My project started out significantly differently from the way it concluded. In this documentation I will start with a brief explanation of my original idea, including original inspirations, research ideas, and project planning. Then I will explain why that idea changed, including feedback I received from professors and peers, as well as the move that I made to switch my project. From there I will explain inspiration for my current project and give an overview of the original idea for my second iteration, based around the Social Credit System. This portion will include my plan for my project, how the project evolved and finally concluded, what I would like to improve in my project, and an explanation of my research paper and its connections with my project.
I will also elaborate more fully about my process itself and the flow of my ideas and the learning that I did in order to accomplish what I did with this project. That will include the evolution of my thought process as well as an explanation of those people who assisted me and the sources that I used.
Finally I will conclude with a self evaluation of my project compared with my original ideas. I will also evaluate all that I learned in the process and elaborate about what I would have done differently in the process.
The Original Idea — My original idea was to focus on internet censorship in China. I wanted to use the idea of the “Great Firewall”, a name used to describe China’s online censorship regime, to explore censorship. I was intrigued by the idea of creating a real physical wall, and using the physical characteristics of the structure itself to impress an idea, namely the idea of the pervasive nature of censorship in our everyday lives. I was particularly inspired for this idea by a previous project that used the Kinect to interact with a person’s silhouette and projectors. I was impressed by this project because it seemed like an IMA project, it fit the parameters very well and it also was exploring a similar idea. I liked that it had a strong physical component that allowed users to interact with the technology, enhancing the overall ideological effect.
Some of my original inspiration, including Liu Bolin hiding in sunflowers
I was also inspired by the works of Liu Bolin, a Chinese artist who is famous for “hiding” in a background by painting it onto himself. This realm of contemporary Chinese activism really got me thinking about how I could involve my project in the dialogue of Chinese politics, particularly surrounding censorship. Because from the beginning, I knew I wanted my project to have a political backdrop. I think IMA is at a unique crossroads between the humanities and technology that enables us to use our knowledge of technology and new media to express complex ideas that would be difficult to get across with in more conventional ways, such as academic papers. That’s not to say that an academic paper is not valuable or worthwhile, but I think something like these capstone projects can significantly add to the overall experience. I wanted to use this unique position to enter the fray of a political debate that means a lot to me personally. Internet censorship is certainly that, and now that I have done more additional research, I have found that social credit is perhaps even more urgently important, and it is also perhaps more topical at this moment in the contemporary Chinese political environment.
Moving forward with my idea to impress the pervasive nature of online censorship, I was considering having almost like a cave sort of structure that people could walk into. The idea that I had was to project images of deleted social media posts onto the wall, so that it would literally be a wall of censorship. I wanted the physical size of the wall to carry the weight of the unseen background of censorship in everyday Chinese (and international) society. In early feedback sessions this idea was changed and improved upon several times. Professors and peers gave me new ideas like trying to somehow involve the Mexican American border wall in my idea, and making the wall have projections on both sides. I liked these and many others. Professor Fitzgerald also convinced me that it would be better to use screens rather than projections. Seeing as I have little to no experience with projection mapping, and I was starting to realize the full scope of all I would have to accomplish, I agreed.
My original research paper idea was strongly influenced by research that I did last semester at the NYU New York campus with Professor Lily Chumley in her class: Culture and Media in Urban China. My research in her class categorized some of the many different political usages of censorship in China. I categorized censorship into three primary groups: active, reactive, and preemptive. Within these categories I examined how censorship can be used for a political weapon. This was the idea that I wanted to explore in greater detail in my capstone paper. My research for Professor Chumley provided an excellent basis for this project, and in the end it also helped me with my final idea, not only with sources but also simply as a set of experiences to draw upon when formulating my new idea and doing my new research.
A Screenshot of my final research for Professor Chumley
The Switch — I will now explain a bit about why I changed my idea from the Great Firewall to the Social Credit System. It was primarily feedback from peers but also Professors Shirky and Pudasaini that pushed me to make the change. The biggest problem with my project was not necessarily a technical issue, because I had reservoirs of deleted material, a plan about how to display it, and a fairly reasonable timeline, but rather the idea and corresponding metaphors. The problem as I was made aware was with the directional nature of the idea of the Great Firewall. To portray internet censorship in China as a literal wall that keeps outside information from entering China is not only incomplete and incorrect, but it is also potentially problematic. Portraying censorship in this way assumes somehow that external ideas (namely western and liberal democratic ideas) are the most important and relevant in the Chinese government’s decision to censor the internet. Looking back now I should have realized that at the outset, particularly given the nature of my research for Professor Chumley. After getting a great deal of constructive criticism on the subject, I realized that I was at a sort of ideological dead end, and I had nowhere to turn so to speak. So I decided to change my idea to something more theoretically sound and also more politically topical and fresh.
