Massive and microscopic sensemaking in the time of COVID-19
A 21-day auto-ethnography experiment
Facilitated by Anne Harris and Annette Markham
Completed under the direction of Professor MaryElizabeth Luka
From May 18 2020 to June 12 2020
Sensemaking of Self in relation to, and during the time of COVID
“How does this pandemic moment help us to think about the relationships between self and other, human and nonhuman, humans, machines, and the planet?” I am a Master of Information candidate at the University of Toronto studying both critical information policy studies and user experience design. My program of study centers on critically evaluating information and communication technologies, and their sociocultural impacts. In addition to conducting deep self-inquiry, I will think critically of the relationship between self and machines, and bring my knowledge of information and communication technologies during the time of COVID to my reflections. Aligned with this project’s auto-ethnographic approach, my method of inquiry on my lived-experiences during COVID will take the form of a set of writing pieces that center on responding to the prompts, and returning to reflect on my responses at a later time to identify influences. Ultimately, this writing practice will document my own process of sensemaking in the time of COVID, and will contribute to your project by providing the unique lived-experience of a Canadian woman who is committed to exploring herself and her relationship with humans, nonhumans, machines and the planet deeply.
Select Prompt Responses
Prompt 8. How can one frame feel like the whole world?
Date: May 25 2020
Read this Lynda Barry quote, make a page of comics, and respond to the question/s below:
“It is worth your time to fold a page into 16 chambers and hand-draw a frame-line inside each box. Even though at first you go a little crazy. The line won’t really obey. It’s all messed up but then it steadies – then you start to get somewhere. And then your hand, you OWN hand- leaps wide of the line you aimed to draw – ruined! – although in this case, there is nothing to ruin except by stopping. What happens when you draw the line more slowly? What happens if you keep your eye on the crease as you draw? Your pen along it or draw lines in parallel – doing such ordinary things with paper, folded and inked – can make a difference to your way of making images. If you relax your fingers, what changes? If you try a looser grip, and what about when you get bored with making so many lines? Stop! You will only learn that secret when you need it. What is the SECRET? (hint: Ink is crazy and paper is stronger than you realize” (Barry, 2014, p. 99).
How is one comic frame like the whole world? How can one frozen frame be all of time? How do you live in both at the same time?
Lynda Barry wrote “It is worth your time to fold a page into 16 chambers and hand draw a frame line inside each box” (Barry, 2014, p. 99). I wanted to visualize just how much the “frame” of my computer screen lately feels like the whole world. This activity brought to light just how much of my time goes into interacting with a screen under COVID. Maybe one of these is “like the whole world” if you are privileged and have access to digital tech in this moment. Online classrooms are the case for many of us in this moment. How can one frozen frame be all of time? Maybe the frame of a computer screen transcends time. Maybe the frame of a comic in that moment was all of time up until that very second until it became the past. Maybe this question is a little too abstract for my brain to make sense of in the present moment. How do you live in both? Perhaps through a double consciousness? One in the past. One now.
Unpacking my response:
In this response, I described the conflict of a “historical” or past self with a present moment self as double consciousness. This was in response to the question: How can one frozen frame be all of time? I have learned now that this term is incorrectly applied, and I was not aware of its meaning in scholarly materials. Double consciousness refers to a source of inward “twoness” experienced by African-Americans because of their oppression in a white-dominated society, and is linked to William Edward Burghardt Du Bois’ work The souls of black folk (1903).
Prompt 10, Connections, juxtapositions, relations of machines, humans, COVID.
Date: May 27 2020
In your field diary today, think about machines as agentic, technology as relational, automation as mediators.
“Unknown to us, a little piece of scotch tape had been lodged in the camera gate all day, and when the film came back from the developing laboratory, we saw the imprint of the transparent tape halfway up the left-hand side of the screen throughout the footage” (Goulish, 2000, p. 126).
I find the idea of automation as mediator a bit unsettling. A quick Google search will render: “mediation is a dynamic, structured, interactive process where an impartial third party assists disputing parties in resolving conflict…” (“Mediation”, 2020). The word impartial is crucial here. How can an automated computer or machine be impartial? What went into designing the AI assisted technology or tool? Who designed it? What data was used to train it? What context is the machine automating in? What do we not know about its implicit nature? Connecting these questions to prompt 10 (the quote by Matthew Goulish) renders interesting connections and reflections. What imprint would automation leave? In the process of automation, what is the tape, its transparency, its invisibility, that we may be blind to but will nevertheless leave marks? It seems today, I have many questions and not many answers. But it does seem as though machines are agentic, and technology is relational, in the context of my questions.
Unpacking my response:
This response is heavily influenced by my education as a student in the Critical Information Policy Studies concentration at the Faculty of Information. In the Winter 2020 semester, I collaborated on a group project tackling the complex topic of AI & Ethics in INF2181: Information Policy, Regulation and Law. Our group’s presentation centered on examining the sociocultural implications of artificial intelligence systems specifically. We explored, examined and presented the work of Ruha Benjamin’s Race after technology: Abolitionist tools for the New Jim Code (2019), Cathy O’Neill’s Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy (2016), and more to generate a classroom discussion surrounding the issue of racism embedded in A. I. systems, and the increasing threat to democracy A. I. systems pose.
Final Reflection on the Project
In all, this project was immensely constructive and rewarding. It provided me with the time and space needed to do some creative written reflection on my own lived experiences before and during COVID-19 in Canada. I find that my responses to the prompts are deeply personal, and this may be because of a number of factors. First, I chose to write them in my personal journal. Also, I set the intention to allow myself to write down what comes up, and be okay with my own personalization of the prompts. I see this intention reflected in the article “On the making of sense in sensemaking: Decentred sensemaking in the meshwork of life”(2019). On sensemaking, Lucas D. Introna writes “sense is always given and made simultaneously, as it flows”, “the making of sense is always decentred (more-than-human)”, and “the making of sense is ongoing and temporally indivisible” (2019, p. 759 – 760). My writing shifted away from my initial abstract drastically, and evolved into a personalized writing practice. I tried to think within the frame of “individualism vs. collectivism”, but realized that I wanted to conduct this project with no limits to my creative imagination. However, this created tension at times, as the potential submission of these artifacts, and our setting within an academic institution, occasionally halted me from writing deeply personally. Some of the prompts shifted my thinking, while others were received as gifts of affirmation. This project was very exploratory, and as I write this, I do not think I am clear. But, I am clear about my lack of clarity. I am open and receptive to the flow of sensemaking life’s daily miracles and tragedies moving forward (Introna, 2019).
Barry, L. (2014). Syllabus: Notes from an accidental professor. Drawn & Quarterly.
Benjamin, R. (2019). Race after technology: Abolitionist tools for the new Jim code. John Wiley & Sons.
Du Bois, W. E. B. (1903). The souls of black folk. A. C. McClurg & Co.
Goulish, M. (2000). 39 Microlectures: In proximity of performance. Routledge.
Introna, L. D. (2019). On the making of sense in sensemaking: Decentred sensemaking in the meshwork of life. Organization Studies, 40(5) 745 – 764. https://doi.org/10.1177/0170840618765579
Mediation. (2020, April 26). In Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Mediation&oldid=953187258
O’Neil, C. (2016). Weapons of math destruction: How big data increases inequality and threatens democracy. Crown.