“Stacks, Platforms, Interfaces: A Field Guide to Information Spaces” @ Pratt, ACRL, Yale

I was invited to speak about “information spaces” at the 2017 Association of College and Research Libraries conference in Baltimore on March 23, 2017. I tested my talk at Pratt, as part of their Pratt ALA speaker series on March 9, then reprised the talk at the Yale School of Architecture, as part of their “Spatial Metaphors” symposium, on March 31. This was a tough one: I tried to speak to practicing librarians and archivists, LIS students, and architects — and to balance my obligations to the ACRL, who asked me to discuss library spaces and my library-related classes, and to the Yale folks, who asked me to address spatial metaphors and the potential applications of some pretty highbrow theory.

Long story short: this talk’s a Frankenstein. I aimed to impart some consistent graphic identity through the slides — which took me, like, a thousand hours — to help make it all cohere. I hope it works! You’ll find everything below:

Stacks, Platforms + Interfaces: A Field Guide to Information Spaces

Because I am not a librarian, and I’m new to this conference, I thought I’d start by telling you a little bit about myself. I work on information architectures and infrastructures, and the media we create to try to make sense of those complex systems. [2] I’ve written a few books – one on library design, another on maps, and a third on the loooong history of cities as mediated places. But I much prefer writing essays; I’ve written articles and book chapters about everything from [3] pneumatic tubes to index cards, [4] from sound archives to multisensory exhibition design, [5] from library logistics to the history of bookshelves and server racks. [6] I also occasionally find myself working with designers and programmers on library design, information architecture, and exhibition projects. And I teach courses at The New School, in New York, on [7] maps, [8] sound, [9] architecture, [10] smart cities, and [11] the history, politics, and aesthetics of organizing information in various material and immaterial forms.

Speaking of organizing information…: [12]: the field guide as a genre has long fascinated me. [13] As a kid, I crafted colored-pencil-and-masking-tape “field guides” to flora indigenous to Central Pennsylvania – particularly the region within a 20-minute bike ride of my house. [14] I built little wunderkammern of tree nuts and all the interesting seashells I collected on our beach vacations. When I moved to New York in 1998, my “field” transformed dramatically. I began collecting a new genus of guide: [15] directories to notable architecture and the city’s best ethnic food. As I became more and more amazed that New York “worked,” that it didn’t simply succumb to entropy, [16] I turned my attention to the city’s infrastructural systems – its subways and electric networks and telecommunications systems – [17] and I taught a class in which we dug into the city’s archives to map its historic media networks and created a “field guide” of sorts to their layered histories.

(18) In recent years we’ve witnessed the arrival of guides to all kinds of enigmatic systems that exceed our capacity for empirical exploration: container shipping, Internet infrastructure, drones, and even algorithms. There seems to be something resonant, perhaps even reassuring, about a document that tells us precisely where something as big and amorphous as The Cloud lives. [19] So, a couple years ago, I decided to situate all these recent variations on the theme in relation to the field guide’s long history as a publication form, an epistemological structure, and an embodiment of colonialist ideology. [20] I aimed to show that those 18th-century herbaceous handbooks and 19th-century bird bibles reflected a desire to know, and a way of knowing, that inform our contemporary curiosities about infrastructural landscapes and digital domains.

(21) The guide is a necessarily reductive format, but it offers a convenient means to situate oneself in a new and shifting terrain – [22] much like the ground we find ourselves standing on today. So that’s why I figured I’d use my time with you to share a sort of “performative” field guide to the spatial topologies of our contemporary information ecology – more specifically, the habitat in which our libraries reside. [23] You’ve undoubtedly encountered a few such guides to librarianship and libraries over the years.[1] But I hope to offer a new framing: one that connects the field outside your field – [24] one defined by geopolitics, activated by information, inhabited by architecture, shaped by media technologies – to the field inside your library buildings. I’ll examine how that expansive habitat shapes the spaces you work in; how environmental shifts inform morphology, if you will.

(25) The traditional field guide is often criticized for its lack of broader context. Birding historian Spencer Schaffner laments the “binocular vision” of most guides: their tendency to “sanitize the representations of birds” and to focus on individual specimens, rather than their relationship to their habitats, to other creatures, or to us.[2]Guides rarely offer a discussion of the larger systemic factors contributing to the evolution or endangerment of the specimens under examination. [26] Recognizing, and aiming to rectify, those limitations, we’ll begin our field guide with an examination of today’s libraries’ spatial habitat, mapped expansively.


(27) It wasn’t long ago that we still imagined ourselves living in a post-national world – a world of free trade agreements and supranational coalitions, of World Cups and Star Alliances and global villages, of boundary-defying flows of media and capital. We were digital nomads traversing a flat globe. So much for that. [28] Not only have we recognized the privilege inherent in those fluid spatial models, but we’ve also learned that, even for those with access to all the right passports and protocols, globalism isn’t a universal aspiration. Nationalism is back. Or, rather, strains of nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism have proven themselves quite resilient. They’ve long been simmering outside our liberal urban centers and mainstream media.

(29) We’ve also recognized that some information doesn’t really want to be free – and that our globe-enveloping Web is actually segmented into terrains defined by data sovereignty, censorship, surveillance practices, and restrictive copyright policies. Even clouds are beholden to terrestrial geopolitics. [30] Meanwhile, walls, borders, and checkpoints – which some of us likely assumed had long ago been vaporized, metaphorized, into the digital realm – are again showing their resolute, architectural materiality.

To comprehend this convoluted terrain, we wield mixed spatial metaphors. [31] Those mental models are propped up on long-standing internationalist hopes, colonialist visions, neoliberal ambitions, and Silicon Valley reveries of freedom, openness, and opportunity. [32] And at the same time they’re anchored by weary refugee bodies, crumbling infrastructures, tariffs, and regulations, all of which make our “flows” a lot more viscous. [33] It’s notable that many of the prevailing spatial theories of our time embrace the unevenness, the mixtures of smoothness and striation, we find in our physical and digital landscapes. [34] For example, architectural theorist Keller Easterling’s zones – free trade zones, special economic zones, and the like – are legal and economic spatial instruments operating both alongside and outside of the state, exempt from many of its laws and obligations.[3] [35] Then we have “the stack,” which is of course a long-standing conceptual model in various technical fields. [36] But Benjamin Bratton presents his version of the stack as an “accidental,” planetary-scale “megastructure” scaffolding both technical and governmental operations, comprised of everything from hardware and software, to physical architectures and natural resources.[4] [37] We’ve also seen a lot of recent interest in supply chains and logistics, the art-and-science of managing flows across uneven terrains.[5] [38] And philosopher Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy – which began in 2011 with a treatise on the intimacy of Bubbles (a term with new resonance in today’s epistemological universe), [39] then continued in 2014 with a study of Globes – has recently culminated with [40] a work on “foams,” which exist ontologically in-between bubbles and globes.[6] A foam is essentially a globule of bubbles; and a “foamy” terrain is an agglomeration of individual, intimate capsules, islands, and conservatories.

(41) Contemporary spatial theory is grappling with migrant flows, cloud geographies, nomadic infrastructures, informal urbanisms, post-planetary topographies, anthropocenic landscapes, extreme and marine terrains, indigenous cartographies, feminist and post-human geographies. None of this readily lends itself to representation in [42] your standard Peterson field guide or grade-school wall map – yet that’s precisely where our elected officials seem to be plotting out foreign affairs. In the past few months, we’ve observed strained rhetorical realignments of territory, policy, and governance. [43] A new regime is “taking back” the country, securing our borders, protecting us from dangerous refugees hailing from six predominantly Muslim countries. Our leaders are saving our “inner cities” both from and forall the people of color who live there. Governance, from the global to the local scale, is a matter of neoliberal “deal-making.” These are the “metaphors [our leaders and legislators now] live by.”[7]

(44) On the ground, meanwhile, many folks are working off a much more nuanced map, with a much more robust spatial typology. [45] They’re creating “sites of exception,” like protest camps, assemblages of dissent, safe spaces, and sanctuary cities and campuses – many of which are species of space distinguished by protected flows of information.[8] Common among many of the spatial models I’ve mentioned thus far is a recognition that space is defined – delimited, activated, infused – by and with data.

