Blog Post

Mimi Onuoha: Charting the Intersections of the Physical and Online Worlds

It is the year 2014, and you are living a double life.

The lives you lead are different, but not divorced. They stretch and meet at crucial intersections. You cruise highways and websites; you check into hotels and locations on mobile apps. You may like to eat a type of food and you may also “like” that food on Facebook, but those two actions do not necessarily mean the same thing.

Let’s get more specific. In your physical life, you have set locations that you visit, some often (like your home, or your workplace) and some occasionally (the restaurant you treat yourself to once a month, the store you pop by when you’ve got the time). You take certain roads and streets that lead to certain buildings and areas. Most likely, you are rarely alone--there are other people who travel beside you.

And in your online life, it is much the same. You have websites that you visit a lot, some that you visit less frequently. You have a home site, you have pages that you may frequent so much that you’ve saved them as bookmarks (in fact, you may be on one of those right now). Though it may be more difficult to sense the presences of others, once again, you are surely not alone.

Have you ever stopped to wonder who the other people who travel beside you on these digital and physical paths are? Have you ever wondered if they are similar to or different from you? Have you pondered how their lives affect yours? And more importantly, have you ever wondered the reverse--who are the people who don’t visit the same places as you? What are their stories, why don’t your paths overlap, and what do you lose from not seeing their traces?

Questions I'm Interested in

If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t dwelled long on such topics. But these are the questions that I’m interested in--where do people go, on and offline, and where don’t they go? In the contexts of urban and digital spaces, are there opportunities for different people to interact with one another? And do we want or need those opportunities?

There are plenty of reasons why these questions matter, particularly at this specific moment. According to the United Nations, for the first time in history more than half of the world’s population lives in cities. By 2050, that number will rise to two-thirds. As our world becomes more urbanized, it becomes more globalized--more people than ever live outside of their countries of origin, and even more will in the future.

Cities, as researcher Kio Stark has described, are “interaction machines.” When it comes to human interaction, what cities offer is the presence of strangers. And as more strangers from more places flood into cities, we must begin asking ourselves how these people are coming into contact and relationships with one another, and what the implications of those connections are.

At the same time, we are also beginning to unfold more and more of our lives online. Smartphone penetration grows higher and higher, and our technological tools grow ever more advanced and connected. I used to wander the streets of New York and count how many people stared at their mobile phones as they wove through crowded sidewalks. We are becoming increasingly-skilled inhabitants of multiple worlds.

To me, this represents an opportunity. I graduated from Princeton University with a bachelor’s degree in Cultural Anthropology. I was interested in the Anthropology of Technology: specifically, how culture and technology affect each other. What I found, through most of my research, was not only that we create tools that support our cultures, but that the very tools we use can also change our cultures. I went to graduate school at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program to learn more about how to create those digital tools. At ITP, I began to have an appreciation for design, and for the ability that art has to open minds and provoke different kinds of thinking.

Digital Bread Crumbs

It was at graduate school that I realized the importance of this moment: we now live in an age in which we are accumulating more and more of what MIT professor Alex Pentland calls, “digital bread crumbs.” As Pentland explains in his book Social Physics, data like call records, credit card transactions, and GPS location fixes “tell the story of everyday life by recording what each of us has chosen to do.”Unlike sites like Facebook that allow us to present curated versions of ourselves, our digital breadcrumbs reveal the realities of where we spend our time and money in a manner with frightening accuracy.

My movement around Brooklyn and New York, visualized using the Moves App and Move-O-Scope. Graphic by Mimi Onuoha.

What does this all mean, viewed together? As our cities become increasingly important as sites of interactions, we now have the digital tools to better understand our physical worlds. My hope, then, is that by using these more sophisticated ways of understanding and representing the world around us, we can better understand ourselves and one other.

And that’s what my project for this fellowship aims to do. It concerns all the worlds I’ve been involved in: digital anthropology, art, urban spaces, online/offline interactions. I’ll be gathering together a demographically diverse group of Londoners and using their digital bread crumbs--specifically their mobile/computer browsing histories and their mobile geolocation information-- to create visualizations and maps that show where each of these individuals travels online and offline. I’ll be supplementing these maps with qualitative insights from the participants about their thoughts on their city, and the digital spaces they frequent. By the end I should not only have interactive visualizations showing how and where my participants travel, but hopefully, I’ll be able to discover if seeing the visualizations of their quantitative information changes their very approaches to movement online and offline.

I’ll be using my posts here to explore multiple angles of the project, from exactly how I’ll be recruiting participants, to what I’ll be using to gather and represent data, to viewpoints from the participants themselves. I’ll be working in conjunction with and based out of the Information Experience Design program of the Royal College of Art, and will be displaying some of the work that results from that partnership here as well. And finally, I’ll be using this space to grapple with some of the bigger questions that inform the project, such as to what end do urban inhabitants want and need to understand one another?

There will be a lot of unpack over the course of the next nine months, and I’m looking forward to the task. I’m also looking forward to mulling over whatever feedback and questions you all might have for me. You can get in touch with me on Twitter at @thistimeitsmimi. If you’re interested in more of the ideas, projects, research, and theory that inform the project, check out the project Tumblr or my personal site. But of course, the best place to find me is right here, on the National Geographic website.

Mimi Onuoha is one of five inaugural Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling fellows. Read more about the program.

The first five Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellows, clockwise from upper left: Ann Chen, Daniel Koehler, Erin Moriarty Harrelson, Michael Waldrep, and Mimi Onuoha. Photographs courtesy of U.S. Department of State.

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