Letters of Recommendation

I’m usually happy to write letters of recommendation for students who’ve taken – and meaningfully engaged in – at least one of my classes, and who, if they’ve been out of school for a while, have kept in touch at least periodically. I also often write letters for colleagues and professional collaborators. I can typically handle sets of letters for about 12 or 15 individuals each semester — so if I have to decline your request, it might be because I’m already maxed out!

Why do I need to set these limits? Because writing a strong, customized letter that concretely describes your unique talents and qualifications is a time-intensive process. And writing multiple letters is cumulatively demanding – particularly every fall, as undergrads apply for grad school, as Master’s students apply for PhD’s, and as both my PhD advisees and my colleagues apply for jobs. I write bespoke letters for each candidate, and the writing process – which involves closely reviewing your past work and future plans – typically takes me about two hours. If you’re applying for graduate school or a prize or fellowship, I’ll also typically invest time in reviewing and offering feedback on your statement of purpose and / or application. And tweaking the application letter for each position – sometimes eight to twelve different schools for a PhD applicant, or a few dozen universities for a prospective faculty member – and navigating their idiosyncratic application systems, takes time. In all, I dedicate an average of six or seven hours to each candidate. This is why it’s hard for me to simply “squeeze in” last-minute requests.

I ask that you please help me help you by doing the following:

  • Request your letters as early in the semester as possible. If you wait until close to your deadlines, I’m likely already fully committed to supporting other students!
  • Roughly a month before your first deadline, please share with me a spreadsheet listing: (1) the programs or opportunities you’re applying for; (2) a couple words on why each program appeals to you, what specific faculty you’d like to work with, what institutional resources you’d be eager to take advantage of, etc., so I can try to work those details into each letter, if possible; (3) links to where I can find more information about the program; (4) if applicable, particular addressees (e.g., do I address my letter to the chair of the search committee?); (5) instructions for my letter submission (e.g., will I receive an email prompting to upload my letter via the university’s application management system, which is typically the case; do I email the search committee chair; do I upload to Interfolio?); and (6) my letter deadline for each school / position. At this time, please also send me (1) a copy of your cv / resume; (2) a draft of your statement of purpose and/or cover letter; and (3) a brief description of the projects you’ve completed in my classes. I’m happy to provide feedback on both the cv and statement, if it would be helpful.
  • Because particular seasonal letter of rec deadlines typically fall within a few (super-busy) weeks of one another, things can get very overwhelming — especially when I’m submitting eight or ten letters for each of 12 different students, many of whom are applying to some of the same schools. With 100+ letter request emails hitting my inbox all at once, it’s possible for mistakes to happen.
    …..Thus, I strongly prefer to take care of each applicant’s letters in one sitting – i.e., I’d ideally upload all eight or ten or [?] of your letters in one fell swoop. I ask that you please register me in each university’s application systems (roughly) simultaneously, so I receive all the notifications on the same day. Please confirm this date with me at least a week in advance, so I can block out time for you, and schedule your “upload session” around those for my other advisees.
  • And please check back in after you’ve heard about the status of your applications!

Thank you! [Image: Wax Seal, via Wikimedia]


On Being Gaslit

Gaslighting, via Wikimedia

Several years ago I started hearing lots of folks talking about “gaslighting.” It’s hard to imagine yourself succumbing to manipulation — so, while I pitied those folks who had been made to doubt themselves, I assumed that, because I typically interacted with reliable folks, I was somehow immune. Guess what? I’m not.

In late December of 2018 I had a pleasant Twitter conversation with a graduate student in the UK. We briefly discussed, through the exchange or five or six tweets, the value of having good editors; she told me she’d be coming to the East Coast, and I said I hoped our paths crossed. A week later, she sent me a cryptic 100-word Twitter (private) DM, which indicated that she’d “heard rumors” and “seen evidence” of my bad behavior, and that she’d be blocking me immediately. I couldn’t ask for clarification or proffer an apology if one was due. She had instantaneously cut me off.

I was devastated. What had I done? I asked around — among acquaintances who might’ve been in her orbit, among my Very Online friends — to see if I had slighted anyone, committed any serious faux pas, offended people. No one had a clue. Still, the charge stuck with me. I dwelled on it for weeks. I considered offering a General Public Apology to All the People of Earth, just to cover my bases. I talked to my colleagues and editors about what they thought I might’ve done. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t make myself write anything because I feared that I might inadvertently commit further transgressions — whatever they might be. Then several weeks later I had an email exchange with a faculty colleague from this same British university, and I casually asked if he had ever interacted with my stranger-interlocutor.

Oh, boy. He had stories. She had apparently leveled similar claims at other colleagues. She’d publicly charge folks with ambiguous misdeeds, offering no specific grievance or constructive recommendations for redress, then depart. I shouldn’t take it personally, he said. Still, the fear of making further mistakes has stuck with me. I want to do right by people. I want to uphold community standards and be responsible and kind.

Just a couple weeks later, while I was visiting Carnegie Mellon and Pitt (I remember all of this happening on the treadmill in the hotel gym), I received another Twitter DM from a European stranger. She “warned” me that an international colleague with whom I had collaborated was known for exploitation. I expressed concern and sympathy for her experience; noted that I, personally, had witnessed no such behavior; and asked what she wanted me to do with this information, how she wanted me to respond. She never replied. That afternoon I gave one of the worst talks I’ve ever given in my life (sorry, Pittsburgh). I was totally preoccupied. I couldn’t help but wonder and worry about my responsibility: what was I to do with this ambiguous caveat for which I had absolutely no empirical evidence, or even an identifiable plaintiff?

Almost exactly a year later, while I was in London, Ontario, the same person contacted me again, this time to inform me that my work was a joke. The fact that I had recently liked a tweet by this particular “exploitative” colleague indicated that I was sucking up to him, that I was a hypocrite, that my work had worth only through my association with him. My books were “laughable,” but he helped to legitimate them. I expressed my regrets for being unable to engage with her on these terms, then blocked her. She then emailed me to launch the same insults and lament my “betrayal.” It was clear I was dealing with an unstable individual. I blocked her email address and haven’t heard from her since. Let’s hope that chapter’s over.

It was then that I realized: oh, this is gaslighting! I’ve been gaslit! (Or maybe it’s just plain old trolling? Whatever — gaslighting sounds better.) And then it dawned on me that this had happened before. In my marriage, for example, I was made to feel guilty for the fact that I didn’t have substance-abuse problems or major debt. I was literally told, on our first night of (ultimately futile) couple’s therapy, that he resented the fact that I “didn’t suffer like [he] did.” Wow. It took three years of therapy to work through those feelings. (Shout out to Janet Shapiro! Woot woot!)

And just last week it happened again. I announced an upcoming talk via Twitter, and a (tenured) colleague from a nearby institution — who’d written a great article on a similar topic four years earlier — jumped into the discussion to inform others that my talk was “based on” her article, then shared a link to said article. I said yes, Colleague, your work is valuable and useful. I cited your article — and I even dedicated a whole paragraph to its contributions — in a previous piece. That didn’t suffice. So I continued: this most recent essay — the one that provides the basis for my upcoming talk — was an art review in a popular venue, not a scholarly article, and it was informed by myriad sources.

That wasn’t good enough. The public accusations continued for days. [What follows is a paraphrase; I can’t bear to look at the original conversation:] I should’ve reached out to her, asked for permission. I should’ve acknowledged that my review would not have been possible without her work (despite the fact that numerous popular writers, scholars, and artists have worked with similar ideas over the past two decades, and especially over the past two months!). I was undermining feminist citation. I was a bad example for junior scholars. I model poor practices for my students; she chooses to teach differently. These are all matters that concern me deeply, and I’m told by lots of folks that I’m a pretty good advisor and public role model. I hope that’s true. She hit me where it hurts.

When I noted a desire to discuss these complex issues — writing for public venues, “owning” ideas, drawing from various sources of inspiration for our work — in a more appropriate venue, my colleague stated that these grievances must be aired publicly, so junior scholars could understand their importance. As if all of this were about generous mentorship.

And it went on.

Ultimately, I muted. The grievance could still be going on, for all I know. As the tweets piled up, I heard from roughly two dozen colleagues and acquaintances — most of whom were familiar with the plaintiff — who informed me that I was being gaslit, noted that they’d either seen this behavior from her before or experienced it themselves, and encouraged me not to engage.

Still, it pains me to see repeated, misleading, character-damaging accusations leveled publicly — and to realize that a public retort on Twitter, a grossly insufficient medium, would only exacerbate the disagreement. Yet I can’t allow myself to be gaslit. Again.

So, I offer my response here. Parts may be cryptic, and that’s intentional:


I’m terribly sorry if you feel slighted. I wish this conversation could’ve happened in more appropriate manner, rather than exploding in public.

Your 2016 article about PowerPoint is fantastic. I assign it in my classes. I cited it in an article. I publicly engaged with and extolled your work.

Yet I, too, have been thinking about slides since I read Edward Tufte’s and David Byrne’s work nearly two decades ago. A Dexter Sinister slide-show / overhead projector performance at The Kitchen in 2008 also profoundly influenced me. No, I never cared about sides enough to write about them — but I did explore some related ideas in the classroom. I remember showing Peter Norvig’s Gettysburg Address PowerPoint in my “Textual Form” class at Penn in 2003. I’ve been inviting students to share creative slide-deck presentations for years. In my “Media and Materiality” class in 2012, we spent some time on “slideshow art.”

And as you know, over the past two decades I’ve also written 100 or so essays, articles, and books about how media are arranged and presented in various spatial contexts, about site-specific interfaces, about graphic design, etc. — all themes that are applied in my two Art in America pieces. For the past 15 years I’ve published a bunch of pieces about how to critique interfaces, which is essentially what I’m doing in the article that offends you so deeply. And in 2015, a year before you published your article, I published an article about dashboards and control rooms, which are, essentially, spaces where authority figures look together at slides on screens — which is essentially what’s happening in Cuomo’s press conferences.

I say this not to suggest that “I got there first.” Who cares? Lots of folks “got there” before both of us did. Instead, I’m merely noting that my thoughts about presentation software weren’t birthed, as you suggest, with your presentation in [remote Scandinavian city] (which, to be quite honest, I don’t remember*) or your article. But yes, your article, in building atop previous work on PowerPoint, helped me understand the history of these platforms and how they technically structure content.

[*My forgetfulness is in no way a reflection on the quality of your talk. I typically arrived in [remote Scandinavian city] after an overnight flight, and I was always very tired during my visits there.]

Last summer I gathered dozens of examples of PowerPoint, Google Slide, and Prezi art for use in an “intentionally bad slideshow” workshop in my undergrad “Tools” class, and I shared all that material online. An Art in America editor asked if I’d like to write about it. I figured it could be a good “teaching text,” to help my students appreciate contemporary artistic (mis-)applications of the software — a topic that is *not* a central concern in your article. I drew on my training in art history to *supplement* the work that I, as well as you and your predecessors — Henry Petroski, Robert Nelson, Edward Tufte, David Byrne, Dexter Sinister, Darsie Alexander, etc. — had already done. Art in America is an art magazine; I thus emphasized artistic examples and references. It is also a non-scholarly venue, which means that it adheres to different referencing standards — but in the 2000-word (i.e., short) published article I still CITED AND DEDICATED A WHOLE PARAGRAPH TO YOUR WORK. (I also included a link to our class website, where readers could find dozens more relevant resources.) This, to me, is one of the great joys of scholarship and creative production: we can build on one another’s work. Yet as you told me recently, you found the existence of my article “troublesome.” You expected me to reach out to ask for permission to reference your published work. I’ve never had anyone do that with me, and I certainly don’t expect it. I honestly don’t know of anyone else who does.

A month later, as the pandemic stormed in, and as seemingly *everyone* on social media and in the popular press was offering tiny “think pieces” about Cuomo’s PowerPoints, Art in America asked me again if I’d like to write a review of his press conferences *as a creative performance*. Countless folks on social media, in newspapers and magazines, etc., were already talking about how Cuomo’s press conferences — and particularly his slides — lent him a sense of competence and authority. This was not a novel or scholarly insight. I wanted to understand what, graphically and performatively, made his presentations so charismatic (perhaps deceptively so).

Art and performance reviews are typically based on observation and aesthetic judgment. My Cuomo review was a description and analysis of what I was (and what others were) seeing in real-time. And guiding my observation were my undergraduate training in rhetoric and political communication, my dissertation work on the aesthetics of public deliberation processes and formalism in media and architecture, my postdoc work in art and design history (which included much thinking about the slide projector as a pedagogical medium), and my own decades of publications on media and space. Honestly, Colleague, your PowerPoint article was only one of about a thousand ideas that were running through my mind as I wrote the review; it wasn’t a major influence. I’m sorry, but it’s true. My review focused on graphic design and rhetoric. Your article does not; it makes a different, valuable contribution. As does all of our predecessors’ work.

Art and performance reviews in popular venues rarely, if ever, feature scholarly citations. And online reviews in this particular publication allow links only to sources for direct quotes. If I *were* to have cited some sources in my 1000-word online review, though, those that most influenced me were Joe McGinnis’s The Selling of the President, David Reinfurt’s A New Program for Graphic Design, Gillian Rose’s Visual Methodologies, and Aristotle’s Rhetoric. Still, I linked from the Cuomo review back to the original article — the one on PowerPoint art — for readers who wanted more context.

The Cuomo piece, which seems to most upset you, is a popular review, not scholarship. Your work stands as an important work of scholarship. Mine stands as a short, ephemeral review in the popular press. Our work does different work. Nobody’s work is “erasing” anyone else’s.

You also asked why I didn’t reach out. That’s because, in the past, you haven’t responded to my emails. And when we’ve found ourselves at the same conferences and events, you’ve often left the room when I’ve presented. You seemed to have very little interest in my work or me.

Finally — again, since you asked, Colleague — yes, lots of people have written about libraries and dashboards and Hudson Yards (and *many* other topics I’ve addressed in my work) without citing me (you did it yourself, in an interview about public libraries). These folks drew from other sources of inspiration. It sometimes stings, but yes, it happens. And it’s rarely nefarious.





Sidewalk Labs’s Material Co-Design

In 2014 Google debuted Material Design, a set of user-interface design guidelines “inspired by the physical world and its textures, including how they reflect light and cast shadows. Material surfaces reimagine the mediums of paper and ink” by presenting layers of content as if they’re solid surfaces of equal thickness, stacked atop one another. Unifying the user experience across all Google products, Mark Wilson wrote in Fast Company, “Google has become a second reality inside touch-screen devices – complete with its own rules of logic and physics – and if Google has its way, it will eventually break free of touch screens to quite literally shape the world around us.”

Well, Google has been having its way. The following year, before it metamorphosed into Alphabet, Inc., Google launched Sidewalk Labs, an “urban innovation” division dedicated to solving urban problems with technology. Sidewalk adopted its own form of Material Design for the “physical world,” but their materials were concrete and cameras rather than paper and ink. Sidewalk’s leaders broadcast their intention to reimagine cities “from the Internet up.” I speculated back in 2016 that Sidewalk might be involved in the master-planning of New York’s new Hudson Yards development, home to the company’s headquarters, but the following year, Sidewalk shifted its attention to Toronto, where they’re currently working with Waterfront Toronto, a government organization, to build a new district infused with Alphabet tech (from tall timber buildings to sensor-embedded streets).

