Objects: Taped, Tracked, Theorized

Before catching the bus to Boston on Thursday afternoon, I decided to do a quick loop around Chelsea to catch some shows before they closed. Chris Marker’s Passengers was eh, but Ellen Kooi’s photographs were quite enchanting. I knew nothing about her, but surmised, based on her work, that she’s either Scandinavian or Dutch; I was right: she’s Dutch.

I had high hopes for Carter Mull’s The Day’s Specific Dreams, but I found the execution less compelling than the conceptualization. According to the press release, “The exhibition’s title takes its cue from Stéphane Mallarmé’s essay, Un Spectacle Interrompu (An Interrupted Spectacle), in which the author proposes that major cosmopolitan cities’ newspapers should chronicle the dreams of their population. This is a fitting proposal for Mull, who breaks apart the newspaper into temporal poetic fragments, erases differences between found images and ones of his own making, and buries the indexical potential of the photograph in favor of its ability to capture the abstract and elusive ruminations of our cultural imaginary.” The show was just as much about image-making as it was about newspapers. I appreciated the juxtaposition of this Photoshopped image of a printer, drawn from Diderot’s Encyclopedie, and 1,800 metallic prints, scattered across the floor, each featuring a frame from an iPhone 4 commercial. The images feature lots of splotches and bleeds — a skeuomorph of the analogue “glitch”?

I’m not sure if it was considered an “official” part of the show, but Sara and Gerald, a broadsheet that Mull co-edits, was free for the taking in the gallery. I always like a show with tangible take-aways; I have a few boxes in the basement that are full of postcards, posters, trinkets, and other ephemera I’ve picked up at various galleries over the past 15 or so years.

I was surprised to discover inside, just today, this fitting hauntological (are we using this word anymore?) reference:

Then at bitforms I saw Tim Knowles’ Recorded Delivery, in which he tracked, via photography and audio recording, a package along its 902-mile journey from London to the Isle of Barra. This piece reminded me a lot of sensor-driven projects, like SensibleCity Lab’s Trash Track, but Knowles’ work, from the point of view of the package itself, is more a manifestation of object-oriented ontology (creating an interesting ontological resonance with Mull’s broadsheet).

I wish I knew how to make sense of this:

Finally, my favorite of the afternoon was Simon Evans’ Shitty Heaven, in which he “assembles prosaic materials, such as scraps of paper, scotch tape, pencil shavings and correction fluid into diagrams, maps, flowcharts and diary entries that obsessively catalogue the fragments of a life.” I’m a complete sucker for this kind of work. It’s an obsessive — almost outsider-art-ish — mapping of the comical or the absurd:

These supposedly function as “yantras,” or visual energy diagrams. And of course the material object itself makes one conscious of the physical energy expended in copying the text and assembling the work:

And this reminds me of a more tactile, egocentric version of a Mark Lombardi chart:

Then we were off to Boston, where I caught The Record: Contemporary Art and Vinyl, which I was so excited about last year that I pre-ordered the catalogue. I knew I’d never made it to NC to catch the show at Duke’s Nasher Museum, and it was a lucky coincidence that it was in Boston while we were in town. Lots of great stuff (and some of my favorite artists) were here, playing with the record as both a sonic and physical resource.

And then to wrap it up, I was very grateful to have had the opportunity to meet two fantastic object-oriented comm/media colleagues on our “Design and Communication: The Philosophy of Objects, Systems, and Spaces” panel at the ICA conference. I’m glad to know more about Liz Moor’s fantastic work on branded materials and Christine Harold’s exciting work on the “makers movement.”

In short, an object-filled week!


Site Object Experience: ICA 2011 Presentation

Via Flickr:

Later this week I’m going to Boston to attend my first ever International Communication Association conference. I’ve never felt particularly at home in any of the “communication associations,” so these conferences have never really been on my annual circuit. But I was invited to participate this year in a panel on design and communication. It’s just a quick trip up to Boston, so I figured, oh what the hell. At the very least I’ll meet the other interesting people on my panel… and the one other design-focused panel on the program.

I’m doing something different — and rather selfish — with this presentation: I’m rehearsing some ideas for the “personal statement” I’ll have to write for my tenure dossier. I hope that’s not a terrible idea. In the statement I have to narrate my research trajectory over the past ten or so years and convince my reviewers, who hold my fate in their hands, that there’s been some coherent purpose to what I’ve been up to. The text still needs a lot of polish for the dossier, but I decided at midnight tonight that this is good enough for a 15+-minute talk.

