A lot has happened in 2020. In the pandemic world of covid19, the small HER research center, started by artists / hacktivists / researchers Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico, is changing its skin to become HER: She Loves Data: a new type of organization that interprets data as existential phenomena and uses art and design to reposition the results of research and innovation in the middle of society.

Who writes is part of this redesign process that has been going on for several months. I started in January of this year, or rather from the first steps of what we are calling the “bootstrap” of HER: She Loves Data: thinking from the ground up the shape, the concept, the spaces of the new organization. I came to HER after a long pilgrimage, in my career I have been passionately concerned with sustainable design, design with communities, the implications of what was once called the sharing economy and the possibilities of social innovation. In these areas, unfortunately, it is not easy for process designers with a systemic background to maintain their independence of values ​​if they work in a large organization, nor to survive if they decide to be consistent with themselves.

So after several collaborations with Salvatore and Oriana I embraced their vision and I chose to work with them, creating a very peculiar symbiotic relationship.

In the past months we worked intensively on the concept, and a first experiment called “Data Meditations: New Rituals for New Possible Worlds” was born. From July to September 2020 we have organized a workshop and two exhibitions on this topic. In this article I will tell you what we did and what I learned from this experiment.

HDSA2020. From concept to workshop

In designing HER: She Loves Data we are addressing a huge range of topics. In this series on Operaviva Magazine, Salvatore is progressively transforming his research notes into open articles, currently only available in Italian.

A concept has already strongly emerged: the new research center will deal with what we are calling the “rituals for new living”. Rituals that, in a complex world characterized by hyperconnection phenomena, must be able to include the dimension of data and computation in culture and social bonds.

Inspired by the (existentially extreme) lockdown experience – and the how mainstream media managed data and information about the virus (nothing less than forms of actual data-bombing during the virus’s expansion) – we decided to design a first ritual experiment: a form of meditation through data that would expand our capability of self-observation (of the self and the environment) to reach new forms of awareness and expression.

We proposed this concept at the Hackers and Designers Summer Academy 2020, transforming it into a workshop – to be held remotely according to the current anti-covid19 regulations.

It was around May when we received a mail announcing that our proposal was accepted.

How it works

This first ritual has been designed to build a spacetime in which a group of people could collect and share  data about themselves, experience and observe the data generated along the process in a peculiar way, comparing it with those expressed by other participants to have a vision of themselves based on similarities and differences with the others.

I shortly introduce you the practise of Data Meditations as it was designed for the workshop, well aware that the best way to understand it is to try it personally:

  1. Expressing through data:
    1. Through a digital interface, every participant can describe a series of interrelated variables of his daily journey (as for example: I am happy, in a place of culture, with one only person, plus personalized notes.
    2. These data are recorded exactly at the moment they are happening and  they are going to create the autobiographical story of the life of the individual who is participating in the meditation.
  1. Ritual, in couples:
    1. At the beginning of the experience, couples are formed. At this stage, no participants know who they’re coupled with.
    2. At a pre-arranged time the whole group of meditators meet online to share the ritual. The ritual can start only if 70% of the participants are present, to create a sense of presence and of responsibility.
    3. As soon as the ritual starts every participant can experience the data under the form of generative sounds and visuals. The screen and audio are divided in two: left and right. On the left side participants can hear and see their own data. On the right side, they can experience the data expressed by their Other: an anonymous member of the groups, with which they were coupled with.
  2. Writing of the diary:
    1. After every ritual in couples all participants are free to write their own point of view towards the emotions felt and the reasonings done, this diary is personal, but shared with all the others so that each person can look at the experience from another point of view,  so that an interpersonal and collective narration can start.
  3. Group meeting:
    1. At the end of the diary writing, all participants are invited to gather together in a digital room to discuss in a more direct way their own experience.

Different groups can come together and create different experiences, the software can be modified according to the context, meditations can be created based on data generated by human beings, but data created by non-humans can also be included.

The process can be repeated as many times as wished.

Human dimensions: Individuals, couples, communities

During the workshop participants were invited to experience data on three specific human contexts: individual, couples and community.

