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Measurement Aesthetics

ACRE Units of Measure
ACRE Units of Measure

The exhausting ubiquity of data visualizations has made it clear that data have the potential to be aesthetic entities. One common critique of these visualizations, though, is that while they may make the analysis of data or presentation of research findings more intelligible, or differently intelligible, to a wider audience, there’s often little transparency regarding where those data came from, or the methodologies through which they are derived.

Methodology itself, or perhaps I should say methods themselves (there’s a difference between methods and methodologies, which we’ll get to later), now seem to be getting stylized. I’ve seen lots of projects in recent years — most coming from citizen science, public labs, and related design research — that relish in the aesthetics of measurement. Folks seem to be fascinated by the sensory and affective dimensions of measuring things — the fact that measurement isn’t a purely objective task — and, to feed their passion, they’re designing a host of measurement tools as objects d’art: lovely little bento boxes of tools, fanciful surveying equipment, deliciously weird Tom Sachs-ish visioning machines.

Tom Sachs, The Sacrifice, 2012
Tom Sachs, The Sacrifice, 2012

Speaking of Sachs, we can certainly see the influence of his own modus operandi, knolling, in many of these projects.

Screen-shot-2011-06-27-at-11.02.43-AM-1024x6681

Consider Venue, “a portable media rig, interview studio, multi-format event platform, and forward-operating landscape research base” that’s touring the continent from summer 2012 through fall 2013 “to document often overlooked yet fascinating sites through the eyes of the innovators, trendsetters, entrepreneurs, and designers at the forefront of ideas today.” By “record[ing] and survey[ing] each [visitation] site through an array of both analog and high-tech instruments” (about whose specific methodological functions I’d love to know more), the Venue team aims to “assemble a cumulative, participatory, and media-rich core sample of the greater North American landscape.” They’re pastiching tools and methods from journalism and geology — and, in the process, making data-collection and measurement an aesthetic endeavor.

Semigood's Venue Box, "a handcrafted walnut box for storing equipment and road trip ephemera that transforms into a bare-bones recording base"
Semigood’s Venue Box, “a handcrafted walnut box for storing equipment and road trip ephemera that transforms into a bare-bones recording base”
Venue Box Contents
Venue Box Contents
Semigood's Venue Box, "a handcrafted walnut box for storing equipment and road trip ephemera"
Chris Woebken’s Surveying Tripods for Venue

Consider also the Los Angeles Urban Rangers’ 2006 Interstate: The American Road Trip project, which was “intended to facilitate sharpened observational skills for reading 21st century roadside geographies, particularly in light of the ever-increasing standardization of the American landscape.” A key component of the project was their Interstate Road Trip Specialist Field Kit, an objet d’art in itself. Yet that kit contained tools whose methodological utility was explained in an accompanying Field Guide [the following is drawn from my forthcoming article on “Infrastructural Tourism]
:

  • a car-mapping exercise (to encourage users to consider the mobile viewing device that frames their interaction with the environment);
  • a windshield framing device (to highlight how the speed at which one is traveling impacts how one observes the outside world);
  • a color swatch of the American landscape (to encourage users to think about individual hues, and perhaps thereby discern the innumerable individual objects – various plants, concrete structures, brick structures, asphalt surfaces, metal objects, etc. – constituting the landscape);
  • a field observation log (to encourage critical awareness of the qualities of the road, one’s body, and the cultures and physical environments of the places ones passes through; and to consider the intersections between these elements);
  • photo scavenger hunts (to train users’ attention on thresholds between city and non-city, between states, between landscapes, etc.);
  • a list of prompts for roadside interviews;
  • a set of highway-themed mad libs;
  • and a specimen collection system with variously sized containers, customizable labels, and pre-printed word tags (the former, to give users the freedom to select which of the innumerable items in the landscape are worth collecting, and why; and the latter, to force users to fit their subjectively selected objects into a fixed classification ontology).

Sarah Kanouse's "Post-Naturalist Field Kit," which "includes artifacts for exploring environmental issues in the city — from specimen jars to do-it-yourself air quality monitors — along with cards that prompt users to consider relationships among social, economic, and ecological issues." See also Kanouse, “A Post-Naturalist Field Kit: tools for the embodied exploration of social ecologies,” in Sébastien Cacquard, William Cartwright, and Laurene Vaughan, eds. Mapping Environmental Issues in the City (Heidelberg: Springer, 2011), 160-177.
Sarah Kanouse’s “Post-Naturalist Field Kit,” which “includes artifacts for exploring environmental issues in the city — from specimen jars to do-it-yourself air quality monitors — along with cards that prompt users to consider relationships among social, economic, and ecological issues.” See also Kanouse, “A Post-Naturalist Field Kit: tools for the embodied exploration of social ecologies,” in Sébastien Cacquard, William Cartwright, and Laurene Vaughan, eds. Mapping Environmental Issues in the City (Heidelberg: Springer, 2011), 160-177.
 Svalbard Architectural Exhibition; via Visit W3Schools! BLDGBLOG
Svalbard Architectural Exhibition; via BLDGBLOG

BLDGBLOG also wrote recently about a design research project, set in the Arctic, that made use of a range of beautiful, custom-designed surveying instruments — including tools for examining “perception and interpretation of the aurora borealis,” for “testing sound absorption qualities of snow” and “insulation properties and light transmission” of ice tiles, etc.

