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Erik Stayton

estayton [at] mit [dot] edu

Research Assistant, The Trope Tank
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Designer and Programmer
Cinnamon Bird

Current Projects

Research on the Social and Cultural Implications of Driverless Cars

Fall 2013 - Now

Currently working on a research project, in preparation for a Masters thesis at MIT Comparative Media Studies, on the relationship of driverless cars to social systems, justice, and affect. In the context of the parallel developments in drone technology, it seems we may stand on the edge of a new chapter in human history, in which autonomous systems drive with us on our roadways and hover in the skies above, and various interest groups are still trying to determine where they stand on this vision of a brave new world. Not only may citizens of all classes have to learn to live with 2-ton robots carrying people down the highway at speeds in excess of 60 miles per hour, the American culture of the car, in which driving is so often a symbol of adulthood, may find its foundations eroded by autonomous algorithmic agents.

My question is essentially one of agency and risk. How should citizens understand their coming computational and automotive interlocutors—systems which are highly technical, complicated, and almost sure to be proprietary, closed-source, protected intellectual property? And as everyday devices go from being tools we assume will do what we tell them, barring human error or mechanical failure, to tools that make decisions based upon a slew of sensory information about the world, and are vulnerable to software bugs, hackers, and other new technological threats, citizens' understandings of these devices must change as well. I am investigating how autonomous technologies, in this case self-driving cars, are being shaped from early products of industrial research labs into culturally-accepted commodities through potentially competing discourses, which players are moving the discourses in various directions, and what that means for the future of the technology as well as for the ability of the citizenry to challenge that future and re-shape it in a critical manner. In particular, I am interested in how the media, engineers, and legal scholars are shaping questions of responsibility, agency, autonomy, and whether these questions seem to point to particular places of difficulty for the commercialization of driverless technology.

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 is going along two intersecting paths: developing a collaborative writing, annotating, and scholarship tool currently dubbed EMP, the External Memory Project; and building an ad-hoc knowledge-visualization toolkit currently dubbed CBV, the Cinnamon Bird Visualizer. Both tools will be web-based and open source, and are being directly driven by the needs of the Cinnamon Bird developers.

Past Work

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 writer, designer, and programmer interested in the effects of technological development, particularly computer and information technologies, on culture—and specifically, the ties between programming languages and affordances and new technologies, and the interweaving of those technologies with everyday life. Currently, I am focused on the prospective social and cultural effects of the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicle technologies, as part of a broader interest in notions of algorithmic agency, and the ethical implications of our affective relationships to nonhuman and nonliving things. I am also fascinated by copyright, patent, and privacy law as they relate to developing technologies, and by the history of what constitutes scientific knowledge. I am a graduate student in the Comparative Media Studies Masters program at MIT, and perform my own development work as part of the programming partnership Cinnamon Bird.

I am from Massachusetts, and got my dual-degree in physics and English at Brown University in Providence. 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