Thesis – Starting the Journey

Here We Go:

The beginning of the semester marks the half-way point in my journey through the MFA D+T program at Parsons School of Design. What started as somewhat of a leap of faith, progressed through a teeth-clenching redefinition of my own capabilities, and finished with a month-long trip exploring Hong Kong and China to work with our counterparts in Art & Design universities.

Poised at the beginning of my second year, I have started to retrace this journey by reviewing several of my own essays, project notes, blog posts, and random scribbles and moments of inspiration for things to make. In the last few blog posts here, I posted some of the essays and related thoughts that I found most inspiring, or felt most deeply. At some point, I will also get around to recapping my trip to China which left me with several ideas, re-conceptions of things I knew, and a cast of wonderful new friends from around the world.

But for now… It’s time for Thesis! The word that I and my peers dread to hear mentioned, mutter half-heartedly when declining invitations to go out, and generally mull over about 50% of our time on moving vehicles. Thesis…

What is a thesis anyway? My good friend Kim, who has written both a Masters and P.h.d thesis now gave me the following definition as advice. “A Thesis is an academic credentialing exercise designed to show that you are qualified at your particular level. “. What she meant by that is don’t believe that it is the culmination of your academic and research career. It is one question – albeit a big one you work a year on – that you will have in your life, and it may lead to several more questions you can work on when you graduate.

My good friend Kim, who has written both a Masters and P.h.d thesis now gave me the following definition as advice. “A Thesis is an academic credentialing exercise designed to show that you are qualified at your particular level. “. What she meant by that is don’t believe that it is the culmination of your academic and research career. It is one question – albeit a big one you work a year on – that you will have in your life, and it may lead to several more questions you can work on when you graduate. I thought this was some great advice.

When receiving my syllabus for Thesis Studio 1, I was given another definition regarding our own major’s thesis: “The MFA DT thesis is a systematic investigation of a research question based in the domains of art, Design and Technology. It requires students to identify an area of study, research its major assumptions and precedents, and propose a project within this area of practice. Students need to explain the significance of their undertaking; and develop a methodology for conceptualizing, researching, prototyping and writing that culminates in a polished Thesis Project and Paper.”

That is a bit more specific and outlines the process and expectations. But most importantly, it calls out what a Thesis really is, the process, not just the product. So as I sit here and try to organize my competing thoughts and desires that have arisen through a steady diet of MFA D+T subject matter and technical practice, I keep reminding myself that this is a systematic investigation of a research question. One research question among many that will arise throughout this investigation and one project that carves out a piece of the field in answering that question and contributing to the body of work on the subject overall.

Getting Organized

To start this investigation, we were asked to use an exercise called the Grid of 9 to begin to organize our interests. By organizing interests into three domains/questions/concepts and brainstorming three projects that could arise from each, we began to answer questions like what we want to make and why, to identify potential domains for research and why we, or the world, should care that the work is done.

For my Grid of 9 I found myself back in familiar territories, my overarching domains and interests aligning along paths that have evolved through my research in year one. My three main areas of interest were Contemporary Craftmanship, Alternative Internets in Urban Communities and VR/AR Usability Evaluation. Each of this areas was a realization of a paper or project from my first year or ideas I already had coming into MFA D+T that I wanted to explore.

Contemporary Craftmanship

This area is motivated by my interest in the idea of “co-making”. Much of my success at Parsons is due to the array of modern fabrication equipment we have at our disposal: laser cutters, 3D Printers, CNC machines, Plasma Cutters etc. Given my experience working in the public sector, I know how rare good design tools can be, often having to create new emails bi-weekly to continue a free membership for Illustrator or Acrobat to meet the needs of a big project. I had read of programs in other states where many libraries were being reconfigured to provide some of these tools, specifically 3D printing, much to the communities benefit. However, I recently visited Mystic Seaport Connecticut where I was able to get an up-close look at the complexity and ingenuity of traditional craft-making such as barrel making, smithing, and rope-making. Something about the big machines, and the precision and delicacy of setting them up to work correctly had a weight about it, a tangible value that anchored it in the here and now (you can’t just hit “undo” when making the design).

Between these two ideas I had some vague notions about the benefits of craftmanship in modern living. I have often felt a shallowness, an emptiness to many of the trappings of modern urban living. One of the biggest disconnects is how work activities – mostly typing and writing things on computers – is so far removed from anything that is needed to survive. There is a long and complicated chain between anything I produce and how it creates tangible resources I need, much more complicated than say making barrels every day to store food and water in. I think that this disconnect can cause us to lose touch with the networks of people, production, labor and work that make the world run. The sheer complexity of modern living precludes necessary making for most people in the first-world, and we instead pay to make a vase, or a glass ornament after work. This is a fascinating concept.

Yet since I have started MFA D+T a  HUGE proponent of which is learning through making, I have felt the joy, frustration, and pride in producing a thing. Of taking an idea and making it manifest in physical form and reality, tweaking it piece by piece until it most closely resembles (or not as technical challenges arise :P) the vision in your head. It is also useful and practical to understand the digital world around us, how it is embedded in physical objects and spaces, and how those places talk to one another through codes and algorithms. In order to make change, you have to understand the system.