There’s a long history of scientists and architects building their own tools, but the whole world of “research architecture” — architects as geologists and meteorologists and botanists who “architect” their own scientific instruments — seems to be newly prevalent (but of course we also have plenty of historical examples of polymath experimental designers). We might trace threads in the lineage for these recent “toolkit” projects back to Fluxus game kits, and to the use of cultural probes in design research and urban probes in urban computing research. Eric Paulos and Tom Jenkins explain that the latter are “designed to bypass many classical design approaches – opting instead for rapid, nimble, often intentional encroachments on urban places rather than following a series of typical design iteration cycles.” In short, probes are a “fail-fast approach,” a means of conducting rapid urban application discovery and evaluation metrics.” You don’t often go in knowing precisely what you’re looking for, but you’re hoping that innovative tools will yield some interesting data. Many of these designerly toolkits are probe-like, speculative, in this regard.

Simon Fraser University students' cultural probes
Simon Fraser University students’
cultural probes
Safety Lab cultural probes
Safety Lab probes 

These examples demonstrate that measurement has an aesthetic — one that seems to follow from the aesthetics of administration, archival aesthetics, and work that takes cues from the aesthetics of the lab. Circuit bending and the “hack-” or “make your own tools” movements have undoubtedly inspired these projects, too. But still, I wonder what, in this age of sentient technologies and Big Data, made measurement — often with analogue tools — so cool, so worth aestheticizing. Perhaps it’s in part because, in contrast with all the machines automatically harvesting mountains of data, these toolkits allow for a more “slow,” intentional, reflective, site-specific, embodied means of engaging with research sites and subjects.

In the appendix to his 2010 Political Aesthetics (Cornell), Crispin Sartwell proposes 52 potential research projects that would “encourage the greatest possible variety of methodologies.” Proposal #2 is a study of the “political aesthetics of measurement.” That’s precisely what we need here. We’ve touched a bit on the aesthetics, but what are the politics in play?

Similarly, I think we need to think about the relationships between (1) data collection, which seems to be foregrounded in many of these toolkit projects; (2) method; and (3) methodology. Sometimes, as I see with my students, concern with the aesthetics of measurement overpowers considerations of how that measurement functions as a method. Methods refer to “the techniques or procedures used to gather and analyze data related to some research question or hypotheses.” Methodology refers to the “strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods; and the connection of the choice and use of methods to the desired outcomes” (Crotty 1998: 3).

Sure, we can use tools for tools’ sake and gather data in an exploratory fashion, as part of speculative research. But it might also be useful to think harder about what it all adds up to — or what we want it all to add up to — and select our tools in support of those larger epistemological and theoretical goals. We’ve already acknowledged the myriad ethical and methodological challenges of harvesting data for data’s sake — which we often do simply because we can, because the technologies are there that allow us to do this.There’s talk in both the Big Data and citizen science worlds of ensuring that data collection is committed to producing actionable data, which implies having an end-goal or larger purpose in mind.

I’m certainly not an expert in the data science or hard science worlds. But I do work in fields in which the methods and ideals of “scientific” data collection have a growing appeal. And sometimes the most readily apparent or accessible way — for students in particular — to gain entry to those complex practices is to take on the aesthetics of measurement. This isn’t to say that engagement with the affective or stylistic dimensions of measurement precludes engagement with its larger methodological functions — rather, that I hope these concerns are brought into alignment: that the packaging suits the purpose, the form serves the function, the knolling serves the knowledge.

To separate these concerns, and to focus only on measurement for measurement’s sake — or its scientific “look” — feels a bit like methodolatry, a neologism composed, as you might expect, by mixing “method” and “idolatry.” Janesick (1994) defines methodolatry as “a preoccupation with selecting and defending methods to the exclusion of the actual substance of the story being told.” One manifestation of methodolatry is the fetishization of method, or a preoccupation with method to the extent that it directs one’s research, perhaps even driving the questions one asks (e.g., some scientists speak of the “worship of the clinical trial”). Another manifestation could be the idolization of method — the adoration of measurement’s image or representation: the knolled toolbox, the hacked perceptual machines, the scientific flowchart, as kit of tricks.

Or perhaps these methadolatrous projects, in their aestheticization of measurement, are calling our attention to presumptions about scientific rigor, parodying our algorithmic impulses, tacitly asking questions about the ideology of a pervasive culture of measurement and assessment.

