Reading Reflection: Tim Ingold’s Lines

At our Technology on the Trail workshop in March, invited speaker Alan Dix highly recommended a book by Tim Ingold titled Lines: A Brief History. We purchased it and made it available to people taking part in the initiative, with some thoughts listed here.

From Alan Dix’s blog post referencing Lines: “Ingold’s thesis is that we have privileged the point or place in modern thought, seeing the connection as merely the means of getting from A to B. Ingold is an anthropologist and spent time studying reindeer herders. Their way of life is to follow the herds as they make seasonal migrations; for the tribes following the herds it is the way they follow, the path, the line, which is primary.”

Ingold’s book explores how lines are a key part of walking, writing, storytelling, and much more.  The book probes the foundational meaning of a line, and what it is and means across various domains, noting early on that “to an illiterate reader, lines have no more meaning than abstract art”. There are tons of other examples in computing in HCI, e.g., certainly those who study visualization have a skill in recognizing patterns that an unskilled eye could not pick out.

The book is highly speculative, putting forth a series of analyses of topics and situations that were often not well grounded in evidence, which some found unsatisfying. Grad seminar participant Colin Shea-Blymer summed up this viewpoint very well:

I honestly appreciate the book’s magnificent scope, and, when taken as more of an artistic endeavor, it succeeds in that scope in many ways. However, coming into the book from a more critical perspective I found Ingold’s introductory apology for his lack of depth in many of the subjects he tied lines to unsatisfactory. The sections of his book that I muddled through read more like a stringing-together of romantic-era aesthetic arguments as evidence towards an unstated hypothesis; done without criticism of the arguments he appropriates. In brief, the book works well if you’re looking for an eye-opening overview of how lines go undetected in human art and society, but falters if the reader begins to scrutinize the arguments within. The path Ingold illuminates is beautiful and worth peering down, but the steps he takes appear treacherous and unstable upon closer inspection.

There’s more Ingold work, including another book that seems like it might be even more relevant to our Technology on the Trail theme, an edited collection titled Ways of Walking: Ethnographies and Practice on Foot (also available in the Virginia Tech library), stemming from a meeting of anthropologists who split time “sitting in a traditional seminar room” and “climb[ing] up through the forest and out to the open hillside”.  Given the similarity to our own seminar, there may be a review of this book in the near future!

Reading Reflection: Better Off Flipping the Switch on Technology

As an MIT alum, Eric Brende understands how technology can be used on a daily basis in order to influence society and promote efficiency. As a man who went “off the grid” for a year living in a town where the people living in the town would consider the Amish as advanced, Eric Brende discovers how to survive independent of technology often taken for granted. Brende’s novel, Better off Flipping the Switch on Technology, explores now technology can positively and negatively affect an individual’s life.

Experienced vs Inexperienced

When Eric and his wife first move to the “unplugged” town, they are inexperienced in terms of not using technology and going “off the grid”. Their new lifestyle drastically changes how they learn how to perform everyday tasks such as cooking (since they do not own a refrigerator and must learn how to cook food that can be preserved for long amounts of time), obtaining drinkable water/washing dishes/doing laundry (since there is no running water), and farming as a means to earn a living and eat since there isn’t a nearby grocery store nearby. Instead of searching how to do something online and receiving an answer instantaneously, Eric and his wife learn through trial and error and by receiving advice and knowledge from experience of the locals. While performing a task without the use constant use of technology often takes longer and may seem tedious, Brende views these tasks as insightful and rewarding since tasks are now dependent on the human rather than on technology.

Viewpoints on Technology

Throughout the novel, the author describes this certain period in his life as a way for him to step away from the use of technology since he feels as if it is controlling his life. The author generally focuses on the negative aspects of technology rather than the positive. Such negative aspects of technology include: how technology isolates you from every day interaction with people, how you spend so much time with technology it’s almost as if you’re in a daze (driving hours to get to work), and how you become so dependent on technology you never recognize that certain tasks can be done without technology.

