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Taz Karim


January 21, 2013

“Visualizing Adderall” CHI Project Proposal

January 21, 2013 | By | No Comments

Introduction: From vitamins to painkillers to psychotropic drugs, consuming pills has become a normalized and even expected part of life for many Americans. In 2010, US pharmaceutical sales topped $300 billion dollars and continue to be one of the most profitable industries in the nation[i]. This unprecedented incorporation of prescription drugs into daily life has been referred to by Anthropologists as “pharmaceuticalization” – a complex process that is reshaping the way we think about our health, our bodies, our relationships, and our own identities[ii]. For my CHI fellowship project, I intend to illustrate this process and the dynamic ways pharmaceuticals are understood and integrated into everyday American Culture.

For the purposes of this project, I have chosen to focus on a particular set of drugs which is the topic of my dissertation work: prescription stimulants used to treat the symptoms of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This includes brands like Adderall, Vyvanse, Concerta, Focalin, etc. which are commonly prescribed to adults who suffer from this condition. While these pharmaceuticals serve as effective medications for many patients, they have also assumed alternative identities as recreational drugs and most notably, as “study aids” for college students. Non-medical users claim that drugs like Adderall provide them the energy, motivation and focus needed to complete academic work. Despite the medical and legal risks involved with unsupervised use of these drugs, prevalence rates have been recorded as high as 35% and continue to grow[iii].

Although Adderall is an inanimate object, it does not exist in a vacuum. It operates in biomedical, social and academic worlds and as a result, takes on multiple meanings in American Culture. For my CHI project, I am interested in digitally representing these complex lives of ADHD medications through their multiple forms which I will cover in more detail below.

Audience and Importance: Pharmaceuticalization, and in particular, the normalization of Adderall use among college students is a topic of significant interest among scholar, educators, scientists, healthcare professionals and the general public. Each stakeholder is interested in a different part of the drug behavior: prevalence rates, impacts on cognitive function, medical side effects, expectations of performance, etc. However in order to truly understand Adderall’s role in the modern society, it is important to consider all of these facets concurrently. Thus, one of the biggest obstacles to understanding the social life is Adderall is being able to capture its complexity through any one set of data.

Additionally, the ways in which Americans understand and exchange information about pharmaceuticals like Adderall are changing rapidly. In particular, students are relying on pharmaceutical advertising, internet forums, discussion boards, and social media as mediums to interpret and share their own pharmaceutical experiences. To address these issues, the proposed project will offer a diverse set of visual representations of Adderall use in digital form. This includes mapping prevalence rates of illicit drug behaviors, linguistically analyzing Adderall-centered tweets from college students, and even collecting/contextualizing artistic representations of this drug behavior. These various data visualizations will be presented on a localized website where users will be able to switch between various views of Adderall use and as a result, gain a more comprehensive understanding of the social life of this drug.

This project will also be of interest to digital anthropologists who are interested in data visualization and exploring new methods for presenting the “social life of things”[iv]. If successful, this project will serve as a proof of concept that can be expanded to visualize the social life of any drug, technology or cultural object.

Technical Specifications: This project will be housed in a wordpress website hosted by MATRIX. It will include an introduction to the project and some basic information about Adderall. Although there are an infinite number of different data sets that could be represented on this site, I will choose two to use as proof of concept. In particular, I am interested in trying out some of the various tools provided on

The first visualization will be a geospatial map of prevalence rates among college students – this information will be gathered from university health centers across the country and represented through mapbox. The second visualization will be a live twitter feed which demonstrates the frequency in which people are tweeting about ADHD medications. This will be modeled after the website and include actual tweets as well as overall linguistic statistics. There are several tools I can use to accomplish this including Microsoft’s FUSE Lab’s SocialGadgets or I can build my own platform with the help of MATRIX.

Sustainability: As mentioned, this project is a proof of concept – it is the first of a series of data visualizations which I hope to create on the phenomena of pharmaceuticalization. Given that my dissertation research is on Adderall use, I am interested in expanding on this website as I encounter and produce new data sets. For example, it would be great to gather statistics about pharmaceutical sales and the prevalence of medical side effects. I would also be interesting to have the site become interactive so that viewers can contribute to a broader understanding of Adderall. This could be in the form of crowd sourcing narratives or having people submit original artwork.

Beyond Adderall, this project can be extended to look at any number of pharmaceuticals or medical technologies. I can easily see this framework being applied to anything from birth control pills to marijuana. As a result, I feel the proposed project has significant potential in helping Americans comprehensively view the social lives of medical objects and access multiple forms of data in one centralized location.

[i] IMS health. 2010 U.S. Prescription Sales Information. <accessed 1/1/13>

[ii] Dumit, Joseph, and Nathan Greenslit. 2006. Informated Health And Ethical Identity Management. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 30 (2):127-134.

[iii] Wilens T, Lenard A, Adams J, Sgambati S, Rotrosen J, Sawtelle R, Utzinger L, and Fusillo S. 2008. Misuse and diversion of stimulants prescribed for ADHD: a systematic review of literature Journal of American Academy of Child Adolescence and Psychiatry 47(1):21-31.

[iv] Appaduri, Arjun. 1988. The Social Lives of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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