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Uncategorized

Solutionism By Another Name — or, When You’ve Got Algorithms Aplenty, the Whole World Looks Like Data

Oh, look -- I think I see *two* ladies! Via  Knight Foundation
Oh, look — I think I see *two* ladies! Via Knight Foundation 

The flurry of recent “solutionism” talk, inspired by Evgeny Morozov’s recent book, made me recall a passage I pruned (probably for good reason) from an early (2009?) draft of my 2011 Click/Scan/Bold: The New Materiality of Architectural Discourse and Its Counter-Publics” article:

“Some pundits are already announcing the death of the much-hyped and derided ‘star’ architecture system and the baroque extravagances of digital fabrication, and hailing the beginning of a more realistic, sober, and sustainable period of design,” Architect Newspaper’s William Menking reported in a July 2009 editorial.[1] With “fewer private commissions on the horizon and government RFQs on hold, it is a perfect time for architecture and urban planning to rethink the basics of their professions and embrace a culture of research inside their offices” — or, [various design/blog/hack -athon] organizers might add, outside those offices, in places like Storefront or the Architectural League, or even on hotel rooftops. But would Menking have imagined that that architectural research would have encompassed processing economic and social data, mapping climatological and astronomical phenomena, pushing architects into other highly specialized fields? Mark Foster Gage suggests that “research architecture,” increasingly prevalent, often advances a hegemonic agenda:

While the mapping of ‘research’ is justified by assuming a legitimate cause-and-effect relationship between cursorily observed problems and their subsequent architectural solutions, a precedent-based approach [, one that understands architecture’s historical lineage,] is founded on the assumption that architecture is not only the solution to pressing contemporary problems but also a living trajectory of invention.”[2]

Research architecture often cultivates the “mistaken assumption that we are always more powerful in dealing with social injustice or inequality in our role as architects than in our roles as citizens or activists.” Design publications sometimes create space for writers and readers to play out these architectural-imperial fantasies: “If the world is framed by architecture, then the world can be rebuilt.” An underlying implication is that in order to rebuild the world, we have to frame its problems as architectural problems.

If all you’ve got is Revit or Catia or ArchiCAD or whatever — and if you’re out to change the world — the world’s problems tend to look like design problems: “We’ll just build them a new community center out of shipping containers, and fit it with a stationary-bike-powered water filtration system!” And maybe that’s just what they need.

A similar framing seems to be happening in other non-architectural design/tech contexts. Of course this isn’t a new phenomenon (the whole “if all you’ve got is a hammer…” maxim has been around for a while) — but the general data-fetishist/DIY hype seems to be rather novel. If you’ve got lots of programmers armed with lots of algorithms, “social change” could potentially be reduced to finding the right open data set and hacking the hell out of it.

All this effort is commendable, and I don’t mean to knock it. But perhaps we’d do well to think a bit more about the impetuses and ideologies behind, and methodologies implied by, these quick-attack “-thons” and “sprints” and “slams” (I really do think it’s useful to think of these things in terms of methodology). I co-organized one such event in 2009, and, honestly, it left me feeling super-conflicted and unsure of what on earth I’d just done. I’m glad people like Morozov, Jake Porway, and the folks at the University of Amsterdam are thinking about these things.

*   *   *   *   *
[1] William Menking, “Thought Process” Architect’s Newspaper, July 29, 2009, 5.
[2] Mark Foster Gage, “In Defense of Design” Log 16 (2009): 42.
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Blog

Advisee Accolades: I’m Honored to Know These People

Totally irrelevant image from the  National Geographic Photo Archive
Totally irrelevant image from the National Geographic Photo Archive 

Lots of my current and recent-past Masters thesis advisees (I teach only MA students) are doing some pretty amazing things. I’m just so happy for them, I want to share their news:

James D. Graham, a thesis advisee from 2008 who won our program’s first Distinguished Thesis Award, is a doctoral student in architecture at Columbia, and he’s published a fantastic article — which started out as a footnote in his Masters thesis — on Friedrich Kiesler and Rossum’s Universal Robots in the Winter 2013 issue of Grey Room. I’m sure this is only one of innumerable fantastic projects he’s engaged in.

Ben Mendelsohn, a thesis advisee who graduated in 2010 — also with a Distinguished Thesis Award for his “Buried, Bundled and Behind Closed Doors,” a widely celebrated video on Manhattan’s internet infrastructure — is a LeBoff Fellow and PhD student in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at NYU. He and his partner, Alex Chohlas-Wood, have also been doing some fabulous work with the Dredge Research Collaborative, which examines the technicalities and political-economic, social, and geologic impacts of, well, dredging (see his video for DredgeFest here).

Tanya Toft, an advisee and research assistant who graduated in 2011 (and who wrote a wonderful thesis for another Masters program she was completing simultaneously, in Denmark), is a Ph.D. Fellow in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen, and this past summer she was a resident at both CuratorLab in Stockholm and the Node Center for Curatorial Studies in Berlin. And just last week, here in New York, she hosted the first leg of Nordic Outbreak, a six-city global exhibition of Nordic moving image arts that she co-curated.

Alex Campolo, a thesis advisee who graduated in 2012 — again with the Distinguished Thesis Award for his beautiful and brilliant study of how the stock ticker influenced formal economic theory and temporality — is currently working as a researcher at the Harmony Institute. But he’s been weighing several offers from a whole bunch of awesome PhD programs, and he’s recently accepted a generous and prestigious fellowship. I can say more about this later. [Update: Starting in Fall 2013 Alex will be a LeBoff Fellow and PhD student in the Department of Media Culture and Communication at NYU, where he will take part in inter-institutional research with the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing. Yay!]