(46) We’ve also seen the power of misinformation and misleading metaphors to partition spaces and communities, to create epistemological camps, “filter bubbles” and separate partisan discourse networks. In response to this splintering, many information professionals, educators, scholars, journalists and other public advocates have vowed to [47] reinvigorate and reinvent the pedagogical tradition of “media [or information] literacy,” long buried under the avalanche of STEM education.[9] News organizations have created special “confidential tip” hotlines. Archivists, librarians, and concerned scholars have joined forces to save threatened government datasets and websites.[10]

(48) Today’s information politics are often about undoing modernist spatial models – hacking the neatly ordered stack, finding “back doors,” exploiting structural vulnerabilities, weighing the risks and values of circumventing barriers one knows to be unjust. Ours is the age of WikiLeaks and Panama Papers, of rogue national park Twitter feeds and state-sponsored hacking, of dark webs and doxxing, of virtual private networks and encrypted streams, of the Google Cultural Institute and citizen archivists. [49] If you’ll pardon the mixed metaphors, we might say that “foaming up” around us are new information “zones” and “channels” – an insurgent logistics – designed either to defend or destroy the free flow of information, to reinforce or infiltrate boundaries.[11] Geographer Deb Cowen calls such sites and systems “fugitive infrastructures,” which are “assembled to do different things, for different people, and according to different systems of value. In doing all this, they offer a different orientation to space, time, and legality.”[12]

(50) This is the habitat in which our libraries operate. What morphological traits have they adopted in adapting to these conditions? And what new shapes and spatial forms might they evolve into?


(51) Over the past century and a half, the library has been conceived variously, and often simultaneously, as a clinic, a cathedral, an anchor, a bridge, the people’s university, a laboratory, an office, a warehouse, a bazaar, a shelter, and so forth.[13] That is not to say that they’ve taken on the form or appearance of these other species of space, but that there’s something comparable in their operation or ethos. This cycling through of metaphors is not merely a matter of semantics or poetics, of course. [52] Metaphors shape policy and modes of governance. They inform how we define and design our institutional missions, services, publics, collections, and orientation within broader intellectual, cultural, and political ecologies. As Lackoff and Johnson remind us, metaphors unite “reason and imagination,” and newmetaphors “are capable of creating new understandings and, therefore, new realities.”[14] What I’m aiming to do here is not to extend this long-running debate over whether the library is a “cathedral” or a “clinic,” but to translate contemporary spatial metaphors into morphologies – to see how they’ve been materialized and spatialized in the library, and how new spatial models might conjoin reason and imagination to produce new realities.

(53) Architectural design projects afford institutions an unparalleled opportunity to grapple with hard questions about their missions and values, publics and program, and to concretize their answers to those questions in physical form. In what follows, I’ll highlight several library design projects that have afforded institutions and communities opportunities to tackle changes in the field: to embrace new technologies, pedagogies and epistemologies, even to engage with new cultural and political forces in the world.

(54) Yet it’s a great privilege to be able to work in facilities that perfectly express our ideals and perfectly accommodate our preferred modes of working. Not every college or community enjoys such opportunity. Not every library building is an ideal specimen. Nor does the provision of vital library collections and services depend on fancy, expensive design. [55] So, we’ll also discuss ways that our libraries-as-they-are – in all their imperfection, without all the ornate plumage – can adapt modestly in response to our shifting climates and evolving fields of operation. Any library specimen, we’ll see, has the potential to serve as an object lesson: as a model of the intellectual literacies, ethical engagement, and sustainable practices we want to see in the world. Any library space can offer us opportunities to learn both in and from it – that is, both from the resources in its collections and staff; and from the building itself, as a pedagogical device.

(56) We’ll take a look at three different morphologies that libraries have both adopted in response to their evolving field of operations, and that they’ve adapted torespond to those environmental changes (not, as the title of my talk implied, stacks, platforms + interfaces – but pretty close!). We’ll also consider some speculative morphologies that libraries could adopt as they both engage with the precarious, nefarious conditions of the world, and offer a vital space apart from it.


(57) First, the platform: In 2012 two Davids – Lankes and Weinberger – called for libraries to recognize themselves as platforms. [15] Platform, as you likely know, is a term of art in the tech world: a base upon which developers create new applications and technologies. While Lankes’s conception embraced the library’s myriad facets, physical and digital, as tools for transformation, [58] Weinberg’s model hewed to the techy vision: he wanted libraries to open up their digital content and metadata in order to enable to production of new products and services. We see examples of such work in the Library Innovation Lab, which Weinberger himself once directed at the Harvard Law School; and in the late, great NYPL Labs. MIT’s recent “Future of Libraries” task force report likewise calls for the library to lead in the creation of a “networked set of global platforms replete with content, data, metadata, images, audio files, laboratory notebooks, course materials, and more”; a “repository of knowledge and data that can be exploited and analyzed by humans, machines, and algorithms” [16]

(59) The platform – in many of these models, and in much entrepreneurial and technological discourse – is conceived as a virtual entity, whose parts consist of databases and interfaces and the liminal zones of middleware. But what are its morphologies, its spatial demands, aside from servers and workstations for all the staff? “A library as platform,” Weinberger argues, “is more how than where, more hyperlinks than container, more hubbub than hub.” [60] But building and maintaining a virtual platform for hyperlinks and hubbub is a labor- and expertise- and storage- intensive endeavor. What’s more, if you make that platform public-facing – and you recognize that the library is a venue for the collective creation, preservation, and dissemination of knowledge in myriad forms – we start recognizing that platforms create new programmatic and spatial demands.

(61) The library-as-a-generative-platform is not a new concept: the ancient Library of Alexandria, part of a larger museum with botanical gardens, laboratories, living quarters and dining halls, was a platform not only for the translation and copying of myriad texts and the compilation of a magnificent collection, but also for the launch of works by Euclid, Archimedes, and their peers. [62] In the progressive era, the public library was a platform for uplift and enlightenment (and all the hegemonic baggage that came along with those pursuits). [63] Over the past several years, it seemed, when one heard the word “platform,” the phrases “makerspace” or “fab lab” weren’t long to follow.

I imagine you’ve all heard about Chattanooga’s widely celebrated 4th floor, a 12,000-square-foot “public laboratory and educational facility” and tech incubator; [64] Brooklyn Public Library’s Levy Info Commons; [65] and the Chicago Public Library’s pop-up maker lab, a collaboration with the Museum of Science and Industry, with the now-familiar equipment list: open-source design software, laser cutters, a milling machine, and (of course) 3D printers — not one, but three. [66] Last year we were introduced to the paradigmatic platform: Dokk1 in Aarhus, by Schmidt hammer lassen, winner of the International Federal of Library Associations and Institutions’ 2016 Public Library of the Year Award. It features a media ramp that spirals through the building and connects platforms dedicated to exhibitions, gaming, interactive workshops, reading and special events.

(67) I’m quite sure you’re familiar, too, with North Carolina State University’s Hunt Library, with its maker-space, [68] GameLab; [69] visualization, theatrical, and musical production studios, usability lab, and various other production labs and studios; [70] immersion theater, and [71] Technology Showcase. [72] Snohetta, Hunt’s architects, are now designing for Temple University a library with many of the same features. Of course, with all these new platforming activities come new spatial requirements. Library buildings have to address structural engineering and ventilation, and incorporate a wide variety of furniture arrangements, lighting designs, and acoustical conditions. [73] The purported payoff of all this effort and investment is that the library becomes a platform for both knowledge consumption and production, both thinking and making.

(74) A few years ago, I worried that we were blowing the “innovation” of such tech-forward programmatic spaces way out of proportion. [75] It seemed that we were often glossing over the instrumentalism of maker-hood, and the neoliberal values these technologies sometimes embody.  It seemed that some folks had forgotten that we didn’t need expensive, bleeding-edge technology and dedicated labs to “platform” anything; [76] critical “making” could happen in an old-school print shop, in a campus radio station, a laptop loaded with open-source software –or even around a seminar table, to which contributors bring nothing but their brains and voices.

