I wrote about paperwork, play, and the aesthetics of administration — using Mina Johnson and Norman Kallaus’s 1967 Records Management textbook as my launching pad — for the Reanimation Library‘s “Word Processor” series. Here’s my intro:
For more than half a century Jack Wilkinson’s office supply store stood on the corner of Allegheny Street and Cherry Alley in my hometown of Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. When I was a little girl, we’d make frequent visits—not to stock up on supplies for my dad’s hardware store or my mom’s classroom and volunteer activities, but at my request. On birthdays and Christmas I’d come in with a list: invoices, restaurant order forms, cash box, label maker, rubber date stamp, accounting book. These were my toys.
This past Sunday my Archives, Libraries + Databases class (along with a bunch of their friends and a few other students from our graduate program) visited the Reanimation Library and Interference Archives in Gowanus, Brooklyn. We’ve visited Andrew at the R.L. for each of the past three years I’ve taught this course, but this year I decided to make a “Gowanus Radical Collections” tour of the afternoon, so we added the I.A. to our itinerary …And, to round out the afternoon, we managed to squeeze in a final stop at Four & Twenty Blackbirds for a slice of pie.
My colleague, composer/musician Barry Salmon, and I will be reviving — after five years of dormancy! — our wicked awesome “Sound + Space” graduate seminar-studio this coming spring semester. Between now and then we’ll need to substantially rework the syllabus because our venue presents some new opportunities this time around. We’ll be meeting every week in the brand new Made in NY Media Center in Dumbo — and in order to take advantage of the space, the course will lead up to a public exhibition, performance, or workshop of some sort.
First, I want to thank Kate [Eichhorn] for organizing this event, and for inviting me to take part. It’s an honor to be working not only with her, but also with Jussi and Lisa, whose work has proven tremendously inspirational for my own.
And second, I’d like to thank Jussi for his provocative paper.
This event is actually taking place during my Urban Media Archaeology graduate studio, which meets right upstairs in a lab – where we’ll be headed for our second half of class right after we conclude here tonight. This is the fourth year I’ve taught the course with the talented programmer/artist/scholar Rory Solomon, who exemplifies the “critical engineer” that Jussi mentioned in his paper as an Anglophone outlet for media archaeology. Over the years Rory and I have worked with students to construct alternative histories of urban media infrastructures, which might stretch the definitions of both “media” and “infrastructure.” We’ve had students piece together the histories of walking tours, newspaper delivery, video game arcades, zine distribution in radical social movements – even food trucks and breweries and carrier pigeons. We’ve been creating multimedia maps of these histories on a platform we’ve built, in collaboration with colleagues from Parsons, on OpenStreetMap, a free and open alternative to Google Maps.
Given that I am technically “teaching” right now, I wanted to use my comments, at least in part, to highlight the pertinence of Jussi’s paper to our class work, and I was happy to notice that many connections presented themselves readily. Of particular relevance is Jussi’s discussion of the “national identities” of various theoretical approaches and their global migration and eventual assimilation into other cultural contexts. Jussi writes about media archaeology as a “traveling set of concepts” and asks us to focus on the “travels of theory with an emphasis on… mobility and change, flexibility and reception.” In the introduction to the fabulous anthology he edited with Erkki Huhtamo, which my students read, Jussi and Erkki propose that one way to explain the difference between the social-cultural inflection of Anglo-American approaches, and the techno-hardware approaches of the Germans, is their divergent readings of Foucault, with the Anglos focusing on discourse’s ties to cultural and social power, and the Germans emphasizing the specific material natures of the technologies that produce that discourse.
While others have of course challenged the notion that there is such a thing as German media theory, the very idea that a theory might have a national identity seems highly pertinent to the themes my students and I are addressing – particularly the spatial dimensions and the distribution of mediated discourse. What’s more, we might even wonder about the infrastructures that allow for not only theory’s distribution around the globe, but also its very making. What are the infrastructures – or cultural techniques – of theory-making?