Ran Kim is finishing an extraordinarily thoughtful and poetic thesis on sound, ethnography, place, and performance. Ran has been collaborating with Patricia Clough, from the CUNY Grad Center, and a number of other graduate students to produce Ecstatic Corona, a multimedia performance exploring politics and memory in Corona, Queens — and this work has come to function, essentially, as a “case study” for Ran’s thesis. She’s an accomplished filmmaker, sound-mixer, and photographer; she took all the lovely photos (and served as translator) during our trip to Paju Bookcity in Korea this past summer. Her work was published in my article on Places — and I posted a few more photos here. Ran will be starting an MA in Performance Studies at NYU in the fall.

And Rory Solomon is finishing up a truly stellar thesis that “performs” a media archaeology of “the stack” — the network stack, the application stack, etc. For the past four+ years Rory’s been the incredible tech lead on the Urban Research Toolkit, an open-source mapping tool we’ve been using in our Urban Media Archaeology class. He’s also been working as Tech Lead at Bank Street College of Education, faculty at Parsons, and collaborator on a number of art projects. He recently presented his work at SCMS, has an article coming out this summer in Amodern, and was invited to take part in a Networks research collective at Duke!

That’s a whole lot of rad (did anybody else watch this film, like, a thousand times growing up?).

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Presentations

Archiving Learning as a Messy, Partial, and Political Process

brain1

What follows is the talk I’ll be giving at the Digital/Pedagogy/Material/Archives conference at the Bard Graduate Center on Friday, April 5.

When I first arrived at The New School, in 2004, one of my service responsibilities was to [SLIDE 2] coordinate our student thesis projects. At the time, we had about 500 Masters students in the program, roughly 10% of which complete theses. Even as our program has grown, that proportion has stayed relatively consistent. Because the Masters Program in Media Studies was founded as a praxis program, one combining theory and practice, we’ve always had students producing work in a wide variety of formats. Finally, in the late 1990s, we extended that format-inclusivity to our thesis projects. In my eight years there, I’ve seen plenty of traditional 80-page thesis documents, as well as a graphic novel; [SLIDE 3] a few interactive audio maps; lots of film and video; a research podcast series; a couple installations; an artists’ book; a multimedia performance; and, perhaps among the most ambitious, a live chamber orchestra performance. [SLIDE 4] The latter was by a student, a composer, who was interested in film music. She took the infamous shower scene from Psycho, rescored it 13 times, rented out Judson Church, and had a chamber orchestra perform her 13 variations alongside the projected film.

And there are plenty more where those came from.

[SLIDE 5] My first office was on our building’s “secret” 13th floor, [CLICK] which is kind of like the 7 ½-th floor in Being John Malkovich, except we can actually stand up. To find us, you have to take the elevator up to the 12th floor, then find the one set of stairs that will take you up to 13. Some of the guards don’t even know we’re up there. [SLIDE 6] Anyway, beside my desk was a wall of floor-to-ceiling filing cabinets that contained department files, reams of copy paper, cables for faculty computers…and all student theses for the past decade or more. Probably more, since some senior colleagues confirmed that we’ve been collecting and diligently cataloguing theses locally since Media Studies’ inception in the 70s.

[SLIDE 7] Wondering why the library wasn’t storing these projects, I eventually found myself in a meeting with the University Librarian, the Director of Digital Library and Technical Services, and a faculty member from another PhD-granting division of the university [SLIDE 8] We talked about what we’d like to see in a digital repository and addressed the possibilities of using d-space.

And then, despite a few attempts to follow up, it never got off the ground. This might be in part because we had some shifts in our library leadership, or because The New School is regularly negotiating its relationship to NYU’s libraries, which serve us, too.  Faculty who’d made similar appeals to the library before my arrival indicated that lack of storage space – [SLIDE 9] and the variety of formats our theses come in – have presented perennial challenges.

Despite the lack of institutional movement on the thesis front, we did decide to make some changes in-house. Within two years, we began asking students to submit everything digitally: no paper copies of anything – unless the student had created an artifact for which the material form was an integral part of the project, as with an artist’s book. We started storing everything on a dedicated hard drive, which was regularly backed-up. And we developed guidelines for submitting projects in different formats – audio, video, film, websites, etc. Perhaps our guidelines didn’t reflect best archival practices, but they reflected what we – a bunch of non-archivists – could reasonably be expected to handle on our own.

[SLIDE 10] Handling it on our own. DIY – a term that, nowadays, we tend to romanticize, but which is often simply a euphemism for getting by in the absence of institutional support that probably should be there. Yet for years we’ve been doing it our way – [SLIDE 11] Laverne & Shirley-style. When it came to my teaching it seemed to make sense to me that I’d be the one responsible for collecting and storing student works, particularly since I chose to forego the course management resources our university provided for us. [SLIDE 12] [SLIDE 13]

For projects that served the entire program or university, however, I aimed to work with our central Communication and External Affairs office. [SLIDE 14] When a colleague and I received funding for “Project Media Space | Public Space,” a year of events and courses exploring the ways that various media technologies transformed how we understand and experience public space, we created a robust website listing not only our own events – which included cross-divisional classes, [SLIDE 15] guest speakers, student showcases, screenings, [SLIDE 16] master classes with visiting artists and scholars, [SLIDE 17] an audio show, [CLICK] and a major exhibition – but also relevant events and resources all across the city. It was really a fabulous resource and a chronicle of an exciting set of programs.