(77) Fortunately, the discourse has shifted in recent years. Librarians, administrators, and faculty have found new ways to position these platforms as part of our libraries’ epistemological and pedagogical frameworks. [78] MIT’s recent task force report is exemplary in explaining how the university’s technological resources and expertise should be both reflected in its collections and used to facilitate broader access to, and make more expansive use of, those collections. What’s more, the task force acknowledges that a well-resourced library within a well-resourced university has an opportunity, and perhaps even an obligation, to serve as global platform to elevate other institutions. [79] One other example: I’m fortunate to serve on the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council; which has long provided digitization services to its roughly 280 member organizations and served as New York’s service hub for the Digital Public Library of America. But the council also serves as a physical meeting spot for nearly 20 special interest groups, whose interests range from social justice to web archiving. [80] And Metro’s new headquarters features plenty of spaces for members to host events and gather, as well as a studio for demo’s and workshops featuring new tools and software, a podcasting booth, and a file-transfer station – resources that some member organizations might not be inclined to, or might not have the means to, exploit on their own. So, Metro is fashioning itself as a knowledge and service hub.


(81) Providing strong epistemic and political-economic framing for the library-as-platform – encompassing myriad forms of knowledge-production, presentation, and dissemination – requires that the library be able to orient itself within a habitat reshaped by all those geopolitical and informational changes we discussed earlier. Those same forces – global supply chains and geo-engineering, financial speculation and cloud computing – have likewise called for new epistemic frames within a variety of academic disciplines and in popular discourse. [82] The concept of “infrastructure” has proven particular useful. Over the past several years, we’ve witnessed the rise of several scholarly studies – and, as I noted earlier, even popular field guides – to cloud computing, global logistics, surveillance, secret ops, e-waste, energy, you name it. Infrastructure has proven a productive and capacious framework.

(83) Various infrastructures serve as the metaphorical skeletal, circulatory, and digestive systems of our libraries: these are facilities composed of plumbing and wiring and ventilation systems, of stacks and network architectures. [84] But as sociologists Susan Leigh Star and Geoffrey Bowker remind us, infrastructures also extend to intellectual and institutional operations, including measurement standards, naming conventions, classification systems, technical protocols and bureaucratic forms.[17] Libraries have it all; they are, we might say, the infrastructural apotheosis.

(85) A few years ago I wrote an essay about libraries as infrastructures – or, rather, as “networks of integrated, mutually reinforcing, evolving infrastructures: architectural, technological, social, epistemological, and ethical.”[18] I offered the infrastructure model as an alternative to the “library as platform” metaphor, which, I argued, smacked a bit of Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism. Start-up values don’t always mesh with those of the library. [86] What’s more, the term “platform” evokes an image of a flat, 2-D stage on which other people can build stuff. That generativity is great, but it’s also important to know what’s holding up the stage – what “givens” are built into the scaffoldings and protocols that constitute the base on which staff and patrons can operate.

(87) Particularly since the presidential election, we’ve come to realize that many of our cultural “givens,” those presumably shared values, aren’t axiomatic after all; and, furthermore, that many of the infrastructures critical to our democratic values are in precarious condition. [88] Individual librarians and professional organizations have issued bold statements and manifestos about their commitment to openness, accessibility, diversity, equity, privacy, social responsibility, and free intellectual inquiry and expression – [89] and some have explicitly acknowledged the palpable misalignment of these core values with those of a regime averse to civil discourse, facts, and reason.[19]

(90) Understanding those scaffoldings and protocols beneath our platforms (further down the technical stack) is, arguably, just as important as being able to generate beautiful visualizations and text-mining tools to process the data that lie atop our library platforms. [91] Such an expanded pedagogical mission is encompassed in the ACRL’s 2016 “Framework for Information Literacy” (which I realize has not been without controversy).[20] That framework addresses “the reflective discovery of information, the understanding of how information is produced and valued, and the use of information in creating new knowledge and participating ethically in communities of learning.”[21] It recognizes that information creation is a process; that authority is constructed and contextual; and that knowledge is not pure and nonpartisan, but is instead shaped by money, power, and privilege. [92] These propositions have become maxims in in today’s political discourse (I mean, just look at this mess!), which makes critical information literacy that much more crucial. Tracing the production process, and following the money and power, require looking under the platform at the infrastructures propping it up.

(93) The library’s spaces can serve as object lessons, pedagogical devices, in promoting infrastructural and information literacies. Students making use of Temple University’s or Connecticut College’s new visualization screens, for example, could explore not only the data, but also the methods and software and hardware, behind slick data visualizations, allowing them to reverse-engineer palatably presented truth claims [94] But you don’t need big screens to deconstruct a data visualization; tiny screens, or even Post-Its, will do. [95] Offering students a peek into the automated book storage and delivery systems at North Carolina and Grand Valley State, the University of Chicago, or Liberty University could pique their interest in robotics and AI. [96] Even less-sexy static stacks might prompt questions about collection management strategies and classification: about whose voices and what disciplines are afforded privileged positions, and which are relegated to off-site storage, for example.[22] [97] Such design elements, even of the most mundane variety, can pose material questions about the conventions of visual representation and classification and methodology.

(98) Meanwhile, several recently redesigned libraries have incorporated teaching gardens on their roofs and patios, and have proposed incorporating interfaces to building information management systems and environmental monitors, so students can use the building itself as a lab for sustainable infrastructural management. Here, building-infrastructure-as-teaching-tool has the potential to reframe environmental science and climate change, thought by some to be a Chinese conspiracy, into an immediately palpable phenomenon. As they pose questions through their material infrastructures, these facilities scaffold spaces of critique and embodied learning.

(99) Yet of course libraries aren’t the only spaces where such critical literacies are espoused. Libraries are part of larger infrastructural ecologies – networks of sites in which spatial, technological, intellectual and social infrastructures shape and inform one another. Public libraries have to consider their position in relation to other social support services and educational and cultural institutions. On college campuses, academic librarians also have to consider their relationship to different academic departments and labs, and to allied services and programs. Both need to consider context.

(100) As “libraries” have become “information commons” and “learning centers” – Grand Valley State University’s Mary Idema Pew Library Learning and Information Commons has decided to do it all – we’re often finding, mixed in with the stacks and seats, more writing and tutoring and advising centers, math emporia, tech help desks, distance-learning rooms – a variety of infrastructures that accommodate the entire lifecycle of the research and intellectual development process. [101] The University of Pennsylvania libraries’ Weigle Information Commons, which supports collaborative activities with space and technology, partners with a variety of parallel organizations offering student services: the writing, public speaking, and tutoring centers; undergraduate advisors; the computer center; the Weingarten Learning Resources Center; the Center for Teaching and Learning; the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships; and Career Services. [102] Alongside the makerspace and innovation lab at Temple University, the architects plan to incorporate a writing center, a digital scholar’s studio, a math and science center, a graduate scholars’ studio, and classrooms. [103] And Grand Valley’s library features a Knowledge Market (we might question the implications of that name), a peer-to peer-consulting service that helps students with research, writing, and presentation skills, and through its Data Inquiry Lab, promotes data literacy. [23]

(104) The Coalition of Networked Information’s Joan Lippincott argues that the library is a natural home for such media-production facilities and labs and support services, because, as a unit, it “serves all of the institution’s disciplines”; some departments and programs simply don’t have the resources to provide such tools and services for themselves. “Often faculty and students don’t realize what specialized technologies and expertise is available in the library,” Lippincott says, and she suggests that the library space can be designed to highlight the its technological and support resources – and to highlight librarians’ capacity to help faculty provide an appropriate “epistemic infrastructure” and pedagogical framework for all forms of knowledge-production, both high and low-tech, across the curriculum. [105] Where these particular functional units are placed within the library, and what adjacencies are exploited, says a lot about how the library embodies the life of the mind (one that’s housed in a body), how it conceives of the relationship between different pedagogies and student services, and how it gives shape to students’ personal development.

(106) Yet we don’t need dedicated virtual-reality labs and robots to promote informational and infrastructural literacy. If an institution is fortunate to have such facilities, it would do well to reflect on the ACRL’s information literacy frameworks, and acknowledge the power and privilege – and commercial technological dependencies – such resources represent. Cultivating critical thinking does not require expensive, proprietary technologies. In fact, such privileges, if not acknowledged as such, can be a detriment to the valuable empathic dimension of information literacy. [107] In a poignant piece she wrote shortly before the inauguration, social media scholar danah boyd lamented the failures of traditional media literacy – and the blind spots introduced by her own privilege as a scholar at an elite university. “Media literacy asks people to raise questions and be wary of information that they’re receiving,” boyd writes. And “[p]eople are [doing just tha]
. [108] Unfortunately, that’s exactly why we’re talking past one another…” [24] The recent election has driven home the fact – again, acknowledged in the ACRL’s frameworks – that expertise and epistemology, trust and respect are constructed differently in different communities. Those differences sort themselves out into a balkanized public sphere and partisan “bubbles.”