As Bernhard Siegert explains, focusing on cultural techniques shifts our attention from the representation of meaning, to the “the exterior and material conditions” for meaning, which might include “inconspicuous technologies of knowledge (e.g., index cards, writing tools and typewriters), discourse operators (e.g., quotation marks), pedagogical media (e.g., blackboards), unclassifiable media such as phonographs or stamps, instruments like the piano, and disciplining techniques (e.g., language acquisition and alphabetization).” (Theory, Culture & Society 2013: 3).
If one of our goals this evening was to consider how media archaeology has taken shape in various parts of the world, why not consider the cultural techniques of theory-making and dissemination? And, taking a page not only from my class, but also from Jussi’s repeated and inspirational calls for making things with media archaeology, why not consider alternative means of representing the cultural techniques that comprise the making and movement of media-archaeological discourse? Why not map that “traveling theory”?
I have to admit that, over the last few years, as I’ve come into my own as a scholar and have enjoyed being pulled into, or at least observing from the periphery, those “inner circles” where new theoretical movements take flight, I’ve come to see theory-making as a political economy – one with occasionally highly problematic politics and unequal distributions of resources. In my head I’ve mapped the assemblages of objects and forces – the infrastructures – that are needed to get a theoretical movement off the ground and out into the world. Jussi offers an example in his own forthcoming essay in the “cultural techniques” special issue of Theory, Culture & Society: the rise of object-oriented ontology / philosophy, he notes, can be attributed just as much to the “fresh approaches” they offer, as to the “rhetorical skill” with which they “posited their own newness” (6).
That “rhetorical skill” – for the launch of any theoretical movement – involves the application of a variety of cultural techniques. In their introduction to The Speculative Turn, Levi Bryant, Nick Srnicek, and Harman acknowledge the roles that a vibrant blogging community, adventurous new journals, and open-access publishing played in shaping the discursive politics surrounding Speculative Realism. But, as I’ve suggested elsewhere, why don’t we expand the OOO “litany” to call our attention also to other “objects” in the movement itself (or any theoretical movement, for that matter): epistemological and disciplinary values, like individual genius; the academic market for branded theories and neologisms; the PR machines of Facebook and Twitter; the armies of grad students hungry for the “new big thing,” which partly fuels the global networks of conferences and master classes, and the airplanes and travel budgets (and Carbon output) that make those gatherings possible. And, as if that weren’t sufficiently disillusioning, we also have to acknowledge the existence of nepotistic citation rings and incestuously produced publications.
Of course we also have exchanges based on trust and altruism. We have editors and graphic designers who make beautiful publications; and volunteers who host fabulously productive and inspirational gatherings of like minds. And we develop new discourses that put scholars in conversation with practitioners and acknowledge both thinking and making as critical forms of knowledge-production. But I think we’re already pretty good at emphasizing the socially desirable aspects of what we do as scholars. Hence my curmudgeonly focus on the not-so-pretty hidden conventions and politics.
Yet these are all part of the mappable landscape of theory-making’s cultural techniques. And mapping it, I think, might help us to think more critically about the modes of academic “production” that New Theory represents. I’m a consummately optimistic person, but what I’ve often found, through these theoretical mappings, is that the liberal conceptions of “labor” and “knowledge” that many of our new theory movements actually embody quite often fail to match up with their professed politics. We’re so frequently advocating for more democratic, fluid, inclusive models of making and thinking in the world — yet the theories we’re building to make sense of these new modes are still built via “Great Man” – and I stress MAN – modes of production.
The issues of gender and sexual identity have cropped up in debates over what media archaeology is and could become. Laine Nooney from SUNY Stonbrook and Jacob Gaboury from NYU are doing wonderful dissertations in these areas. But I think a deeper and wider mapping of the “cultural techniques” or infrastructures that allow any new field of study, new method, new theoretical framework to develop and move around, offers up the possibility to design a discursive space with a political economy that’s more in line with the liberal values our theories espouse. It gives us an opportunity to imagine and construct the “infrastructures” and cultural techniques through which theory-making and “traveling” take place.