And then, once the year ended and the university undertook one of its regular summer “refreshings” of the website, our Media Space sites [SLIDE 18] disappeared. I’ve come to realize over the years that sites like ours – those that serve primarily current students – aren’t really the communication team’s top priority. They’ve increasingly come to regard the University’s website as a marketing tool. [SLIDE 19] Their concern is creating a public face to attract prospective students and funders, and their assumption seems to be that faculty profiles, lists of classes, and factual info about innovative programs and resources are what appeals to outsiders. They don’t seem to see the “marketing value” in highlighting student productions or research projects, which, if you ask me, would have tremendous value in showing the vibrant work taking place at The New School.

I also have to acknowledge that the folks in our Communications department are lovely and talented people, and they’re terribly understaffed. And it’s completely understandable that they can’t make archiving their concern.

[SLIDE 20] The upshot of all of this is that the only remaining traces of Project Media Space | Public Space are on my own website. The same can be said of a multimedia student journal I advised in 2006. [SLIDE 21] I taught a class in which a team of students learned a bit about editorial theory and explored the past, present, and future of the journal landscape – and they applied those lessons in theming; soliciting submissions for; editing; and publishing a issue. Various faculty advisors over the years had hosted issues on their own New School webspace. So, we had no consistent site architecture – and when the university phased out the dedicated personal webspace a few years ago, some older issues of the journal failed to make the transition. Our issue was among the lost. [SLIDE 22] It lives on only in this screen shot on my own webpage[CLICK] where you can see the dead link at the bottom – and in the syllabus that documents the process of its creation.

I’ve had my own domain and shared hosting since 2003, and I’ve been creating websites for most of my classes since 2005. [SLIDE 23] The early sites were basic html sites that functioned primarily as repositories of syllabi and relevant links. I tried building some bulletin boards, to make the sites more interactive, back in 2006, but these platforms proved a little too clunky for students. [SLIDE 24] But for the past four years or so, each of my courses has had a blog, or, in the case of a large lecture course I occasionally teach, [SLIDE 25] its own rather extensive Ning site, which contains all the course material, all the readings and supplemental material, videos of all the lectures, and all the online student discussions. This site is reused each semester, so I’ve chosen to create my own archive of each semester’s work.

These websites have become rather comprehensive “archives” of not only the classes themselves, but also of student learning. I should say that I’m one of those folks who bristles at the colloquial use of the term “archives” – as in, [SLIDE 26] I’ve archived these “women laughing alone with salad” photos on my hard drive – because such usage tends to trivialize or ignore the specialized knowledge and specific values that “real” archivists embody. [SLIDE 27] But it is true that our course sites do manage to chronicle, or “archive,” the richness of student learning: it’s the class architecture, the learning materials, the students’ learning processes, the interaction among students and with the instructor, and the students’ projects. In regard to the latter, [SLIDE 28] at the end of each semester, I create a summary blog post for each class, in which I document what we’ve done, highlight some of our greatest accomplishments, address what we might do differently next time, and describe – and link to – each of the students’ final projects.

[SLIDE 29] But I don’t consider myself the class archivist; honestly, I’m a little too busy trying to be an effective teacher. I don’t ask my students to submit their work “for archiving.” And although I do what I can to fix broken links, there’s not much I can do when the material we’re linking to disappears. Because students usually have the freedom to choose their own platforms, which is an integral part of the design process; because they sometimes make use of platforms that fold or evolve in ways that compromise their designs; and because students sometimes elect to host their projects on their own webspace in order to add them to their personal portfolios – I have little control over what happens to them after the semester’s over.

I’ll offer a couple examples from my [SLIDE 30] Media and Materiality course in which we examine “media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication.” The students create online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship.” The particular formats of the students’ projects offer them an opportunity to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their material natures?

[SLIDE 31] While we explore a variety of platforms, most students have chosen to make WordPress blogs or Tumblrs, and some have created Pinterest collections, designed e-books-as-exhibitions, [SLIDE 32] or custom-designed their own sites. [SLIDE 33] One fashion student re-purposed the Facebook page – detourning the real estate of the profile page, using it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used – to create an exhibition about fashion and mediated identity. This project no longer lives on Facebook; I have to assume that the student deleted it. Its only trace is in a screenshot on my end-of-semester summary post.

[SLIDE 34] A few other 2010 students elected to use a platform called Vuvox to create “multimedia collages.” [SLIDE 35] Vuvox, it so happens, is owned by ebay, which also owns PayPal – and PayPal’s servers were attacked in early December 2010, right before finals, in retaliation for the company’s decision to cut funding to WikiLeaks. Hence, no VuVox, and no work on final projects, for nearly a week. Thus, while my students probably weren’t the hackers’ intended targets, they felt the wrath. [SLIDE 36] And the students learned a difficult, although valuable, lesson about Internet infrastructure. These projects are (currently) still alive online – but they certainly wouldn’t be if Vuvox permanently folded. Or if my students elected to use any of the myriad platforms simply evaporates each year.