With this in mind I sent an email to the IMA faculty outlining the problems with my project and proposing two ideas for a new project, one of which was Social Credit. Professor Shirky responded, prompting me to go the direction of the Social Credit System. I was hesitant to change my idea so late in the game because of previous admonitions against this and also because I knew that it would be good to stick with an idea from start to finish, but in the end it still seemed like the best thing to do. Additionally, there is quite a bit of existing scholarship surrounding internet censorship in China. Social credit on the other hand, being a relatively new and unexplored topic, does not have as much existing material. I thought this was good because it meant that my research could potentially have a greater impact on the overall academic and political conversation on the topic. This was appealing to me and I got positive feedback on it. I also chose to switch to social credit because it had many ties to my original idea, which meant that I would not be switching my entire frame of reference. Both were generally Chinese political issues surrounding technology and popular use of the internet, and I thought this particularly relevant for the context of IMA. With this I began my new sojourn into the Social Credit System.
Social Credit — Now that I had my new idea I felt a great deal better about my project. I felt that my theoretical basis was much more sound and it had a very positive effect on me to have the explicit support of Professor Shirky and others in the department, including my peers. But strictly speaking, there was not that much by way of existing material for me to draw on for inspiration with relation to social credit. What I did find, however, was very interesting, and the more I learned, the deeper I was drawn into the idea. One existing work is the well known Black Mirror episode: “Nosedive”, which explores a society based around a social media peer rating service. This was very topical and got me thinking, particularly about how peer to peer relations can have a strong impact on social credit scores. This had not been part of my original understanding of social credit, and to be fair, we still do not know exactly how the real Social Credit System will be calculated, but based upon pilot versions and some educated speculation it is fair to assume that the people someone associates with can have an effect on that individual’s score. In addition to this, I learned that social credit scores like the Sesame Credit score are currently being used on the Chinese dating site Baihe.com. This was particularly influential in my thinking because it made me think about how social credit can affect people’s interpersonal relationships, above and beyond their financial and political lives.
This revelation about the social nature of social credit gave me the idea to include the personal identification portion of my final project. Originally the idea was to have a sort of booth (which drew on my original idea for the Great Firewall project) where people would take a test and be given a social credit score. But after talking with professors and peers in class, I got the idea to have a picture identification portion. The idea was to have the test taker be required to identify someone else in order to simulate the effect of someone else’s score being an active force in calculating score. I wanted to explore how this could generate paranoia, mistrust, confusion, and underlying social tensions. Professor Fitzgerald suggested that I have my quiz take a picture of the test taker and store that picture for a later test taker to identify. I knew that this would be a challenge for me given my inexperience with coding, but I went to Luis for help and was soon on my way (this will be a theme in my documentation, Luis was very helpful and patient with me). In the end, rather than storing the information, my final code simply drew on the immediately previous users for the picture identification section. So although it cannot store pictures for a long period of time, after one person takes the test, each user after that will have a picture to identify. This felt like a total victory to me, and from this particular episode I learned a lot about how to integrate bits of functional code into a larger whole.
Other inspiration came from existing pilot versions of social credit score calculators like the Alibaba subsidiary Ant Financial, which is behind the social credit calculator Sesame Credit (芝麻信用). I was also strongly influenced by the large body of news articles and editorials relating to the Social Credit System, particularly an extensive article from the Wall Street Journal. As the semester went on, I gradually began to notice more and more references to social credit. For example, on high speed trains, there is always a notice on the intercom that warns passengers to buy their tickets early, lest they incur a social credit demerit. Additionally, I have started to notice Sesame Credit advertisements in conjunction with other companies like Ofo Bike. On the Shanghai subway there are Ofo advertisements that say that if you have a Sesame Credit score of more than 650, you are exempt from the normally required deposit. So although there was not much for me to build on in terms of previous art, there is day by day more material relating to social credit as a whole.
Ofo/Sesame Credit add (please forgive the non edited image)
The Final Project — From the outset I wanted my project to be a quiz that could generate a social credit score for the user. But originally I wanted it to be analogous to the real Social Credit System, with questions relating directly to the real factors mentioned in the 13th Five Year Plan, which first outlined the Social Credit System. It was the first round of user testing that showed me that this might not be the best idea. I found that with this system there was little to get the user truly invested in it, particularly because it felt sort of unreal and there were no stakes to it. This was a constant struggle in my project, even to my final presentation where I got feedback from Marianne regarding this concept. But at this point, classmates like Richard and Maggie, along with others, suggested that I make my final version to be a social credit system for NYUSH. Immediately I was attracted to this idea because I knew it could bring the issue down to a more manageable and palatable scale for the user and I also was very much excited about the idea of taking some shots at my least favorite university policies.
