Trying to See Big Data’s Better Side

Lately, I’ve been exploring what is known as Big Data. What I’ve learned has actually surprised me. Because many of the concerns that I’ve had about Big Data have largely been about privacy, I don’t tend to hold it in a very positive light. My less than favorable perspective on Big Data has also affected my relationship with the technology that I use. As much as I love my phone and my computer and the ways that they fuel my creativity, I sometimes feel disempowered by them when I think about how much they report on my habits and perspectives.  In a sense, I feel laid bare.

But after reading Alex Pentland’s “Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data,” I’ve tried to perceive Big Data from a more positive perspective. From Pentland, I have learned that Big Data, when used responsibly, can actually benefit people. For example, according to Pentland, Big Data can be used to help people generate a more “sustainable future” (6).

But how could Big Data be used for good? Well, Pentland gives a couple examples:

A key insight is that your data is worth more if you share it because it enables systems like public health. Data about the way you behave and where you go, and that can be used to can stop the spread of infectious disease…if you can actually watch people’s behavior in real time…something that is quite possible today…you can tell when each individual person is getting sick. This means you can actually see the spread of influenza from person to person on an individual level. And if you can see it, you can stop it…

Similarly, if you’re worried about global warming, we now know how patterns of mobility relate to productivity…This means you can design cities that are far more efficient, far more human, and burn an awful lot less energy. But you need to be able to see the people moving around in order to be able to get these results (6)

Pentland goes further by discussing how its potential benefits are limited by corporations who use it for their own purposes: “However today the data is siloed off and unavailable…when data is in silos you can’t make use of it either for evil or for the public good, and we need the public good. We need to stop pandemics. We need to make a greener world. We need to make a fairer world (6).

Pentland’s article got me thinking. I’m not sure if I can fully buy into Pentland’s arguments. I get the idea that the thing that decides if Big Data is bad or good for us is decided by people, but I just can’t accept the Big Data has all of this positive potential. But, for now, perhaps it is more productive for me to not focus on if Big Data is bad or good for me but rather to accept that it is influencing me regardless of if I like it or not. And, in doing so, perhaps I may be able to embrace it more fully.

Works Cited

Pentland, Alex. “Reinventing Society in the Wake of Big Data.” Edge Foundation, 2017, pp. 1-9.

Announcing A New Project: My Book of Love


For this project, I’ll be recording my experiences and reflections as I design a 3D printed model of the Amulet of Mara from the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim video game on Tinkercad. The purpose of this project is to play around with the idea of how fans materialize abstract artifacts from the stories that they love into the physical world and how this act actually builds on those narratives.


A digital rendition of the Amulet of Mara as it appears in Skyrim.

This project is important to me for two major reasons. One, I’m a huge fan of the Elder Scrolls universe. Two, within the game, the Amulet of Mara allows your avatar, and, by extension, you to wed an non-player character (NPC). Your avatar must wear this amulet in order to unlock this opportunity of the game. As I am single myself, I thought that designing a 3D model of the Amulet of Mara would be a fun and meaningful way to build on its narrative.

Side Note: The title of this project, “My Book of Love,” is a salute to a quest in Skyrim called “The Book of Love.” In this quest, the gamer acts as a holy agent of Mara by bringing three groups of lovers together.

Works Cited

darrenbarlow. Temple of Mara. N.A. Deviantart,

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Version 1. Bethesda Game Studios. 11 Nov. 2011.

HaLo2FrEeEk. Maraamulet. The Elder Scrolls Wiki,

Would you Rather Discover Beautiful Places by Accident or On Purpose?

I took this photo during the night I describe below.

Last week, I wrote about my hesitation to traverse cities and how Beth Coleman in “Let’s Get Lost: Poetic City Meets Data City,” describes how people can use phone apps to go on derives that allow them to experience cities in new and exciting ways. By willingly allowing themselves to get lost in a city, they create narratives within that space, and through this process they illustrate that the act of data creation is generated both by technology and the people who use it.