[SLIDE 37] In another of my courses, Urban Media Archaeology, we investigate historical urban media infrastructures – from newspaper delivery to the use of carrier pigeons, from telephone switching stations to independent bookstores, from video game arcades to the evolution of New York’s street signs. [SLIDE 38] The students conduct archival research and produce their own primary documents: oral histories, ethnographic videos, field recordings, etc. [SLIDE 39] And these materials are woven into arguments they make on a map – a map we’ve been collaboratively developing with programmers and designers at Parsons the New School for Design for the past five years.

[SLIDE 40] Our map is hosted on Parsons servers – and the developers have chosen to host locally as much media as possible, rather than linking out to it. But students using video still typically choose to embed codes from YouTube or Vimeo – or, if they’ve created their own video or audio, they post to YouTube or Soundcloud and embed the content. Thus, while we can be relatively assured that the map will always be there as long as we want it to be, we have no such assurances that the media on the map, particularly those resources stored externally, will always be around. I’m sure we’re not consistently using best archival practices – but if we’re successful in securing funding for further development of the tool, this would be a priority.

There are some other promising developments, too. [SLIDE 41] Media Studies’ new Technical Director has been working with a former student to develop a searchable archive of student thesis projects. It’s still a work on progress, as is evidenced by the fact that I haven’t been able to get access to it for the past few days in order to capture a screen shot. But it’s a vast improvement over the days when most students didn’t even know there was a collection of theses up on the Malkovich floor – and if they did, they’d have to review a print-out of our catalogue, sign out a project – and maybe return it later on.

[SLIDE 42] We also have Wendy Sheir, recently promoted from director of the Kellen Archives – that’s Parsons’ archives – to Director of the University Archives and Special Collection – who, with her fantastic staff, has made tremendous strides in gathering up our less-than-tidy institutional archives and digitizing some fabulous material. And they’re committed to working with faculty and administrators to archive student work, too. [SLIDE 43] Some of their recent digitization projects – including work with The New School’s publicity scrapbooks – have been supported by grants attached to classes; those materials were integral to the work taking place in a recent lecture course on the New School’s history.

They’ll be working with my students next year, too. [SLIDE 44] I regularly teach a seminar on

Archives, Libraries, and Databases, in which we look at the past, present, and future, and the politics and aesthetics, of the institutions we’ve created to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge and collections of information. [SLIDE 45] Next year, as a follow-up to this class, I’ll be collaborating with The New School’s Libraries and Archives to create a “Digital Archives and Institutional Memory” studio, a chance for students to put into practice some of the theories we address in the seminar. The New School’s digital archiving efforts are relatively recent, so it’ll give students a chance to shape the direction of future archival work – perhaps the archiving of their own student work – and create new opportunities for future pedagogical uses of the archives. And maybe we’ll even create a few aspiring archivists in the process.

*   *   *   *   *

During the afternoon session, each presenter will be asked to share an ideal scenario or a provocation so that everyone in attendance can perhaps identify concrete steps we can take together to develop new archival strategies. What follows are my (not terribly provocative) provocations:

  1. What if we sought to archive artifacts of the learning process – including the drafts and detritus – rather than focusing primarily on “finished works,” which provide proof of “having learned”? What if we archived not only finished projects, but also student-generated data, component pieces, drafts, etc. – and what if this material was then made available for reuse and repurposing in other student and faculty projects?
  2. What if students could post their research and production material to a university archive and indicate, Creative Commons style, if – and if so, how – they’re allow it to be used by others?
  3. What if we linked our archives to fair use advocacy groups like Critical Commons, which supports the “transformative reuse of media in scholarly and creative contexts” – and extended that advocacy to incorporate other copyrighted cultural forms?
  4. What would it mean to embrace the basic principles of Alan Liu’s RoSE (research-oriented social environment) project and to “treat individual works of media as proto or micro networks” – networks of people, of texts, of learning practices, etc. – and then to trace the “macro-networks” that emerge from these micro-networks? How might this allow us to use the archive to map research communities and collaborations and shared resources?
  5. What if we allowed students to “opt-in” to archive their final course projects, which would then obligate them to format their work according to specified criteria, but would also ensure that their work would be preserved by the university? And what if instructors could then generate a list of all officially-archived course projects, which they could then format into a summary document or “exhibition” of student work.
  6. [Disingenuously phrased as a “what if”] What if we also recognized the right of students to opt out of the archive – to allow their work to remain private, un-networked; to destroy their work or to allow it simply to fade away? What if we honored the value of erasure and forgetting?

 

 

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Presentations

Platform Shift: Teaching on (Intentionally) Shaky Ground

Lebbeus Woods, Terrain, project, 1999; via MoMA
Lebbeus Woods, Terrain, project, 1999; via MoMA

What follows is my presentation for the “Making, Playing, Knowing: New Designs for Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age” discussion — with Ann Pendleton-Jullian, Kimon Keramidas, and Micki McGee — at Fordham tonight. Scribd screwed up my fonts.

I often try to kick off my presentations with a timely, topical image – so I asked myself, where have we seen “platform shift” in current events or recent popular culture?

