The Empathy of Machine Learning
 
Illustration:  Beloved Dog  by Maira Kalman

Illustration: Beloved Dog by Maira Kalman

If you were to adopt a dog—bring it home, and have it live with you for several months—both you and the dog would likely interact with one another, develop a routine, and influence each other's behavior. So imagine that one day you come home from work to find that your dog has jumped onto your bed and is sleeping with his butt resting on your favorite pillow. If this behavior on your dog’s part is deemed undesirable, unpleasant, or even infuriating, that is acceptable. Despite this, it would be unacceptable in this scenario to place the blame on the dog and not yourself. After all, wasn’t it your job to train the dog? Wasn’t it your job to set up parameters and conditions for how the dog was expected to behave?

I believe that the ownership of a Facebook account is allegorical to dog ownership. The Facebook Timeline is time-based and develops an expected pattern of interaction with its user over the span of the relationship. While its behavior may have a predictable routine or personality to it, it will also be unique and fresh each day as it grows. Lastly, it will be influenced by its owner’s behavior and vice-versa.

So let’s take a closer look at the Timeline. Every individual's Timeline exists as a unique entity, one that manifests as a result of Facebook's algorithm. The algorithm is what determines the presentation of information on a Timeline at any given point and has many exciting features. To begin with, a Facebook user will never experience the same Timeline twice since the algorithm ensures that its content is always learning, growing, and transforming at an immeasurable rate. Furthermore, if the same user’s Timeline were to be pulled up on multiple devices simultaneously this algorithm would display a similar sentiment on each device; however it will still present a different content, order, and format for each. Therefore, by definition, we can’t ever truly measure a Timeline to ascertain whether or not it is deterministic. This shows us that while the algorithm may not technically be “conscious,” it is inherently non-deterministic and therefore exhibits behavior indistinguishable from that of a conscious being’s free-will.

Next, let’s take a look at how the algorithm operates. The manifestation of an infinitely-scrolling Timeline requires that the algorithm must form its recommendations in advance. The user sees this as a real-time result, but the list of recommendations is formed whether the user scrolls further (or even looks at the Timeline in the first place).  If we see consciousness as being aware of oneself—and being able to make conclusions based on decisions that the Self has already derived—then what is to stop us from feeding these “recommended posts” results back into the algorithm itself at the time the user views the feed? Doing so would make the algorithm "aware" of its decisions, and would allow it to choose the same path (existing results) or to choose new ones—thus granting it an arguable form of consciousness.

If we follow this line of thinking surrounding the underlying algorithm, we see that Facebook’s Timeline is nondeterministic, non-random, and, with a small tweak, could exhibit a form of consciousness. Therefore when we are considering the future of the Timeline, I believe that it would be unethical for its creators to directly modify its function or, worse, to euthanize it.

So what are the ethical options we have when considering the future of the Facebook Timeline? Having pondered these points, I can see only three possible solutions. One can
[A] grant it consciousness,

[B] allow it to continue to operate without using its results, or

[C] begin to retrain it.


If we look again at the relationship between an owner and his dog, I would suggest that the third option [C] is the best course of action. Similar to a dog, Facebook’s Timeline algorithm is an entity which can be trained to exhibit the behavior its owner deems most desirable. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the individual user to take on the job of proper training. Just as no owner could rightfully beat down or disparage his or her own dog, no Facebook user can be seen as sound or just when beating down or disparaging their own Timeline results. To do so would be displaying a fundamental lack of empathy. Thus, if a Facebook Timeline were to exhibit undesirable behavior or content, the ideal solution would be that the individual user takes on the job of providing proper instruction to modify it so that it best meets their needs and personal definition of optimal; it then, ethically, becomes the responsibility of the end user to change the behavior of their Facebook Timeline, not the responsibility of Facebook itself.


This above essay was originally written as part of the coursework for a class titled, “Logo Insignifica,” by professor Mark Kingsley at SVA’s Masters in Branding program.


 
 
 
Kelsy PostlethwaitEssay
Do I own a pair of shoes that evoke memories, or that I have a deep association with, and why?
 

As I flip through a mental rolodex of pairs of shoes from throughout my life, short snippets of memory and emotion flash quickly past my mind’s eye; granting me just a moment with each before the next rushes in and reframes my possible answer to this question entirely.

I always knew I’d have to submit a story of my own. A simple task which can either stay simple or contain within it a piece of my memory and identity. Possibly—I tell myself—it could even contain within it a glimpse at the truths which I hold so tight and close that sometimes even I can go for weeks or months without peeking under the hood to check in on them.

