Author Archives: shannon

Ghosts + Break-Ups: Your Final Projects


We’ve wrapped up our fourth semester of my Archives, Libraries + Databases class. And once again, it proved to be the highlight of my fall. We visited the Municipal Archives, the Reanimation Library, the Interference Archive, and the Morgan Library. Kate Eichhorn came to visit to talk about archival theory and feminist archives. Radhika Subramaniam and Brian McGrath visited to talk about “epistmological” exhibitions — specifically, the “future of knowledge institutions” exhibition that Brian, Orit Halpern, Kim Ackert, and I are organizing, with help from Radhika, for March 2015.

And the students once again made me proud and verklempt with their smart and critical and often playful projects — projects that demonstrate their genuine investment in the beautiful and challenging and profound and provocative ideas we chewed on all throughout the semester.

Annie created The Ghost Stories Archive — a collection of, well, ghost stories, collected and organized in such a way as to attempt to find themes and patterns in supernatural experience. Annie plans to keep working on the site, since it informs work she’d like to do in her doctoral research.

Rachel (in collaboration with Laura) created the Ex-Archive, which “collects, stores, and preserves digital copies of materials from break ups and failed relationships, as well as data and information about those relationships.” It takes a parodically “clinical” approach, presenting the act of bequeathing one’s break-up documentation to an archive, and providing the necessary metadata, as a therapeutic experience. Rachel and Laura, too, plan to keep working on the archive; I think it has the potential to be big! (My contributions alone could keep them busy for a while 🙂

Eishin created My Little Library, a periodic documentation of the books that filter in and out of her apartment and the little, situationally-defined, project-based collections they organize themselves into. She, too, plans to sustain this project.

Zack created Trashing, a comparative documentation of the digital trash on folks’ computer desktops and the physical trash in their garbage cans. Examining these two trash bins in tandem can offer insight into the integration of mind and body in various forms of labor. He plans to add more examples from more physical kinds of labor — the trash generated by chefs and woodworkers, for instance.

Ariana, in “Classifying Ephemera,” explored the subjectivity and iterability of classification — particularly the classification of quotidian objects. She went around the city collecting a bunch of ephemera, then explored multiple means of organizing that collection, while also acknowledging the specific contexts in which she originally encountered each item. She plans to expand this project into a website with photo documentation of her various organizational schemes, and the diagrams and notes she created in the act of classification.

Laura is creating an archival system for all the material generated as part of the Architectural League’s and Center for an Urban Future’s Re-Envisioning Branch Libraries design study. She’ll be archiving all the design material — allowing visitors to search by theme, design challenge, and design team — and supplementing that material with statements from and interviews with the designers and project managers (of which I am one!).

Oliver created a video that both examines and exemplifies the “database aesthetics” of Foley (“sound effects”) databases. He “deconstructs” each sound, showing how it might match up with various visual complements.

Fan explored the soundscape of his college town — Chengdu, China — by creating a map that classified various recorded sounds by activity and setting, and then assigned each a color based on ambiance or affect.

Saori is creating an exhibition that examines the mnemonic capabilities of smell, while also experimenting with means of “storing” fragrance itself.

And Nima is working on a HistoryPin-based oral history project with seniors.


Perec’s paper on classification brings up some interesting ideas and concepts that examine they way we perceive informational hierarchies. Perec uses some (slightly hilarious) examples to illustrate how classification tends not to consider the depth of a topic prior to classification, such as his distinction that Utopia’s are inherent’s depressing due the taxonomical nature of their design which leaves no room for the miscellaneous. Though it is not the the depth of the issue being classified that Perec challenges, but the method of classification itself. He asks several questions, such as; how does classification change culturally? This is a question posited by Perec in his illustration of how the eskimo’s would lack a single word for ice (ice being such a large part of their lives that several words would have to be used to accurately describe it’s many uses and forms).


