Category Archives: Week 13

Demystifying Meaning Systems and Technology for Marginalized Groups

Throughout the semester, I’ve contemplated ways in which this course’s topics and theories tie in with not-so-abstract scenarios and settings. Packaging such dense and mind-blowing content into a 14-week course is no easy feat. Thankfully, connecting the dots between meaning systems and cultural contexts is almost second nature for me now, but I wondered how attainable such a-ha moments are (and could be) for those outside this CCT course.

For my final research, I want to delve into how complex meaning systems and computational thinking can be the key to demystifying technology for minorities in/outside the classroom and facilitating social change strategies for marginalized. This idea is a fusion of topics around distributed agency amongst marginalized groups (Week 9), a medium’s technical impact on communication (Week 8), semantic differentiations associated with language (Week 7) and how meaning systems operate within the world of music and art (Week 6). Millennials, especially from the African-American community have been responsible for creating and popularizing phrases and terms that were rooted in regional or even subcultural contexts (i.e. bling, twerk, fleek, etc.) However, historically there has been a disparity in access to computer science and technology education for minorities, as is evident in the lack of diversity in those respective workforces. The fundamentals of such disciplines like computational thinking and deblackboxing sociotechnical systems can be essential to spearheading social movements and rebuilding disheveled communities.

This week’s reading from Conery simplifies the definition of computation to being a “sequence of simple, well-defined steps that lead to the solution of a problem.” His approach is accessible and applicable to situations transcending that of modern computer programming or software interactions; the definition’s inexactness and comprehensibility lends itself to other arenas – meaning it is less unnerving for those newly exposed, uninterested or wary to this cognitive method. By describing algorithmic processes as static descriptions or blueprints for computational action in the manner that Conery has, understanding for arenas like music development, filmmaking and visual art can be readily achieved.

The basis for understanding media theory, technological development and meaning systems is to recall that all signs and technologies to which we are exposed are derivative of previous instances, thus meaning that no matter how tangential two signs may be are – a network connection or path is shared. Moreover, as Dror and Harnad explain, the boundary between the user and the tool disappears, as the technology is an integral part of the cognitive state itself. This exemplifies the relationship between African-Americans, social media platforms and their identity-centered participation in digital communities and discourse. It is also within these communities that transitive states occur between humans interacting with applications (humans on Twitter) to spark a social transition (grassroots demonstrations, knowledge sharing, communal self-esteem elevating practices, etc.).

With the advent of new approaches to cognition and action, we must remember that the advances of technology we witness are grandfathered by basic human interaction methods. As we discussed a few weeks ago, it’s not a matter of man against the machine or technology versus culture; but instead, the machine inspiring, awakening and molding the (marginalized) people for the betterment of himself, their community and society.

Identity as a remediated cultural text

It is a challenge for human beings to understand their own symbolic systems, because we can never be external to our own cognition. Another challenge is the restrictions that language brings. This is because words crystallize meaning, and precondition our thoughts by providing conceptual frameworks. On the other hand, these two challenges that make it a challenge for us to understand our symbolic systems – being a human with a particular language structure – can as well constitute starting points to understand human symbolic systems.

In order to overcome the restrictions that language provide, the best that we can do is gain a “meta” understanding. Secondly, a historical approach can be employed to understand how human cognition functions. Looking back to the history, understanding the implications of Claude Shannon’s Master’s thesis was the “a-ha” moment for me. Using electricity as a means to deploy human cognition has enabled us to create cognitive structures (not cognizers) for our use.

Understanding these concepts, allowed me to think of the following questions that I would not have thought of otherwise: What are the assumptions we make as we are navigating in our daily life? How do the language that we are using restrict our conceptualizations? How do we delegate and expect agency from artefacts? What is the best way to characterize artefacts with deployed cognition? And finally, what are the consequences of not asking these questions?

Considering that the way humans digest content is the topic that academically inspire me, the concepts that I have learned throughout the courses further extended my inquiry to the following question: What is the cognitive basis of remediation? Are there any common patterns in remediation of media? Can we observe any patterns in the way that media forms are remediated?

With this perspective, I will propose the following text as a unit of analysis with the conceptual tools at hand: online identity. Approaching online identity as a form of remediation, Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory can be employed to understand how identity is transferred. Secondly, analyzing an online social media platforms’ interface in regard to the way it simulates person-to-person interaction can be a usefull approach to deblackbox the cognitive processes that take place. Finally, deblackboxing the functionalities and symbols embedded in buttons in online platforms can be useful to understand hoe interacting with a computer can substitute person-to-person interaction.

iBooks and Media Theories

In examining the iBooks app, many of the theories discussed in Media Theory and Meaning Systems prove applicable. Understanding the cultural function of the app requires knowledge of Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, Manovich’s observations of said theory in application to digital simulation, skeuomorphism, the computer’s existence as a metamedium, Eco’s notion of the cultural encyclopedia, and the concept of the digital-analog continuum.

