A Bullshit Inventory


Assignment 1: A bullshit inventory

There's a lot of bullshit out there — but how much exactly, and of what form?

The purpose of our first assignment is for you explore this question by taking a "bullshit inventory" of all of the bullshit you encounter of the course of one week. The idea is to make note of each bit of bullshit that see or hear, and to record some information about it. While the assignment is open-ended and we want you to be creative, you might consider keeping track of:

  1. Bullshit that you are exposed to
  2. Bullshit that you produce yourself
  3. Bullshit that you debunk or try to debunk

Many people try to be carbon-neutral in their daily living, and we admire that, but are you bullshit neutral as well? That is, do you debunk as much bullshit as you produce? It's not so easy to do. Are you at least bullshit-average, creating no more bullshit than you are exposed to.

To do this assignment, you'll have to figure out a few things, including:

  • What constitutes bullshit, in your mind? Does a deliberate lie count, for example? Does the bullshitter have to be aware that he or she is bullshitting? And so on.
  • How are you going to measure this bullshit? Are all instances of bullshit—a 10 page term paper or a 140 character tweet—equivalent? Should we measure bullshit in terms of the amount of time that one spends dealing with it? Are some kinds of bullshit more significant than others?
  • How are you going to track your daily encounters with bullshit? There's so much bullshit out there that you may not want to sit down and try to remember it all each evening. Maybe it would work better to have some way of recording your observations as you go through your day.
  • How much information do you feel comfortable providing? Personally, we'd rather not write things down at the level of "9:15 AM. Ran into Dr. Smith in the elevator and had to listen to him brag about his recent appointment as vice chair of the university's Interdepartmental Committee for the Reduction of Unnecessary Administration." You never know when these things might get out (or when you might choose to share them; see below). So how will you anonymize the data enough that it won't get you in trouble on the down the road?

You can report or visualize the data however you see fit. Here's one example that Carl and his daughter put together using made-up data. (You can tell it's made up, because Carl's department chair would never bullshit him.)

Bullshit encountered
Bullshit created

For inspiration, you might wish to take a look at the Dear Data project. This site has a number of cool examples of lo-fi visualizations of data about everyday life. While we like these, feel free to be creative and display your data however you like, with an interactive applet, using data visualization software, in powerpoint, with a stack of 3x5 cards, in song, or in any way that catches your fancy.

Readers on the internet, please join us in doing this assignment. We'd love to see what you come up with. You can send us your work by email to bullsht.course@gmail.com, or tweet it with the hashtag #BullshitInventory to @callin_bull.

An extra incentive: If we get some really good designs from members of the public who are following along, there is a chance of publishing them (with permission and attribution) in a very high profile news venue.

Have fun!