This [SLIDE 2] was initially my introductory image. I’m sure we’ve all heard of Florida’s tragic sinkhole affliction (this particular image happens to show a 30-story-deep sinkhole in Guatemala in 2010, but it illustrates the potential severity of the issue particularly well). I eventually recognized that this is hardly an appropriately confidence-inspiring image with which to begin an uplifting talk about the potential of digital pedagogy. But it’s not an entirely inappropriate visual metaphor, either. It’ll return a bit later.

[SLIDE 3] For now, we’ll start again, here: Over a decade ago I finished my dissertation on the Seattle Public Library, whose form, consisting of platforms of disparate activities stacked precariously and wrapped in a metal mesh, was described by architect Rem Koolhaas as “pre-quaked.” This building, in an earthquake-prone region, would bravely face up to, and thereby gird itself for, seismic damage.

[SLIDE 4] In a way, a similar strategy informed the programming inside. When design began in 1999, the architects were aware that they were creating a building for media objects and media uses that would change dramatically between then and when the library would open five years later. So, they planned for platform shift, building in space for managed growth and allowing for flexibility.

Perhaps we need to “pre-quake” our pedagogy, too. In my remaining time I’ll address how I try to plan for platform-shift in three of the classes I teach.  [SLIDE 5] But before I begin, I want to point out that all of my teaching material – including syllabi, links to course websites, documentation of student work, etc. – is available on my website. [SLIDE 6] These are the courses that I’ve taught at The New School over the past eight years, and nearly all of them have involved some form of digital pedagogy. [SLIDE 7] But these three are in current rotation, and they all reflect what I’ve learned over the past decade about what we can reasonably expect digital technologies to do in the classroom, and about how to balance the forward-thinking with historical-mindedness, how to integrate contemporary skills with enduring sensibilities.

[SLIDE 8] In my Media and Materiality course, a semi-traditional seminar that I began teaching in 2010, we examine “media as material objects, as things, as symbolically charged artifacts, as physical supports for communication.” Much of our work questions the virtuality, the universally distributed nature, and even the newness of new media. [SLIDE 9] We begin by exploring various theoretical frameworks and methodologies – from “thing theory,” to material culture studies, to media archaeology – that can be useful in studying media. [SLIDE 10] The second third of the semester is dedicated to custom-designed “plug-ins” that pertain to students’ individual research interests. [SLIDE 11] And in the final third, we work on the creation of online exhibitions of material media – an endeavor we approach as a form of “multimodal scholarship,” an alternative means of performing and publicizing academic work. The particular formats of the students’ projects offer them an opportunity to think through the central concepts of our class: what does it mean to mediate the materiality of media objects, and to create a virtual exhibition that addresses their material natures

[SLIDE 12] Over the course of the semester, everyone does an exhibition review – of an on-site or online exhibition – to allow them to identify best practices, to develop criteria for evaluation, and to introduce them to the various platforms they could use in their own project. [SLIDE 13] Most students have chosen to make WordPress blogs or Tumblrs, while some have created Pinterest collections, designed e-books-as-exhibitions, [SLIDE 14] or custom-designed their own sites. We always encourage students to choose platforms that match their skill sets, and I always work with a student technical associate – someone who has a broad set of design skills that cross many platforms – to organize outside-of-class tutorials to help those students who perhaps aren’t as technically confident, or who want to hack or customize their chosen platforms

[SLIDE 15] One fashion student even re-purposed the Facebook page – detourning the real estate of the profile page, using it in a way it wasn’t meant to be used – to create an exhibition about fashion and mediated identity. Unfortunately, this fabulous project is no longer alive online – and this isn’t the only one that’s disappeared. Because students choose their own platforms, which is an integral part of the design process; because they sometimes make use of platforms that fold or evolve in such ways as to compromise their designs; and because students sometimes elect to host their projects on their own webspace in order to add them to their personal portfolios – I have little control over what happens to them after the semester’s over.

[SLIDE 16] Digital death and disappearance shouldn’t come as a surprise. As a few of my 2010 students learned the hard way, we can’t even count on our platforms being available to us the week before finals. A few students elected to use a platform called Vuvox to create “multimedia collages.” [SLIDE 17] Vuvox, it so happens, is owned by ebay, which also owns PayPal – and PayPal’s servers were attacked in early December 2010, right before finals, in retaliation for the company’s decision to cut funding to WikiLeaks. Hence, no VuVox, and no work on final projects, for nearly a week. Thus, while my students probably weren’t the hackers’ intended targets, WikiLeaks’s quakes shook them. [SLIDE 18] And the students learned a difficult, although valuable, lesson about Internet infrastructure, and how platform shifts have the potential to rattle all layers of the network stack.

[SLIDE 19] At the end of each class each semester, I create a blog post (2010, 2012), recapitulating what we’ve learned, identifying what we might want to do differently next time, and documenting the students’ work. In some cases, this post is the only trace that remains of a project, like the Facebook exhibition. I have mixed feelings about the ephemerality of this student work, and the issue of archiving of digital pedagogical projects is something we’ll be discussing at a workshop at the Bard Graduate Center this coming Friday.