Site Object Experience: Designing Material Media Spaces

Slides Here 

For decades scholars and critics have been examining design as communication. Their work has addressed [SLIDE2] the symbolism of the manufactured object (Barthes 1957; Candlin/Guins 2009), [SLIDE3] the means by which a built space communicates its function (Venturi 1966; Eco 1968), [SLIDE4] even the communicative action of the design process (Alexander 1987; Mattern 2003). Methodologies emerging from [SLIDE5] the relatively new field of design studies, as well as new theoretical approaches—including [SLIDE6] the “new materialism” (Gumbrecht/Pfeiffer 1994; Miller 2005), [SLIDE7] “thing theory” (Appadurai 1996; Brown 2001), and [SLIDE8] media archaeology (Huhtamo 1997; Zielinski 2006)—offer models through which communication scholars can study [SLIDE9] the design of communicative objects, from codices to ebooks, from pencils to joysticks.

In my own work for over a decade, I’ve drawn on these various traditions, focusing specifically on [SLIDE10] the relationships between media and communication and spatial design practices – at the interior, architectural, urban, and, occasionally, national scales. In what follows I’ll provide a brief overview of the projects I’ve undertaken in an effort to highlight the concepts and theoretical frameworks, the methodologies and interconnected scales of analysis, that I’ve developed for this work. And then for the last few minutes I’ll home in on [SLIDE11] a recent article that focuses on an under-the-radar 1000 square-foot room in a library not far from here: the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard’s Lamont Library. [SLIDE12]

Essentially, what I’m about to present is a sort of intellectual autobiography – a choice of genre that might seem rather presumptuous for someone who’s still junior. But as a junior faculty member who will very soon face [SLIDE13] a major review that will seal my professional fate, I found this exercise – of conceptually and methodologically organizing my work – to be fantastic preparation for the work that lies before me this summer. I hope the following will prove to be of some use for you, too.

I began my academic career wondering why so few media scholars studied [SLIDE14] libraries – which seemed to me the ideal “objects to think with.” They contained media of various formats, spanning a wide stretch of media history. They contained their own networks of media distribution and consumption – and, in some cases, production, too. They embodied particular practices of reading and listening and looking. And the buildings themselves, as Victor Hugo, Walter Benjamin, Lewis Mumford, Marshall McLuhan, and others have shown us, [SLIDE15] constitute among the most massive, resolutely material media in existence. I was for a time in graduate school steeped in the [SLIDE16] Media Ecology tradition – and while I no longer identify strongly with this tradition, the lessons I’ve learned from Innis, McLuhan, Giedeon, and other figures who focused on media “form” and, although some might not have used this term, design, helped to build my intellectual foundation.

In 1999 I set out to study what was shaping up to be one of the most closely watched design projects of the turn-of-the-21st century: [SLIDE17] Rem Koolhaas’s design of the Seattle Public Library. I focused just as much on the design process – I looked at design as multimodal discursive action – as on the designed product. I examined how [SLIDE18] local and international media shaped the discourse surrounding the design of the Library; [SLIDE19] how the architects communicated the design in small-group settings and large-scale public addresses; [SLIDE20] how the building itself functioned as a symbol of civic and institutional identity – which required that I also examine city and regional planning initiatives; [SLIDE21] and, finally, how the architecture informed its publics’ interactions with media in various formats.

In other words, I investigated [SLIDE22][CLICK] the role of communication in design (the role of interpersonal and mass media and various analogue and digital design media – e.g., models, sketches, animated fly-throughs); [CLICK] architectural design as communication (building as symbol, as embodiment of its function); [CLICK] the design (or “architecture”) of various media formats and communication technologies (from microform to Kindles); [CLICK] and design of spaces for those myriad forms of media. [SLIDE23] This work involved interviewing architects, librarians, urban planners, library pages, city mayors, patrons, and other stakeholders; studying design media and documentation (research reports, blueprints, models, meeting minutes); reviewing press coverage and internal communication; observing meetings and public fora; reviewing the design and theoretical work of the various parties involved in these design processes; and of course studying the history of the designer, the city, and the institution and its architecture.