This week, I encountered another paper that explores city navigation. Quercia et al in “The Shortest Path to Happiness: Recommending Beautiful, Quiet, and Happy Routes in the City,” study if it is possible to generate pedestrian pathways that are both short and pleasant. According to the authors, while considerable consideration has been given to designing technology that gives pedestrians the shortest route, little attention has been given to constructing technology that devises pleasant walking routes:

Web and mobile mapping services currently fail to offer that experience as they are able to recommend only shortest routes…researches have started to analyze the digital traces left behind by users of online serves like Flickr and Foursquare. Previous work has, however, not considered the role of emotions in the urban context when recommending routes (1).

The authors state that they wish to go beyond the derive and “to propose ways of automatically generating routes that are not only short by also emotionally pleasant” (1). And through intense social research, they do come to the conclusion that it is possible to do just that (9-10).

This article made me think about a recent excursion through a suburb that I took to get to a party. I wasn’t really going on a derive. I didn’t know where I was, but I was using my phone to guide me to my destination. However, it was one of most pleasant excursions that I’ve taken in a while. The houses in suburb were pretty old, and they reminded me of the house I used to live in when I was little. I was also walking through the suburb just before Christmas, so many of the houses had been decorated with beautiful lights. What is more, fresh snow had fallen on the space where I was walking, and I was walking at night. The way that the lights’ colours reflected off the snow in the darkness filled me almost to the brim with nostalgia. And I had uncovered this beautiful place completely by accident, which only excited me more.

Thinking of this experience and the paper made me wonder: does it feel better to discover a beautiful place by happenstance or does it feel better find beautiful places through the ways that Querica and the collaborating authors suggest? I don’t really have answer, but I find it an interesting question. On one hand, I can see that people could be excited to walk along a pleasant path that is recommended to them, but I also get excited about the possibility of being surprised by a space.

Works Cited

Quercia et al. “The Shortest Path to Happiness: Recommending Beautiful, Quiet, and Happy Routes in the City,” Cornell University Library, 2014, pp. 1-11,

Let’s Get Lost…On Purpose?

How do you navigate a city? I navigate it rather hesitantly. I’ve never been very interested in navigating a city. And when I have to, I want to know where I am, where I’m going, and when I’ll get there. The idea of being lost scares me. That’s why I was surprised to find out that people try to get lost on purpose. Beth Coleman, in “Let’s Get Lost: Poetic City Meets Data City,” states that there are phone apps that you can put on your phone that encourage you to lose your way” (271). This act of intentionally getting lost is known as a dérive (277).

At first I found dérives deeply puzzling. Why would someone willingly get lost in a city? It seems a rather frightening idea to me.  But then, I remembered that the people going on these dérives use their phones to lose themselves in the city. So, they aren’t really lost at all. If they wanted to go back home at any time, they could just pop out their phones to use them to find their way back. Now that I think about, it’s a cool way to interact with a space. And that’s the point that Coleman makes. As the author says, the people who go on dérives generate narratives with the spaces they traverse by interacting with them through technology, “as opposed to the exclusively social…or informational (276). Moreover, as Coleman suggests, through this act of narrative creation with the spaces, the people who go on dérives illustrate that the act of data generation is a combined effort between technology and those who use it to get around (269).

However, even though I find the dérive intriguing, I don’t think that I want to try it out myself. I still can’t help feeling suspicious about it. My trepidation made me think more about my attitude towards physical space navigation. When I thought about the spaces I traverse, the video game Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim came to mind. (Though that’s not surprising since I play it so often.) I have no problem getting lost in that game. In fact, I actually love getting lost. It’s part of the fun. I have found so many hidden treasures simply by ignoring the map and walking in the land or following a river. So what’s difference? If I get lost in Skyrim, all I have to do is look at the map to find my way home. Similarly, if I get lost in a city, all I have to do is look at Google Maps. So, why can’t I just look at the world I physically inhabit as an opportunity for discovery like those who go on dérives do?

