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Signals, Truth & Design - Fall 2007

Signal, Truth & Design website:

MAS 960 Signals, Truth and Design Fall 2007

Instructor: Judith Donath
Tuesday 10am - noon
Room E15-483a (Reef conference room)
Credits: 0-12-0 (H)
Course secretary: Mary Heckbert

Description: Much of what we want to know about other people is not directly perceivable. Are you a nice person? Are you feeling angry? If we fell in love and got married would you be a good parent for our children? Because we cannot directly know what people are thinking or what the future will hold, we rely on signals, which are perceivable indicators of these qualities. Thus, one may interpret the stories that your friends tell about you as signals of your character; your breathing rate and facial expression as signals of your mood; how you treat your pets as a signal of how you would treat your children.

Some signals are more reliable indicators than others. Lifting a 300 pound barbell is a reliable signal of strength; wearing a T-shirt that says "I'm super strong" is also a signal of strength, but not a reliable one. What makes a signal reliable? The simple answer is that a reliable signal is one that is beneficial to produce truthfully, yet prohibitively costly to produce falsely. Understanding the types of signals and systems that satisfy this condition is the basis of signaling theory.

Signaling theory has been developed primarily in the fields of biology and economics. In this course, we will be refining and extending the theory to model human social interaction - especially online interaction. In the online world, nearly everything is signal. Your height, for instance, which is directly perceivable in the face to face world, is here represented by the (unreliable) signal of the typed words "I am six feet tall".Signaling theory can help us understand the relationship between particular interfaces or media and the social structures that emerge around them. And, it can help guide us in design the online environments of the future.

Requirements: This is a reading, discussion and design seminar. There will be weekly reading and writing assignments, which will be posted on the web. Students are expected to actively participate in the discussions. There is a final project (for those whose interest is primarily in design) or major paper (for those whose interest is primarily sociological or theoretical). This seminar is open to graduate students who are interested in the area of online identity and/or the design of sociable media.