That effort has faced significant resistance. Critics have challenged the terms of the public-private partnership, the opacity of the development process, and the lack of clarity over data governance. Given the obfuscatory nature of Sidewalk’s closed-door deals and proprietary technologies, it might be surprising that they’ve adopted relatively transparent, intelligible, accessible tools of self-defense: paper and ink. Material Design as rhetorical redoubt.

Cards and Chipboard

Consider Sidewalk’s Toronto HQ 307, where the company tests out and solicits ideas for the smart neighborhood taking shape nearby. This “experimental workspace” features an assortment of unassuming analog media – post-its, index cards, markers (not to mention face-to-face communication between trained liaisons and visitors) – amidst scaffoldings of unfinished plywood, chipboard, and cork. Paper signage is affixed to walls, tacked to bulletin boards, or hung from movable metal dividers. These layered sheets of white and pastel – which bear resemblance to a Material Design interface – mix simple stencil and san serif typefaces to tell us about everything from the project concept, job creation, and Ontario’s timber industry, to Sidewalk’s proposals for data use, environmental sustainability, accessibility, and social infrastructures – including myriad hypothetical health and wellness spaces.

All 307 photos by me

Embedded among the printed text and still images we find the occasional screen, where we can explore maps, animations, and Sidewalk’s design tools. Humble sawhorse tables host an array of annotated cards, each offering feedback or questions from fellow 307 “co-designers.” A nearby stack of blank cards and pile of markers call upon us to add our own voices: “A question I have about facial recognition is: how will sensors and cameras be used wrt safety / security in data collection,” one visitor noted. An “efficient unit prototype,” a sample apartment made of cardboard, invites visitors to annotate its features with colored post-its: “corridor too narrow for wheelchairs,” “I like looking at something while I cook.”

Designers Daily tous les jours says they’ve created a “set of colorful, rolling, modular, stackable, playful interactive tools” that turn 307 into a place for “input + discussion + experimentation + new ideas + action.” Not everything is interactive, however. Some features simply announce their presence and expect us to deal with it. Perched high in a corner is a pair of gadgets, a white cylinder and a grey box, which, a stencil-and-san-serif sign-on-a-stand informs us, is a Numina sensor: “Hello,” it says. “A low-resolution image of you may be taken in this area. This image is immediately de-identified and is only used to calibrate and validate pedestrian and vehicle movement operating in the area.” No opt-in or out. No solicitation of your opinion or request for consent. Numina simply is, as-is, and it may have already taken your photo – before you even knew of its existence.

The open room is painted primer-white, and at the center of its concrete floor is a platform composed of tessellated chipboard hexagons, each with an embedded LED light. Those hexagons reappear outside, as pavers made from concrete infused with powerderized post-consumer glass (thus, the signs say, keeping glass waste out of landfills, and decreasing the CO2 emissions generated through concrete production). Inspired by the work of the French Institute of Science and Technology for Transport, Development and Networks, these pavers deliver “four key features”: modularity, which allows for easy removal and replacement; heating, which hastens the melting of snow and ice; lighting, which can be programmed to offer real-time cues to regulate traffic and communicate street use; and permeability, which aids with stormwater management. A sign affixed to the side of a shipping container – the modern model of modularity – identifies these hexagons as the “holy grail of pavement.” It’d be sacrilegious not to exploit their virtues.

307’s humble material objects – concrete and chipboard, post-its and powderized glass – are rhetorical tools suggesting that, here, cities are “workshopped,” urban futures and data plans are co-created from a mix of proprietary platforms and public knowledge. Except for that Numina sensor: that’s registering your presence and taking your picture, whether you like it or not.

Cells and Sensors

“Sensors have become a part of our daily lives. CCTVs. Traffic cameras. Transit card readers. Bike lane counters. Wi-Fi access points. Occupancy sensors that activate lights or open doors. These are all examples of how digital technologies can integrate into our physical world to help make our public spaces more comfortable, responsive, and efficient.” So acknowledged Sidewalk Labs in its Designing for Digital Transparency in the Public Realm project, developed through Spring of 2019 and formally released on April 19.

Open government advocate Bianca Wylie decried Sidewalk’s “passive language, without agency.” They speak “as though the sensors and cameras just sprouted into the world, without creators or purchasers, without contracts or decisions.” Of course Sidewalk, its parent company Alphabet, and partners like Numina have put – and are putting – many of those sensors in place. This act of “subtle [sensor] normalization,” Wylie says, “works to “guarantee that a quantified city becomes a social norm.” It’s already happening, Sidewalk reminds us; we might as well accept the facts: “Look around you as you go about your day, and you’ll start to see how much sensing and data collection infrastructure is already all around you — but there is very little transparency around what data is being collected, by whom, and for what purpose.”

Think back to that Numina privacy notice inside 307. “Hello! A low-resolution image of you may be taken in this area.” Or it may already have been taken by the time you read this sign. What if we applied a similar tell-don’t-ask / declaration-without-consent strategy to the thousands of outdoor sensors around Quayside – and all across Toronto and other cities and towns. Boston and London are already posting signage that alerts people to the presence of digital technologies in the public realm, but those signs are often text-heavy, and they require visiting a website to gather more information. As Sidewalk team members Jacqueline Lu, Patrick Keenan and Chelsey Colbert explain, user research shows that “few users read long, jargon-filled privacy and data collection policies.” SL asks: “What if you could quickly communicate what technology was in use in the public realm in a way that was transparent and clear without being overwhelming?”

[April 8 – DTPR Release Shareout / Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). All images are linked to their sources.]
Sidewalk’s team (which contains lots of talented folks with impressive design, civic tech, and government experience) responded to this question by, first, examining existing labels and signage – from nutrition labels to street signs to surveillance camera notices – and the relevant International Organization of Standardization guidelines. They then convened co-design sessions in Toronto, New York, San Francisco, and London, which made use of cards and forms like those available in 307 to assess participants’ questions and concerns about existing technology (as much recent research has shown, those tech concerns vary widely in relation to users’ race and class, which raises questions about the demographic diversity of workshop participants). Sidewalk’s facilitators first asked participants what questions they had about existing technologies, like Bluetooth beacons and infrared sensors, then identified concerns shared within the group. They then asked participants to imagine signage systems and icons that would provide useful information about those technologies. Sidewalk polished those user proposals into their own set of icons, which they further refined through user-testing. They held periodic online “shareouts,” too, to present the evolving design.

Through this iterative user research process (undertaken in collaboration with the Soofa signage team), Sidewalk learned that the questions most important to people are: the purpose of various digital infrastructures (e.g., emergency, mobility, accessibility, enforcement, energy efficiency, and so forth; it’s not the most ontologically consistent classification system), the entity accountable for each technology, and whether that technology collects identifiable information. The co-design process seemed to begin by assuming that the presence of these technologies is a given; [edit:] while some resistance was apparently permitted, workshops seemed to be structured such that little time was spent debating whether particular digital infrastructures belonged in the public realm in the first place. The co-design process ultimately frames sensing technologies as a necessity, an inevitability. Might as well normalize them by getting to know them.

Sidewalk developed a set of icons (derived from Google’s Material icons) for each variable and decided to set those icons within a hexagon badge. “We chose the hexagon,” they explained, “because this perfect shape that occurs naturally” – from honeycombs to snowflakes – “is the most efficient way to fill a space with the least amount of material.” Plus, it’s “currently unused in our vocabulary of signage shapes and slightly resembles a stop sign – giving users a slight ‘Hey, check this out’ without forcing a stop.” (edit: Alex Gekker also noted hexagonal resonances in sci-fi gaming.) And as with the hexagonal concrete pavers planned for use on Toronto’s streets, these hexagonal icons tessellate easily, in standard patterns (again, in accordance with Material Design principles, and as James Birch notes, in a fashion quite similar to that of the NFPA 704 hazard placard).

The “purpose” and “accountable entity” cells are black and white, while the “identifiability” cell is in color: if its captured data is de-identified, (e.g., by blurring recognizable information in photos) the cell is blue; if users are identifiable (as in surveillance camera footage), the cell is yellow. If a particular technology collects no identifiable data, there’s no colored cell. I must admit: I’m not quite sure what it means to be “air-” or “light-de-identified” (a breeze could dissipate any identifiable chemicals?).

A fourth cell offers a QR code and URL through which users can access, via their mobile devices, a “digital channel” that offers more detail. This transition from physical signage to digital interface again exploits the cross-platform continuity of Material Design. Online, the information is organized linearly, via a set of chained icons identifying, first, the responsible organization, the technology’s purpose, and the tech type – the same information embedded in hexagons on public signage. The next set of icons, enclosed in circles, addresses the data and its processing: the type of data, whether it’s identifiable, how it’s processed. The final set, framed in squares, pertains to data storage and access: how long, where, and how it’s stored, and who has access to it. Plus, as the Sidewalk Team explained in their April 8, 2019, shareout, “You’ll see in the digital channel [tha]
there’s always an area to give feedback, … a way for people to express their opinions about the technology. And hopefully that feedback actually goes to someone who can make a difference.” Yes, hopefully the platform facilitates the registration of concerns to an accountable entity, and that that feedback prompts real dialogue – rather than merely enabling the performance of “co-design.”

“We’re not planning this just for Quayside,” the team says. “The intention from the beginning was that this would be implemented well before Quayside, and that this can really forward provocations about digital literacy and understanding the public realm at large.” They intend for their Digital Transparency in the Public Realm (DTPR) project designs – and the whole design process – to extend well beyond Toronto, too. All workshop materials, icons, and design standards are available on Github under a Creative Commons license. Sidewalk wants folks in other towns and cities to adopt and adapt them – and thus further advance the cause of “digital literacy.” “Our goal is to co-develop meaningful design patterns that will eventually be adopted by cities, private partners, and other institutions that are interested in improving digital transparency in public spaces,” they noted in their March 4, 2019, shareout.

Transparency implies disclosing the presence of urban technologies and the harvesting of what Sidewalk calls “urban data,” which encompass data collected in public spaces, private spaces accessible to the public, and private spaces that aren’t controlled by their occupants (what a conveniently wide jurisdiction). By “providing transparency,” Sidewalk helps people “increase their awareness” – their “literacy” – “of how digital technology in the public realm works.” That’s not an ignoble goal. Transparency, Lu, Keenan, and Colbert explain, “can empower users to meaningfully engage in what is fast-becoming a critical conversation of our time. And, equally important, transparency can nudge both users and data collectors towards best practices.” Yet I can’t help but wonder in whose interest “best” is defined here.

DTPR, an acronym likely to evoke GDPR – a recent landmark EU regulation on data protection and privacy – isn’t really about privacy or consent, or about fundamental questions regarding the presence of extractive and surveillant technologies in the public realm. Instead, DTPR, like the 307 experience, marshals Material Co-Design – its stacked colored cards and tessellated hexagons, minimalist icons and ISO standards – to aestheticize and rationalize coercion (co-optation? hegemonic persuasion? I can’t find the right word!), to frame “performative ethics” as political action. As Rob Kitchin argues, “citizen-centric” design, or co-design, “has largely acted as an empty signifier, designed to silence detractors or bring them into the fold while now altering the technocratic workings, profit-driven orientation, or ethos of stewardship … and civic paternalism … of smart city schemes.”

By becoming literate in design methods, by framing deliberation within a totalizing Material Design system, by learning how to spot urban technology and celebrating our “awareness” of its operations (undoubtedly valuable skills!), we can lose sight of the bigger questions: about whether we want cities built in the image of a corporate internet, whether all digital infrastructures are necessarily in the public interest, and whether a public’s acts of citizenship should be reduced to filling out co-design cards and training Alphabet’s algorithms.


The Ethics of Automating Design

I was grateful to be invited to write about the “ethics of AI in design” — a huuuuuge topic — for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Ethics of Artificial Intelligence, co-edited by Markus Dubber, Frank Pasquale, and Sunit Das. And just last week I was glad to be able to share a draft of this project at the Institute for Sensing and Embedded Network Systems Engineering at Florida Atlantic University, thanks to a kind invitation from Gerald Sim and Jason Hallstrom. I’ll post my slides below, followed by the unedited manuscript, which the Oxford editors have permitted me to share.

Thanks to Kevin Rogan, who aided with all stages of research and writing, and to Ajla Aksamija, David Benjamin, Rune Madsen, and Andrew Witt, who generously responded to our queries about their own practice.

Calculative Composition: The Ethics of Automating Design

Mattern CalculativeComposit… by on Scribd

For as long as fashion designers, graphic artists, industrial designers, and architects have been practicing their crafts – and even before they were labeled as such – those practices and their products have been shaped by the prevailing tools and technologies of their ages, from paper patterns to computer-aided design.[1] Artificial intelligence is merely the latest agitator, and myriad design professionals have already begun exploring its potential to transform the conceptualization, design, prototyping, production, and distribution of their work, whether menswear or modular homes. Fashion labels are mining social media to forecast trends and building intelligent apps to help consumers compare styles. Architects are amassing data – engineering requirements, CAD geometries, building performance data – to automate phases of their work. Likely to the chagrin of many graphic designers, programmers have created web platforms that allow clients to upload text and images, input a few parameters, and, violà! – a website appears! Still other practitioners, from across the disciplines, have employed AI toward more humanitarian or sustainable ends, like custom-designing prosthetic devices, mapping out less energy-intensive supply chains, or prototyping climate-responsive architectures.

While some designers have committed to applying AI toward more ethical ends, they’ve paid comparatively less attention toward the ethical means of its application – precisely those methodological issues that are of concern to organizations like AI Now and FAT (Fairness, Accountability, and Transparency in AI).[2] What, for instance, are the implications of hoovering up architectural and urban data in order to aid in the future design of more efficient buildings and neighborhoods? What are we to make of graphic design tools that normalize particular facial features or allow for the suturing of various images into new composites? And what are the implications for designers’ self-identities as professionals and political subjects when their core creative questions are turned over to the machine? This chapter will examine the ethical ends and means toward which AI-driven design has been, and perhaps could be, applied. In surveying representative design fields – fashion, product, graphic, and architectural design – I’ll examine what ethical opportunities and risks we might face when AI-driven design practice is programmed to serve the needs and desires of laborers, consumers, and clients – and when it’s applied in generating everything from luxury goods to logos to library buildings.[3]


We’ll start close to the body, with clothing. Fashion designers, manufacturers, and retailers are using artificial intelligence to track trends, to offer shopping advice, to test garments on different body shapes and sizes, and to allow customers to mix and match items in their wardrobes.[4] With Amazon’s Echo Look, users can document their outfits and, via its Style Check service, draw on the combined expertise of human stylists and AI (trained on social media fashion posts) to choose the most flattering options. Champions argue that these developments facilitate the representation of non-standard body types and allow consumers to fully exploit the garments in their drawers and closets, thus (hypothetically) curbing wasteful consumption.

