MAS.961 | Spring 2008 | Graduate

Special Topics: Designing Sociable Media


Assignment 9: Supertraces

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Historically, human interaction was local and ephemeral; it was heard only by those nearby and the words, once spoken, disappeared in the passing of time. Today, however, our interactions - or observations of them - can reach across space and persist in time. Surveillance cameras open seemingly private rooms to distant and unseen observers; archives retain casual conversations and out-grown profiles, forever enabling their out-of-context and possibly inopportune re-display.

One response to this condition is to aim for greater transparency - to ensure that people understand the publicness and the persistency of situation they are in. A hidden camera opens the space without the knowledge of the user; a visible camera provides at least the conscious awareness of the possibility of recording; a live video feed provides an intuitive sense that the space may be spatially and temporally extended. How we act in private is different than in public; we need to be able to perceive those distinctions in order to act appropriately.

Who are we concerned about when we think about privacy? Discussions of privacy often focus on those who would constrain or disapprove of our behavior. The biggest concern is with an intrusive, repressive government. In terms of everyday life in the U.S. today, there are also more immediate concerns about employers and insurers who might hire/fire/deny coverage based on information they are able to gather about you. And on the social side there is concern that the ability to keep different facets of one’s life separate is rapidly eroding.

Other privacy concerns are more insidious. Much of the work we have done in this class has focused on making social patterns visible, clarifying roles and affiliations. We may see the use of this information by a person we like as positive, by one who is out to harm us as negative - and there is an ambiguous middle ground, of people and institutions that may not directly harm us, but whose motivations are not aligned with our own. Marketers, for example. Are they working for us, helping us find the goods and services we need? Or are they working against us, manipulating our tastes and values to make us believe we have a ceaseless need for new purchases? In any case, they make use of the social data we use to navigate our community in order to sell new things to us.


Marx, Gary. “Murky Conceptual Waters: The Public and the Private.” Ethics and Information Technology 3, no. 3 (2001): 157-169.

Elmer, Greg. “A Diagram of Panoptic Surveillance.” New Media & Society 5, no. 2 (2003): 231-247. DOI: 10.1177/1461444803005002005. (This article provides a bridge between concepts of surveillance as a primarily visual activity and as a data analysis process.)

Foucault, Michel. “Panopticism.” Chapter 3 in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated from the French by Alan Sheridan. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995. ISBN: 9780679752554. (This is the classic work on “panoptic surveillance.”)

Mann, Steve, Jason Nolan, and Barry Wellman. “Sousveillance: Inventing and Using Wearable Computing Devices for Data Collection in Surveillance Environments.” Surveillance & Society 1, no. 3 (2003): 331-355. (PDF)

Schor, Juliet. “The Virus Unleashed: Ads Infiltrate Everyday Life,” and “Dissecting the Child Consumer: The New Intrusive Research.” Chapters 4 and 6 in Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2004. ISBN: 9780684870557. [Preview in Google Books]


Mann, Steve. “Existential Technology: Wearable Computing Is Not the Real Issue!Leonardo 36, no. 1 (2003): 19-25.

Carl, Walter J. “What’s All The Buzz About?: Everyday Communication and the Relational Basis of Word-of-Mouth and Buzz Marketing Practices.” Management Communication Quarterly 19, no. 4 (2006): 601-634. DOI: 10.1177/0893318905284763.


  • Read the papers.
  • Based on these readings, think of four thought- and discussion-provoking questions. Write them down.

Student Work

Seth Hunter

Sohin Hwang

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Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2008
Learning Resource Types
Problem Sets with Solutions
Projects with Examples