In Flux, the master’s thesis of Isioma Iyamah, is about how we communicate our identities—both verbally and non-verbally. It’s about the myriad ways we create and conceptualize our spaces, using language and behavior to structure, categorize, and tell our stories. And it explores the patterns of behavior that frame our social identities.
“We are multifaceted beings who manifest many identities throughout our lives. Unfortunately, these identities are subject to the influence of bias—both implicit and explicit.”
Her thesis asserts that the behaviors we enact, and the identities we create are both subject to, and shaped by, bias. Her work therefore proposes interventions that challenge those biases, introducing more curiosity and empathy into our dealings with one another. It is a project that has been framed and reframed, funneled through multiple lenses, extrapolated, dissolved and finally recrystallized into the various pieces encountered in her book and final presentation.
Isioma argues that “we navigate the world around us leaving impressions on each other—deeply enough to leave a mark. Our interactions with one another define us, for better or for worse. We are multifaceted beings who manifest many identities throughout our lives. Unfortunately, these identities are subject to the influence of bias—both implicit and explicit.”
She was particularly inspired by this quote from Robert Lane Greene, author of You Are What You Speak: “Whether a Mr. Patel in London will think of himself primarily as an Indian, a British citizen, a Hindu, a Gujarati-speaker, or an ex-colonist from Kenya, depends on whether he faces an immigration officer, a Pakistani, a Sikh or Moslem, a Bengali-speaker, and so on. There is no single platonic essence of Patel. He is all these and more at the same time.”
To anchor her work, she met with subject matter experts whose fields included sociolinguistics, cognitive linguistics, digital anthropology, advertising, translation and design research—people whose careers involve studying people. Her reading material ranged from academic research articles to books written by leading cultural commentators and researchers in the field of anthropology and linguistics. She also listened to podcasts and read from online publishers such as Wired, The Atlantic, The Verge and Slate Magazine. This ensured that she kept abreast of developments in language and communication both on the academic front and in pop culture.
“We are all occupied with identity. As social creatures, we make sense of each other by categorizing one another. We judge, harshly.”
She organized her work into four sections: language, social data, social dialect and patterns of behavior—all as they relate to identity.
Dicto is a speculative Amazon Echo language AI module outfitted with subscription-based language packs—$25 per month for one language pack, $80 per month for unlimited language packs. It’s for people who want to learn a new language, but have no time to go out and do it the best way: immersion—being around native speakers.
"Converse with Dicto at home, in the shower, in the living room, or in the kitchen. Outfitted with a broad range of language packs, Dicto speaks pitch-perfect everything, checks your grammar, conjugation and accent, making sure you hit all the right notes. Speak to learn; practice makes perfect.” Isioma imagined Dicto as a campaign, with a series of print and poster ads posted across the city. Dicto's personality here is reflected by the copy, and colorway is conversational, bright, playful, and a little saucy.
She then created a video ad campaign—a series of short, humorous vignettes that showcased Dicto’s functionality and intelligence. Below is episode 1.
Social Data: set
Within the realm of communication and interaction design, Isioma turned to exploring how what we communicate in social media contributes to the construction of our different online personas. Here she introduces set.
set is a geo-social app that helps people make new friends outside of their established social circles. Avatars are colored shapes, generated algorithmically based on users’ online activity. Examples of such activity are Twitter hashtags and tweets, Facebook likes, and geotagged photos from Instagram. Users can form groups, and and make new shapes together—colorful metaphors for their new friendships.
Scraping social media data and user output such as words, phrases, geotagged images and memes, set maps, tracks and categorizes its users.
set helps people make new friends outside their established social circles. But more importantly, it challenges users to confront their social biases through the abstraction of their identity, personality, and mood—into colored shapes reminiscent of tangram puzzle pieces.
“By abstracting users’ personalities into color and shape, we remove the aesthetic judgment that often mars our interaction with other social networking apps,” Isioma reasons. The platform is inspired by social identity theory, which describes how people group together based on the characteristics they manifest within their constructed social identities. “It's important to understand that our social identities are very fluid,” Isioma argues. “Appreciating how we take on different roles depending on different social contexts could go a long way to reducing intergroup conflict. set is about building empathy by exposing our commonalities and rendering the differences between us joyful and colorful."
Social Dialect: Where We Are What We Speak
For her design experience work, Isioma wanted to construct an experiences that evoked an emotional response, and provoked a transformation in her guests. Here, she designed an experience that examined the geo-linguistic characteristics of social identity—looking at how speech content relates to the spaces we occupy, and exploring the biases that are woven into these behaviors. The event allowed outsiders to be immersed within the idiosyncratic world she had created.
Where We Are What We Speak was a multimedia installation; a tour of the city through sound and eavesdropped conversations. Isioma invited visitors to navigate the white-noise of the city—a soundscape of city sounds which played from speakers located around the gallery—and to try to identify where each conversation had taken place.
She abstracted the city landscape into a collection of concrete-and-steel structures arranged throughout the gallery space.
These totems played back recorded conversations from different neighborhoods.
While the experience tested her visitors’ knowledge and understanding of the social makeup of their city, Isioma also used the experience as an opportunity to provoke curiosity and self-reflection, confronting her visitors with their own biases.
“We are so fixated on the visual. I wanted to create a product that privileged hearing over sight; a product that allows people to experience another’s space by listening to their patterns of behavior.”
Patterns of Behavior
Isioma wanted to continue her work exploring sound. Psychologists have found that listening to a narrative involving people provokes a greater empathic response than simply viewing one. With this finding, Isioma designed Transceiver—a two-way microphone and speaker device that records a user’s day-to-day sonic activity in the home.
Here is how Tranceiver works: Over a two-week period, the device audio records the activities of a user or a family. These are made up of the the ritual (and non-ritual) patterns of behavior associated with waking up, getting ready for the day, returning from work or school, cooking, entertaining, fighting, laughing, crying, etc.
Linked to a dedicated Soundcloud account, users from all over the world upload their daily rhythms. And every two weeks, users from different cities, neighborhoods, or countries have the option of being paired. “By listening to and imagining the actions heard in the recorded audio,” Isioma posits, “users live a day in the life of their partners...and learn what it means to be a person living a different life.”
Isioma created a sound piece to illustrate what people might hear while using transceiver, weaving together the patterns of multiple peoples’ daily activities in the home, and creating a kind of “song”. Listen below.
By following along with the activities in the recorded audio, listeners are able to use the immersive narrative to imagine what it means to be a person on the other side of the world. “With Transceiver, we begin to hear how our differences are also our similarities,” says Isioma. “Our patterns of behavior are notes in an ever-shifting composition; we each belong.”
“Our patterns of behavior are notes in an ever-shifting composition; we each belong.”
Rhythm proved to be valuable concepts to Isioma. As her work progressed, she was able to draw connections to the fluid nature of our identities, and patterns of behavior, physical movement, language, and even social media usage. “Our identities are constantly evolving—adapting and reassembling,” she submits. “Realizing this, we can begin to more fluidly navigate the spaces within which we coexist—suspending judgment, living curiously, and celebrating our differences.”
See more of Isioma’s work at isiomaiyamah.com and email her at isiiyamah[at]gmail[dot]com.