Perec also questions why the alphabet (english alphabet) has no distinct order with letters appearing randomly throughout the sequence of 26 characters. The technical design of this however comes from the nature of alphabet’s in general; they are constructed to give equal weight to both vowels and consonants. However throughout time, as Perec, points out, western culture (english speaking nations specifically) have come to denote qualitative connotations within the alphabet, such as the rankings between A, B & C. This can be seen in educational grades (A being the highest score possible, decreasing in value through to F as the lowest score possible), as well as in film quality as Perec points out (B-Films for example).

All of these issues are at the heart of classification systems that require thought and due diligence to design with conscious ethics and equality. By creating better classification systems we can more productively organize information, hopefully creating systems that allow people to access and utilize information in a more efficient manner.

Aesthetics, so labor

As Christian Paul points out, “the tension between the mostly linear and hierarchical structure of databases and instructions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the seemingly infinite possibilities for reproducing and reconfiguring the information contained within these structures,” very much characterizes digital art. Aesthetics can necessitate certain structural shifts and these are more present in and around us if we look carefully.

Only a few in my family can read cursive. I remember during a thanksgiving several years ago, we were tested if we could read my 13 year old cousin’s cursive handwriting. It looked nice and we could recognize “D’s” and “Y’s” but many of use failed this test. We didn’t have access to this realm, not forever but until we either committed our time and/or money to acquire it. Most, if not all, of us first generations just shrugged it off as one of those things we are not going to get because it’s past our horizon to get.

On the digital front, there has been many a nights I would be working on projects or trying to listen some music on Youtube when a 20 seccond Tableu commercial pops up. Tableau Software is an American computer software company headquartered in Seattle, Washington. that produces a family of interactive data visualization products focused on business intelligence. It’s basically Excel visualization on steroid.

Please click on the picture if you want to see the add.


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So far I have been on 3 contracts working on various marketing & digital operations projects and it was recently at my last contract that I recognized everyone was going tableau crazy. There are now tableau certifications whose responsibility is to collaborate with the marketing team to express the data. These folks are creative and meticulous and spend a lot of careful time in the zone.

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How do you read this? This is persian calligraphy and there only a handful of people who are deemed as specialists in producing meticulously creative works such as this. They also spend a lot of time doing this, something that if I wanted to accomplish I would need to invest into a lot of practice.

My point is this when aesthetic and access coincide is an interesting junction, other things happen as well. One of them being schematics of labor but there are other rhizomes of alterations that also get shaped as a consequence > coincidence.

Lastly it was also interesting how many times these themes once again emerged when talking about data:

  • Classification
  • Significance
  • Association
  • Longevity
  • Hierarchies



The job of a data analyst is just like a painter

This week’s topic reminds me a lot of stuffs in my previous work. At that time, I was a data analyst in a research company. Everyday’s job is to deal with bunches of data,data,data… Yet the research data in our clients eyes are totally different from our perspectives.

In client’s perspective, the data are orderly displayed in different kinds of charts, tables or figures, some of which are really fantastic. They enjoy the front end of database. Those readable, ordered and comprehensive data provide our dear client pertinent ideas on marketing and PR strategies.

At the same time, we, the data analysts, were struggling with clusters of intertwining raw data. To us, these data were not inherently insightful. Raw data are just “simple” data, which were dull, boring and obscure. The point my supervisor always emphasized was “how to bring the key points to clients”, which means how to use all these raw data to compose a logical and narrative data report. In this sense, data analysts are all art workers. What type of chart to use? Which data bring out the key point? How to arrange the order of pages? Is there any misleading information? Actually my role was not the manufacturer of report, but the porter and processor of existing data, which were collected by inexhaustible computer programs (and this is the real back stage). Data look like the pigment. My job is to draw with the pigment and give these materials esthetic sense. The audiences of a painting should not notice the pigments on it, to them the painting is a whole. This standard also works for our clients. In their perspectives, there’s no “recognizable datum” but dozens of executable insights for business.