While the author constantly explains negative aspects of technology, he rarely focuses on how technology can be beneficial. For instance, with technology, it has become easier to connect with people that you’ve lost communication with faster (ex: Facebook over writing letters). However, messaging a person on social media instead of contacting a person by writing a letter is deemed less personal by society. Additionally, farming (what Brende spent many hours during the day completing while “unplugged”) can be done much more efficiently using technology. By spending less time farming during the day with the use of technology, Brende could have had more leisure time to relax and “have fun”. Throughout the novel, Brende mentions how people can live without luxuries such as heating, indoor plumbing, and electricity but fails to focus on how much easier an individual’s living arrangements becomes with the use of technology. By not having to worry about trivial things such as washing dishes without running water, individuals have more time to complete other tasks rather than attacking tasks that can be completed quicker with the use of technology.

Machines vs Tools

In the community that the author is living in for a year, locals only use the “technology” that was used by people as described in The Bible. They generally refuse to use technology present today. However, why is it acceptable for the people in the community to use the technology from the past rather than the technology of the present? The main distinction between the two was that the technology of the past are considered to be “tools” rather than “machines”. Brende describes the difference by deciding that people dependent on machines, “besides often depriving their uses of skills and physical exercise, they created new and artificial demands – for fuel, space, money and time. These in turn crowded out other important human pursuits, like involvement in family and community, or even the process of thinking itself. The very act of accepting the machine was becoming automatic.” Tools were considered an object that would be used to help perform a certain task whereas machines were objects that were used to perform a task quicker without understanding how to perform the actual task.

Communication Without the Use of Technology

The people in the town the author and his wife live in work as an interdependent community. Overall, people within the community interact with each other in order for all of them to be successful (helping with farming, building, and bringing food to each other). They often use “working” as a time for people to talk to each other about topics ranging from trivial gossip to insightful commentary about personal beliefs. The author uses this time in order to reflect on how the lack of technology affects his performance on everyday tasks and gain experiences from his more knowledgeable neighbors in order to become successful by learning farming and living tricks and cooking tips in order to accomplish tasks quicker or easier.

Relevance to Technology on the Trail

Reading about Eric Brende’s experiences and insights through “flipping the switch on technology” is highly relevant to Technology on the Trail. Not unlike the people from the community that Brende and his wife lived in, many hikers view technology as a taboo concept use excessively. For Technology on the Trail, it is important to research specifically what people determine as useful and unnecessary to bring on the Trail. Additionally, it is important to research and discover how to promote the use of technology on the trail without hindering a hiker’s natural experience on the trail. Not unlike Eric Brende learning how to farm, cook, and live without technology, I am interested in exploring if there is a way for technology to be used in order to share the experiences of a seasoned hiker in order to benefit less-experienced hikers on and off the trail.

Reading Reflection: She Walks These Hills (Today) – Follow Up

She Walks These Hills: Past vs Present

Considering that She Walks These Hills was published in 1994, how would the novel be different if it was written in the present? How would the roles of each character be affected with society’s dependence on technology today? Would the trail be different? How would the local community spread their information?

Where would Hank be Today?

The biggest character difference between (1994 and 2017) would be Hank. In the novel, he is a radio host and was the glue that spread information and invited communication. While the radio is still an important way to spread information, is it still as impactful as it was back then? What other types of technology are able to connect to people today? What is today’s “radio”?

People today are more on-the-go and spend more time on their laptops or their phones. Many people listen to the radio on their commute to work. However, that is becoming less common since the introduction to technology such as Bluetooth in cars. People would rather listen to their own music, free of commercials, instead of listening to the radio. Often, people get their information through news websites, internet blogs, Facebook, etc. Based on the sometimes relevant/mostly irrelevant information that Hank talks about in the novel, from gossip to trying to prove the innocence of an escaped convict, Hank would most likely be an internet blogger. Unlike Radio Hank, Blogger Hank wouldn’t be able to have as much personal contact with his audience. Radio Hank had frequent people calling in to tell him information or discuss a certain topic. In contrast, Blogger Hank wouldn’t have people as many people trying to tell in information immediately. Rather, Hank would merely be writing about a certain topic, allowing viewers to be able to write their own post on their opinions/thoughts. This is drastically different in the sense that not everyone would be receiving the same information since not every single person reading Hank’s blogs would be reading all the comments written by the viewers – including Hank himself.

Where would Jeremy be Today?