I was invited by Michael Cohen, director of The New School’s Graduate Program in International Affairs, and faculty member Margarita Gutman to join their “Urban Century” class this past Monday to talk about media-centric approaches to the city. Their themes for the evening were “culture and representation,” and my lecture was part of the “formality/informality” module of the course — so I had to find a way to integrate these various themes. I found an appropriate ground, I think, in “dataspaces,” which I interpreted in two ways: (1) dedicated spaces within the city where we create, store, route, and access data; and (2) the city itself a substrate for generating data about itself — data that then, often, feeds back into the reshaping of the city.
I’m posting my slides and notes — which I hope make sense, but might not — below:
DataSpaces: Informing the Urban Landscape
Inform = to animate, influence, shape
Inform, as in information – role of data, information, information given physical form in the shape of various media, information given intellectual form in the shape of knowledge, in shaping culture
How can we see these informational resources represented in our cultural and urban landscapes?
Inform, root of informal – Consider informal forms of data and data collection; informal ways in which that data or knowledge is represented in the landscape, etc.
We’ll consider two seemingly disparate, but related, topics:
First, we’ll examine a cultural institution that houses our data, gives it intellectual and architectural form, makes it manifest in the urban landscape
Takes existing knowledge, catalogues it, stores it, makes it accessible
Second, we’ll consider the city itself as a substrate for generating “knowledge” – specifically, knowledge about itself and its inhabitants, and informing its future information – by harvesting data, formally and informally, overtly and covertly, actively and passively
In the process, we’ll consider, I hope, what it means to translate urban culture into data – and, if we have a city constructed efficiently and algorithmically from data, what space it leaves for cultural practices and human representation
[SLIDE 2] Before we begin: What is/are data?
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in the information?
— T.S. Eliot, “The Rock,” 1934
[SLIDE 3] Data / Information / Knowledge / Wisdom Hierarchy
Credited to Russell Ackoff in his address accepting presidency of International Society for General Systems Research in 1989
David Weinberger takes issue with the model, which implies that one must “filter through” the lower levels in order to “take form as” higher levels of knowing
Regardless, in my talk, I’m going to use “data” as a shorthand for this entire intellectual rubric – but I want you to consider which epistemological “scale” we find embodied in our cultural institutions and cities at large
[SLIDE 4: BLANK] FIRST: THE LIBRARY
There are many ways in which data is given architectural form in the landscape:
[CLICK]Bundled, Buried video – Internet infrastructure
[SLIDE 5]60 Hudson
[SLIDE 6] Digital Beijing: control and data center for 2008 Olympics; then will become museum for digital products manufacturers
[SLIDE 7]IAC Bldg
[SLIDES 8-15]Melding “old” and “new” media: Paju Book City
[SLIDE 16] Similar analog-digital “bridging” challenge: NYPL
[SLIDE 17]Proposed Norman Foster renovations – entirely “formal” process, minimal public process
[SLIDE 18]My research on other cities’ libraries and their design processes
[SLIDE 19]Why spend millions of dollars on a downtown library building in the age of Google and Apple Stores? [CLICK] Does anybody believe libraries are a waste of taxpayer money? A misuse of good real-estate?
[CLICK]What formal and informal functions – particularly cultural functions – does the library continue to serve?
Important information services – particularly for those on the wrong side of the digital divide
Also provides info services for the “haves”: advocate for open access, preservation (of analog and digital, negotiating DRM
Incorporating public spaces
Incorporating spaces for making media – hackerspaces, fablabs
With each new Google product release, new mobile technology development, new e-reader launch brings new opportunities for the library to “innovate” in response. And while “keeping current” is a crucial goal, it’s important to place that “pursuit of currency” in a larger cultural, political-economic, and institutional context. Striving to stay technologically relevant can, in fact, backfire when it means merely responding to commercial media’s profit-driven innovations; we see these mistakes – technological innovation for technological innovation’s sake – in the education arena quite often.
