Distance in Nature
Today is the tenth day since tropical storm Isaias passed over the northeast and much of East Rock is still without power. The neighborhood has become somewhat of a maze because of the fallen branches which block the streets and sidewalks. After a week of climbing over these branches on my daily walks, I don't feel so crazy thinking to venture into East Rock Park—it's not like the winds could've washed away the familiar trails. I enter the park and follow the trail which parallels the road until turning sharply and beginning to ascend. Some thirty yards ahead, a fallen tree blocks the trail. Around it, a narrow path winds briefly into the bushes and emerges on the other side. The path is not deep, nor well-defined, but it has a quiet conviction. Its fate will be determined by how long it takes the city to clear the trail. For now, it is a refreshing detour.
I jog ahead and leap over another tree as if I'm avoiding a puddle which hugs a curb. Within moments I burst out of the greenery and onto the road. Pausing briefly, I realize that I can't see the trail from which I came. Slowly spinning in circles, it dawns on me that I'm lost. I cross the road and dive boldly into the wooded area, beginning to climb the slope with my hands and feet. Loosened by heavy rain, everything I grab feels impermanent: rocks tumble down the sloping hill, tree roots snap in my hands. How do trails resist interference by humans and by nature?
I have no particular fear of heights, but I don't dare to look behind myself. Surely beyond the next ridge I'll burst out onto another road and startle a family on an evening stroll. Lost in thought, I'm blinded by sunlight as it breaks through the foliage. I rush forwards and scramble over the edge, squirming in the sandy gravel like an unlucky fish washed ashore.
I am atop East Rock—that much I am sure of—and I can see nothing but sky. I'm awakened by the sight of a man reclining on a flat rock, bathing in golden sunlight. He tips his beer in my direction and welcomes me to happy hour. I am doubtful that I could ever again retrace this path which does not exist on any map, and which no trustworthy GPS would ever recommend. But, for now, I am only focused on the journey.
Distance in the City
Cross Campus no longer feels like it once did, back when it was the nexus of our carefree universe, when we brushed shoulders and crossed paths without care. Now that I no longer live downtown, I have a new perspective on the city. Now that I no longer live on Yale's campus, everything takes just a few minutes more.
See, all my friends tell me that it's worth it to drive up to Hartford to fly out of Bradley. They say it's worth it—even if it takes just a few minutes more. Now that I live in East Rock, I can appreciate that feeling. The pace of life in the city is unchanged, but the paths which traverse its landscape feel brand new. How can shifts in perception change our experience with familiar environments?
Distance as Permission
Spending the last few weeks writing my data collection tools and visualizing the collected data has reminded me of the distance between my ideas and their eventual executions. This isn't a complaint about delayed gratification, but rather a reminder that everything is a series of decisions, which is especially true in the digital space.
If I were to wander through my neighborhood, I'd be restricted by the grid of blocks and rows of houses, by the flow of traffic, and the need to maintain six feet of distance. I suppose that I could get away with cutting through a backyard or two, that I may slip by unnoticed if I were to move as the crow flies, or to climb over fences, or to open any unlocked door.
That is to say: in the physical space, there are nothing but boundaries in the way of movement, and I'm not sure if these "blockers" have digital equivalents. Firewalls, access controls, system administrators, need-to-know hierarchies, 401 and 403 status codes. Maybe. But in my personal, digital environment, do I face any of these blockers? Unless I were to self-impose restrictions, I'd be free to roam. Freedom doesn't mean that movement is no longer defined as a series of decisions like in physical space, but it's freedom from the watchful eyes of...whomever. Unless, of course, I was aware that my data is being collected and my movements tracked. They aren't at this moment, though, so I suppose I'm free to roam until the sun comes up.
Distance from the Body
I often joke that I walk into more spiderwebs than the average person—but I know that I can only blame myself for this misfortune. Recently I noticed that a daddy long-legs spider is living behind my toilet and I’ve begun to worry that I am destroying its home when I vacuum or find myself caught in a web. Somehow, it is rare that I find my body engulfed in something bigger than itself—not in the way that laying beneath a large blanket can feel like being in a new world, but in the way that walking into a spiderweb is a full-body experience. First, it is my arms which shoot up, then my hands which begin swatting and grabbing away pieces of web before my body dances itself free.
Tonight, the spider has left its home and is sleeping in the middle of my bathroom floor. A bold move, but I’m feeling compassionate. I wish I could track its movement but it often disappears into crevices, or into the radiator, or...well, I don’t know where—that’s what makes it so mysterious: its ability to traverse between planes of visibility and to exist, to thrive, to sustain itself while remaining out of sight. I’m reminded of the strangely well-known tidbit about throwing dogs off your trail by passing through a body of water. I suppose water, much like cracks in the wall, are agents of spatial discovery?—the spider goes in, the spider comes out.
The next morning is cloudy and I watch a small plane overhead. I longingly wait for it to pierce a cloud and disappear into a new dimension, but it steadily hums as it traces the coastline towards its destination in Stratford. Goodbye, blue sky.