I think such a working flow of my previous job is a vivid explanation and experiment of “database aesthetic”. From the backstage to the front end, data are collected, sorted, categorized and ordered by computers and other colleagues in technological departments. Finally in our hands, we handle the data and combine them into a readable and insightful data report. We eliminate the “forms” of data and bring them to the content level. Besides, some “decorations” of the data are also necessary, since charming data charts such as cloud chart (to display the word frequency) or the radiation chart (to discover the relationships between different key words) are always attractive to clients. Besides the contents and insights of data, of course we also expect our clients would “enjoy” the beauty of data.

Digital Archeology and Preservation

This week’s reading was very interesting to me because I felt I was reading about hard core archeologists and archivists even though what they dealt with was digital files. What they do has its own beauty and excitement and recognize the importance of their work.

The video on discovering Warhol’s lost digital arts on Amiga computer and the article on XFR STN made me understand how fast digital files become out of trends. If those file formats are ephemeral, why don’t engineers make something more long lasting? But it seems the speed of invention is getting faster and faster. Engineers have no control over what file formats will last more than thirty years. Knowing that the ephemeral nature of digital file formats, it is necessary to know how to preserve them before it gets too late such as what happened to the Warhol’s Amiga file. Digging and discovering art master’s work has its own excitement because it is archeology just like digging South American soil to find hidden Mayan treasures. But it takes too much effort and, most importantly, cost! In the XFR STN article written by Melena Ryzik mentions difficulty of finding the right tool and cost of outdated tools. I don’t even know how many VHS tapes I had to throw away when my mother bought DVD/Blue-ray player… I wish I knew earlier that I had to convert the files to something else.

I find what Ben Fino-Radin does at Rhizome very interesting and important for digital preservation. Digital preservation should not be only about preserving contents. It should also care about user experience through softwares or websites. It will be interesting to see and compare how the design changes over the time. As Fino-Radin says, “I sort of think of the Artbase at its ideal state as an archival box that has these documents that maybe some day will be stripped of their larger meaning… ” I truly believe that we can learn some interesting human behavior by looking at the designs that are preserved. Probably digital archivists like Fino-Radin will be needed by institutions and corporations.

001001110101111011101 – Databases / Meta-Narrative & Cultural Form

Finding cultural relevance in databases is no easy task, but the discovery (or implementation) of meta-narratives in databases has begun to give their aesthetics a cultural form. From questioning browsers such as internet explorer and netscape and how they provide web portals that are based on the format of the printed book, this new form explores databases aesthetics in a manner that questions how they should be operated and presented. It could be argued perhaps that this is a necessary first step in the design of digital infrastructures, allowing users time to adapt to new medium by utilising familiar interactions. It is the same reason that Apple designed an interface for the Ipad that makes the page ‘flip’ or ‘turn’ over, instead of just instantly providing the next screen. This allows the user to become comfortable using a digital device that in time, will and should develop methods of interaction that are more reflective of the technologies capabilities. This in turn begins to address the question of technology ethics.


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By hiding the true capacity of technology with clever and intuitive interfaces, designers and scientists will give users a dangerously immoral underestimation of their technologies capabilities. Every time a user is ‘surprised’ by a piece of technology, it shows how much is being completed in the field without public supervision and accountability. We as a society are responsible for the management and control of technology not only in an environmental sense, but also in a ‘humanity’ sense. This is perhaps one of the points address by database meta-narratives and cultural forms.

A “virtual” bite of Chinese traditional food (a case of audio-video combination)

Hi guys! Attached is the documentary I mentioned in class, called “A Bite of China”. In this series of documentary the audio-video elements are perfectly mixed and inspire some feelings like taste or fragrance that could not be objectively expressed in a video clips. So amazing and so enlightening to my project idea.

The English caption is available, enjoy a “virtual” bite of China 🙂

data power.