(100) Relying on Facebook or Buzzfeed or the Russian government! – or even librarians – to flag fake news isn’t enough, boyd says.

We need to enable people to hear different perspectives and make sense of a very complicated – and…overwhelming – information landscape. We cannot fall back on standard educational approaches…[or] assume that information intermediaries can fix the problem for us… [110] We need to get creative and build the social infrastructure necessary for people to meaningfully and substantively engage across existing structural lines.[25]

Libraries have long served as social infrastructures for those in search of intellectual camaraderie, for the disenfranchised and marginalized, for communities in crisis. And many libraries are “getting creative,” fashioning themselves as social infrastructures to confront and repair our civic rifts.


(111) This is where we transition to our third morphological form, the zone. We’re co-opting this species of space from Keller Easterling, to whom I introduced you about 25 minutes ago. [112] Easterling’s zone, the free trade zone, is a space of juridical and political-economic exception – an optimized, segregated enclave immune to local regulations and taxes, a space of secrecy and segregation. As Easterling describes it, it’s an emblem of the collapse of civil society and social responsibility.

(113) But what if that collapse is endemic to the whole habitat? Given that our political terrain, media landscapes, and cultural climate are so tragically polluted, perhaps we can reframe Easterling’s zone not as an enclave of corruption, but as a site of aspiration, of ethical exception. The library-as-zone could represent another “fugitive infrastructure,” which, you’ll remember, is “assembled to do different things, for different people, and according to different systems of value” – values defined not by profit, by the “growth machine,” by protectionism or patriarchy. [26] [114] Libraries can even serve as zones of resistance to dominant epistemological and pedagogical goals; they might offer alternatives to the institutionalization and naturalization of disciplinary divisions and the commodification of knowledge. [27] In embracing democratic values and ideals of social justice under threat in our broader culture, the library might represent a haven, a sanctuary, in which we can creatively re-envision and nurture our social and intellectual infrastructures.

(115) I’ve come to learn over the years that librarians are often a sober, acutely self-critical bunch, quick to acknowledge their institution’s failures, hypocrisies, and ignoble histories. So I feel compelled to note that framing the library as a zone of exception – or, if you’d prefer a more modest metaphor, [116] a Sloterdijkian “foam” unifying disparate cultural “bubbles” – needn’t be a hubristically heroic affair. Rather than building a utopia, you’re making cultural “insulation” – whatever metaphor works for you.

(117) Consider the Skokie Public Library’s CIVIC LAB, a space dedicated to building civic discourse around major issues: Black Lives Matter, climate change, immigration and executive orders, income inequality, LGBTQIA issues. After the election, they discussed “what Americans should know to be civically and culturally literate.” [28] Skokie’s librarians have curated mini-collections of multi-format materials examining these issues from a variety of perspectives, and for a range of age groups. They’ve created resource lists and designated a wall where patrons can vote on the salience of particular issues in their own lives. They’ve hosted a series of ongoing conversations, and organized workshops that let people know how to reach out to their elected officials. Some events even feature those local officials. Skokie’s lab lives in the corner of the library’s audio-visual space, and its conversations pop-up in various locations throughout the library. Its physical infrastructure consists mostly of standard library shelves, post-its, and chairs for interlocutors to sit in. Nothing fancy. What could academic librarians do in their own facilities – or what are they already doing – to build connections between civic engagement and critical information literacy in their own communities? [29]

I have one idea. [118] Archives and special collections are exceptional zones within the library that, despite the non-immediacy of their collections and the deliberate friction in their operating procedures, speak urgently to our contemporary concerns about the making of facts and authority. [119] They reveal which voices and whose artifacts get to constitute history; they show how certain people’s material cultural heritage is then transformed into widely accessible digital resources; [120] they highlight the labor and expertise through which resources are preserved and processed, and through which data are encoded and made accessible to researchers from around the world. Recalling the ACRL’s frameworks, they (and their knowledgeable staff, of course) offer a window onto information creation and valuation as a process, and they have the potential to reveal the systems of power and privilege that shape those processes.

The architecture of the archive and special collections can support these pedagogical goals. [121] Making space in the special collection for greater public access – both for a greater variety of publics, and a greater variety of aesthetic experiences, as many libraries have recently done – opens up the collection to innovative uses and unanticipated applications. [122] Special collection and rare book conservation spaces also have their own pedagogical potential. [123] When I’ve taken my students – those mythical “digital natives” – to various institutions, they’ve been fascinated by the intricate, embodied labor involved in conservation. [124] And even the material work of preserving the digital – of practicing digital forensics, making sure to regularly spin the back-up hard drives, or reformatting video archives to keep pace with evolving file formats – is illuminating for students (when I shared this presentation with Pratt students, they suggested highlighting the digital labor of federated platforms, like DPLA, too). What’s more, making this activity visible has the potential to manifest, and thereby advocate for, the critical, specialized work that takes place in special collections and digital archives.

(125) Consider also spaces of exhibition. [126] In recent renovation projects several institutions have added exhibition space or upgraded their exhibition areas, or placed exhibits outside the special collections “security perimeter,” so as to potentially draw in visitors who wouldn’t otherwise be compelled to enter. [127] If you don’t have a dedicated gallery, even a simple vitrine will do. Such exhibitions, elaborate or modest, not only highlight collection materials, but they also have the potential to model scholarly methodology and intellectual frameworks; they can show students how to put objects in conversation with one another and make inferences or draw conclusions from historical texts and primary resources.

(128) At the risk of romanticizing the archives, which I realize humanities scholars are wont to do, much to your likely annoyance, I’ll say that archives and special collections require a different mode and pace and spirit of engagement than does, say, a JStor search or a 3D-printing session. [129] Libraries offer an array of such zones, which remind us that there are myriad ways for us to use our minds and bodies, to engage with others and with ideas. A library constitutes an assemblage of arenas for the performance of various subjectivities and the validation of different methodologies and epistemologies. [130] Consider Johns Hopkins’s Brody Learning Commons in Eisenhower Library, which features a mix of group and solitary zones, reading spaces and tech labs, a café, as well as the university’s Rare Books and Manuscripts collection and a conservation lab. [131] Among the most popular spaces in the Commons is the 100-seat Quiet Reading Room featuring a fantastic “cabinet of curiosities” installation by Mark Dion, (132) representing the assemblage of tools through which knowledge can be made.

(133) In 2012, the University of Pennsylvania opened its Education Commons in an oddly shaped “leftover” space under the bleachers of Franklin Field Stadium. Architect Joel Sanders designed a series of “micro-climates” with “different degrees of acoustic, visual, and spatial enclosure.” We find here a study hall with a variety of furnishing options and a color scheme that references the grassy field outside, and 11 glassed-in meeting rooms – above all of which floats a “cloud” concealing mechanical and lighting equipment. I just love the Cartesian symbolism here: a cloud of knowledge – an oasis of calm and quiet – under the carnal cacophony of the football field. [134] I imagine that many of your leftover spaces are more dungeon than cloud. But even with minimal investment, they can be made into functional “micro-climates” that expand the means by which your library ergonomically accommodates the sensing-and-making body, intellectually supports the thinking-and-sensing mind, and brings people together into a society.

(135) The library’s morphology can help to guide researchers and students through these environments. It can encourage them to try on the different subjectivities, ideologies, and epistemologies accommodated in its various zones; to explore and critically assess the intertwined infrastructures through which knowledge gets made and collected and disseminated; to exploit the library’s technological and architectural platforms in their own knowledge-production. But there’s only so much the building can do alone. Another critical species in this habitat – one in mostly mutualistic relationship with the library – [136] is the librarian. The library is the primary habitat for librarians, and it should provide the conditions for them to do what they’re best equipped to do. How can we ensure that these spaces allow librarians to do their best work; that our libraries are, to quote Vitruvius, commodious, firm, and delightful workspaces?

