icosahedron logo

Erik Stayton

estayton [at] mit [dot] edu

Doctoral Student, HASTS
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Designer and Programmer
Cinnamon Bird

Current Projects

Research on Automation Engineering Paradigms

Fall 2015 - Now

Currently researching the design and development of automated systems, especially automated cars, in continuation of my thesis work. There are multiple possible paradigms for these systems, from "complete" autonomy (which is a practical impossibility, and which might not even be useful or helpful if it were possible) to systems which must be fully and continuously monitored by someone in the driver's seat (also implausible for reasons of human attention and response times). But there are alternatives to these pictures that are not so often discussed, but provide greater promise for real systems architectures: backup systems like Auto-GCAS (in aviation); hybrid human-machine systems built with adaptive automation techniques; new types of infrastructures that solve problems in automation as well as benefitting urban architectures. I am investigating how these concepts can be transformed into guiding principles, standards, or regulation in order to foster the creation of automated vehicle systems that solve social problems, rather than systems that simply automate already problematic aspects of our transportation infrastructures.

Development of Tools for Distributed Open Science and Scholarship

Spring 2013 - Now

Currently working on developing several tools for open, distributed knowledge development for scientists and public intellectuals. For too long has static text, with occasional selected figures, been the standard for scholarship in both the humanities and sciences. Even the use of multimedia, afforded by online public intellectual engagement by scholars and scientists, has been limited, and has not radically changed the way that people interact with knowledge. Current research with Cinnamon Bird focuses on Chancery, which will be a distributed, web-accessible, collaborative knowledge-base written in Pharo (Smalltalk), and focused around the ability to create ad-hoc visualizations for the investigation of scholarly questions.

Past Work

Driverless Dreams: Technological Narratives and the Shape of the Automated Car

Spring 2015

My completed Masters thesis at MIT Comparative Media Studies, on the history of automated car technologies, their social and cultural implications, and the stakes of different modes of human-machine interaction in the future of transportation:

Automated cars, popularly rendered as “driverless” or “self-driving” cars, are a major sector of technological development in artificial intelligence and present a variety of questions for design, policy, and the culture at large. This work addresses the dominant narratives and ideologies around self-driving vehicles and their historical antecedents, examining both the media’s representation of self-driving vehicles and the sources of the idea, common both among the media and many self-driving vehicle researchers, that complete vehicle autonomy is the most valuable future vision, or even the only one worth discussing and investigating. This popular story has important social stakes (including surveillance, responsibility, and access), embedded in the technologies and fields involved in visions of full automation (machine vision, mapping, algorithmic ethics), which bear investigating for the possible futures of automation that they present. However, other paradigms for automation exist, representing lenses from literature in the fields of human supervisory control and joint-cognitive systems design. These fields—compared with that of AI—provide a very different read on what automation means and where it is headed in the future, which leads to the possibility of different futures, with different stakes and trade-offs. The work examines how automation taxonomies, such as that by the NHTSA, fail to account for these possibilities. Finally, this work examines what cultural understandings need to change to make this (cyborg) picture more broadly comprehensible, and suggests potential impacts for policy and future technological development. It argues that a broader appreciation for our hybrid engagements with machines, and recognition that automation alone does not solve any social problems, can alter public opinion and policy in productive ways, away from focus on “autonomous” robots divorced from human agency, and toward system-level joint human-machine designs that address societal needs.


Research Assistant at The Trope Tank

Fall 2013 - Spring 2015

While completing my S.M. at MIT, I worked as a research assistant at the Trope Tank on a variety of computing-related projects. The Trope Tank is a creative computing laboratory, housing a variety of hardware and software through which researchers engage with the material history of computing. While at the Trope Tank I worked on the Slant project, a narrative generation system generated in collaboration with Fox Harrell at MIT and Rafael Pérez y Pérez at UAM-Cuajimalpa. I also worked on some material computing outreach at the MIT Museum and online (e.g. a comparison of the Apple IIe and Commodore 64 graphical capabilities and control schemes).

Conference Presentation on Self-Driving Cars as Technologies of Knowing

October 2014

Presented at the Technologies of Knowing conference in Los Angeles, hosted by the USC School of Cinematic Arts, October 24-25, 2014. Autonomous vehicles depend upon, create, and transmit representations of knowledge: knowledge about users, goals, outcomes, and the physical world. But there is a paradox at the heart of modern media and information technologies: that software must simultaneously know and not know, and companies (such as Google, with the right-to-be-forgotten case) must strive not to see the very things that allow their systems to operate. This ideology of information gathering is rooted in the fields that have come together to create self-driving vehicles: artificial intelligence, computer vision, GIS and mapping, and statistical science. So how must we understand our coming transportational interlocutors? Through a consideration of the hidden ideologies of autonomous vehicle research, I explore this question and its opposite: through what processes and to what ends will these systems and the companies that run them "know" or encode us, as users giving commands, passengers, pedestrians, and fellow drivers?