Distance as a Hallway
I am sitting on a dusty step in the hallway of a friend’s apartment building waiting for her to return home. I open my Notes app and search the word “hallway”; three results appear. The first is unsorted notes for a short piece I wrote about two sisters who shared a house next-door to my grandfather. After their deaths, my mother took home an old bench of theirs, which is now in our hallway. The second note is a ranked list of every single room in Ezra Stiles College where I considered living junior year. Room A41, I observe, is at the end of the hallway. The third note is an unsent letter addressed to the man with whom I shared an apartment two summers ago. After he had left for Tibet, I began collecting all of the things I wanted to tell him. Towards the end of the summer I ecstatically typed that I came to believe our landlord to be a recreational marijuana user. This conclusion arose during a visit to her house to do laundry after my washing machine had broken. Her hallway had an undeniable aroma.
I hear voices below me in the stairwell and I peer through the railing. All three of these hallways sound more interesting than this one. Since tightly-packed waiting rooms have gone out of fashion during Covid, I’ve spent quite a bit of time waiting in hallways. I haven't become any fonder of them, or how light and air seem to never find their way from one end to the other, always getting lost somewhere in-between.
I want to search another word in my Notes app, but something holds me back: I don't like to think of my writing as data, or as something which can be queried. That being said, I don't like that any of my digital activity can be distanced from its original form and turned into data. This line of questioning is new for me: do I like my data? Do I like what it does, how it looks and feels?
I can't yet answer these questions and I’m not sure where I'll find them, either. For now, that's OK. I skip down the steps to the first floor and out into the cold air.
Distance between Technology and the Body
I’m still waiting for the day that I meet someone who actually served as a Hall Monitor, someone who proves to me that such a position exists. Now that I’ve collected data from two more individuals, I feel like a digital Hall Monitor, myself. Like Clippy, but nosier and less helpful. Isn’t that the idea behind most “smart home” products?—nosy and unhelpful but kind of cute! I get it, some days when I grab a doorknob I wish it would snap at me for being rough with it. Maybe such an invention could be useful during Covid: surfaces which scream when touched with germy hands. Light-switches which grunt, remote controls which yell, towels which groan when you rub your filthy hands all over them. I'm nauseated by these nightmarish inventions which sound like they escaped from Jeff Bezos’ wet dream.
As of now, I don't think that developing my data collection tools has changed how I use my computer. But comparing my data to that of others, I do feel rather eclectic: within 7 hours I used 17 different applications. Could I name even half of the applications I use on a given day? Not off the top of my head—but I know that I rely uniquely on each. These 17 applications are like delinquent students caught sneaking down a hallway and sent to the Principal's office—or my database.
So here I am, about to enter the 8th week of this project and I have both made, and become, a digital Hall Monitor. You are what you code.
Distance and the Abstraction of Functionality
I’ve started asking more people for consent to track their data and I’m excited to have gotten my first rejection. At this milestone, I’ll take a moment to solidify some of the central questions I’ve been asking myself.
Imagine walking after a heavy rain and leaving wet footprints on the sidewalk. You don’t think much of this; you don’t worry about being tracked. Then you realize there’s someone trailing behind taking photographs of your footprints as they evaporate. Weird, but footprints aren’t personal information, they’re just the side effect of walking somewhere—so, no big deal. But the place you’re headed to, and the place you came from—that information is personal, right?
The difference is abstraction: a couple of footprints on a sidewalk mean nothing without context, but when fully collected and ordered, they form a path. What if you were lost, and the photographer could make footprints appear ahead of you, illuminating the next step? That sounds useful, so maybe you’d consent to the photographing. Part of informed consent is knowing your end of the bargain: you’ll let Google Maps record your path in return for the promise of efficient directions. But would you consent to data collection without a tangible, measurable benefit? Would you let the stranger continue photographing your footprints without reason?
This is where I get stuck because I’m struggling to define “functional” data. Mouse coordinates, in the abstract, serve no personal function. Even spread across a timeline, they still mean nothing. But the act of collection, the creation and existence of this data—whom does that make responsible for its preservation, transportation, modification, or eventual destruction? I could hire someone else to manage my data in a cloud somewhere, but that would give it undue attention—and I still haven’t pinned down a tangible benefit.
I’m suddenly reminded of what it felt like to be home-bound during the initial wave of Covid across the northeast. I would venture outside only for essential activities, and it felt as if I had no way of knowing if businesses were open. Blind to the world, I resorted to asking strangers on the internet if they lived near some of my favorite restaurants. Eventually I found a man who lives above one, and he confirmed that they had begun offering take-out. To me, this man was nothing but a datapoint in a sea of profiles. His location was relevant insofar as it was a means to the completion of a task, and I sought out his knowledge because I found it personally advantageous—I found it functional. When all is reduced to data, does it not become dangerously easy to discard what is not functional, like a footprint, or a profile, or maybe even someone’s humanity?
Distance as Paths and Maps
Watching ballot counting feels like creating a path across the states which comprise our country, like making a rubbing of our electoral topography. I don't know if, in the end, we will remember which votes were mailed, or which were cast early—or if the President's rallying cry of "legal votes" will haunt us in the way that "alternative facts" has.