Jeremy would still be too unexperienced to be traveling through the Appalachian trail since he still would have been a first-time hiker. However, the items he brings along with him for his journey may be different. Instead of books, Jeremy would probably bring his iPad/laptop which contain the books that he wants for his journey in addition to being able to finding time to write about his journey on his laptop. Since the Jeremy in the novel brought everything imaginable with him on the trail to cover all possible scenarios, he would probably have his phone containing hiking apps and digital maps of the Appalachian Trail. Instead of having to drop all of his items during his trip because of weight, Jeremy would have to leave his items because they got wet from the weather or because he couldn’t find a place to charge his electronics in the case that his portable chargers ran out of battery.

Where would Harm be Today?

Harm’s character wouldn’t be much different than the character he was in the novel. Since he was an escaped convict, he would still have to travel through the Appalachian Trail without supplies, unless he found a way to obtain supplies along his journey. Additionally, since he was serving time for approximately 30 years before he escaped, he would not be as aware of the changes in technology while he was in prison. Harm of the past would still be the same as Harm of the present since he would still be using instinct, knowledge of the land, experience as a hiker, and luck to reach his destination. The only difference with Harm’s journey would be if the Appalachian Trail were to drastically change from his time in prison.

How Would the Town Communicate Today?

In the novel, the community’s main sources of spreading information was through speaking with each other in person, listening to the radio, and occasionally using the landline telephone. Individuals spent more time talking to each other in person and spreading gossip/information. As mentioned in the novel, when trying to research information on Harm, Hank found it more beneficial to obtain information by speaking with people rather than looking at old newspapers/articles.

As a small and close-knit community that was generally technologically unadvanced, communication with others in the town today would still have a focus on face-to-face contact but would also find more time communicating with each other through online medians (text messaging, phone calls, Facebook posts, email, etc.). People would still listen to the radio but they would not be listening or calling in as frequently as they did in the past. The radio would be used more for listening to music, weather/traffic reports, and the occasional gossip rather than the main source of information on important local gossip/news on people/current events surrounding the community. The radio would be used more for impartial, informative, and sometimes entertainment purposes while personal contact or communicating online would be used in order to spread “important” information to each other.

The Trail Today

With people viewing their cell phones as a necessary item, many hikers (day and thru) bring their cell phones with them on the trail. While there are more marked trails than there were in the past, people also use the GPS on their phones to tell them where they are. Additionally, more thru-hikers (hikers that hike the entire Appalachian Trail in one season) are bringing other technology such as laptops or tablets along their journey to blog or as a source of entertainment.

With society today becoming more dependent on technology than they were 10 years ago, the types of items that people deem “unnecessary” have also changed. While a solar shower can still be determined as superfluous on the trail, many hikers have changed their opinions on bringing a cell phone on the trail. Today, the cell phone can be used simply for calling family members to ensure them that they are safe, finding upcoming rest areas, determining how much further away a hiker is from a certain destination, or even for ordering pizza. The most important thing to consider now that technology on the trail has become more frequent in recent years is to determine and decide what is unnecessary on the trail and what can be considered as beneficial for a hiker (novice and experienced).

Reading Reflection: On Trails

Part of understanding our theme of Technology on the Trail demands an exploration into the history and nature of trails.  Robert Moor provides that in his book, On Trails: An Exploration. Inspired by hiking the Appalachian Trail, Moor sets out on a quest to “find the nature of trails”, including their earliest pre-human history, their establishment by animals ranging from ants to elephants, and their adoption by humans.  Most relevant to our goals, Moor includes a discussion of “how trails and technology…connect us in previously unimaginable ways”.

Moor acknowledges our fickle relationship with technology, noting that many hikers embrace GPS devices but scorn mobile phones, that technology is a malleable and agnostic vehicle for conveying knowledge yet inadequate without extensive time outdoors. He seems like a late adopter of technology, only willing to step in when he feels he’s missing out on an experience; e.g., he only bought a smartphone when he started needing to view online videos and when he recognized a need for a GPS-enhanced online map.  Yet he’s clearly done his homework about the history and continuing impact of technology on trails and hiking, providing a valuable resource for anyone interested in trails.

Reading Group Summary: Asocial Hiking App

Readings:

This week’s paper is by Maaret Posti and her colleagues examines social issues related to hiking, presenting a design-focused approach to understanding the tensions and desires to be asocial while hiking.

Agenda:

  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Attendance: 6 people (1 professor, 3 graduate students, 2 undergraduate student)
  • Discussion of next week (the week before Thanksgiving break) and beyond
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers

Discussion:

Gracie opened up with a comment about how it was a shame we couldn’t download an app to try out, but such is the way with research projects.  A bit more planning ahead and we could email the authors, alas.