It’s important that libraries keep sight of their long-term goals and time-honored values, which should remain steadfast regardless what Google decides to do tomorrow, and that they keep in close contact with their publics. In my book, I focused a great deal on how libraries involve and respond to their publics, and how they balance seemingly competing obligations: to “old” and “new” (and ever-“newer”) media, to public service and commerce, to staff and patrons. Other critics and scholars have paid attention to how libraries have long negotiated the tricky terrain between copyright (and, increasingly digital media rights management) and freedom of access, between preservation and innovation, etc.
Those challenges won’t go away.
They may manifest themselves in different forms week by week, but the basic provocations should be familiar. Libraries will be better positioned to face those challenges if they do so with their publics at their side – and that partnership requires the cultivation of a robust system of exchange and collaboration between libraries and the communities from which they emerge, and which they serve.
[SLIDE 21]Over a decade ago I wrote my dissertation on the design of Rem Koolhaas’s Seattle Public Library building, and I asked you to read an article that emerged from that research: “Just How Public Is the Seattle Public Library? Publicity, Posturing and Politics in Public Design” Journal of Architectural Education 57:1 (Fall 2003): 5-18
[SLIDE 22]How can libraries engage with their publics – through formal, institutional means?
Of course this question applies not only to libraries, but to myriad other cultural, and perhaps governmental / non-profit / etc. institutions – the kinds of institutions that many of you are probably working with, or aspire to work with. [CLICK]But how are libraries unique in their relationships to a city’s publics
[SLIDE 23]Important to note that the root of the term “data” is “given” – something that is given, shaped. The ways questions are asked thus inform potential responses.
[CLICK]How to manage the “data” one collects via public process?
Metaphors, rhetoric, use of design / [SLIDE24]presentation media in various formats (including models), experts’/authorities’ personas à all feed into management of media campaigns
Through collecting “data” from the public, you’re also building that public.
[SLIDE 25]Reference Perec’s “Species of Space” à I asked you to read “Marginalia: Little Libraries in the Urban Margins” Places (May 22, 2012).
[CLICK]How are DIY libraries different “species” of DataSpaces?
Consider the whole landscape of “pop-ups,” interventions, which, in some parts of the world isn’t as “Brooklyn” as it is a necessary [SLIDE 26] “informal urbanism”
[SLIDE 27]How might “informal” grassroots libraries generate “data” regarding how our institutional libraries can function more responsively, effectively, and efficiently?
Consider the values implied in these three adjectives. Which values are data usually marshaled in service of?
Obviously these questions are applicable to other kinds of “testbed” / prototype development projects.
[SLIDE 28]And this leads into our second section, where I’d like to explore – with you – how the city has come to be conceived as a generator of data, and as an object or site most efficiently designed via the processing of data. Your feedback will be particularly helpful here because I’m working on an article right now on data-fetishism in both formal and informal urban research. It’s part of a new column I’ll be writing for Places journal, and it’s due on Friday (she says sheepishly). You were asked to read some blogs posts in which I plant “seeds” of the ideas I’d like to address in this article (“Measurement Aesthetics” Words In Space [blog pos]
(April 24, 2013); “Solutionism by Another Name — or, When You’ve Got Algorithms Aplenty, the Whole World Looks Like Data” Words in Space [blog pos]
(April 11, 2013)).