Meanwhile, Amazon’s Lab126 team is using a generative adversarial network, or GAN, to learn about particular styles by scanning lots of examples, so that it can then generate its own rudimentary designs. IBM’s Cognitive Prints, a suite of tools developed for the fashion industry, could likewise enable designers (or even manufacturers who simply bypass human designers) to create textile patterns based on any image data set – snowflakes or rainforests, for instance – or to generate designs based on a set of parameters, whether Mandarin collars or pleats. Such capabilities raise questions about labor displacement, which has long been of concern in fashion manufacturing, where machines have been replacing human workers since the rise of the mechanized loom. Of course labor is, and has long been, a huge issue in popular and scholarly discussions of AI and automation.[5]

While automation has indeed extended from the shop floor to the design studio, few fashion ateliers fear obsolescence. Designer Zac Posen doubts that any GAN could capture the “situational, spontaneous moments of beauty,” or exploit the fortuitous accidents and aesthetic irrationalities, that are part of any organic design process.[6] What’s more, AI technologies, some say, could reinforce the unique contributions of human designers by protecting intellectual property. IBM’s Cognitive Prints, which trained on 100,000 print swatches from winning Fashion Week entries, allows designers both to search for inspiration and to “make sure their inspiration is really their own and not inadvertent plagiarism.”[7] Automated tools could also allow for bespoke design and fabrication – 3D-printed garments that are customized to fit models’ or athletes’ bodies, as well as prosthetics and rehabilitative gear.[8]

Yet of course most fashion is still mass-produced. Labor and environmental advocates argue that, in these contexts, AI could enable brands to better monitor their supply chains and thus hold themselves accountable for where they source their materials and labor. Then again, well monitored and lubricated supply chains could also simply speed up the already-unsustainably speedy world of fast fashion.

Product designers are applying similar techniques – using AI to comb social media to identify trends in sunglasses, toys, and tableware; automating the production of multiple iterations of projects for user-testing; and even exploiting users’ behavioral data to simulate those user tests or quality assurance evaluations. Such applications allow designers and manufacturers to respond to global demands for shorter product cycles and fast-changing consumer needs and desires.[9] In other words, AI helps us generate more stuff, more cheaply and quickly, and more in line with consumers’ perhaps unstated or even unrealized demands.

AI’s influence is even more immediate in the world of digital products, like e-books and apps and chatbots. Like their analog counterparts, digital designers can set particular parameters and create models based on their preferences, and algorithmic tools can churn out hundreds of options, which users can then test and designers can tweak. Seasoned interaction designer Rob Girling imagines a digital-product future in which AI is capable of modeling cultural and psychological variables through all stages of design development and use. He envisions

a future where our personal AI assistants, armed with a deep understanding of our influences, heroes, and inspirations, constantly critique our work, suggesting ideas and areas of improvement. A world where problem-solving bots help us see a problem from a variety of perspectives, through different frameworks. Where simulated users test things we’ve designed to see how they will perform in a variety of contexts and suggest improvements, before anything is even built. Where A/B testing bots are constantly looking for ways to suggest minor performance optimizations to our design work.[10]

For designers and developers aspiring to build digital products that trade in affect, Chris Butler, Director of AI at Philosophie, a software development studio, offers workshops on “problem framing, ideation, empathy mapping for the machine, confusion mapping, and prototyping.”[11] Even emotion is operationalizable in the design process and optimizable in its products.

Those AI-informed digital products then reach the market, where they perform social, cultural, and psychological work. Voice assistants call doctors and hairstylists to make appointments, and chatbots provide therapy and tutoring to clients who can’t afford – or would rather not deal with – human service providers.[12] Yet when Google unveiled its Duplex voice assistant in 2018, some observers were outraged that the technology had little empathy for the product’s human interlocutors: Duplex deceived those on the other end of the line by failing to disclose its artificiality. As Natasha Lomas lamented in TechCruch, Google clearly lacked a “deep and nuanced appreciation of the ethical concerns at play around AI technologies that [can pass] as human – and thereby [play] lots of real people in the process.”[13] Echoing the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ general principles for ethically aligned design, Lomas called for digital products that respect human rights and operate transparently, and for developers that hold themselves accountable for the automated decisions their products make.[14] Girling’s utopic wish list implies a whole tangle of potential accountability loopholes; his hypothetical development scenarios rely on an assemblage of simulated subjects, sites, and situations of engagement. It involves fabricated frameworks and imagined futures – each of which presents opportunities for algorithmic bias to set in, for limitations in the training data set to become reified in real-world applications.

Luckily, Girling’s firm, Artefact, recognizes that “the effects of our most celebrated products are not always positive. When you ‘move fast and break things,’ well, things get broken – or worse.”[15] So, Artefact offers a set of tarot cards that helps creators “to think about the outcomes technology can create, from unintended consequences to opportunities for positive change.” We should pause to contrast the epistemologies embedded in tarot and machine learning, to consider what it means to apply esoteric practices to atone for the shortcomings of AI’s positivism.

In the parallel field of graphic design, one of those “unintended consequences” is the potential obsolescence of the web designer altogether. “We have already seen a templatization of digital products” via “design systems,” or coded standards with defined components, like Google’s Material Design, artist-designer Rune Madsen told me. “So what happens when we start to rely on algorithms to make creative decisions?”[16] Platforms like Logojoy and Tailor Brands automate the production of logos, and Wix ADI (Artificial Design Intelligence) churns out websites.[17] Another platform, The Grid, prompts novice users to input text and imagery and to tell “Molly,” its “AI web designer,” about their goals for reach and impact. Molly will then automatically retouch and crop your photos, search through all your media to choose a complementary color palette, select layouts to fit your mix content, and conduct a few A/B tests to assess your preferences. Molly, we’re told, is “quirky, but will never ghost you, never charge more, never miss a deadline”; in all these respects, she’s more reliable and agreeable than a human designer.[18]

But critics have found her design work to be less than inspiring. Because machine-learning algorithms “operate on historic data,” Madsen said, “they always give us more of the same” – or some new hybrid that exists in the “latent space of all existing designs,” a compression of what existed before.[19] Such derivations, he told me, are typically devoid of the affect and aspirations embedded in our most compelling logos and layouts. And they commonly bear the marks of the programs used to create them; you know a Squarespace or Wix site when you see one. For such reasons, most human graphic designers, like their counterparts in fashion, anticipate that, for the foreseeable future at least, machines and people will partner in styling the world’s websites and artbooks.[20]

AI like Google’s Auto Draw can transform designers’ moodboards and diagrams into templates and polished renderings. At Airbnb, technologists are using AI to turn their whiteboard sketches into live code, to “translate high-fidelity mock[ups] into component specifications for our engineers, and… production code into design files for iteration by our designers” – an automation of sequences that not only smooths the workflow between one design specialist and another, but also allows each contributor to spend “less time pushing pixels, more time creating.”[21] Echoing an oft-repeated theme among automation’s humanist-futurists (or are they apologists?), designer Jason Tselentis proposes that AI-driven design tools, rather than obviating human laborers, instead promise better working conditions for them: they give sedentary organic bodies “a chance to step away from the computer, whether to work by hand or just take a break from the screen.” In this second desktop revolution – after the arrival of Aldus PageMaker and other first-wave desktop publishing software in the 1980s – our new-millennium algorithms could “save human designers time and make more room in their lives for reflection and creativity.”[22] Nevertheless, designer Paula Scher predicts that, as more basic skills are automated, “entry level jobs may be lost.”[23]

Yet perhaps those entry-levels skills aren’t quite as rote and rudimentary as they seem. Consider the services provided by several intelligent imaging applications: Tools like Artisto or Prisma use image recognition to identify the content in photos and videos, and then apply matching visual-effects filters. Depending on the specific data sets training our AI assistants, we could very well see a lot more walk-on-the-beach scenes draped in gaussian blur – or many faces of color that simply don’t register as faces at all.[24] Adobe’s Sensei AI is behind product features like Adobe Scene Stitch, which allows users to patch and edit images by swapping in features from similar files in its image library; and its Face-Aware Liquify feature, which uses face recognition to “enhance a portrait or add creative character.”[25] We might question the ethical implications of reinventing photographic scenes in this age Deep Fakes. And we might wonder what faces composed the training set from which Adobe’s AI learned to identify a facial norm. Whose noses and lips set the standard? What facial features are deemed to have “character,” and what sorts of sculpting constitute “enhancement”?

We might also inquire about the ethics of using AI to transform user subjectivities and user behavior into dynamic user experience (UX), which, while seeming to create more personalized products that thoughtfully anticipate user desires, also coerces longer and more predictable user engagement. As Fabricio Teixeira explains, “Websites are getting smarter and taking multiple user data points into consideration to enable more personalized experiences for visitors: time of day, where users are coming from, type of device they are accessing from, day of the week – and an ever-growing list of datapoints and signals users don’t even know about.”[26] “We could extract behavioral patterns and audience segments,” Yury Vertov proposes, “then optimize the UX for them. It’s already happening in ad targeting, where algorithms can cluster a user using implicit and explicit behavior patterns.”[27] We’re a long way from Web 1.0. Today’s websites are designed to be artificially-intelligent, opportunistic, fine-tuned coercion machines.

The application of AI across these disparate design fields raises several categories of recurring questions. First, questions about labor: will AI improve labor conditions by automating rote tasks and make it easier for creative practitioners to protect their intellectual property, or will it facilitate the pirating of others’ creative labor and eliminate jobs? And how might the automation of even “rote” tasks embed particular ideologies and biases – about what constitutes norms and standards, and for whom – and introduce the possibility of manipulation: doctored images that lie, robot voices that deceive? Second, questions about production: will AI allow for the ethical oversight of supply chains, promoting more ethical sourcing and labor; or will it simply speed up the production process, promoting ever more wasteful extraction and manufacturing, and ever more rampant consumption? And third, our survey of these design fields raises recurring questions about users’ agency and protection: do tracked behaviors and simulated testing and “empathy mapping” serve users by better meeting their needs, and even supplying custom products and services for non-normative bodies and tastes; or does such customization constitute exploitation? Are these dichotomous conditions? Or can we find a compromise?


It shouldn’t be surprising that so much of our virtual experience is designed and choreographed by virtual agents. AI, after all, is the new colonial power, indiscriminate in its invasion of digital terrains. Yet AI’s influence spills over into the physical domain, too. As we saw in the worlds of fashion and product design, designs take shape in AI-informed digital plans, and are then made material in the form of garments and gadgets. Or even buildings and cities. Artificial intelligence scales up to embed its logics in the material world writ large. Such a translation – from invisible, bit-sized algorithmic operations to massive steel-and-glass structures – represents a radical crossing of scales and materialities and ontologies. And because architecture has traditionally been such a slow, visceral medium, it affords us a unique opportunity to observe and assess the translation from digital to physical, the embodiment of artificially intelligent operations in concrete form. In what follows, we’ll examine how AI informs the operations and ethics of architecture’s multiple stages of development – from planning and project management to design and construction.

Planning and Project Management

Gathering information about a design site has traditionally required visiting that site, surveying, photographing, collecting local data, and creating maps. Now, much of that work can be automated by drawing on a vast abundance of available datasets and software – like EcoDesigner STAR and SketchUp plugins – that automate data-processing. Architects Hannah Wood and Rron Bequiri regard such developments as liberating: automated data analysis enables the architect to “simulate the surrounding site without ever having to engage with it physically,” to “do all the necessary building and environmental analysis without ever having to leave our computers.”[28] Designers can take on international commissions that would’ve previously presented logistical challenges. While such disembodied assessments of site might afford new opportunities to smaller, more geographically marginalized firms – and might signal community needs that aren’t empirically observable – we should wonder what spatial knowledges, what localized understandings of place and the people in it, are lost when designers “never have to leave their computers.” Yet perhaps on-site-vs.-remote is a false dichotomy; we might instead ask how vast banks of spatial data and their automated processing could responsibly supplement on-site surveys, interviews, and local ethnographies.

Those spatial databases are the products a great deal of human and computational labor – of individual designers, design firms, tech companies, and professional organizations invested in the accumulation, storage, cross-referencing, and sharing of data about sites and buildings. In a 2018 report for the American Institute of Architects, Kathleen O’Donnell interviewed several designers who corroborated her recommendations to “start accumulating as much [data] as possible,” including data used in Building Information Modeling platforms or post-occupancy evaluations – and to develop platforms for sharing data among architects, contractors, and property owners.[29] In order for those data to serve the purposes of automation, however, they must be rendered interoperable, which is quite a challenge when translating place into data involves different methodologies and epistemologies for different professionals. Public health officials, environmental scientists, and real-estate developers all operationalize “site” differently. Raghav Bharadwaj reports that the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) industry is “attempting to leverage ML (machine learning)…to identify and mitigate clashes between the different models” employed by architects, various engineers, and plumbers – not to mention the conceptual and data models of other professionals who think about space differently, and whose insights could inform architecture.[30] Can machine-learning reconcile such diverse conceptions of place? And can it mediate the disparate methodological, epistemological, and ethical frameworks embedded in these different datasets. Even the AEC data enthusiasts, O’Donnell reports, recognize that “regulations, security, and ethics all come into play – and [tha]
there are no major legal standards for data in AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) yet.” Ajla Aksamija, a building technology specialist who leads Perkins + Will’s Tech Lab, is convinced that a governing body like the American Institute of Architects needs to step in to set standards and institution-wide best practices for the use of data and AI in design.[31]

AI can also help to automate the administrative operations – organizing schedules, managing payroll, overseeing documentation, and even, after a period of careful training, evaluating conformance with safety and zoning guidelines.[32] Architectural historian Molly Wright Steenson notes that, “as early as the 1950s, architects at Skidmore Owings and Merrill (SOM) and Ellerbe & Associates used computers for risk calculations and cost estimates.”[33] Today, too, AI can function as an “’enforcer’ of code and best practices,” keeping human laborers aligned with their own self-imposed algorithm.[34] In short, computers handle the boring work, the rote tasks, the complex calculations, leaving creativity to human experts (and most likely eliminating some of those human laborers in the front office). We’ve heard such promises before, too. In 1964, Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius advocated for architects to use computers as “means of superior mechanical control which might provide us with ever-greater freedom for the creative process of design.”[35] Todays’ computers still “aren’t particularly good at heuristics or solving wicked problems,” Phil Bernstein says, “but they are increasingly capable of attacking the ‘tame’ ones, especially those that require the management of complex, interconnected quantitative variables like sustainable performance, construction logistics, and cost estimations.”[36] Andrew Witt, co-founder of “design science” office Certain Measures, suggested to me that AI could even serve as an “ethical broker” between competing stakeholder interests – which raises questions about the methods and ethics of automating ethical mediation.[37]


AI is already shaping the creative process, too. The flagship architectural design softwares like AutoCAD, Rhino, and Revit have long automated the design process to some degree. For example, a door placed in a wall is just that: not just a collection of lines, planes, or solids, but is known by the program for what it is. Neural networks can then mine the oeuvre of an individual designer or a group of designers, identify “commonly-used sequences of low-level features,” and then “dynamically synthesize purpose-built features” that are relevant to the designer’s task at hand.[38] Nicholas Negroponte, architect and founder of the MIT Media Lab, predicted such functionality in the late 1960s, when, as Steenson explains, AI could allow a system to “[learn] from its users and [develop] in tandem with them, with the idea that the system would evolve from how the computer was originally programmed, and from what both the architect and the user might imagine on their own.”[39]

By the 1980s, software originally created for use in automotive, aeronautical, and industrial design made its way into architecture, inciting the rise of parametric design, in which the architect sets parameters that are then algorithmically translated into a range of forms. Today, software-maker Adobe offers Dreamcatcher, a “generative design system that enables designers to craft a definition of their design problem through goals and constraints” – from material types and manufacturing methods, to performance goals and cost restrictions – which are then used to process multiple data sets and generate thousands of alternative design solutions.[40] Designers can iteratively tweak the parameters and assess the performance data for each proposed option.