My other research projects have applied similar theoretical models and methodologies in studying the design or renovation of other “information” facilities – [SLIDE24] including Louis Kahn’s Philips Exeter Academy Library, [SLIDE25] which recently celebrated its 40th birthday (and has struggled to incorporate new networked media into its very classically geometric codex-inspired design); [SLIDE26] Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room, which recently underwent a controversial renovation, also in an attempt to accommodate “today’s volume and character of use”; [SLIDE27] and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, which represents and archival space in limbo, between the analogue and digital.

Recognizing that much of the design scholarship and criticism on these and other buildings was overwhelmingly ocularcentric, over time I expanded my focus to examine how libraries and archives can be designed to accommodate [SLIDE28] multiple sensory “conditions of attendance” – particularly the sonic conditions – necessitated by various media formats and habits of use. [SLIDE29] “Conditions of attendance” is a concern I’ve borrowed from my media ecology background. [SLIDE30] I’ve also found Bourdieu’s habitus to be a useful tool for thinking about how architecture is a structure that structures our interactions with media, and with each other.

Architecture constructs a habitus that informs not only how people consume media, but also how they produce it; so I’ve also looked at how media companies – [SLIDE31] like China Central Television in Beijing and [SLIDE32] InterActive Corporation in New York — can design buildings that communicate their corporate and local identities, facilitate the production of media, and embody particular ideologies and labor practices.

As I’ve examined these individual structures, I’ve recognized that spatial design strategies at different scales, as well as the discourses surrounding them, bleed together. “Scaling up” or “down” the spatial unit of analysis has also helped me to appreciate [SLIDE33] how “spatial design” is often integrated with other design practices, like graphic design or [CLICK] interaction design, or furniture design, or industrial designers’ work in shaping particular media artifacts. For example, we might consider the role of architectural signage in a building’s ability to communicate its function and identity – [SLIDE34] or, at a larger scale, the role played by a custom-designed typeface in “re-branding” an entire nation. There are many other interesting convergences of media design – particularly print publication – and architectural design; [SLIDE35] I recently completed a study on “paper architecture” – the production of little magazines and zines – as an alterative architectural practice.

[SLIDE36] My current project is intended to tackle this integration of scales – the connection of design “nodes” into networks – and the integration of various design practices, including even engineering. I’ve also been particularly inspired by [SLIDE37] recent work problematizing the supposed “immateriality” and “ubiquity” of networked media, [CLICK] and by work on infrastructure. Lisa Parks’ and Brian Larkins’ work has proven inspirational. Over the past few years I’ve begun to examine how [SLIDE38] the “design” of historical media networks and infrastructures, like pneumatic tubes and telecommunications networks, have shaped the material city. [SLIDE39] Drawing on media archaeology – and methods from real archaeology – I aim in my next book to show how those historical media, from the voice to print to telegraphy, have laid the path for contemporary media networks.

[SLIDE40] Through all of this work, I’ve come to appreciate the value of integrating various scales of analysis – how the reading or screening room works with in the building, which itself interacts with its city and region – and examining how various design practices work in tandem. This integrated approach helps to uncover the ontological integration of communication and design: [SLIDE41] in other words, looking simultaneously at communication in design, design as communication, and design for communication, can help us appreciate the mutual construction of material sites for, objects for, and experiences of communication.

[SLIDE42] In my last couple minutes here, I’m going to briefly talk about site that allows us to appreciate this ontological integration. The Woodberry Poetry Room boasts a marvelous collection of 20th- and 21st-century poetry books, including many small press editions, pamphlets, magazines, broadsides, and manuscripts “from the entire English-speaking world,” and serves as home to readings from some of the worlds most renowned poets. It was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and opened in 1949 in Harvard University’s Lamont Library, the country’s first undergrad library. The room had originated in 1931 in Widener Library, in a more formal incarnation consistent with the New Criticism then in vogue. Yet its founding mission was far from New Criticism: it was dedicated to “bringing alive the poet’s voice and creating a place at Harvard…for the enduring delight and significance of poetry.”

[SLIDE43] But by 2006, the furniture was worn out, the asbestos in the ceiling had raised concern, and the room’s technical capabilities had become sorely apparent – so the libraries planned a renovation. Granted, the renovation was rather hush-hush, and rushed, but the design and preservation communities’ reactions to the project revealed dramatic differences in the way the design community, the library community, and the poetry community regarded the form and materiality of the poetic text and the room that housed them. [SLIDE44] Critics regarded the renovation as “vandalism”: the “reading room,” the press said, was a “jewel” of a design that should be kept in its perfect, complete form. [SLIDE45] All those “amenities,” like computers, could simply be placed in an adjacent location. Besides, “reading and listening to poetry are not activities that have changed much in centuries.” The problems are that technology cannot be set aside – even the manuscript is technology – …and reading and listening to poetry have changed dramatically as a result of technological and cultural change.