[SLIDE 20] The impact of digital technologies on archiving is also one of many issues we address in another of my classes, a seminar on Archives, Libraries, and Databases. For the sake of time, I’ll say only a few words about this class, and, in the interest of laziness, I’ll draw those words from the course description: “There has been more information produced in the last 30 years than during the previous 5000.” We’ve all heard some variation on this maxim. As U.S. publishers add 250,000 printed books and close to 300,000 print-on-demand books to our libraries each year; as we find ourselves wading through over 200 million websites; as we continue to add new media – from Tweets to Apps to geo-tagged maps – to our everyday media repertoires, we continually search for new ways to navigate this ever more treacherous sea of information. Throughout human history we have relied on various institutions and politico-intellectual architectures to organize, index, preserve, make sense of, and facilitate or control access to our stores of knowledge, our assemblages of media, our collections of information. This seminar looks at the past, present, and future of the library, the archive, and the database, and considers what logics, politics, audiences, contents, aesthetics, physical forms, etc., ally and differentiate these institutions. We examine what roles the library, archive, and the database play in democracy, in education, in everyday life, and in art. Throughout the semester we examine myriad analog and digital artworks that make use of library/archival material, or take the library, archive, or database as their subject.”

[SLIDE 21] And as a follow-up to this class, which I’ll be teaching again this coming fall, I’ll be collaborating with The New School’s Libraries and Archives to create a “Digital Archives and Institutional Memory” studio, a chance for students to put into practice some of the theories we address in the seminar. The New School’s digital archiving efforts are relatively recent, so it’ll give students a chance to shape the direction of future archival work and create new opportunities for future pedagogical uses of the archives.

[SLIDE 22] My final example is a class I’ll be teaching for the fourth time this coming fall. [SLIDE 23] In Urban Media Archaeology, we investigate historical urban media infrastructures – from newspaper delivery to the use of carrier pigeons, from telephone switching stations to independent bookstores, from video game arcades to the evolution of New York’s street signs. [SLIDE 24] The students conduct archival research – what you see here is a list of just a few of the archival collections they’ve used – and produce their own primary documents: oral histories, ethnographic videos, field recordings, etc. [SLIDE 25] And these materials are woven into arguments they make on a map – a map we’ve been collaboratively developing with programmers and designers at Parsons the New School for Design for the past five years.

[SLIDE 26] Our platform for this class is thus constantly shifting. Intentionally. It’s a living platform – one that’s always evolving in response to students’ methodological needs. We use Open Street Map – a collaboratively developed, open-source map – rather than relying on proprietary platforms like Google. [SLIDE 27] Many students recognized the rhetorical value of the map’s aesthetics – so they requested that our programmers and designers make it possible to integrate different tiles created by stamen, a design firm globally renowned for data visualization and mapping. You saw some of those tiles on previous projects, and [SLIDE 28] this project, which is based on stamen’s high-contrast “toner” design, uses the metaphor of the oyster to explore the evolution of New York’s docks – and how they served as a hinge, or mediator, between land and sea. 

With the terrain constantly moving beneath their feet, students have predictably encountered a few bugs. [SLIDE 29] By accessing and participating in the software development process, however, they can develop insight into where bugs “come from,” and eventually learn not to fear those moments when they feel the platform shifting. [SLIDE 30] As I wrote in a “recap” post from a few semesters ago,

Opening the black box…requires that we test its limits, that we often push the system until it breaks. And when we do break something — when we encounter one of those ugly “TemplateSyntaxError” messages — rather than panic or give up, we can actually learn to hear what the system is telling us, and work with others in class — most likely those with a different set of technical skills than our own — to fix the problem. These small defeats and victories tell us a lot about how a system works. And ultimately we learn more from these error-pitted processes, uncomfortable though they might be, than from those that proceed perfectly smoothly.

[SLIDE 31] Learning this agility and resilience translates to many other contexts. Technological change certainly doesn’t happen only when we choose to effect it ourselves, as is the case in my mapping class. Others shift the platforms on us all the time; they create technological sinkholes that we have to crawl out of – and we have less and less control over these shifts as our institutions outsource many of their technical services to Google, and as we turn over our data to commercial services. [SLIDE 32] These are the choices we’ve made, and we need to learn to roll with the inevitable punches, to brace ourselves for seismic shifts – like when our favorite bookmarking service is rendered totally useless by some inane redesign and the needless integration of stupid social-media functions. [SLIDE 33] Or when the days are numbered for a perfectly functional RSS reader, because its parent corporation has priorities that are quite different from ours.

[SLIDE 34] Adaptability is an inherent and integral part of digital learning—indeed, all learning. It requires that we accept the inevitability of change and, yes, even obsolescence; that we acknowledge the potential capriciousness of commercial platforms and start-ups; and that we regard these experiences not as obstacles or dead-ends to be avoided, but as inevitable components of any learning process that we need not work around, but work with.

By planning for platform shift, by building seismically-sound pedagogical infrastructures – and preparing our students to handle the shock when it hits – we develop more resilient learners – learners who can think beyond the particularities of a specific program to understand larger principles and broader sensibilities. We develop learners who know how to survey the shifting terrain, to identify – and perhaps intercept – the forces effecting those shifts, and, when necessary, to engineer scaffoldings (intellectual, technical and otherwise) for adaptation.