It’s an interesting question, and I’m not sure I have a definite answer. I think it mainly comes down to my bad travelling experiences in physical spaces as a child. I can’t count how many times I worried about running out of gas during a road trip. My parents didn’t help my travel anxiety either. They tried to adverse cure my fear of being lost by making jokes at my expense. Sometimes my father would say he was lost just to get me going. As a result of always being afraid of being lost or, worse, being stuck in an unknown place, I came to rely on other people to help me navigate spaces. Much to one of my friend’s irritation, I still go out of my way to make sure that she will be my guide in Toronto. That is until she put her foot down and made me ride the subway back to the bus stop all on my own. I must admit that because of her tough love, I’m a bit more comfortable navigating the city on my own…but only a little. But then, maybe that’s the cure for my uncomfortably with navigating physical spaces. Maybe I just have to force myself to do in the city what seems so effortless when I play Skyrim: pop up my electronic map and point myself in a direction.

Works Cited

Coleman, Beth. “Let’s Get Lost: Poetic City Meets Data City.” Civic media : technology, design, practice, edited by Eric Gordon and Paul Mihailidis, The MIT Press, 2016, pp. 267-293.

Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Version 1. Bethesda Game Studios. 11 Nov. 2011.

Just A Little Space To Get You By…

In the post “A Space On The Move,” I discussed how the formation of the traveling Okie spaces empowers the characters in Grapes of Wrath while they travel to California. But, while I still do think that it empowers them, I don’t want to give the impression that I also think that the mass exodus of the Okies becomes a positive experience for them, or that they get over what happened to them. In the novel, the Okies are empowered and disempowered at the same time. They just create the spaces as a way to deal with a very disempowering situation. The creation of these spaces could have only come about through the loss of their homes. In a sense then, the traveling Okie spaces come with a cost, just not one that the characters wished to pay or even had the choice to pay. The environment and the capitalist economy of American society forced them to leave.

So, they are empowered by their ability to connect to social structures that give them a sense of community, but the characters are still disempowered because of the costs that they are forced to pay. When the Okies are pushed off their land, they don’t just lose the physical spaces. They lose the social spaces connected to them as well. The Okies lose their ability to form their identities in the way that they always had, which was through their land: “Thus they changed their social life…They were not farm men any more, but migrant men. And the thought, the planning, the long staring silence that had gone out to the fields, went now to the roads, to the distance, to the West” (196).

And the traveling Okie spaces are also problematic in that they are designed to be temporary. They are transitional spaces, meant only to help the Okies recover from the disempowerment they experience at the loss of their old ways of life. As Frank Eugene Cruz says “In Between a Past and Future Town,” the highway as a “home-space” “is an in-between one; not only through the states en route to California, but it is also a bridge of asphalt connecting Oklahoma and California, existing between the two” (69). Cruz states that Jim Casy, the preacher, understands “that the road, as a site of continuous movement, is a place of in-betweeness that can never be an adequate substitute for the home lost in Oklahoma…The lonely road, according to Casy, cannot replace the home lost, for the road signifies their dispossession” (69).

So, although the traveling Okie spaces may offer empowerment to the characters in The Grapes of Wrath, they can only give the Okies so much of it because the spaces exist solely to help them get from one place to another. But, really, what can completely repair the feeling of disempowerment that comes from losing a source of one’s identity?