[SLIDE46] The room had always been technologically advanced: Aalto – who had a history of experimenting with new forms, and designing spaces that recognized the integration of sensory perception and intellectual cognition in people’s appropriation of architecture – designed these eight “listening stations,” which were the “high tech” of 1949. While preservationists regarded the poetic medium as something static, and the precious “masterwork” that contained those media as something similarly perfect and complete, George E. Woodberry, who bequeathed the gift that established the room, and a long line of the room’s curators, [SLIDE47] as well as the faculty and students who used it, valued its ability to offer up, in the words of Seamus Heaney, the “living history of modern poetry.” Poetry is a dynamic thing, which can exist as a printed text on a page, a handwritten manuscript, an audiorecording (the room was a pioneer in creating poetry recordings), or a live performance. The poetic “medium” was something multiple – it was Barthes’ “text” – whereas the preservationists wanted poetry, and the room that housed it, to be crystallized as a masterwork.

[SLIDE48] Aalto’s approach to design, one concerned primarily with the user’s embodied experience of both architecture and media, proved consistent with the pedagogical approach implied in the room’s founding mission—an approach that recognizes the integration of affect and cognition, of delight and critical engagement—and the curators’ appreciation of the fluidity and dynamism of poetry’s forms. The controversy over the renovation, it seemed to me, reflected disagreement regarding the fluidity or fixity—the ontology—of the architectural “object” and the poetic text and how users (readers, listeners, writers, inhabitants) engage with those texts. In order to arrive at this conclusion, I had to examine the media coverage of the design, how the design communicated a particular pedagogical philosophy and an architectural “character,” and how the room facilitated engagement with poetry in its myriad mediated formats. These variables mutually constructed a material site for, objects for, and experiences of communication.

As my research has evolved, I’ve recognized that, over the past 10 years, it has come to flesh out [SLIDE49] Anna McCarthy and Nick Couldry’s “five levels” of media space, which they outlined in their 2004 book, MediaSpace: Place, Scale and Culture in a Media Age:

  1. Studying media representations (media coverage of design processes)
  2. The study of how media images, texts, and data flow across space and, in so doing, reconfigure social space (how spaces create conditions of attendance, inform practices of looking, hearing, media-making)
  3. The study of the specific spaces at either end of the media process, the space of consumption and the space of production (and the spaces in-between – distribution)
  4. The study of the scale-effects, or complex entanglements of scale, which result from the operation of media in space (each of my projects works across scales)
  5. Studying how media-caused entanglements of scale are variously experienced and understood in particular places (comparative studies – as in my first book, which examined 15 libraries, and my new book project which examines various cities around the world, from various periods in history)

[SLIDE50] We might supplement this list with a few additional concepts: the interaction between physical and virtual spaces; those spaces in-between production and consumption; the material and virtual infrastructures that support these production/distribution/consumption cycles; the roles various media objects play within these networks, etc. [SLIDE51] Thinking across these levels of analysis could help us to better appreciate the multifaceted interactions between spatial design and media – between site, object, and experience.


NYPL @ 100 Part 2: Speaking of Context… Shuffle + Find the Future: The Game

The main event for me in this weekend’s NYPL centennial celebrations, was Shuffle, a performance piece staged in the DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room. A collaboration between theater ensemble Elevator Repair Service, statistician Mark Hansen, and artist Ben Rubin, the work lived up to its name on multiple levels: it shuffled texts, temporalities, spatialities, genres, etc.