WeWork has developed a “suite of procedural algorithms” to automate the planning of its shared workspaces. The company’s research team employs data and social scientists to better understand “how spaces can enhance people’s happiness, productivity, and connection to their community.”[41] Fed data on “functional and experiential considerations, building code requirements, and client expectations,” their planning tool generates all possible desk layouts for each floorplan, even with their quirky columns and other obstructions.[42] Designers found that, 97% of the time, the tool handled such variations, maximizing the ratio between desk count and floor area, as well as humans. In the future the tool is meant to adjust for regional differences, “such as members in China preferring large conference rooms.” Andrew Witt, from Certain Measures, imagined that many designers could eventually use “preference sets, like sentiment analysis databases,” that model “how people consume or relate to architecture.”[43]

As Mark Sullivan explains on WeWork’s company’s blog, their planning tool “does more than save time. It frees up architects to use their creativity in other ways, such as designing an eye-catching central staircase or covered courtyard where members can mix and mingle.”[44] When Autodesk hired design firm The Living to design their new Toronto office, they worked with a similar array of parameters: solo vs. collaborative work style, available views, light, and so forth. The Living’s David Benjamin insists that “it wasn’t the computer telling us what to do. We made the decisions based on human values.”[45]

While designer Hannah Wood predicts that future architects are less likely to be “in the business of drawing and more into specifying [problem] requirements,” there are plenty of AI aficionados ready with reassurance that architects needn’t fear that they’ll be reduced to data entry clerks.[46] AI will “streamline design processes without taking creative control”; “the designer will lead the tool,” Adobe’s Patrick Hebron says.[47] Humans must maintain control because AI, Hebron continues, “has limited purview into the nature and proclivities of human experience.”[48] Any fully-AI-generated environment, we’re reminded, would be unlivable. Yet architects do need to better articulate to clients, and the broader public, why that’s true. As Benjamin explained to Dwell magazine, it’s already the case that most building projects aren’t designed by a trained architect; now, “we have to advocate for why we want the built environment not to be self-driving architecture. Cookie-cutter results are convenient, but we have to argue for why they’re insufficient” – or unjust.[49] Benjamin predicted that developers could create automated designs keyed toward the maximization of profit, resulting in an “automated design of a city that’s both uniform and unequal.”[50] Thus, Witt said, it’s important that we consider the “ethical dimensions of how we train designers” to partner with automated systems.[51]

AI can offer evidence to help humans choose from all those cookie-cutter options and adapt them. For instance, Space Syntax’s depthmapx spatial network analysis software allows designers to assess the “visual accessibility” of a design in its site, or to model pedestrian behavior.[52] Building System Planning’s ClashMEP reads Revit models to detect clashes among a building’s mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems.[53] (AI could also enable those building systems to communicate with one another in the built structure, Aksamija proposes.[54]) And Unity 3D, originally created as a game engine, can be used to analyze the distance to fire exits – or to generate 3D, augmented or virtual reality models for user-testing. Such modes of presentation have the potential make design legible, and experiential, for users and other stakeholders who might not know how to read a plan or a construction drawing.[55] And they enable designers to test “user experience,” assessing even dynamic variables like light and sound and ergonomics. Designer Jim Stoddart explains:

We can put someone in VR, and they can be inside the space and we can ask them, ‘Is this exciting or not? Is it inviting? Is it beautiful?… Then we can feed that into a machine-learning system as a supervised learning problem and actually have that software help us predict, from the thousands of designs we’re generating, which ones are doing interesting things with high-level spatial and material qualities that are worthy of further investigation.[56]

Michael Bergin from Autodesk proposes that automated technologies will ultimately make architecture “far more inclusive with respect to client and occupant needs and orders of magnitude more efficient when considering environmental impact, energy use, material selection and client satisfaction.”[57]

Perhaps more important than “interesting” and “beautiful” designs are ethical ones – designs aligned with those “human values” that informed Benjamin’s decision-making in Toronto. Values that are of more consequence than optimal desks-per-square-foot. Benjamin has found that, for nearly the last decade, his firm and others have been adding a “bio” framework – bio-processing, bio-sensing, and bio-manufacturing – to computational design, “combining the machine and the natural world” in order facilitate “design with dynamic systems and uncertainty,” to embrace diversity and robustness, to allow for design outside of “master models and complete all-knowingness.”[58] This is one way of infusing computational design with a set of values that’s more oriented toward ethics than efficiency.

Architect Christopher Alexander, whose practice had been informed by AI since the 1960s, long believed that computational patterns had a “moral component,” and, according to Steenson, that “moral goodness was something that could be explicitly defined and empirically tested in architecture.”[59] Alexander offered a vision of the future in which “computers play a fundamental role in making the world – and above all the built structure of the world – alive, humane, ecologically profound, and with a deep living structure.”[60] How might we operationalize such ethical parameters? How might we test for humanity and ecological profundity in our buildings, as Alexander proposes? Such values are often aestheticized and, in the case of some bio-computational generative designs, made performative – through gratuitous breathing facades or kinetic oculi. We can also use building automation systems to monitor HVAC, energy, and lighting systems, which are perhaps proxies for “ecological profundity.” And AI could help building occupants better understand how their uses of a building influence its energy consumption, Aksamija suggests.[61] How else might we “pattern” particular ethical codes into our parametrics? We might be able to monitor the presence of these values in the making of architecture, too.


In 1974, Marvin Minsky predicted that, by the mid-1990s, the machine could “handle not only the planning but the complete mechanical assembly of things as well.”[62] We’re not quite there yet, but we do have robots piecing together brick facades, dispensing concrete, welding, and handling the dangerous work of demolition.[63] We’re 3D-printing those bricks and other much more geometrically complex building materials, too.[64] Yet there are limits to what these automated technologies can do; for instance, they’re not so great with non-uniform, unpredictable materials like low-grade timber or expanding foam.[65] Still, architectural historian Mario Carpo sees great potential environmental and economic benefits in the future of “micro-designing” and precision-installation, which “can save plenty of building material, energy, labor, and money, and can deliver buildings that are better fit to specs.”[66] Certain Measures developed a process that uses pattern recognition to algorithmically generate new structures from scrap material; Witt described it to me as a means of “radical resource reuse.”[67] And of course the buildings generated through intelligent fabrication processes can themselves be made intelligent, too, through the inclusion of smart technologies, responsive furnishings, and kinetic facades – which, again, can purportedly help to optimize energy use.[68]

As with fashion, AI can help to manage architecture’s supply chains, particularly as more and more materials are prefabricated and modularized. AI can optimize project planning and scheduling.[69] Armed with camera and drone images and sensor data harvested from the construction site, automated systems can identify unsafe site conditions and worker behaviors; it can also cross-reference those images with construction models to identify errors and defects.[70] Autodesk’s BIM 360 IQ scans and tags all safety issues on the jobsite and assigns “risk scores” to various subcontractors.[71] The Suffolk contracting firm is using machine learning to scan construction images and identify when workers are wearing hardhats and safety vests, and, eventually, to recognize ladders, clutter, and other safety risks.[72]

Meanwhile, Komatsu, the Japanese heavy-machinery manufacturer, is partnering with NVIDIA, maker of graphics processing units, to incorporate its Jetson AI computing platform into construction equipment, allowing for full-surround vision and real-time video analytics, which can be used to optimize the use of on-site tools and equipment, monitor job progress, and flag risks.[73] Of course such exhaustive data collection – as is commonly advocated during the planning phase, too – presents myriad methodological challenges and privacy risks (not to mention its potential to create a culture of paranoia). We see similar risks in smart buildings, with their ubiquitous cameras and sensors and voice interfaces. We might also wonder if remote, automated data collection will minimize the need for planners and construction foremen to monitor conditions on-site.

We have buildings planned, designed, and fabricated with the aid of artificial intelligence. They’re infused with AI, in accordance with the recurring design dream of buildings that can think for themselves. And at the end of their functional lives, they could very well be demolished by an artificially-intelligent automaton.[74] Through these phases of architectural design, we encounter many familiar questions about the ethics of automation. Will automation liberate designers from the drudgery of drafting and data-crunching, will it eliminate their jobs, or will it allow for a complementary blending of human and machinic skills? When payroll and scheduling are robotized, what happens to the clerical staff? How might designers create automated design tools that balance efficiency and economy with other “human values,” like ecological stewardship and accessibility, in multiple senses of the term? How might AI-generated models promote sensitivity to environmental impact and the sustainable sourcing of materials; allow designers to attend to the full embodied experience of a building, including its acoustic and thermal conditions; and render the design process more open to diverse stakeholders or user groups? And how might contractors deploy robot fabricators to promote resource and energy conservation, while also improving human laborers’ working conditions – that is, if those laborers are still around? Finally, whose values and interests are built into those algorithms – and which bodies do we find in the studio, on the construction site, or in the fabrication lab or factory, altering and actualizing the algorithms’ output in polymers and plasterboard? This final questions – about which and whose intelligences are embedded in AI – pertains to every sector of design we’ve explored here.

To ensure the ethical application of AI in design, we have to make sure we’re both defining responsible parameters and operationalizing those parameters responsibly – and creatively. Where might human designers intervene in an automated workflow? Where might they reassert their agency? Could designers apply their design skills in designing subversive algorithms that generate aberrant aesthetics or embody radical politics? Will we eventually come to regard our Squarespace websites and Dreamcatcher edifices as aesthetically and politically retrograde – a form of AI authoritarianism, machine-learning mannerism, or GAN neo-Gothic?[75] In the calculative composition of our apps and architectures and apparel, we need to carefully consider both the ends and means of automation, to continually audit the algorithms and apparatae through which our material worlds are made.

[1] I am grateful to my research assistant Kevin Rogan, who aided with all stages of research and writing. I also owe a great debt of gratitude to Caroline Sinders, who offered valuable advice as I embarked on this project; to Ajla Aksamija, David Benjamin, Rune Madsen, and Andrew Witt, who generously responded to our queries about their own practice – and to Gerald Sim, Jason Hallstrom, and the Institute for Sensing and Embedded Network Systems Engineering at Florida Atlantic University, who kindly invited me to share my research-in-progress .

[2] AI Now:; FAT:;

[3] Much has been written about the application of AI in urban design and planning, too. See for instance, the voluminous research on “smart cities.” I have written several pieces on the topic. See, for instance, “A City Is Not a Computer,” Places Journal (February 2017):; and “Databodies in Codespace,” Places Journal (April 2018):

[4] See the Stitch Fix online personal shopping service; the Pureple closet organizer and outfit planner;’s suite of AI-generated models and styling applications; and Kim Kardashian’s Screenshop, which allows users to upload photos of looks they like and find where those items are for sale. These fashion examples are drawn from Sissi Cao, “Zac Posen Talks Fashion in the Era of Artificial Intelligence,” Observer (April 13, 2018):; Will Knight, “Amazon Has Developed an AI Fashion Designer,” MIT Technology Review (August 24, 2017):; Emily Matchar, “Artificial Intelligence Could Help Generate the Next Big Fashion Trends” Smithsonian Magazine (May 3, 2018):; Devorah Rose, “Commentary: AI’s Next Victim: Your Closet,” Fortune (March 15, 2018):; Arthur Zackiewicz, “AI, Visual Search and Retail’s Next Big Step,” WWD (April 16, 2018):

[5] See, for instance, Darrell M. West, The Future of Work: Robots, AI, and Automation (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2018).

[6] Quoted in Sissi Cao, “Zac Posen Talks Fashion in the Era of Artificial Intelligence,” Observer (April 13, 2018): See also Maghan McDowell, “Will AI Kill Creativity?” Business of Fashion (March 14, 2018):

[7] Emily Matchar, “Artificial Intelligence Could Help Generate the Next Big Fashion Trends” Smithsonian Magazine (May 3, 2018):

[8] Western Bonime, “Get Personal, The Future of Artificial Intelligence Design at Bitonti Studios,” Forbes (July 7, 2017):

[9] Anand Adhikari, “Titan Experimenting with Artificial Intelligence Led Product Design,” Business Today (December 15 2017):; Rob Metheson, “Design Tool Reveals a Product’s Many Possible Performance Tradeoffs,” MIT News (August 15, 2018):; Sergii Shanin, “How Artificial Intelligence Is Transforming Product Development and Design,” eTeam (December 18, 2017):

[10] Rob Girling, “AI and the Future of Design: What Will the Designer of 2025 Look Like?” O’Reilly (January 4, 2017):

[11] “Design Thinking for AI,” Artificial Intelligence Conference, New York, April 29 – May 2, 2018:

[12] Yaniv Leviathan, “Google Duplex: An AI System for Accomplishing Real-World Tasks Over the Phone,” Google AI Blog (May 8, 2018):; Clive Thompson, “May A.I. Help You?” New York Times Magazine (November 14, 2018):;

[13] Natasha Lomas, “Duplex Shows Google Failing at Ethical and Creative AI Design,” TechCrunch (May 10, 2018):

[14] “The IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems,” IEEE Standards Association: See also Alan F.T. Winfield and Marina Jirotka, “Ethical Governance is Essential to Building Trust in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Systems,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences (October 15, 2018):

[15] “The Tarot Cards of Tech,” Artefact:

[16] Rune Madsen, personal communication, February 1, 2019. See also Madsen, “The User Experience of Design Systems,” (2017):

[17] “About Wix ADI,” Wix:; Logojoy:; Tailor Brands: See also Yury Vetrov, “Algorithm-Driven Design”:

[18] The Grid:

[19] Rune Madsen, personal communication, February 1, 2019.

[20] Chris Constandse, “How AI-Driven Website Builders will Change the Digital Landscape,” UX Collective (October 12, 2018):

[21] MIX, “Airbnb Built an AI That Turns Design Sketches Into Product Source Code,” The Next Web (October 25, 2017):;

[22] Jason Tselentis, “When Websites Design Themselves,” Wired (September 20, 2017):

[23] Quoted in Tselentis.

[24] Simone Browne, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015); The Open Data Science Community, “The Impact of Racial Bias in Facial Recognition Software,” Medium (October 15, 2018):; Tom Simonite, “How Coders are Fighting Bias in Facial Recognition Software,” Wired (March 29, 2018): See also the work of Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru, including Joy Bulamwini and Timnit Gebru, “Gender Shades: Intersectional Accuracy Disparities in Commercial Gender Classification,” Proceedings of Machine Learning Research 8:1 (2018): 1-15.

[25] “Adjust and Exaggerate Facial Features,” Adobe (n.d.) [accessed January 15, 2019):; James Vincent, “Adobe’s Prototype AI Tools Let You Instantly Edit Photos and Videos,” The Verge (October 24, 2017):

[26] Fabricio Teixeira, “How AI Has Started to Impact Our Work as Designers,” UX Collective (October 31, 2017):

[27] Yury Vetrov, “Algorithm-Driven Design: How Artificial Intelligence Is Changing Design,” Smashing Magazine (January 3, 2017):

[28] Rron Beqiri, “A.I. Architectural Intelligence,” Future Architecture (May 4, 2016):; Hannah Wood, “The Architecture of Artificial Intelligence,” Archinect (March 8, 2017):

[29] Kathleen M. O’Donnell, “Embracing Artificial Intelligence in Architecture,” AIA (March 2, 2018): Design agency CEO Nate Miller proposes that “BIM is often positioned as a production tool, a way to generate a deliverable, but these are actually data-rich resources tied to a firm’s particular knowledge base that can be used to make informed decisions about a portfolio or future design prospects.” One existing platform for industry-wide data collection and sharing is the Building Information Research Knowledgebase.