The iBooks app provides an obvious example of Bolter and Grusin’s remediation theory, in which new media are not entirely new; they remediate prior forms of media. From this perspective, iBooks remediates the printed book into a digital platform. However, as Manovich points out, new media are not simply a remediation of previous media forms, they also provide, even necessitate, new approaches to the old media. For instance, in iBooks, one can change the fonts and page color, digitally search for words in the text and compile recurrences, share passages over social media, and copy and paste passages into different textual environments. Therefore, digital simulation alters our approach to reading text.

In addition to these new innovations, the iBooks interface simulates the appearance and functionality of the printed book, possibly to ease the transition from old to new media as in the case of the skeuomorph. These holdovers from print media include the simulation of the bookshelf, page turning, bookmarks, notes/marginalia, and highlighting/underlining. According to the logic of the skeuomorph, retaining older, and thus familiar, elements serve to provide a familiar context in the digital world during the transition phase; however, they are supposed to fade away as users become acquainted with the new system. This is evident in the case of the iBooks bookshelf, which once simulated the appearance of a physical, wooden bookshelf but now merely displays the books floating on the screen. Nevertheless, it is not clear at this stage whether or not some of these functions (note-taking, for instance) will ever be replaced.

Also, the iBooks interface prevents the reader from ever encountering a book in isolation. Even if the user has only downloaded one book, access to the digital bookstore ensures that this one book always exists in a network of other books. Although theories of Intertextuality long pre-date book digitalization, iBooks reinforces the interrelation between texts through displaying them within the context of an expansive digital library. In addition, the app’s existence on a digital device providing access to a plethora of other apps—that is, on a metamedium—further connects the simulated books to an overarching cultural encyclopedia. For instance, the ability to highlight portions of text and search the internet for relevant information enables the user to connect the text with an externalized (and digitalized) cultural encyclopedia, instead of solely drawing on prior knowledge (this is also an example of the extended cognition capabilities provided by the app).

Nevertheless, printed books still exist. In fact, I only read printed books, and not (I hope) as the result of technophobia or retro-fetishism. The continued presence (for now, at least) of bookstores and publishing industries attests to the inability (for now, at least) of digital simulation to entirely supplant analog media. Instead, we exist in a digital-analog continuum.

Preventing Unplanned Pregnancy, by Mind and Network

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In reading Hutchins’ analysis of the implications of extended mind vs. distributed cognition, I was struck by the very reasonable way he described the subjective nature of thinking about distribution:

…to take the distributed perspective is not to make any claim about the nature of the world. Rather, it is to choose a way of looking at the world, one that selects scales of investigation such that wholes are seen as emergent from interactions among their parts. The boundaries of the unit of analysis for distributed cognition are not fixed in advance; they depend on the scale of the system under investigation, which can vary as described below.

Can the Bedsider program (where I work) be an interface to thinking about this concept?

The website itself was designed to be a cognitive tool to extend the minds of users to incorporate accurate knowledge about pregnancy prevention and sexual health. It is designed to give individuals access to an immediate sense of all the ways to prevent pregnancy (with a visual “method explorer”) and then to provide more detail on demand. We provide video interviews of people talking about the birth control they use, which we hope will serve as alternatives to “real” interactions with people in an individual’s social circle.

Bedsider has some customization at this point, as you can see in the screen capture above – users can set up birth control and appointment reminders, earn rewards, and save health center information to their profiles. Eventually we’d like to do more with customization such as allowing users to bookmark content or to “subscribe” to their method to get updates, news, and detailed information.

One important way in which Bedsider is “distributed” is through partnerships with health care providers. To stretch the metaphor, we see providers as a crucial extension of our programmatic mind both in terms of their knowledge and in terms of their connection to our target audience. We need them to help make sure our resources are accurate and useful and also to help our resources reach our target audience. We also need them to actually provide the health care that makes it possible for our audience to put their knowledge and intention to prevent pregnancy into action.

In exchange, we provide providers with tools they can use with their patients to provide better health care. Providers can sign their patients up for birth control and appointment reminders as well as testing reminders for sexually transmitted infections. We work with them on tools for waiting rooms to help patients familiarize themselves with their birth control options before their appointments. Providers can also customize the information about their clinics/offices in our database to let people know about their services.

The goal of Bedsider is to reduce rates of unintended pregnancy among 18- to 29-year-olds in the United States, so the program itself aims to distribute cognition to create collective behavior change. While the program is “human-centered” and seeks first and foremost to be a resources for individuals, the individuals are part of the big picture of creating change on a societal and cultural scale. Like Hutchins’ systems, accomplishing the desired goal involves influencing complex interactions on individual, interpersonal, and cultural levels.

Thoughts for final project– Web Interface design (cross cultural?)

I had a hard time synthesizing all the concept and theories we came across throughout the semester. I am still trying to figure out the exact topic that I want to explore for my final project. But I think the problem-solving way of thinking is very useful. I asked myself: what do I really want to know? Lots of ideas came up to me and one of them is something I have been thinking about since long time ago, that is the cross cultural web interface design. New questions and new perspectives emerged when I thought about it through our class theories. I haven’t had any answer or argument for this topic but I think it is good to start with questions and observations.

