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A minified list of your life

Yesterday I visited AICAD NY Studio for Open Studio evening. It's an event where artists (aka residents) show off what they have been working on. An artist residency is a program where artists are given workspaces, and over the span of X months (4 months for this program) work on their art. They may receive mentorship, housing, and other benefits that vary across residency programs.


One piece stood out at the exhibition. It's by resident Michael Fraley:


At first glance it seems convoluted and overwhelming. And yet the symmetry and typography invites you to look closer and read. You have a polarity of it appearing busy while being uniform. At it's core it's just a minified list. It's quite common in web-based application code:


The above jQuery code has been minified (by removing all white space). Here is an example of a non-minified version:


Notice all the whitespace? It's purpose is to make the code "human readable". But your internet browser (which loads the code when you visit the webpage that uses that code, is content with the minified version). The lack of whitespace serves a purpose. If you have a large file that your web browser has to load every time you visit the website, the site will take longer to load. And thus most sites will use a minified version of the code because every second you can remove from the page load time results in a better user experience.

Coming back to the art piece. I talked to Michael about his vision for the piece. The text describes activities, time spent, and things he has eaten over a span of several days. It's in chronological order and is meant to be read like book (starting from the top left corner). I see it as a binary, minified visual representation of a couple days of Michael's life. In a painting or photograph our eyes are typically drawn to a focal point. No such point exists in this piece and yet it doesn't feel unnerving. You just need to start reading.

My science fiction infused brain started churning after I saw Michael's  piece. I can  envision a society where every activity we partake in, every piece of food we consume, is logged in a minified list like Michael has created. The next step would be to parse the data and pull out insights. We spent X minutes reading this week, X minutes exercising, X minutes talking, X minutes silent, etc.

JSON is popular data-interchange format (a type of file where data is formatted in a way that it can be sent over the web). A  minified JSON file  can look just like the minified jQuery example I showed earlier. Writing  basic scripts can allow anyone to parse the file and gather insights from the data. This may become commonplace in the future.

Imagine you have a raw JSON file that tracks all of your life's activities. Why should a company (like Facebook or Google) control how that data is presented to you. Sure they may have some generic reports/views that will satisfy the general populous, but would we trust these companies with accessing that much of our data?

By the time we have such data available to us, kids are going to be graduating high school with serious computer science chops. The state of  NY has set the goal that within the next 10 years they will teach every student in the public school system computer science.

With more and more kids graduating with computer science knowledge, parsing this "life data" minified file will come naturally. The challenge for the kids will  be to know what questions to ask. What to look for in the data. Will it be valuable to know what our ratio of time spent talking over being silent is? Or if the weeks we spend reading over 60 minutes resulted in lower calories consumed versus the weeks we spent over 180 minutes on YouTube?

I should have  asked Michael about his takeaways from the things he wrote on the canvas. What kind of insights did he gather? He created a piece of art, but he also may have unintentionally given us a glimpse into the future.