[30] Raghav Bharadwaj, “AI Applications in Construction and Building – Current Use-Cases,” Emerj (November 29, 2018):

[31] Kevin Rogan, personal communication with Ajla Aksamija, February 7, 2019 (Rogan is my research assistant).

[32] Phil Bernstein, “How Can Architects Adapt to the Coming Age of AI?” Architect’s Newspaper (November 22, 2017):

[33] Molly Wright Steenson, Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017): 9.

[34] Sébastien Lucas, “Artificial Intelligence (AI) in Architecture. What are the Practical Applications?” futur archi (July 2017):

[35] Quoted in Steenson: 13.

[36] Phil Bernstein, “How Can Architects Adapt to the Coming Age of AI?” Architect’s Newspaper (November 22, 2017):

[37] Shannon Mattern and Kevin Rogan, personal communication with Andrew Witt, February 4, 2018. Witt referenced architect Yona Friedman’s 1967 Flatwriter computer program, which, he says, enabled “sets of people to ethically design an apartment complex,” with each person’s input “creat[ing] a set of trade-offs and choices for other people.” There was a “sociological model encapsulate in the software system,” which creates a “political framework [for] felicitous housing development.” I’m indebted to Bryan Boyer for directing me to Certain Measures’ work.

[38] Patrick Hebron, “Rethinking Design Tools in the Age of Machine Learning,” Artists and Machine Intelligence (April 26, 2017):

[39] Molly Wright Steenson, Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017): 9-10.

[40] Adobe Dreamcatcher:

[41] Mark Sullivan, “This Algorithm Might Design Your Next Office,” WeWork Blog (July 31, 2018):

[42] Carl Anderson, Carlo Bailey, and Andrew Heumann, and Daniel Davis, “Augmented Space Planning: Using Procedural Generation to Automate Desk Layouts,’ International Journal of Architectural Computing 16:2 (2018): 165. The authors write: “Firms do not often treat their collective work as queryable data, and typical contractual models in the architecture, engineering, and construction industry rarely permit the design team to monitor or evaluate post-construction design performance. This is why we believe this type of research is currently best suited to certain architectural types, such as retail, offices, and healthcare: spaces where the designs are consistent, the success metrics clear, and the layouts somewhat repeatable” (175). See also Certain Measures’ Spatial Insight and Spatial Optioneering projects:;

[43] Shannon Mattern and Kevin Rogan, personal communication with Andrew Witt, February 4, 2018.

[44] Mark Sullivan, “This Algorithm Might Design Your Next Office,” WeWork Blog (July 31, 2018):

[45] Quoted in Sam Lubell, “Will Algorithms Be the New Architects?” Dwell (July 27, 2018):

[46] Hannah Wood, “The Architecture of Artificial Intelligence,” Archinect (March 8, 2017):

[47] Italics mine. Patrick Hebron, “Rethinking Design Tools in the Age of Machine Learning,” Artists and Machine Intelligence (April 26, 2017):

[48] Quoted in Kathleen M. O’Donnell, “Embracing Artificial Intelligence in Architecture,” AIA (March 2, 2018):

[49] Quoted in Sam Lubell, “Will Algorithms Be the New Architects?” Dwell (July 27, 2018):

[50] Kevin Rogan, personal communication with David Benjamin, December 17, 2018.

[51] Shannon Mattern and Kevin Rogan, personal communication with Andrew Witt, February 4, 2018.

[52] “depthmapx: visual and spatial network analysis software,” The Bartlett School of Architecture:

[53] ClashMEP: See also Certain Measures’ Topological Wiring:

[54] Kevin Rogan, personal communication with Ajla Aksamija, February 7, 2019.

[55] See the MIT Media Lab’s Materiable haptic interface: and Hannah Wood, “The Architecture of Artificial Intelligence,” Archinect (March 8, 2017):

[56] Quoted in Wasim Muklashy, “How Machine Learning in Architecture is Liberating the Role of the Designer,” Redshift (May 3, 2018): Matter Design Studio uses computational methods to explore ancient knowledge and sensory experience. See I am indebted to @KeysWalletPh0ne for recommending their work.

[57] Quoted in Hannah Wood, “The Architecture of Artificial Intelligence,” Archinect (March 8, 2017):

[58] Kevin Rogan, personal communication with David Benjamin, December 17, 2018 (Rogan is my research assistant). See also Cristina Cogdell, Toward a Living Architecture? Complexism and Biology in Generative Design (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

[59] Molly Wright Steenson, Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017): 61.

[60] Quoted in Molly Wright Steenson, Architectural Intelligence: How Designers and Architects Created the Digital Landscape (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2017): 61.

[61] Kevin Rogan, personal communication with Ajla Aksamija, February 7, 2019.

[62] Quoted in Steenson: 13.

[63] Otis Harley, “The Architecture of Artificial Intelligence,” Archinect (May 8, 2018)

:; Niall Patrick Walsh, “Carlo Ratti Associati’s Proposed Milan Science Campus Features Robotically-Assembled Brick Facades,” ArchDaily (August 7, 2018):

[64] Some predict that 3D printing will catalyze a “resurgence of detail and ornamentation.” Hannah Wood, “The Architecture of Artificial Intelligence,” Archinect (March 8, 2017): See also the work of Michael Handmeyer and Benjamin Dillenburger, and Gramazio Fabio and Matthias Kohler.

[65] Richard Moss, “Creative AI: Algorithms and Robot Craftsmen Open New Possibilities in Architecture,” New Atlas (February 23, 2015):

[66] Mario Carpo, “Excessive Resolution: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Architectural Design,” Architectural Record (June 1, 2018):

[67] Shannon Mattern and Kevin Rogan, personal communication with Andrew Witt, February 4, 2018; Certain Measures, “Mine the Scrap Installation”:

[68] See the work of AI SpaceFactory:; Eric Baldwin, “Architecture Startup AI SpaceFactory Reveals Smart Skyscrapers that Integrate Technology and Design,” ArchDaily (October 17, 2018):

[69] See, for instance, the ALICE scheduling technology, which allows users to optimize their construction schedules, “big more aggressively ,win more bids, and amaze your customers”: Alice:

[70] Jose Luis Blanco, Steffen Fuchs, Matthew Parsons, and Maria Joao Ribeirinho, “Artificial Intelligence: Construction Technology’s Next Frontier,” McKinsey & Company (April 2018):; Jenny Clavero, “Artificial Intelligence in Construction: The Future of Construction,” esub: construction software (January 23, 2018): The image management platform uses machine learning to review and tag photos and videos of the jobsite, and then suggest safety measures. All this footage is stored and made searchable, rendering it a useful resource in potential lawsuits.

[71] Autodesk University, “The Rise of AI and Machine Learning in Construction,” Autodesk University (December 21, 2017):; Anand Rajagopal, “The Rise of AI and Machine Learning in Construction,” Autodesk University (December 21, 2017):

[72] Elizabeth Woyke, “AI Could Help the Construction Industry Work Faster — and Keep Its Workforce Accident-Free,” MIT Technology Review (June 12, 2018):

[73] Kevin Krewell and Tirias Research, “NVIDIA and Komatsu Partner on AI-Based Intelligent Equipment for Improved Safety and Efficiency,” Forbes (December 12, 2017):; Raghav Bharadwaj, “AI Applications in Construction and Building – Current Use-Cases,” Emerj (November 29, 2018):

[74] I’m grateful to Kevin Rogan for the conversations that generated much of this concluding section.


Full-Professor Review

Nick White, via It’s Nice That 

In June 2017 I submitted my dossier for “rank review” — the non-lethal review for promotion to full professor. Unlike the tenure review, this procedure wasn’t “up or out.” In other words, if I failed, I wouldn’t be fired; I’d simply remain an Associate Professor.

Well, folks, I passed. I received the good news late last spring, and I met with the various deans involved in my review last month for a heartening debriefing meeting.

While compiling my tenure dossier six years earlier, I found tons of online guides and helpful tips on the Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. I wrote a few cathartic blog posts about my dossier-ing process: one about the torture of writing my statement of purpose, one about the dossier’s content, one about the submission process, and one celebrating my relief (at having passed) by offering my personal statement to the Gods.

But I found very little public discussion about, and very few tips for, the full-professor dossier. Since I apparently did something right in my own rank review (thanks, in no small part, to an excellent editorial review by a generous senior colleague), I figured I’d share some of my dossier materials — my statement of purpose and table of contents — in the hope that they’ll be useful for others.

As you’ll see in my statement, below the TOC, I aimed to achieve a few specific goals:

  • I sought to describe the integration of my scholarship, teaching, and service — to demonstrate how all three areas of responsibility informed and advanced one another (yes, this required a bit of rhetorical massaging and revisionist history);
  • I aimed to find a cohesive, coherent framework for my eclectic, purposefully undisciplined work. I realized that an external reviewer might see my publications and talks and projects — which are strewn across architecture, urban studies, media studies, art, library science, and geography (and beyond) — and wonder what kind of a weird mongrel I am. I had to show that that medley was methodical (even if it wasn’t). By presenting myself as a “mediator” between disciplines, and between fields of scholarship and practice, I aligned myself with the core intellectual concerns of my home discipline, Media Studies. But then, in order to dispel fears of interdisciplinary dilettantism, I also had to demonstrate that my work has been recognized and validated by folks in the other disciplines with which I’m in dialogue.
  • I justified my choice to publish primarily in open-access (and sometimes para-academic) venues by framing these platforms as consistent with the values — and aesthetics — that are central to my work.
  • In the teaching section, I aimed to display the range of courses I’ve taught, identify the principles that unite them, highlight my successes, non-defensively contextualize the struggles — and frame those challenges as opportunities for me to practice resilience and adaptability.
  • In the service section, I aimed to convey both the volume and quality of my service. Having served on close to a hundred internal and external faculty reviews, I’ve seen lots of “service” narratives that are simply a lifeless list of committees. And what’s more, many candidates provide no evidence of their service in the dossier appendices. If we’re to value good university citizenship — and ensure that service is equitably distributed — we need to do a much better job of accounting for our own contributions and asking other to do the same. So, in my dossier, I sought to describe my concrete contributions in each committee or appointment; link those service activities, whenever possible, to the skills and interests that animate my scholarship and teaching; offer some indirect evidence that my colleagues must apparently regard me as a collegial, reliable collaborator; and convey my ongoing commitment to being a good citizen in my department, school, university, and larger community.

Below, you’ll find my seven-page table of contents (which includes only my post-tenure work), and below that, my personal statement.

Nick White


Spring 2017 was perhaps the season when “epistemological” became a household word. Or close to it. The term appeared with increasing regularity in major newspapers, and lots of people were questioning the state of “facts,” the party politics of datasets, and the veracity of evidentiary records. It was thrilling to see such heady topics enter public discourse, but the circumstances surrounding their rise were really quite tragic. The White House’s new occupants equated “truth” with the “strong beliefs” of a president who took his briefings from cable news and conspiracy theorists. This was an era of Wikileaks and ransomware, of rogue federal agency Twitter feeds and disappearing climate data. Meanwhile, the climate itself was threatening our scientific repositories: melting Arctic permafrost flooded the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Norway’s “doomsday” archive of biodiversity. Amidst all this eco-precarity, cyber-insecurity, and epistemological uncertainty bloomed a thousand counter-forces: virtual private networks, encrypted streams, and citizen archivists who sought to preserve security, uphold accountability, and embrace the pursuit of truth.

How do these institutions and individuals – executive branches and courts, intelligence agencies and archives, news organizations and informal networks of activists – inform what we know to be true? How, by creating and preserving or redacting and discarding various media, do they cultivate the epistemological ground upon which we tend our cultural narratives and public knowledges? Such questions have animated my work – in publication and creative scholarship, in the classroom, in my service at The New School, and in the local and global communities – for the past eighteen years. I’ve been examining how material infrastructures mediate intellectual infrastructures, and vice versa – how our material world, and the spaces and objects we design within it, both shape and are shaped by our structures of thought. And because different infrastructures are typically entwined, or nested within one another, my exploration has traversed scales: from the scale of the object (the book, the file card, the field guide, the screen, the interface, the desk, the closet), to the architectural scale (the library, the archive, the urban intervention, the control center, the exhibition, the subterranean repository), to the urban scale (ancient urban record-keeping and acoustics, computational urban visions at the World’s Fairs, contemporary smart cities), to the scale of the networks and “clouds” that link together and extend beyond these other sites of mediation (logistical systems, data flows, ubiquitous surveillance, technical standards, cultural conventions).

To take a concrete example of this scalar integration: the classification scheme begets the filing system, which begets the filing cabinet, which begets the office, which begets the skyscraper, which begets urban form, and so on. The data model begets the interface design, which cultivates the user experience, which constructs the user as a certain kind of “subject” and embodies a particular epistemology and ideology. These systems of influence (and I do stress influence, rather than determinism) work in both directions: from the macro to the micro scale, from the material to the conceptual, and back again. We can find countless historical and contemporary instantiations – and even speculative future visions – of this chain of infrastructural influence (it’s not hard to imagine a Google-governed global brain!). Such systematic thinking has informed all areas of my professional practice: my scholarship, my teaching, and even my service, as I’ve observed how the various material and ideological and bureaucratic dimensions of an institution are integrated.

My work has been grounded in several fields of exploration within media studies. First, ever since my undergraduate days I’ve drawn on theories of media’s materiality, which compel us to examine not only what’s projected on the screen or printed on the page, but to look at the screen and the page themselves, as well as the cultural conventions and technical apparatae informing their production, distribution, and consumption. Marshall McLuhan and Harold Innis provided early material inspiration, and I supplemented this foundation with the work of German culture and media theorists like Walter Benjamin and Cornelia Vismann, anthropologists like Arjun Appadurai and Daniel Miller, feminist scholars like Donna Haraway and N. Katherine Hayles, and media historians and theorists including Lisa Gitelman, Jonathan Sterne, and Matthew Kirschenbaum. Lynn Spigel and Beatriz Colomina, both of whom examine the materiality of media architectures (and the epistemologies they embody), have been guiding forces for my research since graduate school. Second, and related, is the field of media archaeology, particularly the work of Friedrich Kittler, Jussi Parikka, and Markus Krajewski, who shares my nerdy interest in index cards and classification schemes. Media archaeology arrived, via new German-to-English translations, at the perfect time for me (and for other scholars and artists): it provided a corrective to all the breathless new-media scholarship espousing a placeless, disembodied, frictionless digital future. By questioning the newness of “new media” and focusing on alternative material histories of media, media archaeologists drew my attention to deeper histories and to other materially oriented disciplines like archaeology proper. Finally, I’ve found the cross-disciplinary work in information and media infrastructures to provide a capacious framework for my wide-ranging research and teaching interests. Information scientists Geoffrey Bowker and Paul Edwards, sociologist Susan Leigh Star, and media scholars Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski, and John Durham Peters have helped to create an infrastructural community for my own infrastructure research. And this work has inspired me to think of my teaching as a means of providing supportive infrastructures for my students’ work.