How we keep track of things – how we remember and store our ideas, arguments, facts, and questions always comes down to some sort of record. Sometimes that record is only our mind, a mental record – the simplest, yet most convoluting method possible. Our minds may think we remember purely, but with all the information that is flowing in and out of our memory, things can overlap and become muddy. Why do you think so many ‘eye-witness’ testimonies conflict. Human memory is faulty. So we invented writing & record keeping, someway of recording facts to reference later with no deterioration from the truth. Of course people could be writing down things that were untrue – but at least they wouldn’t change if they were written down, especially when inscribed in stone. As civilization grew – people realized that there has to be a record keeper – and as these people learned, they have a lot of power. Knowledge is Power. They have recorded what has happened – and knowing and understanding these things can allow you to see patterns thats many might not.

Fast Forward to Google. If you use an android phone, or chrome browser, or even just have a gmail/youtube account – google is acting as that record keeper – without even really asking. A lot of it has to do with the fact that they are a 91% revenue from advertising company – and the more they know about each consumer, the more effective their ads can be (thus charging more). They are gathering data about us – and with all that data, they create knowledge. Your email to your friend recommending a vacation – plus the fact that you googled Hotels in London – now you’re getting ads for all the latest flights and hotels in London, plus probably some sightseeing ideas as well.

Is this the kind of power we are afraid of? Data being used to sell us things – I suppose its better than Egyptian Scribes using data to find all the workers who haven’t been up to far and sending soldiers to kill us.


The attitude towards big data

For this week’s reading, I found the “Conceptual Approaches for Defining Data, Information, and Knowledge” of Chaim Zins is quite inspirational.

In this article Zins argues identifies the concepts and concretes of “data”, “information” and “knowledge” with a semantic method. With Zins’ concept, the data are existing symbols, the knowledge is embodiments and the information is just like something “in-between”. This reminds me an idea of McLuhan that “the content of a medium is another medium”. The stream of data forms information, and then the intention of human beings to learn transfers it to knowledge.

Here, the concern is rising. The intention to conduct data, to categorize them, to utilize them for learning is the key point in transferring pure “mechanical” data into “knowledge”. Without this intention and related procedures, data are just bunches of dead existence. Then think about this “big data” age. Data are now so popular among different domains. Data flooding is a type of “fashion” in current digitalized social environment, but on the other hand it could also become a disaster if we failed to control and handle it, just as the real flooding. If we collect data but do not process them, big data would just become redundant archive. If we do process them but do that in an improper way, data could be misused and guide us to wrong path. Comparing with the collecting of data, I think what’s more important is to enhance the operation and flow of data, such as data categorization and analysis. In a word, data should be stored in an accessible and usable situation in order to activate its potential of transferring into knowledge.

I remember that Neil Postman had expressed a negative attitude towards doing social research with data analysis in Technopoly. Yet in my opinion, if we have the intention and ability to activate the big data stream, data analysis could also be a very pertinent method in the research of social science, especially in the domain of digital media and communication studies.

Information Machine

In the film Information Machine, the narrator describes people store information “in active memory bank” and use the information to “sort out and relate to the problem”. The narrator calls people “artists”. Human brains are described as if they are machines when information is being processed and stored but when information is taken out of brains with meaning, brains are no longer mechanic but artistic and the expressed information has unique characteristics. When people utilize information or data, they can create new meanings through various ways of expression and display.

For example, in “A Map and Some Pins”, Sherratt shows two different images of the same record search.


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One is with plain file images. The other one has images of faces. Those images of people give characters to each search result and the search results have more intriguing effects even though the records are the same. Somehow, pictures of people in black-and-white and sepia gave me a sense of nostalgia or melancholy and made me curious about them even though I’ve never met those people. The design of delivering or displaying data is crucial because when the design is boring, plain and dry, people might overlook the information even if the information is very important to digest. Sherratt created a new meaning or added more power/value to the data. “Sharing of open data is about…letting people create new meanings.” I totally agree that open data gives people opportunities to see from various perspectives and “create new meanings” and values.

What about search results on search engines such as Google, Yahoo and Bing? How search results on Google can influence viewers to digest information displayed. Data/information aggregation is done automatically and mechanically. Even though information is out there on the internet, how those search engines pick up and order information can affect understanding information. We will never know what is excluded and filtered. This is my concern for information and how it is displayed.