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Nicola Naismith Blog 5: Summary: The Rest Bit

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In this final project entry I’m reflecting on the commission territory I have discussed across a series of blogs:

At the beginning of the commission I was thinking about why this research is important – if we are exploring a healthier relationship with the Internet of things (IOT), then considering where the unhealthiness is located was key. My interests were drawn to the uneven distribution of tech and issues with access (a well known issue highlighted further by the pandemic), the resources used in tech production, the impact of ever-increasing storage and its carbon impact and the uses of personal data.

The Rest Bit

In my second blog then started to consider the context of tech and IOT: I was interested in experiences of being care giver and highlighted recent books exploring themes of care. This included The Care Manifesto which advocates for the development of an interdependence of care, and I also made reference to the reality of many carers which includes being at risk of mental ill-health and social isolation. Creativity can play a crucial role in offering respite to carers, an opportunity to switch attention to an absorbing activity and in so doing switch off from their daily responsibilities.

Mind Map

In my third blog I reflected upon an experimental session where we – as commissioned makers – explored coding and tech components. I was drawn to the language of code and loop in particular, which in coding terms leads to a command being repeated – say 1000 times, or until a certain condition is met. This immediately led to a connection with sewing, and the thousands of times I have looped thread to create stitches – both in my professional work and for enjoyment and relaxation. Interested in the potential of a repetitively soothing activity of sewing in contrast with the randomly annoying aspects of cloud-based apps I wonder what individual conditions we might be seeking to meet.

Sewing Loops: Representing Data

After the hiCraft team visited in the summer – and after a period of reflection – my fourth blog reflected on the relationship between care and a recently defunct Fitbit tracker I had purchased during lockdown – still in working order but in need of a new, non recyclable strap – which I felt reluctant to buy. Fitbit trackers are complex, they want to ‘collaborate’ with us on the formulation of activity goals, but with the default settings based on normative values they fail to distinguish between different levels of ability and disability and of availability of time and resources. While it’s accepted that movement and exercise bring benefits, this needs to be on individual levels, with rest included not only in relation to exercise recovery but also in terms of decompressing, processing and daydreaming. Being reminded to get up and move, or to sync our devices when we are at purposeful rest is irritating at best, but also pivots the ambition of the device from one which wants to be helpful to one which requires continual management.

Accessing my Fitbit heart rate data from 2021, I translated the app imagery into an embroidery with the process of sewing being related – for me –  to a sense of rest and what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as Flow. The data taken in isolation is somewhat of a blunt instrument – yes it measures achievement, but fails to capture process and doesn’t include any nuance related to where steps were undertaken, the view or the environment, or if the steps were taken in company or alone. To address this Jayne Wallace and I, armed with new Fitbit tracking devices, agreed to exchange our Fitbit data and other materials in the form of photos, drawings and notes, which we could each creatively respond to with the intention – in my mind – to create a handmade document of our respective experiences.

Embroidery of Data

Between the studio visit and the completion of my commission the questions I asked about this work included the tensions around data ownership. I grant access to my data to enable a device or app to work – if this were to work solely in my benefit then OK, but IOT goes beyond a one-time transaction (like buying a toaster) and requires an ongoing connection – it is, after all, the cloud which processes the data and presents it back to me in the form of app graphics. To an extent this is OK, but if it were happy for me to take a step back into what might be called an instinctual day – where I follow my own desires and see where they takes me – this would enhance my experience considerably. However the app bugs me to keep it open and connect to get ‘the best experience’ which begs the question – the best experience for whom? Equally there may be other days when I have time and resources available and I want to lean into its goal and achievement functions – they key here is having choice. It is this relationship between the inconstant human and the consistent tech which is – in my view – currently disjointed.