While I am clearly rooted in media studies, the field in which I earned my PhD and in which I’m based at The New School, I draw on those other disciplines I studied in graduate school, and which continue to inform my work: architecture, urban studies, geography, and library and information science. These other-disciplinary lenses have helped me to think through the “nested infrastructures,” both material and intellectual, I mentioned earlier. I’ve been delighted to discover that my work has resonated strongly in these other fields. I’ve been invited to publish and present in geography and architecture venues, to teach in urban programs, to lead design schools, to keynote archivists’ and librarians’ conferences, and to help build disciplinary infrastructures within and between these and other fields. I was even invited to serve as multimedia editor of the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians and to consider becoming a strategist for one of the U.S.’s top library systems.

Yet I’ve remained where I am because this intra-infrastructural space suits me. It’s where I do my best work. I’ve been pleased to hear repeatedly that my respectful and purposeful approach to interdisciplinarity – my willingness to read the literature in other fields, to speak humbly with people in other fields, to acknowledge the specialized labor in those other fields, to see the connections between disparate fields – has allowed me to win the respect, and my work to win the recognition, of scholars and practitioners in diverse areas. My grounding in media studies has enabled me to serve as a mediator between these various spaces of thought and practice. The New School has provided an ideal home for me to do this work with students and colleagues, with local collaborators, and with globally distributed academic and professional communities. The university’s pedagogical, epistemological, and social infrastructures – traversing disciplines and bridging design and social research, theory and practice, university and city, local and global, scholarship and public engagement – have both scaffolded my own development and enabled me to help build frameworks for my students’, my colleagues’, and the institution’s own growth.

I have proven myself an active scholar and creative practitioner, engaged at the international scale in my scholarly field and various areas of professional and creative practice. I’ve published and presented widely. I have proven myself a dedicated and talented teacher and advisor, serving Media Studies and a variety of programs throughout the university, as well as a global network of students. And I have proven myself a dedicated and attentive university and community citizen, serving in administrative posts and on boards and many committees, liaising between existing programs and professional fields, mentoring faculty, working collegially with staff, and helping The New School and other institutions to envision their futures. The New School has recognized my work with awards for my teaching and research, and students have acknowledged my dedication and skill through their positive evaluations and continued contact for years after they’ve graduated. My New School colleagues have also acknowledged my collegiality through their continued invitations to join them in the important work of mentoring, advising, and institution-building. I hope to continue cultivating these mutually beneficial relationships by taking on new leadership roles, and for this reason I am seeking promotion to full professor at The New School.

In this dossier I will reflect on my scholarship, teaching, and citizenship, in that order. In the process, I will refer to the documents in the appendices, which demonstrate my contributions to my department, to the university, to the academy, and to global communities of practice. The volume of material and the size of my image-intensive files have prevented me from combining all of this material into a single pdf. Instead, you’ll find six separate sections: (1) this introductory section, with the table of contents, my c.v., and this personal statement; (2-4) Appendix A, which includes evidence of my scholarship and creative and professional practice, and which, because of its size, is broken into three parts; (5) Appendix B, which includes evidence of my teaching and advising; and (6) Appendix C, which includes evidence of my citizenship. Please see the table of contents, above, as well as the tables of contents at the beginning of each appendix, for more information about what is included in each section. I have not used continuous pagination; each appendix is numbered separately. In what follows, when I refer to material in the appendices, I’ll note the appendix letter and page number(s); thus, a reference to Appendix A, Part 1, pages 3-11 will be formatted as such: (A1:3-11).

One final note: Much of my work is born-digital, or has been thoroughly documented on digital platforms. This online documentation does not always readily lend itself to capture in the form of a static pdf. While I have attempted to include pdfs of all critical resources in this dossier, those documents sometimes are infelicitously formatted and, with all their superfluous whitespace and junk code, unnecessarily long. I encourage you to view my born-digital material in its native digital format, and I provide URLs to enable you to do so.


INFRASTRUCTURES OF PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE. Since Summer 2011 I have published one short-form book, thirty-two articles (plus five translations and reprints), six book chapters (some of them reprints of journal articles), and four book/exhibition/multimedia reviews. Another full-length monograph is scheduled for publication in November of 2017, and (at least) six more articles and seven more chapters are due to be published by Summer 2018. All books are available in Appendix A.1, articles in Appendix A.2, and chapters and reviews in Appendix A.3. I also have two more books, a monograph and an edited collection, in development. My work has been cited widely, in disparate fields, and has led to many global invitations for me to contribute additional publications and present my research. Over the past six years those presentations have included roughly eighty invited talks (on nearly sixty different topics), including six plenary or keynote addresses, and fourteen academic conferences, including two for which I organized panel discussions. I have many more such presentations, at notable venues, lined up for the coming year and beyond.

I’ve also been offered five fellowships – including a Spring 2016 senior fellowship at the Internationales Institut für Kulturtechnologieforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM) at the Bauhaus University in Weimar, Germany, which is among the most prestigious fellowships in media studies – as well as one invitational curatorial position and another invitational faculty position, two individual grants, and five collaborative grants (A3:322-42). In addition, I’ve organized or co-organized eight public conferences, symposia, event series, exhibitions, and/or scholarly platforms. I am including this work in the Scholarship section of this dossier (A3:247-313) rather than the Service section because it demonstrates a high degree of disciplinary knowledge, interdisciplinary integration, and professional skill, and it has created infrastructures for the development of further scholarly and creative work by various academic and creative communities – and particularly by my students. Many of these events have, in fact, been integrated into my classes. Such platforms represent another means of “making public” my scholarly and creative work, yet they have the distinction of inviting others to contribute, in real-time, to the creation of new knowledge.

This concern with public knowledge infrastructures has also informed my choice of venues for publication. Particularly since receiving tenure I’ve become much more attuned to publication platforms themselves as knowledge infrastructures. I’ve actively sought out venues whose operational values match the values I espouse in my research – openness and accessibility (and, equally important, good design!) – as well as those that The New School embraces through its commitment to public scholarship and civic engagement. Thus, I’ve steered away from those peer-reviewed publications that are secured behind paywalls and rely on uncompensated editorial labor while their parent companies uphold exploitative copyright policies and charge exorbitant subscription fees. I’ve focused instead on open-access venues. Most of my articles are freely available online, and even my 2015 book, Deep Mapping the Media City, published by the University of Minnesota Press, has been made available through the Mellon Foundation-funded Manifold open-access publishing platform. In those cases in which I have been asked to contribute work to a restricted peer-reviewed journal or costly edited volume, I’ve often negotiated with the publisher to allow me to “pre-print” my work as an article in an open-access online venue, or to preview an un-edited copy.

I’ve been invited to address the ethics and epistemologies of scholarly publishing and pedagogical platforms in a variety of venues, including the Columbia University Center for Digital Research and Scholarship, the Bard Graduate Center, Fordham University’s Digital Pedagogy Workshop, the Cornell Conversations in Digital Humanities Series, and the CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative (you’ll find a full list of my presentations in A3:314-21). I also often chat with graduate students and junior scholars about their own “publication politics” and appropriate venues for their work, and I review their prospectuses and manuscripts.

The most personally rewarding and professionally valuable publishing experience of my post-tenure career has been my collaboration with Places Journal, a highly regarded non-profit, university-supported, open-access venue for public scholarship on landscape, architecture, urbanism. After having written thirteen (fifteen by Fall 2017) long-form pieces for Places since 2012, I’ve effectively assumed their “urban data and mediated spaces” beat (you’ll find my Places publications, along with all of my articles, in Appendix A2). I work with paid, professional editors who care not only about subject matter – they’re just as much domain experts as any academic peer reviewer I’ve encountered – but also about clarity and style and visual presentation. My research and writing process for Places is no less time- and labor-intensive, and the editorial process is no less rigorous, than would be required for a traditional academic publication, but Places (and my work with other open-access venues) allows my work to reach a global, interdisciplinary audience in a timely manner, via a smartly designed platform that allows for rich illustration. This public scholarship has a different “impact” than pay-walled publications in prestige journals. Yet the response to my work on social media, the number of citations it’s received (in both scholarly and popular literature), and the number of invitations it’s generated, suggest the promise of such alternative infrastructures for academic publishing. By making my work open and accessible, I’ve still managed to meet many of the prestige- and scarcity-driven markers of academic excellence (for more on my work’s impact, see A3:343).

MEDIA OBJECTS. My work often starts with the small and concrete, with a particular media object, and then demonstrates how big and complex that small thing is when we situate it within its broader cultural, political-economic, and infrastructural contexts. One such object is the file. I’ve spoken at ArtCenter College of Design and the University of Amsterdam about how humble index cards, folders, and fiches constitute the formal and functional bases of our organizational and computing systems, and how they establish a logic and ideology for the ways we organize the world. As I describe in my “Indexing the World” “Small, Moving Parts,” and “Bureaucracy’s Playthings” articles, files are mediators of larger epistemologies and ontologies, from the institutional to the global scale. Zines, too, are modest media objects whose format embodies an ethic of production and a community’s politics. My “Click/Scan/Bold” article examines the state of architectural design and discourse through the rise of architects’ little magazines and zines in the early aughts. I was invited to further address the politics of “little” publications for Arquine, a Mexican design magazine, and at Paper Tiger Television’s 30th anniversary workshop in 2012.

And as the daughter of a cabinetmaker, I’ve long considered the functional, affective, and even intellectual dimensions of furniture: how a particular bookshelf structures my engagement with media and frames my intellectual labor. I began my work on “intellectual furnishings” – the epistemologies embodied in desks, chairs, and media storage equipment – as a 2014-15 fellow at The New School’s Graduate Institute of Design, Ethnography and Social Thought, and I continued this work as a 2016 senior fellow at the IKKM. I’ve been invited to present this work elsewhere: at the University of Buffalo’s Media Study program, in Columbia University’s “Book History” colloquium, and as part of the “Critical Infrastructure Studies” panel at the 2018 Modern Language Association conference. And I have published, and am publishing, parts of this research in Harvard Design Magazine; VOLUME, a prominent Dutch architecture magazine; Places Journal; and Perspecta, Yale’s architecture journal. This research also informed my contributions to “Furnishing the Cloud,” a 2015 New School exhibition exploring ergonomics for the cloud-computing era (A3:298); as well as my work with Parsons’ Architecture program and the New York Public Library’s Correctional Services to design new book carts for the librarians in New York’s correctional facilities. We documented our work in a self-published book (A3:108).

I’ll be expanding this furniture research in my next monograph, tentatively titled Case Studies: An Intellectual History of Media Furniture, and [REDACTED]. Other “epistemological tools” and equipment – from time-telling devices to archival and urban interfaces – have been the subject of many talks and publications, including my “Interfacing Urban Intelligence” and “Animated Aberrations” articles. I’ve shared this work in a variety of venues, from Utrecht University, to the VERGE Transdisciplinary Design conference at The New School, to a transportation infrastructure symposium at the Center for Architecture in New York.

I also study the infrastructural lessons embodied in individual artworks and exhibitions. I was invited to speak about “archival aesthetics” – what archive-inspired artwork can teach us about the ideologies and epistemologies of archival practices – as a keynote at the 2014 “Digital Preservation” conference at the Library of Congress, and as an invited faculty member at the 2015 Princeton-Weimar Summer School on “Archive Futures.” I emphasize that these aesthetics are more than visual; multisensorial ways of knowing have long been a theme in my work. I was invited to lead a panel on multisensory exhibition design at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012, and I then examined these “embodied” curatorial techniques for the Senses & Society journal (A2:453). I’ve also written about the infrastructural intelligences underlying a number of other artworks: Brian Tolle’s Threshold installation at The New School (A3:16), artist Simon Denny’s Secret Power project at the 2015 Venice Biennale (A2:4), and artist Zoe Beloff’s media archaeological installations (A2:177).

The archive itself, and the mediated objects within its collection, have been common themes in my work, too. In various invited presentations – at UnionDocs, Poets House, the New Museum, and the new National Audiovisual Institute in Warsaw, Poland – and in various publications I’ve discussed sound archives, social media archives, and archival infrastructures for marginalized communities. My “Media Archaeology of Poetry and Sound” and “Preserving Yesterday’s Tech” articles focus on sound archives and the challenges of preserving volatile media archives. And to celebrate the accomplishments of the legendary NYPL Labs, the library’s recently shuttered R&D unit, its former director and I published an interview about building archival infrastructures for urban memory (A2:88). I address related issues about the library as a mediator and bulwark for public information literacy and privacy in my “Public In/Formation” article.

MEDIA ARCHITECTURES. The archive and library as physical spaces, as media architectures, have been primary concerns since my dissertation. At invited talks at Johns Hopkins, Smith College, the Pratt Institute, the Yale School of Architecture, and elsewhere (including a keynote at the 2014 Rare Books and Manuscripts Librarians’ [RBMS] national gathering) I’ve discussed the value of imagining these institutions as architectural and media infrastructures. My “Library as Infrastructure” article has circulated widely, was recently translated in Bahasa Indonesian, and inspired a 2016 interview in a Dutch information science magazine (A2:227). I’ve also written, in “Middlewhere” and “Behind New York’s Library Networks,” about the widely distributed physical and digital logistical systems connecting branch libraries, research institutions, and media repositories. Some of those repositories are housed in reclaimed limestone and salt mines. I’ve examined these massive “geologic” archives, where we aim to preserve our media artifacts for a posthuman future, for Harvard’s New Geographies. At the opposite scale are small pop-up, guerilla libraries, from Occupy camps to street-corner book-shares. I’ve written about how these “little libraries” reflect our relationships to privatized, restricted information resources and urban landscapes (A2:606).

Many of these media storage infrastructures embody contradictory values: closing off in order to keep open the possibility of access over the longue durée, and adopting logistical systems perfected in the private sector in order to optimize a public service. Several colleagues and I explored such political issues in our “Democratizing the Archives” working group, supported by a 2012-13 Innovations in Education Grant. My own work has examined media architectures embodying ideologies quite far removed from those of the democratic public library. I’ve written, for example, about surveillant “smart city” command centers and the history of the “urban dashboard” in “Mission Control,” a widely circulated article that was later anthologized in two edited collections.

MEDIA CITIES. The so-called “smart city” has been the subject of many of my recent articles in Places and other venues, and of several events in which I’ve participated (and some of which I’ve helped to organize; see, e.g., A3:248). My articles “Interfacing Urban Intelligence,” “Methodolatry and the Art of Measure,” and particularly “Instrumental City,” about the smart technologies and techno-solutionist ideologies embedded in New York’s Hudson Yards development (A2:244), have been cited widely, and have led to many speaking invitations (including a recent invitation to deliver a keynote in China, which I sadly had to decline).