(137) In a 2014 symposium on the future of academic libraries, Chris Bourg issued the following advice: “[Y]ou should ensure that your vision for the future of research/academic libraries prominently features librarians – both symbolically and literally. Design spaces and services that showcase the full range of expertise of your librarians.” [30] How we might design library spaces that serve as “architectural ambassadors” – as well as orientation tools – to library collections and services and to librarians? [138] How can we use the library as a teaching tool, to help students and faculty and visiting scholars appreciate the wealth of expertise that librarians possess – and the wealth of resources and services that their libraries have to offer? [139] How might librarians deterritorialize and reassemble the library’s parts to allow for new work patterns, new services, new applications – perhaps even “fugitive infrastructures” of information and education – to emerge?[31] [140] How might librarians and their partners push the institution to adopt new morphologies, new material assemblages, so that it can not only respond to, but might also help to reshape and repair its wounded habitat?

(141) I’ve read plenty of blog posts and articles from librarians arguing that the library simply has too much baggage – it’s too deeply steeped in its colonialist, patriarchal, and white supremacist histories; inextricably entangled in neoliberal agendas – to serve as a zone of resistance, as a fugitive infrastructure, a platform for emancipation.[32] [142] Yet I know of few other institutions that are more self-aware and self-critical of their injustices, both past and present. [143] Few places more knowledgeable about where we can find the evidentiary and historical anchors we need to reground our discourse in reason, empathy, and care. [144] I know of few other places or people better equipped to set the groundwork for all those reconciling and recalibrating discussions that need to happen. Few institutions that are themselves, essentially, architectural and programmatic “field guides” to finding our better selves in a reckless, uncivil world. There are few institutions in which I, for one, have more faith. [145]

[1] Laura Damon-Moore and Erinn Batykefer, The Artist’s Library: A Field Guide (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2014); David Lankes, The New Librarianship Field Guide(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016); Bryce Nelson, The Academic Library Administrator’s Field Guide (ALA Editions, 2014); Mita Williams, “Hackerspaces, Makerspaces, Fab Labs, TechShops, Incubators, Accelerators … Where Do Libraries Fit In?” New Jack Librarian (February 2, 2015),

[2] Spencer Schaffner, Binocular Vision: The Politics of Representation in Birdwatching Field Guides (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011): 3.

[3] Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (New York: Verso, 2014).

[4] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2015).

[5] Jesse LeCavalier, The Rule of Logistics: Walmart and the Architecture of Fulfillment (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2016); Clare Lyster, Learning from Logistics: How Networks Change our Cities (Basel: Birkhäuser, 2016); Ned Rossiter, Software, Infrastructure, Labor: A Media Theory of Logistical Nightmares (New York: Routledge, 2016).

[6] Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles Spheres (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011); Globes Spheres II (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2014); Foams Spheres III (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).

[7] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1980] 2003).

[8] Lisa Peet, “Academic Libraries Respond to Immigration Ban,” Library Journal (February 2, 2017):

[9] See Shannon Mattern, “Public In/Formation,” Places Journal (November 2016),, as well as Marcus Banks, “Fighting Fake News,” American Libraries (December 27, 2016),; danah boyd, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” Medium: Points (January 5, 2017), See also Day of Facts,; the Trust Project,; the February 2017 MisInfoCon,; and the NYC Media Lab and Daily News Innovation Lab’s fake news conversation, Brian Kelley warns against using the terms “information of media literacy” in such programming; instead, he says, librarians need to engage patrons “where they are,” and to infuse pedagogy into organic interactions with online materials (Brian Kenney, “Three Critical Issues Facing Librarians in Trump’s America,” Publishers Weekly, January 13, 2017,

[10] Zoë Schlanger, “Rogue Scientists Race to Save Climate Data from Trump,” Wired, January 19, 2017,

[11] Deborah Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso Blog, January 25, 2017,

[12] Deborah Cowen, “Infrastructures of Empire and Resistance,” Verso Blog, January 25, 2017,

[13] Alistair Black, “The Library as Clinic: A Foucauldian Interpretation of British Public Library Attitudes to Social and Physical Disease, ca. 1850-1950,” Libraries & Culture40:3 (2005): 416-34; Joan Giesecke, “Finding the Right Metaphor: Restructuring, Realigning, and Repackaging Today’s Research Libraries,” Journal of Library Administration 51:1 (January 2011): 54-65; Robert F. Nardini “A Search for Meaning: American Library Metaphors, 1876-1926,” The Library Quarterly 71:2 (April 2001): 111-40; Danuta A. Nitecki, “Conceptual Models of Libraries Held by Faculty, Administrators and Librarians: An Exploration of Communications in the Chronicle of Higher Education,” Journal of Documentation 49:3 (1993): 255-77; Richard A. Stoddart, “’Straight to the Heart of Things’ – Reflecting on Library Metaphors for Impact and Assessment,” The Journal of Creative Library Practice, October 29, 2013,

[14] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980 [2003]): 193, 235.

[15] David Lankes, “Library as Platform,”; David Weinberger, “Library as Platform,” Library Journal, September 4, 2012,

[16] Institute-Wide Task Force on the Future of Libraries, Preliminary Report, October 24, 2016, 6.

[17] Susan Leigh Star & Geoffrey C. Bowker, “How to Infrastructure,” in Leigh A. Lievrouw & Sonia M. Livingstone, eds., Handbook of New Media: Social Shaping and Social Consequences of ICTs (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2006): 230–44.

[18] Shannon Mattern, “Library as Infrastructure,” Places Journal (June 2014),

[19] “ACRL Board of Directors Affirms Commitment to Equity, Diveristy, Inclusion, Access,” ALA News, Press Release, January 31, 2017,;“ALA Opposes New Administration Policies that Contradict Core Values,” ALA News, Press Release, January 30, 2017,; American Library Association, Libraries Respond: 2016 Edition,

[20] Eamon Twell, “A Decade of Critical Information Literacy,” Communications in Information Literacy 9:1 (2015): 24-43; Melissa Gustafson, “Critical Pedagogy in Libraries: A Unified Approach,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017),

[21] Association of College and Research Libraries, “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education,” January 11, 2016,

[22] MIT librarian Lorrie McAllister asks: “How do we ensure equity and inclusion and a multi-perspective cultural history? A pitfall to avoid in collections is sidelining certain contributions, or arguing that books not in use should be stored off campus. People who have been marginalized in certain disciplines may continue to be overlooked if their work is off site. We want to avoid just housing the greatest hits in each discipline. We want to include other perspectives that enrich the view of the subject. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy that if it’s off site, it will get less use.” (Sharon Lacey, “The Once and Future Library,” MIT News, April 19, 2016, See also Emily Drabinski, “Queering the Catalog: Queer Theory and the Politics of Correction,” Library Quarterly83:2 (2013): 94-111.

[23] See Tami Oliphant, “A Case for Critical Data Studies in Library and Information Studies,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017),

[24] danah boyd, “Did Media Literacy Backfire?” Medium, Data & Society Points, January 5, 2017,

[25] For examples of tech/app means to “escape the bubble,” see Amanda Hess, “How to Escape Your Political Bubble for a Clearer View,” New York Times, March 3, 2017,

[26] See, for instance, Marika Cifor and Jamie A. Lee, “Towards an Archival Critique: Opening Possibilities for Addressing Neoliberalism in the Archival Field,” Journal of Critical Library and Information Studies 1 (2017), and other works in the JCLIS.

[27] Ian Beilin, “Beyond the Threshold: Conformity, Resistance, and the ACRL Information Literacy Framework for Higher Education,” In the Library with the Lead Pipe, February 25, 2015,

[28] Miguel Figueroa, “Library Service in a World That’s Getting Closer,” American Libraries, January 23, 2017,; Amy Koester, personal communication, February 22, 2017; Amita Lonial, “Welcome to the Civic Lab,” Skokie Public Library Blog, September 6, 2016,; “Civic Lab,”

[29] Chris Bourg calls upon technologists and designers to design opportunities for serendipitous discovery into our digital platforms: “We need serendipity now more than ever – and we need it for as many people as possible. Because encountering new, unexpected ideas and information – being exposed to data, arguments, concepts – through books, for example — that we didn’t know existed, just might be the key to helping us all think in new ways, see the world through a different lens, and see new ways to solve old and sticky problems.” Chris Bourg, “Serendipity as Prick,” Feral Librarian, February 11, 2017,

[30] Chris Bourg, “The Once and Future Librarian,” Feral Librarian, March 18, 2015,

[31] Natasha Gerolami, “The Library as Assemblage: Creative Institutions in an Information Society,” Journal of Documentation 71:1 (2015): 165-74.