This contrasting simplicity and depth is mirrored in the psychology of shoes themselves—which is, of course, what the Van Gogh painting which inspired this project is best known for.

So perhaps I can retrofit this question, looking first at my memory and identity and then backing into the pair of shoes which fit best. I’ll attempt to do so in three parts.

First off, I’m quirky. A personality feature which ran rampantly unchecked throughout my childhood then went fully into hiding throughout my grade school years, when remaining silent was preferable to being labeled a weirdo. Thanks to a solid community of friends, this feature comfortably floated it’s way back into the forefront of my identity in my early 20’s and has been a secret pride of mine ever since.

Secondly, I’m persuasive. A trait that goes hand-in-hand with the rollercoaster of frustration and joy that is the ability to talk myself into—or out of—just about anything. And why a solid debate over some obscure philosophical question or inconceivable concept is truly the quickest way to my heart. Fortunately, I was raised with an abundance of love and this attribute is, in turn, never used without everyone’s best interest in mind … though it did take a “safety-third” stance during my study abroad months in Rome.

Lastly, and most obviously, I’m hopelessly optimistic. After reading through Malcolm Gladwell's research on the concept of “Imminent Orphans,” I’ve self-diagnosed this attribute to be a result of my fathers death which occurred when I was six. Gladwell’s research outlines how the psychology of experiencing the loss of a parent at an early age can, in some instances, manifest itself in the form of disproportionate amounts of courage and a high tolerance for risk later in life. Though I certainly don’t consider myself to be brave, I call it optimistic.

Working back as I promised, it seems as though the shoes which fit best are the ones that came to mind first after all: my black Jeffry Campbell Lolita-style platform heels.

When I purchased them, I was living in Asheville, North Carolina, having moved to the mountains post-graduation to start off fresh and on my own. Truly, I knew no one. After months of attempts at building a close community (to varying degrees of success) I found myself one night feeling especially lonely and reaching for my phone to text a few close friends from college, saying, “Meet me in Chicago for Halloween, let’s have an adventure.”

Thus the shoes were purchased in preparation for the trip to Chicago, and selected as a perfect Pairing to my Daft Punk costume which included the helmet I was crafting late at night out of art board, cheap plastic, a used baseball helmet, a PBR can cut in half, spray paint, and Bondo … so much Bondo.

Looking back, this was a time in my life of uncomfortably independent yet thrilling growth and introspection. Difficult, but exciting. Reverberating with indecision and possibility.

When Halloween weekend arrived, the trip to Chicago went over flawlessly. My Daft Punk helmet and Lolita platform shoes acting as both the armor and masquerade for the new life and direction I was trying on at the time. I arrived on Thursday and by Saturday night my friends and I were forming plans to move to the city together. By January we’d signed a lease in Lakeview, and by February I had fully uprooted my life and started something completely new.

The Lolita heels—by nature of their style, price point, and the physics required to balance in them—were a calculated risk … much like my move to Chicago.  And I now find myself at another crossroads, having graduated from SVA with a masters degree and my spirit again reverberating with the unique thrill of adjacent possibilities.

What path do I want to take in my new life in New York City, and what kind of shoes might be required to walk it? I don’t yet know the answer to this question. But whatever shoes they are, I aspire for three things to remain constant:

They’ll allow for quirkiness and lead me to community.

When the right style comes into view, it’ll be me who calculates the risk and ultimately persuades myself into making the leap.

And whatever the physics required to balance their sole, the first step forward will be taken with optimism. Always optimism.

ShoesCrop08.jpg

This above story is the first—and official—story that I wrote for the 100th submission in my project, 100 Days of Sole. Read the un-published* story that I’ve posted here, or others that are nothing like it here: 100daysofsole.com or @100daysofsole


 

100 Days of Sole was prompted by Van Gogh’s, “A Pair of Shoes,” and its role as a muse for great philosophers who have since written on the painting and its relationship to art, design, and the history of ideas. Entitled accordingly, my project is a modern-day exploration of the concepts that those philosophers uncovered. The project was brought to life with original stories from 100 great creatives, artists, and makers of our time—through the lens of their shoes—examining the role of footwear as a mirror for identity and association.

 
 
Kelsy PostlethwaitShort Story
“When walking towards the ocean, shuffle your feet in the sand to avoid stingrays.”
 