In addition to critiquing “smart” infrastructures and computational models of urbanity, I also aim to promote alternative urban visions and historical frameworks for thinking about data-driven planning. My “Paju Bookcity: The Next Chapter” article, completed with the support of a visiting scholarship from the Korea Foundation (A3:338), examines a South Korean media enclave where book publishers and other media companies have taken a stand against rampant technological development and reckless urban growth. “A City Is Not a Computer” and “Auditing Urban Intelligence” – a piece co-authored with 21 students in my Spring 2017 “Urban Intelligence” class, and slated for publication in MIT Press’s Leonardo Electronic Almanac – examine other situated, embodied, social, local, low-tech, and non-human intelligences embedded in our cities. The “Indexical Landscapes” symposium I organized in 2015 for the Media Design Practices program at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA, likewise considered various landscapes, like factory farms and container ports, that “index” their own logics of operation (A3:275). These are not new phenomena. My “Deep Time of Media Infrastructure” chapter, my “Of Mud, Media, and the Metropolis” article, and my forthcoming book, Code and Clay, Data and Dirt: 5000 Years of Urban Media, all historicize the “smart city,” demonstrating that cities always have been “responsive” mediated environments. As I write in the introduction to the book,
For millennia, our cities have been designed to foster “broadcast”; they’ve been “wired” for transmission; they’ve hosted architectures for the production and distribution of various forms of intelligence and served as hubs for records-management; they’ve rendered themselves “readable” to humans and machines; they’ve even written their “source code,” their operating instructions, on their facades and into the urban form itself. They’ve coded themselves both for the administrative technologies, or proto-algorithms, that oversee their operation and for the people who have built and inhabit and maintain them.

MAPPING INFRASTRUCTURES. Over the years I’ve also explored methods for excavating the deep history of urban mediation and identifying its historic infrastructures. One such method is mapping. My 2015 short-form book, Deep Mapping the Media City, based on a keynote address I delivered at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies in 2013, was written to serve as a teaching text and methodological provocation. Drawing on our work in my 2010-13 “Urban Media Archaeology” studio (B:234), I propose multisensory cartography as a means of examining the richly intertwined infrastructures of our mediated cities. This work has generated some excitement among geographers, who have invited me to talk and write about “maps as media” in their own disciplinary venues (for more about the impact of my mapping work, see A3:343). Sound mapping offers particular methodological challenges and opportunities. My “Ear to the Wire” article and “Sonic Archaeology” chapter, which I began developing in a 2012 fellowship at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (A3:342), examine what we can learn by listening to cities past.

Yet these cartographic and sensory methods apply equally well to contemporary investigations. My “Infrastructural Tourism” article, which surveys methods for mediating and experiencing infrastructure (communications infrastructure in particular), has led to many talks and master classes, from Amsterdam to Sydney (A3:314, B:9). I extended this research in my 2016 “Cloud and Field” article, which explores “extreme” infrastructural field work in which researchers and designers seek to “visit” The Cloud – our global atmospheric information infrastructure – and develop field guides in various media forms to trace their journeys. Here, we see that nesting of infrastructures I mentioned earlier: tiny field guides function to illuminate a vast media geography. These methods have proven to be illuminating and provocative pedagogical strategies, both in my own classes and in other universities, where faculty have incorporated my work into their syllabi. Multisensory cartographic methods serve as both intellectual and material “scaffolding” (as I describe in a chapter for the Routledge Companion to Media Studies and Digital Humanities) for teaching and learning about mediated objects, architectures, infrastructures, cities, and landscapes (A3:74).


TEACHING RESPONSIBILITIES. Many of the courses I teach are inspired by, or have inspired, my scholarship. Since Fall 2011 I have taught nine different classes: required and elective; lecture, seminar, and studio; theory, production, and hybrid-format; graduate-only and mixed grad/undergrad. These courses regularly attract students from across the university. Both my Fall 2016 “Maps as Media” and Spring 2017 “Urban Intelligence” classes, for instance, drew students from eight different graduate and undergraduate programs. As I’ll address in the Citizenship section below, The New School has sought to encourage such cross-program integration, and I’ve been a part of these initiatives both as a committee member and as a model of such integration.

Course codes, descriptions, and enrollments are listed on B:3-8. Appendix B features six of my classes, which represent a range of topics, pedagogical approaches, goals, and student populations. I begin with a traditional graduate seminar, “Bookshelves to Big Data,” which also happens to be one of my favorite classes. Next is a hybrid grad/undergrad, theory/practice studio, “Maps as Media”; followed by another hybrid course, “Urban Intelligence,” which was supported by an Innovations in Education Grant that allowed me give each student a $200 materials budget, thus encouraging some ambitious experimentation (and allowing me the great pleasure of reconciling lots of receipts!). My final featured course is “Understanding Media Studies,” a challenging and much debated “intro to grad studies”-style lecture course that’s been required of all of Media Studies’ first-semester MA students since 2008, yet which only seven of Media Studies’ 33 principal faculty have been asked to teach. I share this class to demonstrate how I’ve attempted to adapt to institutional change, evolving student needs, and (within reason) student demand.

I’ve also included the syllabi for two other representative and popular classes: my “Media and Architecture” seminar and my now-retired “Urban Media Archaeology” (UMA) studio, both of which were instrumental in the development of my new book, Code and Clay. For UMA, we partnered for four years with Parsons faculty and students to develop our own custom-designed, open-source mapping platform, the Urban Research Toolkit (URT), to feature the students’ research on historical urban media infrastructures (A3:313). After four years of volatility – of student developers and designers pulled from the project by prestigious internships and jobs, of unstable technical infrastructure and no promise of institutional preservation – we pulled the plug on URT, and I retired the course. Still, the class built atop that technical platform was a memorable success – one I was asked to share at numerous conferences, from UCLA to the Harvard metaLab to Bard College, and which I chronicled in my Deep Mapping book.

In the sections that follow I’ll highlight these six courses, as well as other courses I’ve developed, as I address my teaching philosophy and methods and my development as an instructor. In Appendix B you’ll find evidence of how I’ve operationalized these approaches in each class and through my advising. I’ve included not only syllabi, but also sample pages from the websites I build for each class (and which, students often note, are an integral part of our class’s organization and cohesion), sample class lessons and presentations, samples of student work, and samples of my feedback on students’ projects. (You can find additional syllabi and course materials in the Teaching section of my website,

TEACHING PHILOSOPHY. As a scholar inspired by architecture and infrastructure, I think of teaching as the collaborative creation of an infrastructure for students’ guided, self-directed, and, ultimately, life-long learning. Now, please pardon me while I belabor this metaphor: I begin constructing each class by laying a pedagogical and theoretical foundation and establishing a methodological framework. My students and I collectively build out the scaffolding, and then each student experiments and tests ideas and projects within that structure. Despite the collaborative nature of the job, it’s still my responsibility to plan meticulously and come prepared with all the necessary tools and supplies. My student evaluations demonstrate that I’m famously well prepared, and that my courses are consistently well organized. This prep work is essential: in order to create a space for students to explore their own interests through a variety of scholarly and creative forms, I’m responsible for introducing them to, and helping them to select carefully from, a variety of critical concepts, methods, and tools of presentation. In my “Maps” and “Urban Media Archaeology” classes, for example, we don’t simply make maps. We pull apart the map as a historical, political, technical, epistemological, and aesthetic medium. We explore diverse approaches to cartography, and then we make maps that have embedded within themselves gestures toward their own self-critique.

My pedagogical “infrastructuring” (to borrow a term from Susan Lee Star and Karen Ruhleder) is guided by a few hypotheses and bits of folk wisdom:

  • The small and local are infinitely big and complex. In the classroom we ask big questions: What constitutes fact or evidence? Whose experiences are excluded from the archive? How do maps define spatial ontologies? Do classification systems reify prejudices? What values should guide how we use technology in urban design? And in addressing those questions we engage with some big theories, from Foucault’s “archive” to Haraway’s “situated knowledge.” I’ve found that the most effective way to engage with those big ideas (particularly for theory neophytes) is to home in on a concrete “thing” – to start with a delimited case study, a modest field site, a familiar media object – then spiral out by exploring the networks and interlocking infrastructures that extend from that seemingly small thing, and concurrently pushing the analysis from the concrete to the abstract. In my “Urban Media Archaeology” and “Maps” classes, students investigate each week’s central theories and critical concepts through “map critiques,” which require them to start with a single cartographic object and build an analytical scaffolding that ultimately connects back to the week’s theoretical framework. In “Bookshelves,” too, students share “application exercises” that bring our theoretical readings to life in real-world places, things, exhibitions, and current events. Students’ evaluations indicate that they enjoy these exercises, which often evolve into their final projects.
  • The intellectual is material and ideological and aesthetic. We examine case studies through multiple lenses: aesthetic, political, and epistemological. The built spaces we survey in “Media as Architecture,” the “smart” infrastructures we explore in “Urban Intelligence,” the soundscapes we experience in “Sound and Space,” the media artifacts we collect in “Media and Materiality”: all lend themselves to such multifaceted analysis. And by examining what politics and epistemologies are embodied in our existing media objects and architectures, students can then imagine designing them otherwise. In “Bookshelves,” we worked with renowned speculative designers Fiona Raby and Tony Dunne to imagine physical and virtual interfaces for future knowledge repositories. And in “Urban Intelligence,” students developed proposals for intelligent cities that critique the “smart city” model; their work is featured on our class website and in an article we’ve jointly authored for Leonardo Electronic Almanac (A2:12).
  • Methods and tools are epistemological and political assemblages. All of my classes are, in one way or another, methodology classes. In “Bookshelves” we explore practices for organizing, digitizing, circulating, and preserving various media objects. In “Urban Intelligence” we interrogate data-driven planning. In “Understanding Media Studies,” we compare and contrast the various research methods and production strategies employed by our guests, who range from scholars to artists to engineers (I strive for multiple forms of diversity: 60% of our Spring 2017 guests were women and 60% were people of color). Through their analysis of existing work, students then recognize the weight of their own methodological and technical choices. My goals are to help students realize that methods and technologies are empowering political tools they can wield to effect change in the world, and that with that power comes ethical responsibility. The exhibitions they curate for “Media and Materiality” and the atlases they construct for “Maps” (which many students then integrate into their theses) are more than mere class assignments; they have the potential to become tools for social practice. And in Spring 2014, when I was asked to design a “Digital Archives” class to feature some newly acquired archival material, my students and I (without the promised technical support) partnered with the university’s archivists and devised our own methods for showcasing and contextualizing these materials while also honoring the archival labor that made them accessible.
  • Knowledge is embedded in people and places. For each lesson, I aim to develop a balanced collection of readings: I match challenging theoretical texts with accessible applications in public scholarship, then add technical or “grey” literature from professionals who enact those theories in their practice. We don’t just read about “The Archive” through Derrida. We also engage with the literature in library and archival science, and we enter the archive itself. Each fall my “Bookshelves” class descends into the bowels of the New York City Municipal Archives, where we talk to archivists as they process new acquisitions, to conservators as they preserve historic NYPD photos, and to digitization experts as they calibrate their equipment to digitize a set of maps. In “Urban Intelligence,” we began our Spring 2017 semester with a visit to Intersection, Alphabet’s urban tech division, to see their work in Hudson Yards, New York’s biggest “smart city” development. Later that semester, through a public event I co-organized with the renowned Storefront for Art and Architecture, students engaged with seventeen practitioners from such diverse fields as urban informatics, preservation, policy, anthropology, and more (A3:248). To take one final example: I redesigned “Understanding Media Studies” for its final iteration in Spring 2017 to incorporate more student engagement with our guest presenters’ larger bodies and communities of work, with assignments designed first to prepare the students to ask our guests smart and probing questions about their methods and motivations, and then to develop a critical response reflecting on those discussions and drawing parallels between our guests’ work and the students’ own goals (B:189-206). In short, I strive to demonstrate that theory and practice are not separate, hierarchically ordered worlds – one scholarly, the other applied. Embedded, embodied, situated knowledge enacted by skilled practitioners in our archives, administrative offices, map labs, design studios, and elsewhere serves as a critical anchor for, or perhaps an antidote to, ungrounded theory.
  • Theory is a cultural production. Finally, I aim to demystify (and, I’ll admit, desacralize) theory by helping students put it into context. Rather than reifying theory’s Great Men, we strive to historicize theoretical movements, investigate their politics, and examine what cultural or political-economic contexts, what “intellectual infrastructures,” might explain the rise of a particular thinker or idea at a particular time. We discuss theory as cultural symptom, as academic currency, as cultural capital, and as political instrument. Through this “profaning” of theoretical gospel, I hope to encourage students to regard theories not as truisms, but as critical apparatae that help us make sense of things, frameworks that help us ask questions, tools that help us do things in the world.

EVALUATION AND DEVELOPMENT. I frequently check in with my students throughout the semester about their progress and satisfaction with the class, and I carefully review their comments on my end-of-semester evaluations. Building on my 2011 Distinguished University Teaching Award, my post-2011 evaluations are strong, with most ratings in the top two categories. Students commonly express appreciation for my organization, knowledge, enthusiasm, and accessibility; for my ability to clearly explain complex texts and topics; for my skill in leading inclusive and engaging discussions; and for the thoroughness, promptness, and helpfulness of my feedback. A student in my Fall 2012 “Urban Media Archaeology” class described me as “Thorough. Enthusiastic. Open-minded. Challenging. Up-to-date. Shannon really pushes you to do your best. And you want to do your best because you know that SHE’s doing HER best.” Many students have referred to a variety of my classes as “the best class [they’ve] taken in the program” – or at The New School, or anywhere. A student in my Fall 2013 “Archives, Libraries, and Databases” class wrote: “I feel so lucky to have had Shannon as a teacher. She manages to explain every concept with much clarity and always provides references and examples of creative applications of the various subjects we talk about. She facilitates discussions in an effortless invisible way so almost everyone participates and shares their thoughts. Her feedback on student work is helpful and insightful. We often laugh together in class, how wonderful is that?” A Fall 2015 “Maps as Media” student offered: “You can tell by the readings line up and the structure of the class that she put a lot of energy and thought into the preparation of the course.” A Fall 2016 “Maps” student wrote: “her interactions with students were helpful and respectful. There were diverse students from different backgrounds, and she was fair with all the students including international students. She tried to communicate with people who are not used to this academic domain and considered carefully about each student’s interest.” Finally, a Spring 2017 “Urban Intelligence” student said: “Shannon is one of the most amazing professors that I’ve ever met. She is not only clever, but also very organized, helpful, respectful, responsible, and motivating. She is absolutely THE BEST.”

Students occasionally offer constructive criticism about our readings, assignments, or course structure. I carefully consider their recommendations and often incorporate them in syllabus revisions. For instance, in “Maps,” which is a relatively new class, I’ve acted on my Fall 2015 students’ suggestion to build in more incremental assignments and a mid-semester critique, and I plan to use a Fall 2016 suggestion to have students weave more critical insights from the readings into their final atlases. UMS students from 2014 asked for more time to reflect on our guests’ presentations, so I integrated more open discussions in 2017. Other students’ comments address equipment, facilities, and technical support issues that are, to a large degree, beyond my control; and a few others offered anomalous critiques.

There are two classes for which I received mixed evaluations, and which require explanation. First, as part of an agreement between the School of Media Studies (SMS) and the Independent Film Project (IFP), our Spring 2014 “Sound and Space” class was chosen to take place in the brand-new Made in NY Media Center in Dumbo, Brooklyn. Seizing the opportunity, my colleague Barry Salmon and I spent much of the Fall 2013 semester making plans for Dumbo-specific field recording exercises and soundwalks, a sound symposium in the Center’s auditorium, and even an end-of-semester student exhibition in the Center’s gallery. After the first week of the Spring semester, however, the agreement between SMS and IFP fell through, and the course was abruptly resituated in a cramped, technically deficient lab on campus (whose roaring HVAC system created tremendous communication challenges with my hearing-impaired colleague). Ultimately, our months of site-specific planning were rendered futile, and those plans proved impossible to translate to the new location. The students, like their instructors, were justifiably disappointed. Second, my less-than-stellar evaluations for “Understanding Media Studies” are consistent with, or higher than, those of my colleagues who’ve also taught this ever-complicated class. I offer some historical context for the course and its challenges on B:222.