Several times, the group came back to the issue of which trails had enough of a network to make an app like this feasible. In our experience, a lot of trails nearby have one and only one route, meaning it would be impossible to avoid someone without hiding in the bushes (which the paper explicitly said users didn’t prefer doing). Where the app was tested, there was enough of a network of trails that pieces could be mixed and matched at intersections of routes in order to avoid people or otherwise accomplish a “lonely” walk. However, it’s not like such networked trails don’t exist in the US (Gracie has hiked one in Indiana’s Turkey Run State Park) – it just seems less common to us locally.

Some of us felt there wasn’t demand for an app to avoid people on the trail. Some people are comfortable just walking by and not acknowledging others on the trail when hiking “alone,” but others note that people with considerations like social anxiety could benefit from avoiding people entirely. However, we did all relate to some degree with the notion of avoiding contact with a specific person (maybe your professor that you see across the quad, or an old classmate who you see in line at a shop) by actively avoiding them. We talked about little tricks like walking behind a different person or acting distracted.

We also talked at length about privacy and security issues, which we felt the original paper didn’t do justice to. This app could very easily tell someone with malicious intentions that they’re alone on a remote trail with just one other person. We connected this to a talk here at VT recently by our new faculty Gang Wang who discusses similar security issues with a driving app that revealed exact locations of others in traffic (which his group proved made it possible to stalk specific people). In general, very few people want everyone else around them to know their exact location.

Instead of an app with specific nearby people marked, we talked about the utility of a tool for estimating projected loneliness of a trail at a specific time. You’re at the mercy of chance if you wait until you’re already hiking to see if others are hiking the same paths. Projected popularity could be based on things like social media traffic relating to an area, but there’s confounding factors of a boring area not getting much social media attention.

In terms of the app itself, we talked a bit about the user preferences discussed in the paper. We thought it interesting that most preferred the version with an actual map integral to the view – something with utility beyond just the lonely hike use case. Needing the visual cue to detect others nearby made us talk about how a user might handle checking the device, being distracted by checking it, or choosing only to engage the app at intersections. We envisioned use over a longer period of time than just 84 minute hike. This would enable an understanding of hikers use it over time and how usage changes.

Reading Group Summary: Bridging Urban and Woods Technology

 Readings:

With this week’s paper we examine the connections between urban and trail technology use, considering how lessons from sensor-based science the woods affect urban sensing efforts.

  • Dana Cuff, Mark Hansen, and Jerry Kang. 2008. Urban sensing: Out of the woods. Communications of the ACM 51, 3 (March 2008), 24-33.

Agenda:

  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Attendance: 4 people (1 professor, 2 graduate students, 1 undergraduate student)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers

Discussion:

This paper, authored by an architect/urban planner, a statistician, and a lawyer, outlined challenges regarding sensing efforts in urban areas.  They began by describing successes in sensor-based science in the woods, where air, water, soil, etc. sensors could collect data continually without objection from the birds or worms.  They contrasted that with efforts to do sensing in urban areas, where there are legal issues (people object to being sensed more than birds) and a greater likelihood of junk data and garbage analysis.

The issues from this paper resonated with the people in the discussion group, particularly in reflecting on past papers.  Several people noted parallels with the challenges encountered with the Dix data, for which even a careful scientist and a conscientious science community generated faulty data (e.g., GPS malfunctions, forgetting to turn on or off a sensor) or questionable analysis (e.g., is there a “happy” day, or is that the wrong unit of time to examine).  Challenges stemming from large data sets, including human-generated data, certainly have grown in importance in the 8 years since this paper appeared.

The calls for action certainly seem prescient today.  The call for more data commons efforts is seen in data sets like the Dix data, government datasets, and the NSF requirement that all proposals include a data plan that explains how data generated in the proposed work would be made available for others to analyze.  The call for distributed citizen-initiated sensing is seen in efforts like Google traffic (Waves), Foursquare, bar tracking, Facebook check-ins, openstreet map, CMU bus schedule project (Zimmerman), and lots of other crowdsourcing efforts.

And it was encouraging that the authors noted that user interfaces are both important and hard.  Again, we saw that in the Dix data, which was made available but was reformatted  and cleaned up multiple times–and gaining insights from it is still hard: McCrickard’s class had difficulty identifying interesting findings for a week-long homework assignment. 