[SLIDE 29]Lewis Mumford, in The City in History, writes:
Through its concentration of physical and cultural power, the city heightened the tempo of human intercourse and translated its products into forms that could be stored and reproduced. Through its monuments, written records, and orderly habits of association, the city enlarged the scope of all human activities, extending them backwards and forwards in time. By means of its storage facilities (buildings, vaults, archives, monuments, tablets, books), the city became capable of transmitting a complex culture from generation to generation, for it marshalled together not only the physical means but the / human agents needed to pass on and enlarge this heritage. That remains the greatest of the city’s gifts. As compared with the complex human order of the city, our present ingenious electronic mechanisms for storing and transmitting information are crude and limited.
Media theorist Friedrich Kittler points out that cities have historically been not only sites of storage and transmission, but also of data-processing and formatting.
[SLIDE 30: BLANK] Dan Hill, CEO of design studio Fabrica, formerly of Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund, and, before, that, Urban Informatics leader at Arup, the global engineering firm – and creator of the fabulous City of Sound blog, looks at the city’s data future:
[CLICK]Fast forward, and some have written of the this century’s cities developing new artificial nervous systems, to supersede those articulated metabolic systems of the 19th century. These newer nervous systems, not centralised but distributed, and predicated on digital networks of networks in which every object is informational and every movement or behaviour is trackable, could combine to form a new kind of lattice-like informational membrane, hovering magically over the physical fabric of the city. As if one of Calvino’s imaginary cities comprised solely of information, a limitless multidimensional data-based shadow structure represents the life of the city in real-time. (Dan Hill, “The Adaptive City”)
[SLIDE 31]Facilitated by networks of sensors, the data emerging from the new nervous system appears limitless: near-imperceptible variations in air quality and water quality, innumerable patterns in public and private traffic, results of restaurant inspections, voting patterns in public referenda, triggers of motion sensors, the output of heating ventilation and air conditioning systems, patterns of water usage, levels of waste recycled, genres of books returned at local libraries, location of bicycles in the city’s bike-sharing network, fluctuations in retail stock controls systems, engine data from cars and aeroplanes, collective listening habits of music fans, presence of mobile phones in vehicles enabling floating car data, digital photos and videos locked to spatial co-ordinates, live feeds from CCTV cameras, quantities of solar power generated and used by networks of lamp-posts, structural engineering data from the building information models of newly constructed architecture, complex groupings of friends perceptible in social software multiplied by location-based services, and so on. Myriad flows of data move in and around the built fabric. As many or most objects in the city become potential nodes in a wider network, enabled through the natural interoperability of systems influenced by the Internet and its open-source philosophies and standards-based protocols, this shimmering informational field provides a view of the entire city…
[SLIDE 32]We see much of this vision manifested in IBM’s and Cisco’s “smart city” developments.
[SLIDE 33][Yet, Hill continues,] “Urban information design emerges in a call-and-response relationship with informatics, filtering and describing these patterns for the benefit of citizens and machines. The invisible becomes visible, as the impact of people on their urban environment can be understood in real-time. Citizens turn off taps earlier, watching their water use patterns improve immediately. …Road systems can funnel traffic via speed limits and traffic signals in order to route around congestion. …Citizens can not only explore proposed designs for their environment, but now have a shared platform for proposing their own. They can plug in their own data sources, effectively hacking the model by augmenting or processing the feeds they’re concerned with.”
Thus, even in our over-designed smart cities we have the potential to “hack” the official urban network with informally-derived data.
Still, it seems to me, even if we “citizens” are generating the data – [SLIDE 34] via citizen science projects, infrastructural tourism fieldwork, [SLIDE 35] hackathons, etc. – we’re still facing our urban problems with algorithmic tools. Are we falling prey to an “instrumental realism”? A naïve empiricism? Or what Evgeny Morozov calls [SLIDE 36] “solutionism”: a “[r]ecasting [of] all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized – if only the right algorithms are in place!” What happens to all the messy “cultural” stuff in a city modeled for algorithmically-tuned efficiency?
What does our fetishization of data, either “official or informal” – our methodolatry – say about how we conceive of our cities?