“Shit. That’s how Steve Irwin went.” I think to myself as I set down the laminated informational sheet left for guests of Ixchel Ostional, our AirBnb’d casita on the coast of Costa Rica. In a matter of seconds, my visions of carefree playing in the ocean transform into horror scenes of swollen toes, infected insoles, and a trip to the ER in a country where I don’t speak the language. I calculate next the hours of driving between us and the nearest legitimate hospital; how we’d have to ford a literal river and cross three bridges — two of which are seemingly on their last leg — in pursuit of medical attention. Unfortunately this doesn’t leave much wiggle room for risk. Then again, I’m the dumbass who picked a secluded location next to a nature preserve in a country I’d never been to before as the destination for our casual getaway — so perhaps I needed to simplify. Maybe I’d be able to find protective footwear at one of the small beach towns less than an hour away. Maybe I’d forgo the swimming part all together. I really couldn’t afford to loose any toes this week … per usual.

My mission for the week abroad was relatively straightforward: to spend quality time with my love Daniel and our dog Batman away from the hustle and bustle of NYC, to re-live a favorite childhood pastime of going to the beach and swimming in the ocean, and to recalibrate my life post-graduation from an intense masters program while writing my first book and configuring a clear direction for my career and the related overall trajectory of my future life.

By the third day I had experienced a small meltdown, resulting in the *obvious-all-along* realization that I couldn’t plan the entire trajectory of my career and future success in 10 days. And I decided to narrow the focus down to the basics — writing my 'sole story' and positioning my book.

By the fourth day Daniel received an email invitation to interview for a position that he was interested in — and our conversations naturally shifted into tactical approaches and hypothetical interview answers. He would prep over the weekend and take the interview via Google Hangouts from the AirBnb’s patio on Monday.

On Saturday, the sixth day, we made our first trip to the beach. I wore an old pair of gold Havaiana sandals the entire time to protect my feet from Stingrays as I busied myself with taking photos, picking up shells, and watching our 10 lb chihuahua-terrier-mix run in and out of the waves, having the best day of his life.
“Who needs swimming when there’s so much else to do at the beach?” Said my stingray prompted fear, as I crouched down with my polaroid camera to take a photo of my dog rolling around in the sand on his back.

On sunday, we went to the beach again, and this time I wore a swimsuit I knew would feel secure in the waves. I thought about swimming. But our trip was delayed and by the time we arrived at the shore the tide had dropped low — revealing an underbelly of smooth boulderous toe-stubbing rocks where waves had been just the day before.
“Perhaps another time,” I thought as I grabbed a stick to throw for my dog while quizzing Daniel on his interview questions.

Tuesday was our last day at Ixchel Ostional. I woke up early to finish typing my sole story and asked Daniel to read it over as he joined me on the porch for our morning coffee. “I love it. It’s so you … but it’s not really a story, is it?” he speculated. He was right.
New frameworks from school and months spent pouring over the psychology of shoes — paired with the entire anthology of 99 other brilliant, bold, incredible stories held firmly in my mind — had all resulted in an informed perspective and a well written piece, but it wasn’t a story. “It’s our last day to go to the beach,” I said, changing the topic before finally confessing, “I really really want to get in the water and swim once before we have to go back home to New York.”
“Did you see the note about stingrays?” He replied, not missing a beat. To which I shook my head yes while irrationally calculating whether my soon to expire student health insurance plan would cover prosthetic extremities if push came to shove.

The empty beach greeted us a third time as I diligently shuffled  my flip-flop clad feet down the sandbar and towards the waves — my faithfully sunburnt boyfriend and beached-out dog by my side. But each time I walked into the waves, by about mid-calf, the murky water would begin to cloud my view of what was happening beneath the surface, adding ambiguity to doubt by completely removing the ability to see my feet. Plus the strength of the rip-current threatened to carry off my flip-flops entirely and leave me defenseless … and not only that but the loss of a flip-flop at sea would mean that I was responsible for littering plastic, into the ocean, mere yards away from a major baby turtle hatching grounds. No way Jose.

After a half dozen half-baked attempts with no sign of progress in sight, I turned to my sunburnt boyfriend and beached-out dog and asked, “could we maybe try a different beach?” … What I think many may fail to mention when recounting stories of courage and accomplishment is the fact that many times the gold medal doesn’t belong to the protagonist at all. But rather should go to the sweaty, sunburnt, beached-out wingman with zero interest in swimming who courteously nods before pulling up Tripadvisor and Google Maps on his phone, climbing back into the car, and silently beginning to drive. In moments like this I really don’t think I deserve him.