In some ways, the counting of ballots reminds me of a recipe. My roommate believes that recipes are only suggestions of paths we can follow or choose to diverge from. If the table had been set and the meal had been served, who could retrace a path back to a pot of boiling water, and who would think to do so?
It isn't known when we'll have final tallies in Nevada, or in Arizona, or in Pennsylvania or Georgia or North Carolina. I certainly don't blame the news outlets that are hesitant to call these states: once a map is drawn, can it ever really be taken apart? Maybe maps, much like recipes, cannot be put into reverse.
When looking back at electoral maps from 2016 and 2012, I don't remember which states were called before others. I don't remember how it felt to watch the maps being drawn. And yet I still feel a glaring intensity when I look at the 2016 map, smothered in misplaced red. I wish I could peel off the color and reveal the unchanging outlines of each state, then peel back another layer to remove the counties, and then another and another until nothing is left but land and water like the universe intended!
Distance in and Around the Home
Yesterday I missed class because my Wi-Fi couldn’t hold a steady signal. This morning the Trump campaign held a press conference in the parking lot of a landscaping business. This afternoon a rotting pumpkin was left on the sidewalk across from my house. This evening I ordered a pair of vintage hoop earrings from a woman who lives on the southern edge of Lake Tahoe. Today I was sent videos of street corners flooded with people whose bodies are full of joy—I recognized some of those bodies and wish that mine could have been among theirs.
Today is the first day that I’ve worked outside of my apartment—but I only made it as far as the front porch. After months of being confined to the home, it feels like multitasking to breathe fresh air while also watching a lecture about multiple regression. These days, going outside is an act which requires such specific preparation, such intention, that it has become an event. Two summers ago, when I first lived in East Rock, I would spend entire evenings reading on my porch despite its thin layer of grime which blew over from the nearby highway. These days, it’s either my desk, my bed, or the kitchen table.
But this morning I found a hotspot and sat on my porch to catch up on the week’s lectures. Living on the busiest corner in the neighborhood has certainly posed challenges and brought joys, and today has been full of both. In the age of social distancing, my computer is simultaneously my key to the world, and my greatest obstacle to uninhibited movement. Wi-Fi has become both a limiting factor and a multiplier. And me? I’m still stringing together disparate moments hoping they'll feel like days.
Distance in Dreams and in the Digital
Out here in the tundra, there is nothing between you and the sun’s rays. In this barren, white landscape you can see nothing but one man dressed in neon orange. To you, he is no larger than a pixel. He kneels in anguish and throws chairs. Beneath this rooftop, you don’t know how many floors separate you from the snow and the ground (which you believe lies below it).
I think that an entire story can be told through a character’s emotions—treating emotion like a raw material which underscores every decision and action. I wonder then, if I were to tell the story of my data, would I tell it with emotion, or through another medium? This predicament is why I struggle to retell my dreams: there is no one word which explains the range of emotions brought about by the sight of the barren tundra. I could walk you through the actions I took, or the places I traveled between, but you’d never quite get a full picture. Maybe I don’t yet have the tools to tell the story of something as untraceable as data—but I can’t know for sure. For starters, I struggle to see data creation as mark-making—rather, I struggle to see mark-making as a process which can exist digitally despite leaving no visible trace. That’s where my data collection tools become relevant: they render legible the marks I make so that they can be seen, preserved, and analyzed.
Much of the data I've been working with has been that which didn't have to exist, and which is a side effect of some means of production: image-making, walking, completing homework. We enjoy these tasks, or at least we have reason to complete them, and some would believe that they are enhanced through data. Perhaps then, in a simple sense, "functional" data is that which enhances the completion of a task. What about the data used to visualize the path of my hike up and down East Rock? I was left with two distinct datasets: one is the 300 images, which are lists of numbers specifying the amount of red, green, and blue at each point in a grid. The second dataset is the images' metadata, such as my location in space, or the times they were taken. This metadata doesn't necessarily change how we experience the images, but I can't pre-imagine how future audiences might do so. It doesn't change the means of production, either: how I take images, how I walk, or how I complete my homework—but I can't pre-imagine how my future self might do so. That is to say, at no point in time can it be pre-imagined what data will become useful, functional, or relevant. How, then, can I responsibly handle my data in the present? What's one more datapoint, or one more level of abstraction? What is it that I'm attempting to measure when I ask if one more datapoint is one too many?
Or am I just desperate to validate my existence in the world, and to do so through data? What physical artifacts will I leave behind, what marks will I make? My relationship with physical space is specific and trained—there's no escaping that we are not free to move in the world. Maybe "digital distancing" is not a measure of my estrangedness from the digital space but of my intimacy with the physical one—and my willingness to abide by its many rules. I can appreciate the confines of both landscapes while interrogating how they coexist.
And when I look out into the vast whiteness of the tundra, or up at the murky gray sky, or into the blackness of a screen, I don't see the space between myself and it—it which has no depth, no limits or ends. Sure, distance can be a measure of pixels or picas or points, just as sometimes it can be nothing more than a feeling.