Conference Presentation on Narrator's Expectations in Slant

June 2014

Presented at the Intelligent Narrative Technologies workshop in Milwaukee, June 17-18, 2014. I presented with Nick Montfort about modeling and expressing the narrator's expectations in narrative generation with the Slant system. Much of the scholarship about expectation centers on the reader's expectations and how to use them to create surprise or suspense in a story. However, we are interested in how the narrator of a computational story expresses his or her expectations for the narrative. Building on Deborah Tannen's work on the expression of expectations, we demonstrate our implementation of several techniques (including omission, repetition, hedges, false-starts, contrastive connectives, and explicit markers of surprise) and how they enrich stories generated by the Slant system. We also discuss how a narrator's characteristics (such as irony and ability-to-be-surprised) can be productively modeled to produce more interesting outputs.

Conference Presentation on Digital Editions

June 2014

Presented at the Electronic Literature Organization conference in Milwaukee, June 19-21, 2014. The talk was titled "Reditions (Editions, Ports, Remakes and Beyond) of First Screening and Karateka." Computational works often look very different than the texts scholarly editors are used to considering. Even basic questions of nomenclature, although addressed in certain ways, are difficult to settle: How should we name, and therefore understand, the basic textual relationships for computational work? We introduce a new term, "redition," in the context of two different computational works and their follow-up versions. While those engaged exclusively in literary studies would not consider Karateka, and those looking at games exclusively would not consider First Screening, we choose to reunite these two 1984 Apple II programs, both of which have been carried into new versions with great care. A Trope Tank tech report on the topic will be co-authored by Nick Montfort.

Conference Panel on Educational Game Design

March 2014

Presented at a conference panel at the Digital Media and Learning Conference, March 6-8, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts, with Chelsea Barabas, Desi Gonzalez, and Jesse Sell. The panel was titled "Learning Where You Least Expect It: Games that Educate in Non-traditional Settings" and focused on appropriate game design and assessment techniques for integrating games into the classroom. While games provide new means of engagement with material, educators (and industry professionals) often have difficulty integrating play with learning goals and assessing results. Erik Stayton applied his background as an instructional designer to discuss learning assessment for informal games, and suggest appropriate ways to measure the impact of games in education.

cbGrocery Food Analytics Toolkit

May 2012 - February 2013

The current system of food labeling, a standardized label including recommended daily intakes, descends from a World War II effort to ensure that the food supply met the needs of the average person. Nutrition science has since advanced, and both changes to RDIs and calls for a new label format have occurred, but a paper label is still a label and will never be as informative as the phones and devices many of us carry in our pockets. cbGrocery, short for Cinnamon Bird Grocery is an innovative tool for creating shopping lists, based around the concept of identifying nutrient deficits in your shopping cart and providing suggestions to correct those deficiencies before you even enter the store. The cbGrocery project would also like to track long-term food purchasing trends to examine nutrient deficits over time. While the project is currently pre-alpha, and in use by a few testers, development has paused as we pursue CBV and EMP.

Project:Lifeline Disaster Relief Facebook Application

August 2011 - June 2012

When a friend or family member goes missing in a disaster, locating them is the first step to offering support. And even though we are surrounded by social media networks, repeated misinformation or "telephone" effects can hobble their use in ascertaining the status of a particular person. In August of 2011, the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response at HHS, in conjunction with Health 2.0, challenged developers to address this lack through the development of a Facebook app. Cinnamon Bird's entrant, Project: Lifeline, won first place in the challenge. The central concept of the project was to provide a unified interface with which to view the wellbeing of all your friends. When you install the app, you designate "lifelines," such as spouses, parents, children, or friends, who you trust to update the public interface with your status in case you are unable to do so. The application thereby provides a trusted information board that can be used to crowdsource the search for missing persons.

Design and Programming

2004 - Now

Has been a graphic designer and programmer since 2004, starting with web programming in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, adding on Python for scientific computing work at Brown University as an undergraduate, and moving into Clojure, Prolog, and Racket for Cinnamon Bird projects.

Writing, Editing, and Instructional Design

2007 - 2013

Performed writing, editing, quality assurance and instructional design work for a variety of publishers and publishing subcontractors including nSight Inc., DiacriTech, and Chameleon Publishing. Worked on multiple projects as a subcontractor for large publishing companies including Pearson, and higher-educational institutions including Northern Arizona University.

Headshot of Erik Stayton

About Me

I am a technologist and technology scholar interested in shaping the future of human relationships to technology by studying and critiquing their past, their present, and conventionally accepted visions of their future. I am currently focusing on automated vehicle technologies---the ways they have been primarily envisioned by prominent developers and the media, and the often unacknowledged complexity and hybridity of automated systems---arguing that only an eye toward the design of the whole system, humans and machines in the context of broader social goals, will reliably produce vehicles that live up to our driverless dreams. More broadly, I examine human relationships to everyday automation technologies, the ideologies that drive and support automation R&D, and the lived experience of human agents in these interactions. I am also interested in the intersection of human technological augmentation with issues of privacy, property, control, and equitable access. I am a developer with the programming partnership Cinnamon Bird, and a graduate student at MIT, pursuing a Ph.D. with MIT HASTS.

I am from Massachusetts, and got my dual-degree Sc.B. from Brown University in physics and English literature, and my S.M. from MIT Comparative Media Studies. I play guitar, and enjoy mountain biking, archery, iaido, and swing dance. I am also a gearhead, gamer, and sci-fi/fantasy nerd.



estayton [at] mit [dot] edu
twitter: @onlyabot