Potential Ideas and Other Things that Live in Your Gut
University of California, Berkeley
Citation: Saum, Alex. “Potential Ideas and Other Things that Live in Your Gut.” Hyperrhiz: New Media Cultures, no. 24, 2021. doi:10.20415/hyp/024.g01
Abstract: Potential Ideas and Other Things that Live in Your Gut is a survey poem built around a standard “product concept testing” structure, designed and distributed on Qualtrics software. It captures real-time feedback on a selection of eleven new poetic concepts by evaluating readers’ emotional and aesthetic response to a set of surprising biological facts about bacteria and human development.
Keywords: product concept testing, survey, Qualtrics, digital poetry, data analysis.
A “Product Concept Testing” Poem
I spent most of 2020 working on a project called “corporate poetry” where my goal was to explore how corporate language related to that other corpora that is our bodies. I made a few interactive survey poems using Google Forms and Survey Monkey, reusing the collected data to make new poems, reframing visualizations for poetic purposes and so on. You can see the complete project at alexsaum.com/corporate-poetry/.
Potential Ideas and Other Things that Live in Your Gut is a spin-off of that larger project, now exploring the very particular genre of “Product Concept Testing,” which is a type of survey aimed at capturing real-time feedback on a product concept by evaluating its strengths and weaknesses. It is designed to help industries identify how different sectors of the population react to new products and to prioritize product gaps in the early stages of development. Because the genre itself is based on repetition with small variations, concept testing is a valuable step in identifying almost unconscious perceptions, wants and needs.
As a poet, I am not interested in industry design, but finding out about people’s biased perceptions and secret wants is something that definitely attracts me. I was also curious about how the formal repetition of similar situations would change people’s interpretations of these secrets and perceptions, so I built this short survey poem in which the reader is faced with potential ideas that explore their emotional and aesthetic response to a set of surprising biological facts about bacteria and human development.
Standard product concept testing surveys parse through different groups to learn about trends in diverse demographics. So it seemed appropriate to explore what demographics are about when the individual is co-constituted by other living organisms, like the tiny bacteria that feast on your tongue to clean your breath, or when the human body is able to grow another one right from its insides. As such, the poem starts collecting some reader’s data about their age—“How many solar years have you been on this Earth?”—, their cellular identification—i.e. “Multicellular organism,” “Unicellular organism,” “Ant / Prefer not to specify”—, and relationship status—“Alone,” “Together,” “Separated,” “Never together.” It then asks a branching question relating to the reader’s awareness of other tiny “worlds living in your home.” If answered “yes”, the poem displays an open-ended question seeking a definition of “Home.”
After these categorizing questions, the test begins by asking readers to familiarize themselves with five concepts, consisting of a title, a definition, and a drawing, to then evaluate their initial reactions and their degree of surprise and want (in terms of appeal). Each reader is presented with a selection of five randomized choices, out of a possible pool of 11, but the set of evaluating questions remains the same.
Once the task is completed, the reader is presented with the full lot of “potential ideas” or concepts. There is no need to retake the survey to discover all the choices, but any reader can retake the survey poem in the hope of evaluating newer ones—or of unlocking unseen drawings; these are not displayed at the end.
The whole poem is built, stored and displayed on Qualtrics, a cloud-based subscription software platform for “experience management” widely distributed in academic settings. It also became the first employee management platform measuring employee experiences through predictive intelligence, an algorithmic process by which the collected data is distilled and interpreted automatically to then propose new predictions on how to collect new data. This was first designed as a marketing tool (i.e. Predictive Marketing) but, as a matter of fact, Qualtrics surveys are used in every possible field of study that has anything susceptible of being measured. In today’s society, this means everything everywhere, of course. In times when Qualtrics surveys were sent to me to measure my emotional state in response to a global pandemic—as well as to survey my style of remote teaching—I wondered about all the other things that could potentially resist being counted. How can life defy numeration? Is it even possible? Can new life escape it? Is this what poetry is supposed to do? Can the logics of poetics escape the impulse to calculate experience? This survey poem is a case study in that.
Potential Ideas and Other Things that Live in Your Gut gathers readers’ responses to poetic statements, but it does so by relying on metaphor and intuition. Eventually, Qualtrics predictive intelligence and statistical analyses will be able to tell me which of my 11 potential ideas is the most successful among my readers. I have no clue what they might mean by “successful” in this case, but they calculate I will need to collect at least 300 responses. I wonder how they will measure success through the lens of the little creatures that populate this poem. Will the red ant finally meet the eye of the ant? Will you?
- I am grateful to the Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley and their poetry fellowship “Poetry and the Senses” which funded this project.