I’m aware that the companies who make these devices accumulate personal data and seek a further kind of dialogue – one which is focused on upselling or cross-selling, which holds no interest for me. IOT – and fitness trackers in particular – have the potential to be of much greater use to individual users if the care and ownership of data is addressed. I would be happy to include details of recent illnesses, family events, caring commitments or upcoming demanding periods of work to help create a nuanced product which helps me with my daily goals whilst taking into consideration my personal circumstances.

Thresholds of Data

In the latter stage of the commission I took a two-fold approach, first combining my own fitness tracker and experienced-based data to create bespoke hand sewing designs. I selected data days which were perhaps, on the surface, banal but were significant to me – my first day outside after having Covid and a day where an allotment visit was prioritised over work. Both days were inconsistent in terms of ‘fitness’ achievement but rich in significance, process and experience.

Translating photographic documents and screen grabs from the tracker app into an outline sewing design – totally individual to my experience – links to the intimacy of the diary, and there is something subversive about taking fitness tracker data imagery and using it in an activity which involves being at rest and relatively inactive, apart from the hand sewing movements. By taking these days of data into a hand sewing process and investing my labour in its creation I gave value to something which can be dismissed at the end of the day, or is valued solely in terms of accumulative achievement. Seeing the sewn image develop over the hours I invested over several unconnected days, making playful decisions about the colour and stitch selection, and how far to stay true to the design led me to consider the role of process over achievement: the process of walking, moving, getting into ‘zone minutes’ being far more interesting than the achievement of any goal. With the sewing I was taken back to the coding language of loops – meaning to repeat an action a certain number of times or until a condition is met. The condition in this instance was a feeling of being rested, and having time to focus my attention on one task.

Translated Photographs

In the spirit of exchange I shared the same documents and data sets (which included days with working titles of Onion Day and Priorities) with Jayne, and was intrigued about how and what she would interpret from the files I emailed across. The idea of gifting data to someone who you know will take care of it feels open and transparent. This was aided by us already knowing one another, having met nearly 20 years ago at a conference, and having an understanding of each other’s practices and approaches. I knew these data sets – these representations of my life – were in safe hands and would be respected. In Jayne’s care my visits to the allotment and the data that came from them would not lead to adverts for seeds, garden tools and such like. The images I chose to send would go directly to her – and her alone – on the understanding she would use them in some creative way. Similarly Jayne collected and shared experienced-based and fitness tracker data with me, which took the form of a handwritten dream diary, which I used to create designs for stitching.

When a second studio visit came in November, and we were able to share our work and discuss it, it was touching to see how Jayne had created a composition with both our data combined. I had kept them separate and focused on the development of a bespoke embroidery kit which would facilitate her making / sewing process – but how interesting to consider the relationship between data sets found within friendship or familiar connections: how might two or more people view the same day and which aspect was important to each person? What additional materials would they choose, which photograph, text message or hand written note over another? The appearance of the work we had sewn – albeit beautiful – was not the most important aspect for me, rather it was the sense of trust held within the exchange, the ways in which we interpreted the files and the process of the making which provided – for me – an opportunity to stitch the day’s activities whilst being happily at rest.

The work has a number of possible directions now. Individuals could use their IOT data and combine it with experiential data in the form of notes, photographs, texts, messages and emails to create something which presents that day or period of time: this could be taken into any number of craft or creative processes. There are also opportunities to develop the design service I tested with Jayne’s data, where individuals could submit a combination of IOT and experience-led data, and in return receive a unique sewing kit to aid respite and rest. Third, and the one which has my greatest level of interest, is to work with individuals so they can create their own bespoke designs, thus keeping control and autonomy over their own data. If collective elements were involved – a group of people coming together to sew their own designs – the making process would also provide a mediated space in which to engage in informal conversation and connection. There are other possibilities, and this is what a period of research and development should do – progress ideas, test approaches and consider possibilities.

I’m interested to see what the hiCraft team take forward into the next stage of the project from all the commissioned makers. In keeping with the framework of care and respect for our data exchange, and to bring my part of the project to a close, I will instigate a conversation with Jayne about our respective data sets and what we do with them now.