Sadly, there isn’t anything left to make a home out of for the Joads and many of the Okies at their destination. The Joads and the other Okies don’t find the land that they were promised. Instead they end up treading into other people’s space, and these people aren’t too happy about it, to put it lightly. The Californians don’t want Okies there—well, they do, but only for cheap labour. Instead of being welcomed to the state like they thought they would be, the Okies are excluded from its social spaces and stuffed into the Okie social space, a space that is created for them by non-Okies. Anyone in this space is looked upon with hatred and distrust. Okies are dehumanized (Steinbeck 221), never allowed to claim any land for themselves (244), and driven to beg and steal for scraps from strangers because there’s not enough work to keep them fed (237), among other things. Even the term “Okie” is a pejorative term created to distinguish them from everyone else, though I don’t use that term in exactly the same context that the non-Okie characters do. I view it more as a term that identifies a group of people who share a common experience of the exodus into California.

If you want some more context on the Okies (the historical ones, not the fictional ones), here’s a video:

This is the forth and last post in my miniseries, “All-American Space Navigation.” I hoped you enjoyed it!

I just want you to leave with this last thought: Humans have always had spaces, and they always will because our world is filled with difference. That’s a beautiful thing. Difference is what makes life worth living. The problem with spaces though occurs when they are given disparate values because of the value prescribed to certain differences, when people are treated wrongly or too favourably because of the spaces they occupy. Thankfully though, spaces aren’t immutable. They can be created, trespassed, and torn apart. After all, they are made out of our ideas and ideas change.

Cited Stuff

Cruz, Frank Eugene. ““In Between a Past and Future Town.” Steinbeck Review 4.2 (2007): 53-75. Google Scholar. Web. 6 April 2015.

PBS. “‪The Dust Bowl Woody Guthrie: Okies PBS.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 12 Nov. 2012. Web. 6 April. 2015.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.

N.a. “The Grapes of Wrath.” Photograph. Webomatica, n.d. Web. 6 April. 2015

Making Spaces Down The Road


In two previous posts, “From Black To White” and “From Black To White To Red,” I discussed how the main characters, Clare and Irene use passing as a social space navigation affordance to move from the black social space and into the white one. The characters are empowered by entering this space, but moving into it also requires them to give up their abilities to express themselves and their black heritage. Paying this toll to gain entrance into the white space disempowers them. This empowering/disempowering relationship is, in my opinion, one of the central issues of passing as an affordance. By using it, the characters, Clare and Irene, are forced to negotiate their identities with their ability to pass. Also, the very fact that they have to negotiate how to use the affordance brings to light the troubling impacts of ideological race differences.

But, moving on. In this post I will explore how social spaces are created by using The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. The story takes place during the Dust Bowl era. During this time, there was a ten-year drought that greatly affected the southern states. The huge dust storms that came as a result of the drought made it next to impossible for farmers to make a living because the dust ruined their crops. Sadly, this drought also came during the Great Depression, which ended up causing a mass exodus of people from the affected areas to California. Here’s a video to give a bit more background on the severity of the drought:

In Grapes of Wrath, the migrants, or the Okies, as they’re called, create their own social spaces in the aftermath of their forced exodus from their homes. The social spaces, referred to as “worlds” (194) in the text and referred to as “traveling Okie spaces” by me, are created by the Okies to help them deal with the disempowering sudden changes to their old ways of life. Their feelings of disempowerment are described by the narrator, who frames the okies as bugs:

The cars of the migrant people crawled out of the side roads onto the great cross-country highway, and then took the migrant way to the West. In the daylight they scuttled like bugs to the westward; and as the dark caught them, they clustered like bugs near to shelter and to the water. And because they ere lonely and perplexed, because they had all come from a place of sadness and worry and defeat, and because they were all going to the new mysterious place, they huddled together; they talked together; they shared their lives, their food, and the things they hoped for in the new country. (193)

According to Rebecca Hilton, in their desperation to find a way to deal with the loss of their homes, the migrants revaluate their concepts of family. No longer are ties created solely through blood. Now they are also created through shared experience: “In short, the people on the road realize that in such precarious times, one’s family consists of all those in need” (Hilton 101).

