5. Q&A with Clio Andris

Clio Andris joins us this year as an assistant professor. She studies interpersonal relationships in geographic space, using GIS and social networks. She looks at how places are connected by our personal decisions to transmit information (mobile phone calls, online messages) and move between the places (migration, commuting) and the pulling power of institutions (universities, military, etc.).

Clio Andris
What is Social Distance?

Social distance is the strength of social flows (decisions to transmit information or move) that connect places. Although places might be nearby on a map, they are socially distant if only a small segment of the population chooses to move between the places, or transfer information between the places. If places are very socially distant, economic, social, and political changes in one place may not affect changes in the other place. This idea is separate from models in environmental studies, where nearness on a map often indicates a similar predicament, such as a snowstorm or a crop blight that affects an entire region.
The “social distance” that separates places is all around us, and we contribute to it—every second, trillions of bits of information fly in the ether, over our heads and under our feet, representing the sum of our decisions to e-mail people, check websites, watch TV, and make phone calls.
Imagine yourself on an airplane. If you were to tap everyone on the shoulder and ask them why they are traveling, social contacts will arise: “I am visiting my sister,” “I’m returning from a conference,” “I am going to a bachelor party,” “My aunt is sick,” “I have a business meeting.” If these relationships change, the connectivity between places will change as well.

Who are some of your influences?
I took a class at MIT on system dynamics taught by computational social scientist Damon Centola who systematically models individuals and their behavior, in terms of others’ behavior. He exposed us to Thomas Schelling’s Micromotives and Macrobehavior, which described, for example, a model representing people’s thoughts at party, where everyone wants the music to be turned off, but it would stay on, because everyone thinks the others enjoy it.

I also was influenced by Rosalind Picard and Marvin Minksy’s work on theories of mind and emotion and Kathleen Carley’s work on social agents and artificial intelligence. For instance, a party can be represented in a computer program by modeling peoples’ positions in the room, groupings, body language and conversation dynamics (tone, word choice, topic), and from this representation we can uncover deep-seeded patterns of interaction.

You use big data and study connectivity. Do you believe in the technological singularity hypothesis, that is, the accelerating progress in technologies may irreparably change human biology and civilization?
I don’t believe in the singularity. It’s certainly possible to arrive at a point where we reach data overload and everything will be instantaneous, but at that point, we may just explode into a new universe where there will be a new “time” and “space” that is different from what we know now. I do hope teleportation comes about­—I think it would physically hurt, but it would enable more interaction with our favorite humans. What’s better than that?  

Do you consider yourself a part of the Millennial Generation, and how does that shape your perspective?
Yes. I was lucky enough to have the Internet towards the end of elementary school. I have a younger sister who is an undergraduate student at Kenyon College in Ohio, so I feel I can relate to the younger part of the generation as well. I think millennials are prone to questioning existing practices, and want to promote culturally diverse environments. This generation is ready to be open to change and multiple perspectives, in part because of our exposure to diverse ideas and sources of information via the Internet. (And with all these sources, people wonder why we can’t focus! At all!)

Another hallmark of this group is that we often interact online with usernames or aliases that hide a person’s identity so we are inclined to consider one another’s ideas, logic, and reasoning over their demographics, which prevents stereotyping. (“Hm, ilikebananas2 brings up a good point! Upvote!”). For those fortunate enough to be online, it’s very democratic.

Learning through the online experience may foster compassion because we can see people’s stories—like a cancer patient’s blog for a year, or tweets from Arab Spring participants— without relying on a journalist to choose to cover the story. We can also share the stories, help causes, and connect directly with the people involved. I hope we evolve away from toxic environments of forums with mean comments, and continue to be supportive of one another.

What is it like to be part of the first wave of Millennial Generation faculty?
I’m happy to be in a leadership position after growing-up with these experiences. But it’s very humbling. I have a lot of catching up to do to be able to communicate with my colleagues who are well-read, contemplative, reflective, and are able to read between the lines, connect ideas, digest and interpret a lot of dense literature and advanced theories. For good research, there is no tl;dr (too long; didn’t read).
As professors we realize that this generation is lucky to have education resources so readily available through college (advanced placement) classes in high school, MOOCs, online documents and tutorials, the Khan Institute and Coursera, free software, and hardware initiatives like One Laptop per Child (OLPC). Yet, the goal is to make learning accessible to everyone—and this is far from complete. We need social-cultural infrastructure and physical infrastructure to support education from low-income single parents to young girls in the developing world. One face of this message is Malala Yousafzai. She is a vessel for love and wisdom through the pursuit of knowledge for all. As a teacher, I feel re-inspired every time she speaks. No difficult grant proposal or stack of papers to grade will ever take that away.

What are your future research plans?
We’re starting a new lab called “Friendly Cities” within the GeoVISTA Center, with help from Alan MacEachren and Cynthia Brewer. The lab is dedicated to asking and answering the big questions about how the relationships we create shape and affect the fate of urban systems.
Here, the term “friendly” indicates the interpersonal relationships all around us—we meet for coffee, game online with strangers, visit a new city and society.

The Friendly Cities lab looks at how to foster these ties through good urban planning and modeling. More formally, “friendly” implies connections within and between places. Two cities may “friendly” because they exchange commuters, are joined by railroad routes, or have many telephone calls placed between them. A “friendly” city also fosters supportive relationships through schools, religious institutions, family housing, club facilities, and community groups.

Our place-to-place connections should be mapped so we can better understand the world.

Watch the video: Clio Andris gave a TED talk in 2012 on a new kind of distance, social distance, and how it can help us understand the world better. See her TED talk here: http://youtu.be/twJCQcmk2B4