[32] See, for example, Nina de Jesus, “Locating the Library in Institutional Oppression,” In the Library with a Lead Pipe, September 24, 2014,


“Time’s Interfaces”

As part of the DESIS Studio Talks event on “Designing Time,” I discussed Time’s Interfaces. Here are my slides and text:


In looking back at the email correspondence involved in organizing this event, I noted that Susan invited me to participate on December 20 at 5:08am, and that I, with uncanny prescience, replied to her invitation before she even extended it – on December 19 at 2:17pm. I offer this anecdote not to celebrate my prophetic prowess, but to acknowledge that the synchronization that resulted in all of us being together in this same room right now, actually emerged from an entanglement of space-time. When Susan wrote, I was in Australia – 10,000 miles away and 16 hours ahead of where we are here and now. [2] Our email time-warp was simply a product of clashing temporal regimes: Coordinated Universal Time, which accounts for time zones; Network Time Protocol, which accounts for the time stamp on my email; and my own computer’s internal time, which is maintained by its Real Time Clock chip. I’m sure we could factor in a host of other temporalities, too. Given the fact that Susan wrote at an ungodly hour on a Tuesday morning, we might consider circadian rhythms and culturally-conditioned values of productivity, and social conventions regarding business hours.

[3] Speaking of productivity: In those two and a half months – or 78 days, 1,880 hours, 112,000 minutes, give or take – that have elapsed between December and now, I’ve spent many a moment fretting over all those texts on time I simply haven’t made time to read. Bernard Stiegler, George Kubler: I just never got around to them. There’s also an exciting anthology, Time: A Vocabulary of the Present, which I excitedly pre-ordered months in advance of its publication date last year, but which has sat on my “to read” shelf for months since it arrived on my doorstep – via Amazon Prime’s free two-day shipping, no less.

After a few too many such gratuitously expedited shipments of books that wait for my attention, I’ve come to this conclusion: Given that time it is, after all, a fundamental dimension of the universe and has been a central philosophical and practical preoccupation of humanity since, well, forever, there’s no way I could, in two and a half months, make a dent in the libraries of philosophy that have been written about time. I’ve spent too much time filling my time with other time-consuming obligations and time-warping travel, leaving me too little time to read about time. I’ll simply have to settle for feeling like a bit of an impostor on this “philosophy talk” panel.

[4] And while I haven’t read Stiegler, I do know, thanks to Daniel Ross’s time-saving gloss of his work, that Stiegler critiques Heidegger for failing to acknowledge that our access to the past and future is mediated through technics; that we access time through objects or artifacts. [5] I have spent a lot of time reading and thinking and teaching about objects and artifacts – specifically, archives, libraries, databases, and maps, as well as various epistemological objects, like measurement tools and organizational equipment. All of which embody lessons about intellectual and cultural history; all of which, in their shaping and occupation of space, also scaffold our relationship to time.

[6] Many, many people have written about the history of time-keeping devices: sundials, astrolabes, graduated candles, hourglasses, clocks, watches, calendars, and so forth.[1] [7] In their Cartographies of Time, which plays a central role in my mapping class, Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton show how historical maps and timelines, diagrams that preface today’s data visualizations, constitute an intellectual history of time. [8] And Jimena Canales examines various “timing media” – including telegraphy, photography, cinematography, and precision instruments – and how they “play an essential role in the formation of subjectivity, objectivity, and their historicity.” She proposes that technologies – “some as simple as pushbuttons and triggers, doors, and ordered lists, and others as complex as a particle accelerator or large-scale telescope” – create “temporal asymmetries (between the past, present, and future).”[2]

[9] In my remaining time, I’m not going to talk about philosophy. Instead, I’d like to discuss how designed objects, spaces, and processes do quotidian philosophical work by highlighting, or attempting to reconcile, those temporal asymmetries – or by serving as interfaces to processes and forces operating at scales we can’t empirically perceive.

[10] Let’s start with the ways agents and objects mediate our circadian rhythms. For eons, our “internal clocks” (and those of other fauna and flora) have responded to solar and thermal cues in regulating our metabolic processes. When humans began settling in agricultural communities, we could rely on the rooster’s own internal clock to warn us of the sun’s impending rise. [11] Legend has it that the Greeks devised sonically-rigged water clocks – an early marker in the history of what we might call sonic time-design. [12] This is a history encompassing everything from church bells and minarets to the factory whistle and alarm clock. Bells carved sacred time from the profane, called citizens to take caution or take up arms, and created a sonic-temporal signature for the towns and villages in which they resounded.[3] [13] The latter two, the whistle and alarm, have, for many theorists, marked the compartmentalization and commodification of time and emblematized the asymmetry between our circadian rhythms and capitalism’s 24/7 churn of production and consumption.[4]

[14] And now we have the smart phone, a portable alarm clock and a labor apparatus in one, which transforms any location into both a workplace and a nap pod. The phone tethers us to work, yet its reliable ring allows us to sneak in a ten-minute siesta, offering (as Jonathan Crary might say) a means of temporary resistance against the profit-making machine.[5] Our phones seem to be contrived for circadian contradiction. [15] Their tiny screens, which far too many of us use in bed, emit blue light that keeps us from dozing off, shortens our REM stage sleep, and suppresses the secretion of melatonin. But no worries! [16] We can download a flock of apps – some of which play binaural beats or pink noise to “soothe the brain,” others of which track our tossing and turning and surveil our snores, and thereby help us monitor our sleep quality and “gently” wake us at the optimal time. That’s assuming we don’t abuse the snooze feature, which is a bit too conveniently user-friendly on the iPhone. [17] Unlike a traditional alarm clock, which tends to stay on the night stand, the iPhone can be gently cradled in the slumbering hand, its fingers poised for repeated pokes at the snooze button. Or maybe I’m the only one who abuses this design feature?

[18] The phone serves as an interface between sleeping and waking, both as we get into bed and rise out of it. But it’s also more than that: its material properties and symbolic content have physiological and psychological effects that qualitatively and quantitatively alter the relationship between our horizontal and vertical hours. The phone-as-temporal-interface, much like that time-warp email I described earlier, embodies a clashing of temporal regimes: circadian rhythms versus a variety of capitalist times – our labor hours, manufacturers’ cycles of planned obsolescence, and all the technical micro-temporalities ticking away inside our devices.

Once we’re out of bed, though, many of us are soon out the door and off to contend with more temporal interfaces in the train station. [19] Here in New York, with such uneven service throughout our subway system, we experience temporal asymmetries between the different train lines. [20] Certain lines and stations feature countdown clocks and interactive kiosks that not only provide estimated times of arrival (granted, with a pretty wide margin of error), but also display service work and delays throughout the system, which help to contextualize that 4-minute wait for the next Q train. [21] In other stations, we’re left perched on the platform edge, peering down the tunnel, waiting for a glimpse of oncoming headlights – a old-school analog signaling system. [22] The reason for the disparity: the lettered and numbered lines were constructed independently, with different signaling and interlocking systems, each necessitating different methods for divining the location of trains within the network of tracks. [23] Up until recently, keeping track of all the system’s moving parts was akin to quantum mechanics; an analog mechanical infrastructure, with all kinds of blind spots and dead zones, simply didn’t allow for an empirical reading of time. [24] After experimenting with a number of incredibly expensive tracking systems in recent years, the MTA has installed computers and radios on-board trains, radio transmitters and transponders inside tunnels, and experimental “beacon” clocks in some stations to allow for more reliable intra-network communication and more accurate time-keeping.[6]

[25] Still, this digital infrastructure embedded within a machine-age framework creates plenty of opportunity for asymmetry – particularly when we weave in other temporalities: the cultural schedules of holidays and weekends, the unpredictable bio-social and bio-political schedules of “sick passengers” and “police investigations,” and the techno-cultural and political-economic schedules of repair, which prove particularly disruptive thanks to our elected officials’ general disinterest in maintenance. There’s much more glory in building a fancy new transit hub than there is in fixing old track. And in this, too, the condition of the transit system functions effectively as a large-scale “interface” to our cultural and political-economic values: specifically, the lack of interest and time we invest in upkeep.