Shuffle. Photo: Ariana Smart Truman – Via NYPL:

The script was generated algorithmically, in real-time, by pulling from the scripts of three previous ERS productions — Gatz, The Sound and the Fury (April Seventh, 1928), and The Select (The Sun Also Rises) – and the literary texts that inspired them. The performers accessed the ever-evolving script via iPhones tucked into print copies of Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway’s books. All the while, the group, dressed in their librarians’ best, shuffled throughout the periodicals room, champagne flutes in hand. The pace and placement of their actions seemed to vary in relation to the speed of the script: small groups might congregate and chat leisurely at the circulation desk, while a colleague would bolt from one end of the room to the other, in response to some apparent reference emergency. Others performed the signature actions of librarians: one might rifle through a card catalogue, extracting and organizing slips of paper with no apparent rhyme or reason; another might peck away at a typewriter; while still another might scramble up and down the stairs as her colleagues amble or dart through the stacks. The audience, meanwhile, was free to wander around the room, watch the script unfurl on monitors positioned at each of the library tables, peruse print-outs listing a selection of the text snippets fed through the algorithm, and come and go at will. While I was there, the algorithm “selected” a long string of phrases comparing two male figures — “he was [a], while he was [b]”; two babies in strollers, who happened to be conveniently located next to the actor algorithmically chosen to read this section, filled in for the aforementioned “he’s,” and were subject to a prolonged cataloguing of their virtues and vices.

In short, the multiple overlapping contexts of this performance were constantly shuffled.  “The text – arranged into new strings of sentences and phrases – creates a compelling look at literature that we thought we knew,” explained director John Collins. What’s more, “Shuffle [blurs] the boundaries of performance space, private, and public space,” Collins adds, “and [is] an exciting way to experience the beautiful and majestic building.” By removing and remixing familiar codes and contexts, Shuffle shifted our engagement with these classic texts and spaces and genres of performance. This was a productive decontextualization.


Find the Future: The Game, meanwhile, encourages decontextualization of a different sort. This game, commissioned for the centennial and created by Jane McGonigal, Natron Baxter and Playmatics, “brings visitors to the Library together with players around the world to tap into the creative power of the Library’s collections” (via About). The game began on May 20, when 500 gamers (aged 18 and up) were invited to an all-night “lock-in” during which they “explore[d] the building’s 70 miles of stacks, and, using laptops and smartphones, follow[ed] clues to such treasures as the Library’s copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s hand” (via NYPL). Upon finding each object, players were prompted to write an “artifact story,” a “short-personal essay inspired by their quest.” These essays were then gathered into a book — “a collection of 100 ways to make history and change the future” — that will be added to the library’s collection.

[Added June 26, 2011]

The next day, the game was opened up to the rest of the world. Anyone could access Find the Future: The Game online to pursue their own “quests” for library artifacts, write their own narratives, and collect “artifact powers.”

If only real-world research were this exciting! If only one could “find the wisdom to teach and inspire others — and the perspective to understand the world around you” by simply clicking a link!

I tried it myself. My first “artifact” choice was “Writing on the Wall,” a John Milton quotation inscribed above the doorway to the Rose Reading Room: “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” Through an automatically advancing slideshow, I learned that Milton “made history by turning the fall of man into an epic poem,” that he is “one of the great poets of the English language,” that he is most famous for writing (while blind) “Paradise Lost,” and that the quotation is drawn from Areopagitica, which Milton write in 1644, “opposing censorship.” Armed with this insight, I’m then prompted to write my own artifact story:

The quote above the entrance to the Rose Reading Room has inspired many generations of visitors with words that are impossible to forget once you’ve read them. These people went on to become famous inventors, artists and leaders who changed the world. What would you say to inspire the next hundred years’ visitors? Imagine The NYPL has asked YOU to update this quote. They will put YOUR new saying over the entrance for the next 100 years. Write your own quote that you want to plant in the minds of millions of people.

That’s it? Armed with a few superficial facts about Milton I’m now prepared to inspire “the next hundred years’ visitors”? Do I really have enough context to be charged with such a tremendous responsibility?

My choice of inscription: “Technological progress has merely provided us with more efficient means for going backwards” – Huxley

The game, McGonigal says, is “designed to empower players to find inspiration for their own extraordinary futures by bringing them face-to-face with the writings and personal objects of people who made an extraordinary difference in the past.” What does it mean to come “face-to-face” with these artifacts? The lucky 500 who played on-site on May 20 were able to encounter the original artifacts (although I imagine they were more busy photographing QR codes than inspecting the artifacts they marked) — but are those brief, superficial encounters sufficient to convey the “extraordinary difference[s]” these people made in the past? Is it enough for me to know that the Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be printed on a movable type printing press; that “its publication in 1455 is considered by many to be the single most important innovation of the last millennium” (why?); that before the press, books were copied by hand or by using woodcut letters; that Gutenberg devised a system using metal letters that could be quickly rearranged and printed using specially-mixed inks; that there are fewer than 50 known copies of the Gutenberg Bible in existence, and that the NYPL has two of them? Do these facts then qualify me to write something that “everyone on Earth” can read?