In the class of last semester (Semiotics and Cognitive Technology), we had a class on interfaces and design principles. The articles written by Murray was very impressive to me. It talks about the cultural element in digital medium, “I argue for the advantage of thinking of digital artifices as parts of a single new medium, which is best understood specifically as the digital medium, the medium that is created by exploiting the representational power of the computer” (Murray, 2012.)  Although the web interface design is relatively new comparing to design of other media (books, videos, or a pencil), it does not only serve technical and practical functions, rather, it is more cultural/social/commercial oriented. There are some bullet points that I have for thinking through web design:

  • It is INTERACTION between Machine and Humans
  • NOT just for serving certain practical functions (Provide information);
    To better show their business orientation;
    Be inviting: making people feel comfortable


  1. Why should designers be aware of cultural differences when design web interfaces? — users get impression of the business when seeing the website and every one of us are cultural, symbolic species.)
  2. How to be inviting and how to show business orientation when cross cultures?
  3. To what degree, in reality, do designers aware of cultural differences? (Are designers locals?)
  4. How do users/interactors make sense of the interface?  — We are symbolic species and we make sense of the “symbols” (images, language, icons, or videos) intuitively and simultaneously.
  5. Do other cross cultural research can contribute to cross cultural web interface design?– cross cultural is something that has been studied for many years (longer than cross cultural interface design)

I’ve done some literature review about the mainstream cross cultural web interface design research. Before laying out the research, I’d like to show some examples:

1. U.S. version of Pizza Hut Website vs. Chinese version

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I found it very interesting because the design of the website correspond with its different business orientation in two countries. The Pizza Hut in China is framed as a place with nice environment and a good place for family or friends gathering. And it is not just pizza. Whereas in the U.S. Pizza Hut is more like a fast food.

2. McDonald

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Yes, Chinese people stop thinking about being healthy the minute they step into McDonalds.

3. KFC

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It’s almost striking for me seeing the difference in KFC. So the bar on the top of Chinese version website has: Balance Diet; Ordering Online; App Download; Company Responsibility; Join Us; News Center; Everyday Exercising; Children’s Land; Franchise; Contact Us. The bar on the top of U.S. site has ones only about food.

There are many research on web interface design. Besides fundamental principles of usability, there are some characteristics for cross cultural design: language translation; layout (banners, menu items, orientation…); symbols (icons, navigation elements); content; multimedia; color (color semiotics varies across cultures and impact consumer expectations)

Geert Hofstede has been doing cross cultural communication research and he found out that there are 5 dimensions of cross cultural web interface designs:

1.power distance (autocratic society vs. democratic)

2. collectivism vs. individualism

3. femininity vs. masculinity (Masculine cultures are competitive, assertive, materialistic; feminine cultures place more value on relationships and quality of life.)

4. Uncertainty avoidance (High uncertainty avoidance cultures are more emotional, and control changes with rules, laws and regulations. Low uncertainty avoidance cultures are more pragmatic, and have as few rules as possible.)

5. long vs. short-term orientation (Long-term oriented societies are oriented to the future, and are pragmatic, rewarding persistence and saving. Short-term oriented societies are oriented to the present and the past, rewarding reciprocity in social relations and the fulfilling of social obligations.)

I don’t know if only it happens for food business. For example, the Apple Inc. website in U.S. looks exactly the same with Apple website in other countries (only language differences.)

Artsy’s Art Genome Project

Through out this week’s synthesis, I realized the models and concepts we approached provided us a strong theoretical support for our daily used media artifact. I was especially fascinated by the generative principles for unlimited new instances of expression and re-mediation. When I was exploring Atsy’s website, I had this aha moment finding that The Art Genome Project is such a great example of several models we delved in.

The Art Genome Project is the classification system and technological framework that powers Artsy. It maps the characteristics, including art historical movements, subject matter, and formal qualities, that connect artists, artworks, architecture, and design objects across history. (“About | Artsy,” 2015). It reminds me of studies on the nature of symbolic cognition and sign systems.

The Art Genome Project tried to develop a more tangible artworld to the general public, and one of their goals was to create an online education tool to give access anyone to the artworld. The genome system reminds me of C. S. Peirce’s model of semiosis, which is a cognitive-generative-social process. When confronting an artwork, people with different knowledge set will generate different associations, but more importantly, the cognitive-generative-social process is universal. Also, some essential knowledge is consistent such as religious symbols and humanity . The project is built on the universal process and the essential understanding set among people. We can also apply Jackendoff’s Parallel Architecture to this case: each work of art would generate certain genome, and our understanding about visual representation is also a generative combinatorial system like language.

Similar to Google Art Project, the Arty website tried to build up an online resource for art collecting and education. However, it provided a classification system to the users to build up their own “museum”. It’s not only a meta-media platform, but also provided some curatorial knowledge to the users. I want to question if Artsy is misleading the public with superficial characters associated among artists, and who is the curator in this case, the users or the database? Also, if the website is building personalized digital museum because it embeds lots of museum functions?

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The Art Genome Project:

“About | Artsy.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2015.