[26] We get a different read in the train stations of Switzerland, where Hans Hilfiker’s iconic 1944 Swiss railway clock, with its bright red signaling-disc-shaped second hand (now endangered), emblematizes the Swiss watchmaking tradition and a cultural allegiance to punctuality. The clocks are all wired into a central master clock and synchronized at the top of each minute. [27] Apple pretty much knocked off, then eventually licensed, Hilfiker’s design for its iOS 6 iPhone and iPad clocks. (Just a quick side-note: another iconic temporal interface of the railways has proven to be not so enduring. [28] Over the past decade or so, the classic mechanical split-flap board has departed from many train stations and airports, where it’s been replaced by much less enchanting LED or LCD displays. The flip boards’ small, moving, analog parts sounded out and performed time’s sifting and fluttering passage; theirs was a choreography that, to me, mirrored the slightly frantic ballet of harried commuters. Rest in peace, Solari.)

Now, back on track: [29] Transit systems are typically quite proud of their real-time data and egocentrically oriented interfaces and apps, which enable travelers to worry only about origin and destination, and very little in-between, outside, before, or after. [30] Yet many systems still print timetables – an undervalued genre of commercial literature that required inventive graphic design in order to convey vast amounts of information about every line and stop within a broad railway system, from morning to night, seven days a week. [31] The timetable functioned as an interface to a whole metropolitan area or region – sometimes even a whole nation – across an entire week.

[32] What began in England as guidebook with station information detailed in full sentences, then transformed into an alphabetical listing of locations and all the destinations accessible from each. By the 1830s, while commercial publishers were creating bills, ledgers, and other blank forms for various businesses, [33] the railroads decided to adopt the tabular form, which allowed for the cross-referencing of all stations and stops. As their rail systems became more complex, with more stations and more variations in service at different times of day and on different days of the week, the designers of those time-tables had to squeeze more and more information onto a page of limited size. [34] They resorted to typographic variation: different typefaces to distinguish between morning and afternoon, arrows to represent directions of travel, rules to separate Sunday from weekday schedules, bold and uppercase fonts to highlight significant stations or other important information.

The mass of information, with times specified down to the minute, portrayed Britain’s railway system as a vast, efficient machine, historian Mike Esbester writes. “Yet until the 1860s,” he says, “there was no agreed upon meaning of ‘exact time.’ [35] Until a uniform time zone was legally imposed in 1880, time in Britain varied according to location. This resulted in debate as to which time should be used in the timetable.”[7] So, schedules had to specify which time they were using: “London” time or local time. By the 1860s, London time had become the standard throughout the system, and fewer than 20 years later, Britain joined the whole world in its [36] adherence to standard time zones. Thus, Esbester claims, [37] the timetable helped to disseminate knowledge about standardized time – and provided a view of the railway as a vast, ordered, dependable system; and of Britain as a unified, linked nation worth exploring. Esbester joins many other theorists in acknowledging the role of the railway (and, with it, the telegraph) in regularizing and instrumentalizing time – and in obligating passengers to routinize their own behaviors, and thereby comply with the demands of a capitalist economy.[8] The timetable, with its disciplined layout, reinforced a disciplining of human bodies.

[38] If we had more time, we could explore other designed objects that served to regularize, document, and “optimize” people’s everyday lives. [39] Molly A. McCarthy has looked at the rise of the daily planner, which she traces back to writers, like George Washington, who annotated printed almanacs; through the rise of blank books like scrapbooks and ledgers and diaries; and eventually to modular systems like the Day Runner and Day-Timer.[9] [40] She ends with an acknowledgment of the Palm Pilot and other self-organization tools in the digital realm, which is where Melissa Gregg’s research picks up: with productivity apps and time-management assistants.[10][41] And we’ve recently witnessed the rise of bulletjournaling, a defiantly analog, therapeutic form of self-management that asks the list-maker to continually reassess her goals across temporal scales, from today to an abstract “future.”[11]

Speaking of temporal scales and apps…: [42] If only we had more time, we could also ponder atomic clocks and Network Time Protocol, which seem to promise some universal temporal truth, but are actually still products of negotiation; here, “collective consensus… passes for accuracy.”[12] [43] We could also talk about the challenges of building temporal ambiguity and relativity into databases, which lie behind so many of our interactive timelines and time-metered software, and which tend to prefer definitive measurements.[13] We could examine designs intended to interface with the longue durée, with deep time. [44] We could also look at the cultural resonance of time capsules, consider the visual rhetoric of climate change animations, and analyze various artists’ and designers’ attempts to create clocks of the Anthropocene.

[45] But, sadly, that’s more time than we have time for now. Maybe some other time. [X]

[1] Barbara Adam, Timewatch: The Social Analysis of Time (Polity Press, 1995); Harry C. Brearley, Time Telling Through the Ages (New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1919); Denis Feeny, Caesar’s Calendar: Ancient Time and the Beginnings of History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007); Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, Shaping the Day: A History of Timekeeping in England and Wales, 1300-1800 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009); David S. Landes, Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (Belknap Press, 1983); Jacques Le Goff, Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Alexis McCrossen, Making Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013); Lewis Mumford, Technics and Civilization (New York: Harcourt Brace: 1934 [1963]); Michael O’Malley, Keeping Watch: A History of American Time (Viking, 1980); Alexander Philip, The Calendar; Its History, Structure and Improvement (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1921); E.G. Richards, Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Mark M. Smith, Mastered by the Clock: Time, Slavery and Freedom in the American South (University of South Carolina Press, 1997).

[2] Jimena Canales, “Clock/Lived” in Joel Burges and Amy L. Elias, eds., Time: A Vocabulary of the Present (New York: New York University Press, 2016): 126.

[3] Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the 19th Century French Countryside (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[4] Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013); E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past & Present 38 (December 1967): 56-97.

[5] See Melissa Gregg, Work’s Intimacy (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011).

[6] Aarian Marshall, “Why It’s Taking Fooorever to Get Countdown Clocks in NYC’s Subway,” Wired (August 26, 2016):; Amanda Mikelberg, “Countdown Clocks on Lettered Subway Lines Should Be Expanded as ‘Quickly as Possible,’ Report Says,” Metro (December 20, 2016):—6JD72LkKPIAn2/; James Somers, “Why New York Subway Lines are Missing Countdown Clocks,” The Atlantic (November 13, 2015):

[7] Mike Esbester, “Designing Time: The Design and Use of Ninetieth-Century Transport Tables,” Journal of Design History 22:2 (June 2009): 97.

[8] James W. Carey, Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society (New York: Routledge, 1989); Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983); Aaron W. Marrs, “Railroads and Time Consciousness in the Antebellum South,” Enterprise & Society 9:3 (September 2008): 433-56; O’Malley; Ritika Prasad, Track of Change: Railways and Everyday Life in Colonial India (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Wolfgang Schivelbusch, The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977).

[9] Molly A. McCarthy, The Accidental Diarist: A History of the Daily Planner in America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2013).

[10] Melissa Gregg, Counterproductive (forthcoming from Duke University Press); “The Productivity Obsession,” The Atlantic (November 13, 2015):

[11] Bullet Journal: See also Taeyoon Choi, E Roon Kang, et al.’s In Search of Personalized Time project:

[12] Dexter Sinister, “A Note on The Time,” Art Journal 70:2 (Summer 2011); Sam Kean, “Why Time Flies,” Wall Street Journal (January 20, 2017):

[13] Johanna Drucker and Bethany Nowviskie, “Temporal Modeling” in Drucker, Ed., SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); reprinted in Chicago Scholarship Online, 2013.



Response to Alberto Corsín Jiménez’s “Ethnography: A Prototype”

As part of GIDEST’s March 3, 2017, “Our Own Devices” workshop on ethnographic tools and techniques, I responded to Alberto Corsín Jiménez’s paper, “Ethnography: A Prototype.” Here are my comments:

An impassioned political preamble seems obligatory in even the most modest of academic addresses these days. I’m going to skip it – but I will say this: As so much of the world is wondering what forms of collective action and communication resonate amidst so much political and epistemological upheaval, Alberto Corsín Jiménez and Adolfo Estalella offer a model for thinking recursively about how we constitute and act as publics – particularly as publics in cities, which are commonly our stages for political action and are now, some believe, the only remaining spatial scale at which we can work to maintain “sanctuaries” for democratic ideals.