  • Participants found the opportunity to explore the individual aspects by generating their own personal data. While manually recording data relating to the daily activities makes them more meaningful, on the other hand (as we learned during the workshop), it becomes a very onerous task. Writing the diary instead gives all the possibility to rediscover the thoughts and emotions of the previous days.
  • While reviewing their own past 24 hours during the meditation, the participants could confront their subjectivity with the other. Through comparing and contrasting, one can know oneself even deeper while at the same time empathize with the other, even remotely.
  • The temporary community, built by sharing the same experience, the online environment and a set of rules, allows participants to achieve a different state of cognitive learning. Through dialog everyone can learn from the others emotions, feelings and reflections regarding the common yet personal experience.

Through these different types socialization all participants experienced different degrees of involvement and sensitivity regarding the interaction between people and data.

My questions after Data Meditations

In this period of widespread uncertainty, I find myself much more comfortable asking questions rather than giving straight answers. It seems to me that as humanity in the Anthropocene we are the most impacting geological force on a global level. But at the same time, as individuals, we are increasingly fragile and disconnected from other people, struggling in creating communities.

The ideological polarization that we can observe in many populations has certainly been exacerbated by the digital media and the social bubbles that are strengthened through them, but perhaps this is only a part of the problem.

While the world continues to fight for the rights of all individuals, a huge part of the population feel deprivated of the “sense of belonging”, tipical of modern and pre-modern times. The conflicts that we see emerging within large sections of the population are due in part to the marginalization of individuals in a today globalized context.

So what can we do?

Can Data Meditations become a tool for creating empathy?

Can digital tools help us to empathize with other people?

In former times, what types of rituals and spaces existed to create a sense of belonging and connection among people?

When established, did the sense of belonging generate distance/conflic whitin other social groups/civilizations?

Are our human senses sufficient to understand the global world which manifests itself in all its complexity and often inconsistency?

Can data and computation support us in the signification process of the existing?

How much “wearing the data” of other humans or non-humans can  help to orient us between objectivity and subjectivity in the signification of such a complex world?

How to make these experiences of recollectivation through data and computation be non-extractive processes?

In the current context, time becomes a luxury good, it seems that we must continually fill it with something significant: how can collective practices based on reflection, meditation and cure be introduced?

The questions could go on and on, but I’ll stop for the moment. I’d love to hear your questions and maybe even some of your answers, and I hope that all of it will enter the near future of HER: She Loves Data.

What I learned from this experience

Data Meditations was a complex experience. We are still elaborating it individually and as a research team, but here what I want point out for the moment:

  • The experience done through the senses is at least as important as the rationalized one;
  • the experience made with the senses of other people is at least as important as mine;
  • the experience that data allows us to have by interfacing with it directly is at least as important as the one that can emerge from dialogue;
  • being able to integrate so many points of view into one experience made me more than myself for a few moments.

Understanding the complexity that surrounds us is perhaps the path of a lifetime, but in a world that appears bigger every day and impossible to read, I think we should insist on trying on our skin these intersections between biological limits, new cognitive horizons, the subtle line that separates the individual and the collective, the depth of knowledge that is combined and not simply added and soon the possibility to get the non-human point of view.

For these reasons, I know that the path for the rituals of new living is still very long, it will take a long time to refine them and refine yourself, this is just the beginning!

Where to experience Data Meditations now?

For now the workshop has ended, we are working on the next iterations of Data Meditations and we are exhibiting the results of it around italy.

From August 21st till September 26th, Data Meditations was part of “Artistic Technological Investigations”,  the collective exhibit organized and promoted by Gruppo78 at the Museo d’Arte Moderna U. Carà, in Muggia (Trieste), curated by Maria Campitelli.

From September the 30th till December the 6th, a new version of the exhibit was created to be part of “Prove di (Ri)esistenza: the exhibit” promoted by Fondazione Baruchello in Rome, and curated by Ilaria Conti. For this version, together with a brand new nine meters data visualization and a video showcasing a session of the ritual as it was designed for the workshop, we realized a speculative design module in which four objects from a near future scenario tell us about a world in which Data Meditations is a common practice.

If you are interested in data, future and rituals, on October the 30th HER: She Loves Data will organize the first webinar about Data Meditation with prof. Luca Chittaro. Keep in touch and wait for the second part of the article, in which a young colleague will speak about his experience of the ritual, in deep detail.