Thinking Think

A group of my Urban Media Archaeology students organized a fieldtrip to the IBM Think exhibit at Lincoln Center this past weekend. We entered via a vamp bordered, along the east, by a series of panels enumerating the various ways that technology — particularly IBM’s technology, of course — can “mak[e] the world work better.”

Christo and I appreciated this mention of the city’s “legacy systems” — a Kittlerian reference to “city as computer

Along the west side of the entry ramp was a 123-foot “data visualization wall” that animated quite a few of the applications represented on the aforementioned panels. None of my photos do justice to the wall, but there’s a really lovely slideshow on Scientific American‘s website. At the bottom of the ramp we got our free tickets for the 12-minute “immersive film” inside the exhibition space.

Once we got inside — Holy Kubrick! Monoliths galore! We found ourselves sharing the space with 40 seven-foot screens enclosed within mirrored walls, trapping them — and us — in a reflective zone of infinite regress.

via Scientific American

The screens were organized into six-panel “pods,” and we were advised to stand either in the center of one of the pods (there seemed to be three or four separate clusters of screens), affording a view of multiple screens simultaneously; or along the mirrored walls, where we could experience the immersive effect via reflection. Once the show began, we were, as IBM would have it, “enveloped in a rich narrative about the pattern of progress, told through awe-inspiring stories of the past and present.” The imagery was distributed across the screens; we frequently found ourselves spinning around to capture the full dimensionality of the visuals. A train that approached from the south screen could be seen, seconds later, receding into the distance on the north screen. A field of rice — the ‘before” shot — visible on the southeast screen stood opposite a steaming bowl of cooked rice — the “after” — on the northwest screen. (What do trains and rice have to do with IBM, you ask? It should be obvious! Technology touches every aspect of “humankind’s quest for progress!”) Christo pointed out that even the backs of the screens, which faced interstitial spaces where no one was standing, featured unique imagery. The film was as much a kaleidoscopic as an immersive experience.

Once the formal show was over, the 40 screens turned into interactive touchscreens, “transforming the space into a forest of discovery” (!) Each screen featured one of five steps — Seeing, Mapping, Understanding, Believing, Acting — from IBM’s gerund-based “approach to making the world work better.” This, we understood, is the recipe for world-changing — a “distinct, repeatable pattern” for progress. [all quotations via Think website]

Interacting with the screens via a gestural language — swipe, poke, pinch, etc. — familiar to us thanks to our smartphone training, we explored the history of measurement and visualization tools (Seeing); we traced the history of mapping and data visualization (Mapping); we studied models, prototypes, calculations, and other tools that allow us to better understand the complexity of the world’s systems (Understanding); we traveled to various sites of progressive action — attempts to thwart credit card fraud or enhance telecommunications infrastructures or improve health care — around the world (Acting): and we met, via a dozen or so interviews, individuals who believe in the possibility of technological process (Believing).

The entire experience had been overwhelmingly object-oriented and techno-centric — agency implicitly lies with the technology and the techno-social systems they construct — until we got to Believing. Here’s where we heard the human stories, where we saw human faces and heard human voices. Believing: this is what humans do best. We believe in technology’s potential to actualize progress.

Change is easy. It happens by itself. Progress, on the other hand, is deliberate. It won’t take root until someone believes it’s possible and convinces others that action will be worth the effort (via Think).

It’s our belief that transforms change into progress. Yet “sustainable progress requires massive coordination, cooperation, perpetual monitoring and automation. It takes teamwork and technology to manage complexity.” We need to form alliances, assemblages, with IBM’s techno-actants to effect ongoing progress. “Acting is never over,” IBM reminds us, “because our systems are alive.” Yeow. Unpack that sentence.

Repeatable patterns, algorithms, perpetual monitoring, infinite regress. I see where this is going.

After 20 minutes or so of touch-screen interaction, we were guided by attendants in “Think-branded” polo shirts out of the exhibition space — our “forest of discovery” — to make room for the next group. The exit hallway featured an display of 100 iconic moments from IBM’s 100-year history. Paul Rand was very much alive here — as were all kinds of fantastic dead media. This “exit experience” was meant to leave us with the impression that IBM’s historical “faith in science,…[and the] pursuit of knowledge” have fostered a shared “belief that together we can make the world better” — but instead, we Media Archaeologists reconceived this space as an exciting excavation of the strata of media history.

After all that thinking, I needed something a little less intellectually taxing — so I wrapped up the afternoon with a lot of dumb metal at the Richard Serra show at Gagosian.

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