Drawing on work in the free and open-source software community, Jiménez and Estalella propose that the community’s commitment to sharing, to the commons, and to the “democratizing potential of technology” can be productively, if not seamlessly, transferred to the urban realm. The software developer’s operational unit, the “prototype,” is also of potential utility for ethnographers and other researchers, whether they’re studying software and urbanism, or not.

The prototype is a proof-of-concept meant to be built upon. It’s a model from which we can construct things, ideas, publics, and politics. It’s a technical form and a social form encompassing a methodology, an epistemology, an ontology, and even an ideology. In free culture communities, the prototype embodies openness and adaptability, and it calls for iteration and transference. Our authors describe the Inteligencias Colectivas, for instance, who are interested in “evolutionizing” urban prototypical forms and knowledges. They acknowledge the “architectural intelligences behind mundane objects,” then imagine their “resonances, extensions, and analogies” in other contexts and environments. The portability of the prototype renders it more widely accessible, thereby potentially democratizing design – but only if the design is effectively communicated, rendered intelligible and actionable, to other communities. Thus, Jiménez notes, the archive is an integral ingredient of the prototype; it’s the “ur-design,” the “infra-ontology” of the prototype. The archive captures not only a prototype’s composition, but also its “biography”: its historical contexts, its evolution, its social relations of production and use.

Different kinds of objects and practices call for different forms of documentation. To be rendered “fully legible,” Jiménez says, “some intelligences require a multi-layered combination of iconographic techniques,” like photographs, sketches, and video recordings. The choice of particular files, formats, and languages depends not only on their representational affordances and pedagogical potential, but also their politics: proprietary software and restrictive file formats, for instance, would limit a prototype’s accessibility and mutability and contradict the whole open-source ethos. The ethnographer’s experimentation with such a range of modalities in his or her own work likewise represents an aesthetic and political choice – to extend ethnographic work into what Michael Fischer calls “third spaces of articulation.”

While we learned from our MakerBot fetish phase that prototyping doesn’t always elicit criticality, it does have the potential to engender self-reflexivity, to create what Christopher Kelty calls “recursive publics”: publics that are “vitally concerned with the material and practical maintenance and modification of the technical, legal,… and conceptual means of [their] own existence as a public.” In their conscious choices of democratic, egalitarian modes of action and communication, he says, they “speak to existing forms of power through the production of actually existing alternatives.” One would like to think that scholars and reflective practitioners are also “vitally concerned” with the material conditions of their own knowledge and cultural production, but this of course isn’t always the case: we turn a blind eye to our underpaid adjuncts, indebted graduate students, and the free editorial labor and exorbitant subscription fees that sustain our scholarly publishing systems. Yet Jiménez and Estalella found that their fieldwork with free culture activists in Madrid required a “form of ethnography that takes its own changing infrastructure as an object of inquiry.” We all would do well to consider how the evolving technological and social infrastructures of the academy, of our disciplines – and the larger culture within which they exist – necessitate new knowledge infrastructures, new methods and modes of dissemination. Jiménez and Estalella felt compelled to transform their study of free culture prototypes into “a prototype for free culture itself.” Through their “Taking Critique Out for a Walk” series, they talked about the city while talking through it, and they sought means to “open-source the very architecture of education.” Such recursive thinking generated for them new modes of scholarly practice and publicity.

I’d argue that recursion should involve “vital concern” not only with the methods and political-economic conditions of one’s own practice – but also with the temporal depth of that recursivity. What’s the history of recursion’s loop? What’s the prototype of the prototype? We tend to metaphorize complicated systems – like cities and brains – in terms of the prevailing technologies of the time. At various points we’ve likened cognition and urban operations to the workings of hydraulic or electrical systems, or computers. And we often draw parallels between these two ur-metaphors: cities seem to work an awful lot like computers, and computer programmers draw inspiration from architecture. When we see free and open culture in our cities, it bears a resemblance to open-source software.

Over the past two decades, we’ve seen several iterations – prototypes, we might say – of open-source architecture and urban design. Paperhouses and Wikihouses offer freely available, modifiable plans. Pritzker Prize winner Alejandro Aravena has released four of his “half-a-house” designs into the public domain, allowing for their unrestricted use and adaptation. Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudels proposed their own model of “open source architecture” in 2011, and, before them, Architecture for Humanity’s Cameron Sinclair aimed to bring open-source principles to humanitarian design. In the early aughts, Usman Haque experimented with open-source architecture using inflatables, and then he and Matthew Fuller joined forces to prototype an “Urban Versioning System.” In 2003, Dennis Kaspori proposed an “open source [design] practice” that allows for the “collective,” iterative and evolutionary “development of solutions for spatial issues involving housing, mobility, greenspace, urban renewal, and so on.” He’s speaking free culture’s language.

Even well before the age of open-source, in the 1970s, Cedric Price prototyped his anticipatory architecture, and Christopher Alexander offered up his “pattern language,” which was also built on principles of democratic (albeit moralistic), evolutionary design. Stewart Brand, meanwhile, supplied a whole host of prototypes for living in his Whole Earth Catalog. And having been raised in Amish country in Pennsylvania, and having attended a few barn raisings in my time, I’d say the Amish have been prototyping free and open-source design for a few centuries. Without autoCAD. Rahul Mehrotra tells of similarly-minded design principles at the Kumbh Mela Hindu pilgrimage, which involves the construction of a massive, modular temporary city every several years – and which has, for well over a millennium, embraced evolutionary, recombinant, accessible, recursive practices.

It’s also helpful to recall that the widespread use of architectural and urban plans are a relatively recent phenomenon, as architectural historian Mario Carpo argues. Before the rise of print, designers were also craftsmen, and they typically spread ideas orally and learned their trade through apprenticeships. The idea of the architect as a professional wielding specialized drawings is a product of new professional organizations and curricula, like that at the École des Beaux Arts, founded in the 19th century. As Michael Guggenheim argues, throughout much of history, “people could invent products at home, or produce ad-hoc solutions to practical problems…with a piece of wood and some nails. The problem,” he says, “is rather, that there are few historical sources and…little historical interest in these processes, since they do not lend themselves to the writing of histories.”[1]

Recognizing this long history of prototypes to the prototype serves not only to remind us of the historical specificity of our contemporary metaphors, like the city-as-software, but also to highlight the way those metaphors shape particular urban practices and epistemologies and politics. Those metaphors also determine how knowledges are documented and transformed into historical sources for future archival researchers – and into manuals and “instructables” for contemporary practitioners. If a city is a computer, and if its urban practices are executed like software, the archive of those urban intelligences is more likely to adopt a computational logic, too.

The Ciudad Escuela web platform invites free culture projects to “open the ‘sources’ of their own technical, legal, pedagogical, associative and political capacities,” to render them legible through those “multi-layered…iconographic techniques” we discussed earlier. They’re encouraged to “legitimize their practices vis-à-vis local authorities and neighboring communities” by “explicating and standardizing [their] tacit urban knowledge,” and by “verifying” their skills with Mozilla’s Open Badges technology. But what does it mean to tie legitimation to standardization? What happens when particular cultures – embodied, situated, perhaps performative or oral, or governed by codes of privacy – translate their knowledge into the archival logics of the web and the credentialing economies of civic tech. Do we restrict what constitutes urban knowledge and its “repertoire” if it has to make itself iconographic: YouTube-able, diagram-able, data-visualizable?[2]

I’d encourage us to also think recursively about the technological metaphors we use to make sense of things like urban cultures, or to explain the methods and media we employ as scholars and practitioners. Those metaphors embody epistemologies and politics that recursively reinscribe themselves in the archive. If culture is software, our cultural institutions and infrastructures – from universities to urban “laboratories” – seem like computers. And any knowledges that happen to be in the wrong file format just might not compute.

[1] Free urban culture has been around for quite some time, too: consider the centuries’-long history of public libraries, mechanics’ institutions, athenaeums – many of which promoted the democratization of productive knowledge, itself a prototype for “maker culture.”

[2] We’ve come to recognize that universal transparency and openness are not universal goods – particularly for vulnerable populations, indigenous groups, and marginalized communities. Visibility, openness can offer legitimation, but it can also invite exploitation.