After an hour or so in the car we turn off the pockmarked gravel road and onto a narrow lumpy dirt one with thick foliage on either side that seemingly threatens to block the path with greenery at any moment — so much so that when a slight curve in the trail reveals overgrowth which brings the drive to a screeching halt, I’m not even surprised. Daniel turns off the car and looks hard at Google Maps as I struggle to find the adequate words. Just as I’m about to sputter out an attempt at an apology he looks up from his phone and says, “It should be just past this small hill,” pointing to the slight incline of land overgrown with lush foliage visible through our SUVs dirt-splattered windshield, “You go ahead, I’ll wait in the car with Batman.”
“Ok” I respond, filled with renewed hope, “just give me one second.”
With the added threat of my flip-flop foot protection falling off in the waves and no suitable water shoes in sight, I’ve been mentally working out a hack and that I implement quickly by taking four hair ties from my purse and cutting them to create four short lengths of material. I then knot this material to the back of of the straps on my flip-flops — two on each shoe — creating a makeshift elastic strap for my heel in order to hold the shoes on and in place. The result looks ridiculous but feels secure enough. “Be right back!” I spit out with a tinge of fake-it-till-you-make-it enthusiasm that renders my voice choppy and unnatural as I climb out of the car and treck directly into the foliage ahead.

Daniel was spot on. I step out on the other side of the incline and am greeted by the most gorgeous beach I’ve ever laid eyes on. Lined by a row of boulders which jut out into the ocean on the left side and a peninsula on guard-duty to the right lies a clear blue patch of ocean with gentle waves that a small handful of young surfers are paddling amidst. As I run up to the shore and begin to step gingerly into the water I find comfort in the fact that even at around mid-thigh level I can still look down and see my flip-flopped feet planted securely on the ocean floor through the waves — not a stingray in sight.

At just above waist level however, things get more complicated. I now need to balance my focus between the waves approaching and making sure that I don’t get hit by a surfer, which prevents me from staring down every 1.6 seconds to check for stingrays. In addition, the heightened strength of the waves at this depth are taking their toll on my makeshift water shoes and the heave of each undertow creates a painful series of distractions as the strap between my big and second toe digs hard into my skin; threatening to buckle their structure. I know I should just take them off.

Why am I so reluctant to lose my protective footwear when it’s become obvious that in this context it is no longer needed!? “Just let go, just let go, just let go,” I mumble to myself unconvincingly under my breath as one of the surfers — a barefoot, bikini-clad, 9-year-old — streaks by on her board; making my stubborn psychological need for foot security seem utterly comical. A snarky snort escapes my throat as I come to terms with the humor … yet I remain rooted in place, unwilling to make the next move. “Stay. Go. Stay. Go. Go home? Take the damn sandals off. Dive in. Just let go.” I repeat to myself over and over some variation of these ideas within the minutes that seem like hours while I stand inertly as the waves rush around me, feeling baffled by my own uncharacteristic incredulity.

Finally, a nudge from nature itself breaks the spell. A wave twice the size of all of the ones preceding it roars past me on a crash course for shore and with it sweeps the sandals off of my feet entirely. I feel each of the straps succumb to the pressure — popping out of their sockets on both left and right foot simultaneously — and I catch the resulting hunks of useless plastic in my hands just as the undertow aftermath wooshes past. Freedom. I smile. Freedom. As I immediately begin jumping headfirst into wave after wave. Freedom. I laugh as my fears dissolve in the sun-soaked surges of saltwater and foam. Freedom. My broken flip-flops clenched tightly in my hand by my side, their use as a measure of protection now converted into a reminder of the fears I’ve released and a symbol of the result: Freedom.

KelsyShoes-Edit-wideangle.jpg
IMG_8851.jpg

This above story is the second—and unpublished*—story that I wrote for the 100th submission in my project, 100 Days of Sole. Read the story that I officially submitted and others that are nothing like it at: 100daysofsole.com or @100daysofsole


 

100 Days of Sole was prompted by Van Gogh’s, “A Pair of Shoes,” and its role as a muse for great philosophers who have since written on the painting and its relationship to art, design, and the history of ideas. Entitled accordingly, my project is a modern-day exploration of the concepts that those philosophers uncovered. The project was brought to life with original stories from 100 great creatives, artists, and makers of our time—through the lens of their shoes—examining the role of footwear as a mirror for identity and association.

 
 
Kelsy PostlethwaitShort Story
New York is a Built Place
 

 

New York is a built place
you can see it in the facades of pre-war arches 
held by stubborn steadfast bricks and 
the faces of construction workers 
pouring cement into 
the early hours of the morning
on a day 
when the mind is tired
the results could swallow you
but New York is built 
brick by brick by brick by brick by brick
and if the rhythm of the cement truck at three am was a song 
it would sing of work in progress
not one thing in this city is ever really finished 
even the most stubborn capstones 
in the arches
are steadfast because 
they came last
long after the first brick 
was placed
before the second brick
and so on
so 
grab a brick

 
Kelsy PostlethwaitPoem