called Messer (a command-line interface for FB Messenger that required me to author a few issues before it was working properly for my purposes), chooses a friend at random, and sends them a message requesting a shared gratitude practice.

Messer botched the first message it attempted to send (hence the bug reports), but it still led to a really wonderful conversation with an old co-worker of mine—from my very first job— that I hadn’t spoken to in four or five years. We caught up, shared our good things from the weekend, and at the end even made plans to meet up. It was so sweet and made me really happy—such a conversation would have never occurred if I’d kept up with my daily gratitude broadcast. In fact, he was one of my friends who’d “liked” my posts, but didn’t comment—even though he said my post made him miss me (which I like to think confirms my foregoing theories):

As much as I loved the idea of a mass gratitude practice, where everyone could benefit and feel a little closer to each other, this ended up being much more fulfilling for me.

Here’s the message it’s currently sending:

As my soft opening for this ritual, I’m only drawing from a pool of friends who had “liked” or commented on my gratitude posts. Later, I may expand it to my entire friends list.

electronic rituals wk2 class notes

Rituals

  • “showing of a doing”
  • portions of the ritual do not immediately address the need of the situation
  • Types:
    • rites of passage (baptism, prom, weddings)
    • seasonal/calendrical (halloween, new year’s)
    • political (elections)
    • religious (prayer)
    • interpersonal (greetings, gifting)
  • functional taxonomy
    • solidarity and social cohesion
    • collective effervescence and communitas
    • construction of power
    • negotiation (courtrooms, elections)
  • rituals build social cohesion
  • rituals: infinite actions > steps that give the world meaning/allow us to inhabit a place
  • rituals help people figure out, divine, even construct a cosmos

assignment: find an artist and find a contrast between your and their rituals; 7 hours

Electronic Rituals wk1 reading

Facebook and FarmVille

  • the architectural design that intertwines FB and FarmVille is heightened by the formal and informal participation in ritual practices, ie digital rituals; identifying an underlying ritual structure in social gaming can help us better understand how they sustain levels of engagement and social solidarity
  • Boyd and Ellison (2007) social network sites: “web-based services that allow individuals to
    1. construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system
    2. articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection
    3. view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (p. 2) which they distinguish from “social networking sites.”
      • “networking” emphasizes “relationship initiation, often between strangers”
  • Facebook can be used both as a social network and social networking site; however, when friends reach to hundreds/thousands, it becomes less about networking and more about broadcasting
    • newsfeed can be a form of mass communication used to circulate content
  • Social gaming focuses on a smaller group of users to for a social network within a social network

Magic Circles

  • distinction between the space of game-play and the norms of everyday life; magic circles have their own set of rules, norms, and practices
  • magic circles as a ritual space

Rituals

  • it is the nature of rituals’ ambiguity, “rituals’ oscillation between timeless history and contingent adaptation that allows us to believe in their overriding ‘truth’” 
  • The enacting of mediated rituals helps to legitimate that myth and instigate its accompanying symbolic power. Ritual becomes an active process of engagement and meaning making.
  • Members of social networks enacting ritual scripts through mediated technology, who then feel a sense of belonging or social cohesion through that behavioral action, enact a real sense of belonging that operates like a myth to make the collective seem real.
    • If people take something as real, it is real in its consequences 
    • ritual enactments in social networking casual games meld the real world outside the chalk line with the game space in new and meaningful ways
  • Couldry’s three basic definitions of ritual
    1. habitual action (any habit or repeated pattern, whether or not it has meaning
    2. formalized action (regular and meaningful pattern)
    3. action involving transcendent values (ie, holy communion)
  • A habit is not unimportant just because it is not “transcendental”
    • habitual actions can reinforce and deepen the larger ritual experience
    • gradations of ritual, with each passing gradation producing a stronger articulation of ritual
  • third places: communal spaces within the public sphere
    • media research has often focused on the perceived threats of media to communities; media such as TV began displacing time normally spent in third spaces (ie bars and coffee shops)
    • MMOs could be categorized as third spaces; even social networks???????????????

Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage

  • religious “nones” in advanced industrial societies: bricoleurs drawing from several “exotic religions” to construct customized, individual spiritual practice without identifying with a specific faith
    • doctrines and practices reflect privileged participants’ preferences; bricoleurs help determine the content of successful exotic faiths
  • Religious exoticism, according to Altglas, reflects fragmentation and reinterpretation of non-Christian religious traditions so that they will resonate with Western seekers. Because it revises and decontextualizes them, this cultural appropriation involves idealization that simultaneously denigrates and romanticizes non-Western faiths.
  • Spiritual seekers with prior religious affiliations look to spiritual traditions that are as different as possible from the ones in which they were raised in order to find their core identities and connect with a higher power. 
  • Individuals who become affiliated with exotic religions dedicate themselves to self-discovery and spiritual expansion by every means necessary, and they are pragmatic in judging spiritual paths by their immediate results. It is not surprising, according to Altglas, that the exotic religions that she has studied offer workshops and customized courses that are modeled on Western personal growth therapies.

Superstitious Rituals with Technology

  • When humans know just a little bit of how something works, the rest of it gets relegated to the realm of mystery and magic.
    • Today, technology is our magic: as increasingly complex and capable devices fill our lives and begin to perform more instantaneous tasks for us, your average consumer understands less and less about how these miracles are performed.
  • Blowing into video game cartridges, despite the fact that it caused more problems
  • closing apps in a smartphone for a “clearer mind”, despite it being a myth that closing background apps makes phones run faster
    • faith is stronger than the truth
  •  A phone, Nova suggests, is very nearly already a “magic wand” that can summon food—expect software developers and service providers to reduce the number of steps and interactions between our desire and its result.