"Get into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Kurt Vonnegut (photo by Rev Dan Catt)

Going public: suburbanites become situationists in St Petersburg art project Critical Mass

Kennedy, whom Bitkina met when he represented Ireland at the Venice Biennale in 2009, puts emphasis on the way that being creative can reconnect people. For his Critical Mass work he conducted workshops with local Kupchino schools — one school made the birch-bark costumes and another used foraged timber for the house-frame — Kennedy reinvests the students with pride in their home-made production and combats the passivity of modern lives in which everything is shop-bought and China is “the workshop of the world”.

Ethan Zuckerman writes* about a project from the Netherlands that is both fascinating and a little scary. My thoughts after a long quote:

Ennea, a project from students at the Eindhoven University of Technology is one of the cooler things I’ve seen in a long time, developed during a six week design class. The students focused on an interesting problem - the problems incoming Dutch high-school students have in building socialization skills. The Dutch education system doesn’t have middle schools, so students go directly from an elementary school to high school, a transition that can be difficult and stressful. Schools assign “tutors” to groups of pupils, and they meet for an hour a week to work on socialization skills. The designers talked with tutors and realized they had very little information about how their students were doing, and designed a fascinating social tool that works as a very clever form of surveillance and behavior tracking.

The designers produced a set of small, cute, wireless-aware objects that students carried with them for a few weeks. The objects measured interactions between children, timing the interactions each child had, and whether they were with individuals or groups. This information allows the designers to describe each child’s interactions in a two-dimensional matrix based on interaction diversity and intensity. (Meet a lot of people and you’re more diverse. Spend a long time with a person, and it’s more intense.)

Rather than scoring the children on good or bad types of interaction, the device characterizes a user as one of nine animals: Lions are very diverse and very intense in their interactions. Their opposites are Polar Bears, who interact infrequently and briefly. Users can change roles over time - the device vibrates when your state changes, but you can only see what role you’ve taken on by “mating” your device with another person’s device, giving the opportunity for conversation and interaction. For “complementary” roles, the animal icons will glow gold.

While the students only see what animal currently represents them, the tutors get rich data on student interactions and can see how individual students are doing. Both have evidently found it useful in prototype - I can imagine scenarios in which tutor “surveillance” becomes worrisome, especially if certain behavioral patterns lead to interventions from the tutors. But it’s a lovely way to generate useful feedback data from wireless social interaction, and it’s possible that this will become used within Dutch schools. (The devices are quite clever from an engineering point, including an Arduino mini controller and an XBee wireless module - those aren’t hugely expensive devices, and it’s concievable that these devices could be mass produced.)

I’m not sure that I am comfortable with the level of prying that this facilitates for educators, but I do think these would be interesting personal informatics** tools for students to use if the data and animal representations were only available to themselves. After looking for patterns, a student also could experiment on his own with different levels of interaction and observe how each affects his mood, learning, productivity, performance, health, etc.

The Ennea project brings to mind another idea of mine which is a riff on Julian Bleecker’s Kombolói/Worry Wand project (more here). I have observed in the classroom (particularly in grades three through six) that students often keep trinkets in their desk which become a sort of fidget tool. With teachers who are strict about the supplies and toys allowed in class, simple erasers like the Pink Pearl*** tend to take on this role. These fidget tools allow students an outlet for physical energy in an environment that too often has them sitting still and being quiet. (I won’t get started on that here.) They also serve to release tension generated through their social interactions as well as other anxieties. Most of the time, students’ engagement with their fidget tools comes without conscious effort. So, if students were provided with a fidget tool in the form of a Kombolói device that recorded the time and intensity of their fidgeting, that information could then be mapped to their experiences throughout the day providing them with a better idea of what is creating their need for a release. More general patterns might appear when reviewing the data mapped to the time of day, day of the week, season, etc. Additionally, anonomyzed data for an entire class could be used to assess the activities on an instructional level.

Think of these applications of the Ennea and Kombolói-inspired device as variations on Jane McGonigal’s happiness hacking which Kars Alfrink discusses with regard to personal informatics and social interactions.

*Zuckerman’s post (also at WorldChanging) goes on to describe three other interesting projects, so head on over there to read about them too.

**For more on personal informatics (a term I first learned via Matt Jones and Tom Coates, the creators of the "Polite, pertinent, and pretty" presentation linked to above), see Kevin Kelly’s collection of examples at his The Quantified Self blog and Dan Hill’s "The Personal Well-Tempered Environment" post (a presentation version from Interesting South is here).

***Pink Pearls apparently became “pets” in the 80s.