What is to become the traveling Okie spaces are made up of groups of desperate people clinging to each other for comfort and assurance, just like family members. To give an example, before they start their journey, the Joads decide to treat Jim Casy as a part of their family and take him with them to California even though he isn’t biologically related to them (Steinbeck 103). In this way, he becomes a “nonbiological family member” (Hilton 101). The Joads also become close to the Wilsons, a couple who are also traveling to California. On the night that they meet, the Joads bury Granpa, the first member of their family to die (Steinbeck 143). The Wilsons are with the Joads through the process, sharing “in the intimate family ritual of Grandpa’s burial by supplying a quilt and a piece of paper” (Hilton 101). After that, the Joads and the Wilsons combine their families, planning to drive to California together in order to support each other along the way (Steinbeck 148).

As more migrants cluster together, the traveling Okie spaces begin to form, though only loosely. At night, several families come together, making one giant family, which generates the social spaces: “In the evening a strange thing happened: the twenty families became one family, the children were the children of all. The loss of home became one loss, and the golden time in the West was one dream…the twenty were one” (193). But in the morning, the social spaces lose cohesion and fall apart because the Okies separate:”Every night a world created, complete with furniture—friends made and enemies established; a world complete with braggarts and with cowards, with quiet men, with humble men, with kindly men. Every night relationships that make a world, established; and every morning the world torn down like a circus” (194). The traveling Okie spaces don’t really become stabilized until after parameters have been established. Like all social spaces, the ones that the Okies create have to have rules. In other words, they need to put ideologies in place in order to form matrixes so that the spaces can maintain their structures. According to the narrator, these rules are created through the implementation of rights, though I view these “rights” as ideologies:

Then leaders emerged, then laws were made, then codes came into being…The families learned what rights must be observed–the right of privacy in the tent; the right to keep the past black hidden int he heart; the right to talk and to listen; the right to refuse help or to accept, to offer help or to decline it; the right of son to court and daughter to be courted; the right of the hungry to be fed; the rights of the pregnant and the sick to transcend all other rights. (194)

Also, during the traveling Okie spaces’ stage of formation, any ideologies that contribute to the chaos that was present in the initial stage of the spaces’ creation are eliminated:

And the families learned, although no one told them, what rights are monstrous and must be destroyed: the right to intrude upon privacy, the right to be noisy while the camp slept, the right of seduction or rape, the right of adultery and theft and murder. These rights were crushed, because the little worlds could not exist for even a night with such rights alive. (194)

As these spaces stabilize, these “rights” become the rules, and these rules become laws: “It is unlawful to foul near the camp; it is unlawful in any way to foul the drinking water; it is unlawful to eat good rich food near one who is hungry, unless he is asked to share” (194). Those who do not wish to obey these rules are either die in a fight or are banished from the space (194). The last punishment is devastating to anyone who occupies the space because it means that “his name and face with with him, and he no place in any world, no matter where created” if he leaves it (194).

The most intriguing characteristic of these spaces for me is that they are mobile. When the Okies pack up their belongings to continue down the road, the traveling Okie spaces are packed up along with them. At night, they put up the spaces again. The spaces go with the Okies, keeping them safe and secure while they are on their journeys (195). They may have lost their homes, their memories, and most of their belongings, but by occupying the traveling Okie spaces, the Okies are able to gain a small measure of what they once had. Instead of being alone, cut off from everything that made them who they are, they are able to belong to a community once again. And this reconnection empowers the okies as they travel to California.

(This is the third post in my miniseries, “All-American Space Navigation.” Check back for the last one.)

Cited Stuff

Hilton, Rebecca. “Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.” The Explicator 56.2 (1998): 101-103. Humanities Full Text. Web. 6 April 2015.

N.a. “Okies_san_diego.” Photograph. Affordable Housing Institute, n.d. Web. 6 April. 2015

PBS. “‪The Dust Bowl Episode.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 13 Nov. 2012. Web. 6 April. 2015.

Steinbeck, John. The Grapes of Wrath. 1939. New York: Penguin, 1999. Print.