Yet when I tried to propose concrete projects for this section, I was most interested in the idea of studying how public institutions (libraries, schools etc.) should promote the knowledge of how to use these machines and make them publically available. I thought it would be an excellent way to transform knowledge and the role of libraries and schools in disseminate it.

I also found myself drifting back down the path of Speculative Design, thinking about how I could build speculative objects that combined digital vs. traditional craftsmanship and how it might come together once again in a future of mass-customization.

Alternative Internets

This topic is near and dear to my heart as the impetus behind it is something I have explored over and over again in my projects: the failure of the democratic internet. I have often said that I feel the internet broke its promise to us. I felt like that the internet had been co-opted and corrupted by a culture of materialism and all of the algorithms and advertisements that shore up rampant consumerism. Where was the fragmented yet wonderful world of my early teenage years, a Wild West where you could stumble upon anything through a strange search query? An unindexed internet, an untracked internet, and an internet that didn’t try to engage you in a constantly connected feedback loop to modify every party of your life that can be optimized by outsourcing memory and living algorithmically with your notifications.

I have read many science fiction books and academic articles regarding accelerationism, privacy, surveillance, and behavioral psychology and I really am convinced that there is a concerted effort to make people’s lives easy and convenient through intimate digital partnerships with our devices. But where is the serendipity? Where are the people and communities? Who is driving this process and who is really benefiting from it? Not the woman who just put down another $20 to play Candy Crush or the teacher getting fired as a result of analysis software. Are we becoming even more like machines as they become more and more personal and human? Do we prefer them to real humans? Sometimes I will go hide in the bathroom at a bar to play with my smartphone in peace for five minutes -don’t we all these days?

I am fundamentally interested in this complex and intertwined relationship we have with each other, our technology, and our communities. Both the good and the bad, the light and the shadows. Why is it that I feel all my internet experiences either lead to a quantification of my activities and progress or the entrance into a feedback loop of tailored advertising recommendations? Is that what the internet was supposed to be? Yet if this network were to fail – whether through natural disaster or government take-over due to its top-down organization – where would we be? Helpless.

I wanted to explore these failures and possible ways in which people could reclaim the internet outside of the channels of consumerism and surveillance. I had proposed some projects last year for wireless mesh systems for communities and read some great sci-fi showcasing how bad it could get if the government ever decided to really monitor and shut down our internet due to shock doctrine like responses to real or perceived terror attacks – which seem to get more frequent every day.

I also was interested in the ideas of Jeremy Rifkin, that the internet was suffering from the last vestiges of an incomplete third industrial revolution towards decentralization. Since energy had failed to go along these lines as well, so had cultural behaviors and values, and therefore while the groundwork in many ways for a de-centralized laterally networked internet of both communication and eventually renewable energy, it had failed to manifest. Consumerism based on top-down systems of energy and production were still king.

From these ideas I developed three more projects looking at three parts of the problem: A Model for Community Wireless Mesh Networks, an education and advertising platform for current Solar NYC and renewable “Internet of Energy” initiatives, and a digital and IOT system that would help people better connect with their community government – specifically community boards and participative budgeting. All three of these ideas proposed alternative internets and spaces for public discourse and debate that were free from private and capitalist oversite. Since so many of our available methods for discourse are actually privately owned, I am interested in how de-centralized and public networks can help to both promote digital literacy among everyday people and create resiliency and privacy from scrutiny and quantification.

VR/AR Ethics and Usability

Going back to my previous assertion that I fundamentally care about how tech changes humans and society, I couldn’t help but be sucked into one of the most promising and transformative technologies that has hit our world, virtual and augmented reality. I started exploring this interest last year with a literature review of usability evaluation methods for virtual reality. The intersection between real and virtual fascinated me, both the technical requirements to produce it and the ethical quandaries posed by its potential seduction.

For my last section of projects, I proposed various ways in which I could start to explore this area more and dig into some of the questions I had been asking myself while watching peers work on VR/AR projects and the tentative reception of publically available technologies hit the market. The three projects I proposed were very different in application: creating new technologies for measuring VR/AR usability, creating interactive art and/or physical objects that explored re-mappings of senses (something VR must do since it imperfectly represents people in virtual spaces still), or a physical delivery system and paired VR experience that explored how smell could play a role in immersion.

All three of these projects were motivated either by my literature review of inspiration found in aspects of projects I saw my classmates making.

Moving Forward

In assessing my interest around all of these projects, I found myself most attracted to two of the three areas. While the VR/AR stuff is really cool, it doesn’t strike an emotional chord with me to the same extent as thinking about co-making, decentralization and what the role is of government and communities in creating, maintaining, and using new technologies. I started to realize that many of the actual projects I was proposing could be situated in the ideas of decentralized platforms, bottom-up creation and relationships between people, governments, private companies, and technology.

For my next steps, I will try to collate these interests into some domains and research questions, finding where they intersect and what is going on today in terms or research and precedents that can inform/inspire my direction moving forward.

You Can Check Out My Grid of 9 Presentation Below

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