The Gutenberg Bible marked the start of the printing revolution, in which messages could be spread to millions worldwide through the mass production of printed books. Now modern technology allows us to message thousands of people instantaneously. New advances could bring even more widespread communication. If you could write something that everyone on the planet could read, what would it be? Write a message that could be read by everyone on Earth.

The game shifts abruptly from an historical to a contemporary context, without explaining how to responsibly make that temporal transition. It shifts equally abruptly from a focus on the artifact to an egocentric focus. “How would you like to shape the future?” The prompts for these “artifact stories” barely reference the artifacts’ historical context. They barely address the social responsibilities inherent in, or methods required for, making such consequential decisions.

“Like every game I make,” McGonigal says,” Find the Future: The Game” has one goal: to turn players into superempowered, hopeful individuals with real skills and ideas to help them change the world.” I can see how this game cultivates hope and empowerment: it’s fun, you win points, you acquire super-human cognitive powers and affective capacities by simply clicking on links, your opinion is sought on matters of grave importance, etc. But in what context is this play taking place? What skills are being developed? What ideas, aside from cursory factual information (how can you claim that the Gutenberg Bible is the “single most important innovation of the last millennium” without explaining why?), are being circulated here?

If gaming is the future of education, as many have claimed, I have yet to be convinced that gaming provides sufficient “context” for all those skills and ideas it’s purporting to cultivate. I’m still not sure that gaming is the appropriate model for “help[ing] people change the world” — when so much world-changing work isn’t fun, doesn’t win you any points or super-powers, and carries responsibilities that a game simply can’t simulate.


NYPL @ 100: Finding Future Contexts

NYPL, ca. btw 1910-20, Library of Congress:

Tomorrow is the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building, and this weekend has been filled with lots of fantastic activities celebrating the centennial. Yesterday afternoon I stopped by the “Celebrating 100 Years” exhibition on my way to a performance in the Periodicals room. A not-entirely-favorable review in the Times, which I read earlier that week, focused primarily on the curators’ choice not to distinguish between materials of undeniable historical significance and those, like Terry Southern’s typewriter or a bunch of seed packets, with everyday resonance or popular appeal. Everything is presented “on the same level,” Edward Rothstein writes. “[S]ocial, historical and aesthetic contexts dissolve, leaving many objects standing alone, as if each were a celebrity.”

Perhaps the position of these artifacts within their historical and institutional contexts was obscured by their organization into four rather nebulous thematic sections: Observation, Contemplation, Society, and Creativity. But I was overwhelmed by the tangible presence of a different kind of context: the presentation of these “texts” within an “original” material form that carries just as much significance as the symbols on the pages. Face to face with original artifacts, one couldn’t help but be struck by the scalar contrast between palm-sized clay tablets with their miniscule cuneiform scripts, and, just around the corner, Audubon’s oversized Birds of America – or by the richness of the inks on centuries’-old books, the gilt on the pages’ edges, the traces of texts bleeding through thin paper, the variety of styles of penmanship. As I walked around the room, encountering each artifact, I kept thinking to myself, “just try digitizing that!” How can a scan capture the dimensionality, the tactility, the – oh, I can’t help myself – aura of these artifacts?

George Washington’s Farewell Address, 1796, Jonathan Blanc/New York Public Library, via NYTimes:

I remembered speaking last summer to one of the curators in the Manuscripts and Archives division about their efforts to scan and post online a significant portion of their collection. He regarded those digital images as a mere preview of the record – an enticement to encounter the “real thing” (my words). Those texts, to function as “historical records,” must be instantiated, and those instantiations are just as integral to their value as historical documents as is their semantic content. As Jared Keller wrote recently in The Atlantic in regard to Google’s shuttering of its newspaper digitization project,

If Google’s mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” does downgrading the Newspaper Archive into a text-only database still serve the same function of preserving those first drafts of history as they appeared in the pages of The Boston Phoenix, The Milwaukee Sentinel, or Le Monde?