I met with Scott to talk about my next steps for the project, particularly coding. He directed me to p5.js and suggested that I read up on that and work towards a test that could take down the user’s name, their picture, and then prompt them to identify previous users and include that in the calculus of the score. He also suggested to me that the test did not have to work fairly, strictly speaking, or that it could be entirely rigged or predetermined. This was a revolutionary idea for me and made me realize that I could make the code work in pretty much any way I wanted to.
In the end, my code was based off of several sources that I found online, and then put together with the help of ideas from classmates, professors, and Luis. The baseline for my code came from a personality quiz that I found online. It was enlightening for me to examine this code, and in going through it and editing it for the first user test I learned a lot about how it worked and how I could edit it. Specifically, it was a multiple choice quiz that had a number value assigned to each option for each question. Theoretically the correct answer for each question would have the highest assigned value. But in something like a personality test there is not necessarily a correct answer, and for my purposes, I could tailor it to favor an answer that might mirror university policy with a higher number. Then it had a function that would add up all of the answer values that the user selected in order to generate an aggregate score. In the original personality test, this score would be assigned a personality type that would display at the conclusion of the quiz. I edited it to have each aggregate number value correspond to a Social Acceptability Test score rating: “Poor”, “Needs Improvement”, “Good”, or “Exemplary”. With each of these scores I added a description of the consequences that come along with each score. This was the mechanism that I wanted to use to add stakes to the test. Without a sense of what might happen after the test, there would be no follow through, no emotional closure to the entire project that would bring the message home. I designed the feedback to have that kind of effect. I also rigged the quiz to give out more unfavorable scores than favorable, because I thought this would be more interesting.
I assigned higher values to questions that I thought were particularly irrelevant, because part of the point that I was trying to get across is the inherent subjectivity of the Social Credit System. My idea is that it is based upon the subjective societal expectations or the targeted political or business goals of a ruling group, and that this may as well be something entirely random, since it cannot apply to everyone in a society as large and varied as China’s.
I had originally wanted my project to include a physical component like a booth and stickers for each respective score. There had also been some thought in my mind about somehow including social media profiles. But Scott and Professor Greenspan suggested that I focus specifically on the quiz component, and maybe include those portions later on, perhaps for the final show. I think these could do a great deal to solve the problem of stakes and feedback.
Self Evaluation and Final Thoughts — I think that my project was a success in some ways and could have made significant improvements in other ways. I think that I was successful in exhibiting the theoretical ideas that I wanted to get across, namely the subjective nature of the Social Credit System, the pervasive nature of the proposed system, and the troubling social ramifications that this system might entail. To me, it was also a total success because I feel much much more positive about coding. It always surprises me how tiny successes in coding can give me such a big morale boost. I would spend half an hour or more trying to get a purple bar to pop up at the top of the screen and when I would finally figure it out I would feel like I had engineered the Golden Gate Bridge or something. So finishing this whole thing was pretty huge for me. I think my project was also successful in getting people to think about social credit in a more serious way. Most of the time when people hear about it they just ask me about Black Mirror. But after taking my quiz everyone who I talked to seemed to have a somewhat deeper understanding, and often a troubled sense of foreboding for what the real system might mean. It might sound strange but this was definitely what I was going for. I am happy with my project for those reasons.
But despite these successes, I think that there are certainly significant areas where my project was unsuccessful or could have made serious improvements. Firstly I think it could have had a greater deal of complexity. I could have added additional layers, perhaps at the very beginning and end that would give the user a greater sense of empathy in their quiz and to enhance the stakes in getting a positive score. A physical component (much like the receipt function in Dave’s project) I think would help with that. That is what I would have wanted to do with red, yellow, orange, or green stickers to correspond with each score category. But ultimately the code is what would have been most important to improve upon or at least expand.
I also think it was very important to make my page look very much like an NYU page, and there was a lot more that I could have done to improve on that. Ultimately my project could have had additional components to enhance its complexity and realistic nature. There are also certain bugs that could have been worked out. For example, the first person to take the quiz will not be shown a picture of the previous user because… there is no previous user.
If I could do things differently I would try to have a greater deal of feedback from the very beginning, because then I wouldn’t have to change my idea. But I think I would also just want to start on the code itself earlier, rather than simply working on formulating ideas for in the first weeks of the semester. I would also tell myself to not be discouraged about code. That is something that can be paralyzing and have a strong effect on the project. For me, and I’m sure for others as well, morale is very important in projects like this one.
-Luis, for all his help in coding
-All of the IMA seniors, for being there in the lab and helping, giving advice, and commiserating
-Professor Shirky, Scott, Matt, Professor Greenspan, Sakar, and all the IMA faculty for their help and support
-all of the online resources listed below:
NYU Image. http://steinhardt.nyu.edu/e/identity/d/9-5_nyu-logo-lg_white.png
HTML Images. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2017. <https://www.w3schools.com/html/html_images.asp>.