There were lots of ways forward that emerged from the discussion and paper.  Many were related to the difficulty in knowing the right question to ask about data sets?  A bottom up examination reveals trends and top down reveals questions, but there’s a danger in just finding what you’re looking for without a scientifically rigorous approach.  The paper seems prescient 8 years later, and worthy of consideration moving forward.

Reading Group Summary: Alan Walks Wales

Readings:

Agenda:

  • Brief revisit of reading group and introductions of anyone new
    • Our time this week overlapped with faculty meetings
    • Core ideas for TotT; see previous week
    • Attendance: 7 people(1 professor, 4 graduate students, 2 undergraduate students, including 2 new faces)
  • Summarize papers
  • Discuss papers

Discussion:

We started with an overall discussion of the Alan Walks Wales project from miscellaneous outside readings by a few of the reading group members. This week, our two papers were very recent, so we only touched briefly on whether new tools or techniques (most specifically to dealing with open, large data sets) existed since the time of the paper’s publishing.PubsofBlacksburg-Poster-Maroon

Following the suggested definition of a wonky map from Alan Dix’s paper, we put forth as our own example the PubsOf poster shown here of our own local bars drawn by Brian McKelvey. It is “wonky”, as it doesn’t faithfully represent the town of Blacksburg but includes distortions that highlight key destination points (i.e., pubs).

With this example and the paper in mind, we talked about the definition of a “map.” One person suggested that a map depicted places that are roughly co-located with an emphasis on directionality, and another suggested a map was a graphical representation of physical places.

From the discussion of maps, a few interesting threads of conversation arose. We debated, especially for the purposes of travel or hiking, whether a map based on time-to-travel rather than physical distance might be possible. Traveling the distance up a mountainside takes far longer than traveling the same distance on flat ground. We also talked about examples like subway maps which commonly shrink the map of rails into more of a conceptual understanding of intersections, especially to fit on smaller pieces of paper or near the ceiling of a subway car.

We also discussed what it’s like to describe directions using landmarks to someone unfamiliar with the area, especially in the context of back routes or walking through alleys and grassy areas; sometimes we just say “follow me” to lead a stranger through campus instead of trying to describe such a thing. We also talked about on-the-ground assistance people give each other that traditional maps can’t provide, such as a trailhead marker that has a slider for its condition.

We talked about what it would be like if trail maps were read the same way as street maps, or if they were described solely in terms of landmarks. One of us suggested there are three ways to navigate by landmarks: solely on landmarks, landmarks plus direction, and purely on a sense of distance between landmarks. We also hit on the significance of general map literacy, going again back to A Walk in the Woods in which the author went into the experience with fairly robust map-reading skills, such as when he found a logging road to get around an impassable mountain in a storm.

We connected the two readings when talking about what maps could be generated from information collected on the ground. A map of the difficulty of the terrain could be generated based on the people actually traversing it. We talked about how user-generated maps might also capture those back routes that traditional maps miss that would normally spread by word of mouth only, or other issues like seasonal closures.

When discussing open data in classrooms, we hit upon the pros and cons of giving students entirely unexplored sets of data as open-ended puzzles to figure out. We talked about the need, also stressed in the paper, to clean the data beforehand. We felt a big issue could be the student not knowing how or where to get started with such an open problem. The data feeling irrelevant to the student could also be an issue. We talked about whether working with the data of hundreds of people in the set might make it more interesting to work with. However, that still might not make the data feel relevant to the student, and more isn’t always better. What the student cares about might not be something numerical data can capture.

We talked about two ways to approach data: either look for insights in an open-ended manner, or try to verify a hypothesis. The two are not always mutually exclusive. We talked about how readers of a blog might feel more connected to the story if they had access to tools to analyze and gain insights about the data contained in it, and specifically whether that would make readers feel more connected to the Alan Walks Wales story when they might not have before.

We talked about the potential of tying personal data sets, such as one generated by Fitbit, into publicly accessible data sets, such as meteorological data. Enriching data after the fact with additional public data would be an interesting area of study. However, we talked about the downside of highly localized data; going back to the meteorological data, weather can be very different in one area than it is only half a mile away, such as in a valley and on top of a foothill, and it’s less likely that publicly available data sets would match your exact experiences. Aggregating the data of many people with similar private data might crowdsource some of that specificity in an interesting way.