Not necessarily. For print newspapers, layout is key: Before the Internet catalyzed the unbundling of news packages into single, shareable article pages, editors had to decide what deserved front page treatment and what would be better suited for small corner in the Classifieds. Ad sales shaped how and where articles [were] presented in the paper. Stories lived and died by how many inches a broadsheet had space for…. The medium is the message, and capturing the layout of the printed paper allows us to digest a facet of the news, as it was reported, that a plain text scrape cannot.

In other words, material context is key. Reading Dickens’s marginalia or analyzing Jefferson’s handwriting or determining where Malcolm X bought his notebooks can of course yield insight into these writers as historical figures. But the material context of these historical records also intersects with other contexts: political, economic, cultural, social, etc. It might seem that such concerns are pertinent only to the pre-digital historical record; now that today’s records are born as code, there will be much greater formal and material unity in tomorrow’s historical record, right?

Not really. There is a very different, though no less physical, materiality to the digital “libraries” we’re creating today for tomorrow. As we discussed all throughout this semester in my Libraries, Archives, and Databases class, the library-of-servers is no less materially complex than the library of manuscripts and clay tablets. We’ll want to know what hard drive models, what operating systems, what software – and what versions of that software – authors and institutions (and machine-authors!) used. We’ll need to practice Kirschenbaum’s “forensics” and Lenoir’s “information archaeology.” Just yesterday Jussi Parikka, pruning excess words from his Media Archaeology and Digital Culture manuscript, posted this fantastic quotation from Lenoir (2007):

Historians will need to add new tools of information archaeology to their tool-kit in order to write the history of recent science and technology born digitally. Among the types of tools we need are, for instance, emulators of older systems, such as the IBM 360, and other machines, such as Burrough’s machines, Osborn’s, and others that do not have legacy systems maintained by large companies or successor firms. Even early-generation Silicon Graphics machines that appeared in the late 1980s and early 1990s are becoming scarce today. In order to research the programs that ran on these machines, we need to construct emulators that run on current generation machines. Beyond this we need to render the original programs in forms readable by current disk drives and other data-reading technologies. While genealogies of software and software languages are being constructed, more attention will have to be devoted to the history of software languages, and their implementations.

We’ll still need experts and institutions to help with the material work of collecting, sorting, preserving, and contextualizing — and fostering an appreciation of the connections between the material instantiations of these records and their other contexts.

The theme for the NYPL’s 100th anniversary is “Find the Future.” The future of library is of course in providing context for these material artifacts of the past – but it’s just as much involved in providing material contexts, and the critical tools to examine those contexts, for the differently material artifacts of the future.


A Vicarious Sense of Accomplishment

Thanks to end-of-semester business, which included a search committee that ate up at least ten hours a week for the past six or so weeks, I’ve made pretty much zero progress on my own projects. But I have seen some fantastic student work that reminds me of how much I enjoy working with students — and of how teaching and advising is just as much “my own work” as the next book project.

I’ll see if Morgen can send me a better image.

The parade of student successes began last week, when I stopped by the ITP thesis presentations. I had been invited to respond to these projects mid-stream and was excited to see how they evolved. First was Rune Madsen’s Versionize, “a web-based tool for iterating ideas individually or in groups,” which is coming along beautifully. Then the highlight for me was Morgen Fleisig’s “Visual Logic: Aesthetics of Computation,” a one-bit computer — “an absurdist testament to our social organization & industrial scale, and a study of the aesthetic potential of the modular components that make up the complex digital devices all around us.” It’s all that and more. I loved it. How can you not appreciate a project about which its creator can say: “I have already set my thesis on fire once.” There should be more fire involved in the thesis process.

60 Hudson Street – from Ben’s film

Speaking of which… Two of my own thesis advisees have submitted fantastic projects this semester. Ben Mendelsohn’s “Bundled, Buried, and Behind Closed Doors: Visiting New York City’s Concentrated Internet Infrastructure” is a hybrid video documentary and written project, and Andrew Nealon’s “Comic Aura: American Comic Book Culture and Conceptions of Authenticity in the Age of Digital Reproducibility” is a lovely written thesis.

And last Friday night my Libraries, Archives, and Databases class met to present their final projects (a few also presented in class that Tuesday). We had a great range of topics:

  • Talaandig soil painting and dance as archival practices
  • Belle da Costa Greene, J. P. Morgan’s librarian
  • Urban photography and the documentation of the ordinary
  • The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ archive
  • Archiving dance performance and Labanotation
    • I particularly loved the following quotation from this project: “I go into the archive and a difference emerges, the archive gets messed up. At the same time it becomes visible through my body . . . My body makes the archive visible and at the same time, creates this difference.” – Martin Nachbar
  • Databases, storage, and spatiality
  • Information access technologies in Sub-Saharan Africa
  • The materiality of books and the sensory experience of reading
  • The public libraries of Bogotá, Colombia
  • Image fidelity in digital archiving practice
  • Teenagers and libraries in Crown Heights, Brooklyn
  • Identity, affect, and materiality in the Lesbian Herstory Archives
  • The creation of the Fugazi Live archive (I’m somewhat personally invested in this project!)
  • “The Collapsible Archive” in the work of the Atlas Group
  • The Stasi archives
  • The public library as a potential base for a “truly public” internet

I really enjoyed this class (in particular, the students!). This semester was the first time I taught it, and I hope to have the opportunity to do it again.

 Stasi Archives via Wired:

It Should Go Without Saying…

What follows are a few pieces of advice I plan to share with students in my final lecture in my “intro to grad studies” class. These particular recommendations are inspired by recent experiences in which I’ve found myself having to articulate things that I thought could go without saying. Apparently not.

  1. When you write a cover letter, it’s a good idea to reference the specific position for which you’re applying and attempt to “translate” your experience — which is of course detailed on your c.v. or resume — to the position at hand. Last year I reviewed several dozen applications for a research job; only five or six applicants made any attempt to relate their experiences to the skills required for, and work involved in, the position. At least three-quarters of the remainder used a stock cover letter that essentially “narrated” the c.v., and the rest offered nothing but a terse “I’m interested in your position; here’s my resume.” That’s not going to win anybody’s attention.
  2. If you anticipate needing a letter of recommendation from me or from any of my colleagues in the future, it’s a good idea to make yourself known to us while you’re in the program, do good work in our classes, and stay in contact. I, for one, am always a little surprised to hear from students whom I haven’t seen for years, and who barely made a peep in the single class they took with me, who return to ask for recommendations. In most cases I decline these requests, because I simply wouldn’t know what to say.
  3. If you want a research assistantship, you need to build relationships with the faculty with whom you’d like to work. Faculty rely on their assistants to take responsibility for projects in which faculty are deeply invested, and in which there can be a lot at stake. We’re obviously going to entrust only our most responsible, capable, students with this responsibility — and we have to know you in order to appreciate your responsibility and capability.
  4. If you’re dissatisfied with a department or university policy (or with any other academic or administrative matter), address your concerns to the person most directly responsible for the issue. Try civility first. Sit down and have an adult conversation. If you want to make the case that the issue is not yours alone (it’s unlikely that policy changes or “blanket” action will be taken if all evidence suggests that it’s only you who is dissatisfied), come prepared with evidence that others share your concern. You may find that your concern can be addressed or your problem can be solved quite simply. Your first course of action should not be to write a letter to upper-level administrators lambasting their “criminally oppressive” procedures — only to find that those oppressors are actually quite nice people who are willing to work with you.
  5. Deadlines aren’t just arbitrary rules. When you have an assignment deadline, I set aside time to thoroughly review and offer feedback on your work. Late work messes up my schedule — and it shortchanges you, because I’m not able to provide thorough commentary on stuff that arrives outside of my “grading window.” Of course we all encounter minor and major crises and snafus in our academic and everyday lives that make it difficult for us meet deadlines –and that’s why I announce all my assignment deadlines on the very first day of the semester: so you can plan ahead. Still, in exceptional cases, I’m willing to negotiate extensions. I said negotiate — which means that you need to contact me well in advance of the original deadline, explain your case, and request a reasonable extension. You can’t simply write me a few hours before your work is due to inform me that you’re taking an extension.
  6. Very recent events have inspired the following caveat: Let’s say you’re in my lecture class. Let’s say I amble over to your side of the auditorium to deliver the microphone to a student who would like to ask a question to our guest speaker. You and I make eye contact. I sit down beside you while I wait to retrieve the microphone. It might be a nice idea if, knowing now that I clearly see you, you’d remove the earbuds from your ears and at least minimize iTunes, so it’s not readily apparent to all within eyeshot that you’re listening to music. In a grad class…in which most of your classmates seem to be paying attention.
    In short: some faculty ban all technology from the classroom, others permit it, provided that it helps you engage in the class rather than check out (and, in the process, probably distract your neighbors). Be responsible and considerate.