Despite these occasional internal complications, my teaching has received a great deal of positive attention from across The New School, where I’m regularly invited to give guest lectures in colleagues’ classes and to serve as a guest critic in their studios. You can find a list of my 35 guest lectures and additional critiques on B:9-12. I’ve been invited to teach in a number of different programs in Parsons and Eugene Lang College, but infrastructural complications have often prevented me from doing so. My courses have also resonated beyond The New School. I’ve been invited to offer master classes and workshops in Seoul, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and Sydney, and at Smith College, Cornell University, and elsewhere. My “Bookshelves” class has drawn a variety of external auditors – from library administrators to celebrated poets – who’ve greatly enriched our discussions. Eminent archivist Rick Prelinger has called it “THE class on the future of memory and access practices” (see B:35). The course website has also circulated widely, generating invitations for me to speak about the class and my “media studies approach” to librarianship and archivy in 2014 keynote addresses at the Library of Congress and the national rare books and manuscript librarians’ gatherings, and at the New York Art Resources Consortium conference at MoMA in 2015. For my invited talk at the 2017 Association of College and Research Librarians’ conference I was again encouraged to address the “Bookshelves” class. I’ve also been invited to share my “Urban Media Archaeology” and “Maps” classes in a variety of venues, among artists, geographers, digital humanists, and information designers, many of whom have told me that the “Maps” class in particular has inspired them to rethink the way they teach cartography. And “Urban Intelligence” elicited an invitation from Columbia University Press to transform the class into a short book (I’m still ruminating on the offer; see B:151).

Despite these commendations, I always seek to improve my teaching by remaining current, responsive, and engaging. I’m always exploring new texts and case studies, refreshing my presentations, planning new field trips, exploring new external partnerships, and reading about the latest developments in higher education. For my studio classes, I enjoy working with teaching assistants from various Parsons programs, so we can learn from each other in developing exciting and innovative design workshops and tutorials. You’ll find several examples of such pedagogical experimentation in my “Urban Intelligence” class documentation (B:122-44).

STUDENT ADVISING. My work with individual students likewise enriches my teaching (and inspires my research and service). Ours is a Masters-only program. I typically work with 20 to 30 Media Studies MA advisees, yet I also meet regularly with dozens of Masters students from across Parsons, as well as a few PhD students and undergrads. The Parsons students frequently invite me to consult on their class projects and theses and to attend their program critiques. As I mentioned above, I also work closely with my teaching assistants, involving them in planning meetings, encouraging them to integrate their own work into the class, and inviting them to co-facilitate lessons. While they assist me in leading my classes, I aim to help them develop their teaching skills. And nearly every week I meet with at least one New School alum to discuss her current work and future plans. I commonly review current advisees’ and alums’ PhD applications and conference abstracts, and I typically find myself writing a couple dozen recommendation letters each semester. Students from other local and global universities frequently seek me out, too. In all, I spend at least ten hours each week on routine academic advising, both in-person and virtual. I offer a more thorough description of my advising work, along with samples of my advising correspondence, on B:245, B:299.

THESIS AND INDEPENDENT COURSEWORK ADVISING. Over the past six years I’ve advised ten independent studies, served as primary advisor for eleven Masters theses in Media Studies and various Parsons programs, and served as secondary/external reviewer for six more. Among those students, four have won the School of Media Studies’ Thesis Award, two have won academic excellence awards, and six are currently enrolled in PhD programs at Brown, Columbia, and NYU. While still working on their theses, several of these students presented their work at competitive conferences, published their research in peer-reviewed journals and edited collections, and screened their work in festivals. I typically assisted by forwarding relevant CFPs and offering help with proposal-writing and revisions.

We have no media PhD program at The New School, yet I’m currently serving on two PhD committees, one at Columbia and one at NYU. I’ve also served as an external reviewer for four dissertation and proposal defenses at NYU, the University of Copenhagen, Cornell, and the University of Melbourne. I’ve also advised a postdoctoral fellow and two visiting scholars (one a Fulbright scholar) and served as external advisor for a curatorial fellowship. I’ve worked to help these folks get grants, develop new classes, publish their work, and build their professional “infrastructures.” I list all of my independent advising activity and provide samples of my feedback on B:246-98.


DEPARTMENT SERVICE. I’ve been a reliable, engaged University Citizen since the moment I arrived at The New School in 2004. Within my first five years, I served as Thesis Coordinator (acting as external reviewer on about 50 theses per year), Admissions Coordinator (reviewing roughly 400 applications per year), and Director of Graduate Studies for a program with 500+ students and 60+ faculty. I also filled in for our Student Advising Coordinator and Executive Secretary for a few months, too. Phew. While the past six years have been less administratively burdensome, I’ve remained actively engaged in faculty governance and program development. You’ll find a complete list of my internal service activity on C:3-6. Within the School of Media Studies, I’ve served for three semesters as organizer, producer, and M.C. of our Monday night lecture series, for which I brought nearly 50 scholars, artists, media-makers, producers, and alums to campus (see A3:265, A3:282). I also contributed to a Spring 2014 working group dedicated to the redesign of our New Student Orientation and authored a series of 13 student advising guides meant to serve as a resource for faculty across the program (C:71). In addition, I chaired the “Media Archaeology” curriculum committee, charged by our then-dean to develop a focus area in the field. You’ll find our report on C:66. Finally, I served on six School of Media Studies faculty review committees and acted as chair for two of them.

DIVISIONAL SERVICE. For the Schools of Public Engagement division, I served on two faculty review committees and worked for several years as a member of our space planning committee, which was charged with envisioning workspaces, classrooms, and labs for our new facilities at 79 5th Avenue. Two other divisional service appointments have proven to be my most labor- and time-intensive obligations for the past several years. First, in Fall 2016 I served as co-chair of the Media Studies Working Group, charged with developing a strategic plan for the school. Our work involved extensive primary and secondary research, including regular consultations with our own faculty and faculty in other programs, and student focus groups, as well as periodic presentations to upper-level administration and board members. You’ll find our final report and presentation on C:22-65. Second, I’ve served for four years as a member of the division’s time-intensive Renewal and Promotions Committee, which is responsible for vetting all divisional faculty reviews, up to twelve per semester.

UNIVERSITY SERVICE. My university-level service is thoroughly documented on C:3-6, yet my most substantial contributions have been in resource, faculty, and program development. I’ve contributed to a working group that sought to develop policies and practices for The New School to better manage its digital assets, and I’ve served on faculty search committees in Parsons’ Architecture and Communication Design. I’ve also participated on two iterations of a committee charged with creating infrastructures and incentives for cross-divisional, cross-disciplinary collaboration. This work has been particularly relevant to me, given my own inter-disciplinarity, my long history of cross-divisional collaboration, and my frequent invitations teach in other programs. In the same collaborative spirit, I consulted on the development of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program at the New School for Social Research and the curriculum for the inter-divisional undergraduate Urban Studies major. [REDACTED]

Finally, from 2008 to 2012 I participated in various iterations of a cross-divisional, praxis-oriented PhD committee. In 2013, the Provost charged me with transforming that past committee work into an official program proposal. I worked with a research firm to study “practice-based” and “design-led” PhD programs around the world, planned a “stakeholders” meeting with various industry and cultural representatives who could potentially hire our graduates, and developed the academic portions of the New York State proposal. You’ll find a draft on C:7-21. Ultimately, the Provost’s office tabled the proposal because of uncertainty regarding its funding, but I’ve learned recently that the PhD discussions have been revived, and I hope to be a part of them.

SERVICE TO THE COMMUNITY AND PROFESSION. I’ve contributed to the broader academic community by serving on five external tenure and program review committees and reviewing manuscripts for a variety of university presses and journals, from Yale University Press to Big Data & Society. I’ve also served on a number of editorial boards: MediaCommons, the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab’s Sensate project, the Journal of Visual Culture, and Amsterdam University Press’s MediaMatters series. Extending beyond academia, my research and teaching have opened several opportunities for me to serve the local and international design communities. I was invited to act as a juror and consultant on two Architectural League of NY projects: its 2013 “Little Libraries NY” competition and its 2014-15 “Re-Envisioning Branch Libraries” design study, with which I was intimately involved (C:81-92). I’ve consulted (pro-bono, or nearly so) on a number of other projects with a variety of cultural institutions and design firms, including the New York Public Library and the New York Transit Museum. I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to many more such collaborations. You’ll find all of my professional and community service listed and documented on C:72-92.

Finally, my library-related publishing and teaching – and the fact that I’m approaching the subject not as a librarian, but through the lenses of media and design – have led to my appointment to the board of directors for the Metropolitan New York Library Council, which serves nearly 280 libraries and archives in the metropolitan area. This forward-thinking institution is developing resources, services, and fellowships to aid its member institutions, and to serve as a model for other institutions around the country and the world (see C:74-5). Their staff have contributed to my classes and have even invited my students to consult on various projects. I look forward to continuing my work with Metro.


I’m eager to build more intellectual, pedagogical, technical, and social infrastructures at various scales: within my own classrooms, between classes and programs, at the university scale, between The New School and the city, between The New School and other global cities and landscapes, within my own discipline, and between media studies and the various fields of research and practice with which I’ve connected. I most enjoy working in these interstitial spaces, serving as an epistemological and institutional mediator. I’m most stimulated by collaborating with faculty colleagues and students from diverse programs, asking questions and offering responses that draw together disparate methods and intelligences.

I’ve received several forms of confirmation that I do my best work in these in-between spaces, too. My classes draw students from multiple programs. Students from across the university seek me out for advising. I’m frequently recruited for committees in, or between, other divisions. I’m invited to consult on projects at a wide variety of cultural institutions. I’ve entertained invitations to teach classes or take positions in other New School programs and to apply for jobs in other fields at other institutions. I like being distributed and networked, and I’m eager to serve in the kind of mediator role that is required by so many of the stickiest, most pressing challenges of our time – including those I mentioned at the very beginning of this document.

What does this mean for me at The New School? My goal is to assume leadership positions that allow me to build these connective infrastructures. I’d love to serve as a University Professor, bridging disciplines and divisions, and run a transdisciplinary lab (many of my courses are already mini-labs in themselves!). I could leverage my relationships with external organizations, pursue funding, and explore new collaborative networks. More modestly and immediately, I’m eager to incorporate some of these same inspirations and values into my two book projects and future public scholarship, and perhaps to transform my “intellectual furnishings” project into an exhibition, as many international colleagues have encouraged me to do. I look forward to developing my existing courses and building new ones, including some housed in other programs and divisions and offered in partnership with colleagues in other fields. And I’m committed to shaping the future of media and design studies and doctoral education at The New School. As a full professor in a leadership position, I can help to build these pedagogical, intellectual, technical, and social infrastructures for new ways of thinking and acting in the world. The New School, in all its perpetual newness and “becomingness,” is an ideal environment for such connective work.


Where Does the Time Go?

This admissions management software creates such a “sticky,” immersive experience, I can’t even stop for lunch! Brian Finke: Desktop Dining, The New York Times Magazine

In recent months I’ve met with a number of advisees and freshly-PhD’d job candidates and junior scholars who’ve wanted to talk about the day-to-day responsibilities of a faculty member. I will humbly acknowledge that I’m seen as someone who’s fairly productive, and who puts a lot of energy into her teaching — and these folks want to know how I structure my time. Quite a few of our conversations end with some variation on this theme: “Wow, they sure don’t tell you that in graduate school” — “that” meaning the amount of time dedicated to things other than the romanticized “life of the mind,” as well as the number of competing demands for one’s time and attention. [Others have attempted to quantify and itemize professors’ labor: see this 2014 Boise State study; this 2016 THE survey of various studies; and this list from the American Association of University Professors. And plenty of scholars, from Karen Gregory to Mel Gregg, have critiqued labor in the academy.]

I honestly don’t know if my experience is representative. Actually, I don’t think it is. I’ve served as a referee on a number of faculty review cases for other institutions, and I’ve often been surprised by the relative lightness of the candidates’ service experience: just a handful of committees during their six pre-tenure years. By the time I was up for tenure, in 2012, I had directed a ~600-student graduate program; helped to implement a new union contract; coordinated all admissions (400+/year) and theses (~40/year); and served on at least three dozen other committees. My external reviews suggest that such a heavy load isn’t common — but then again, I’m reviewing tenure cases at other institutions. Renewable-term or non-tenure-track faculty most likely carry a much greater administrative burden.

I can’t even compare myself to my colleagues at my own institution, since service invitations and appointments aren’t directed through a central clearinghouse, where someone keeps track of who’s doing what; and there’s little transparency regarding our colleagues’ responsibilities. I do, however, have a sense that the olde adage is true: “sucking at service means you get to do less of it.” Non-responsive, non-participatory folks typically aren’t invited to join in on future endeavors. Which is good news for them: with fewer committees, they have more time for their own work. (It might sound like I’m advocating for calculated failure or learned helplessness. I’m not. I’d hope that everyone would want to pitch in, so that particular faculty aren’t left carrying a disproportionate burden.)

Teaching and advising are really hard to quantify, too. We might all be teaching X-course loads, but our outside-the-classroom obligations might vary dramatically. We all spend different amounts of time prepping for class, reviewing student work, meeting with advisees, and overseeing theses and dissertations.

All this is to say: I have no idea how my own workload matches up to my colleagues’ at my own institution or at other institutions. All I know is that, for me, it’s a lot of work. It’s rewardingly exhausting, but it’s often overwhelming. Some days I convince myself I’m going to have a heart attack and die before I’m 42. J.K.! … Or am I?

So, what’s my not-necessarily-representative experience? I’ve been tracking my hours over the past few months, so I’ll be painfully, indulgently specific.


I teach two (or three) classes each semester, each of which meets once per week. Thus, I spend five to eight hours in the classroom. I realize that many teachers have a much heavier load, and they’re responsible for many more students.

But those “contact hours” are only a small portion of my teaching investment. For each class — even those classes I’ve taught before — I typically spend around five hours each week on prep, for a total of 10-15 hours (and sometimes up to 20, if I’m trying out something new). On top of my formal prep, I spend about 90 minutes immediately before each class reviewing students’ weekly reading responses and questions and incorporating them into my lesson plan. I stagger students’ assignments throughout the semester — so, most weeks, I spend four to six hours reviewing six to ten students’ assignments. When full-class assignments are due, which happens about six times per semester, I spend 10-15 hours reviewing each group of assignments. That probably sounds ridiculous. You’re probably thinking: girl, you need to streamline. I’ve tried — but as I encounter more and more students who have very little research experience, and who need a lot of help with writing and project management, I have a hard time passing the buck. I figure it’s my responsibility to help them identify areas for improvement. So, long story short; those five to eight “contact hours” scale up to around 20 to 30 hours per week (and sometimes more) on basic teaching. Add to that all the times I serve as a guest lecturer or guest critic in my colleagues’ classes — at least 30 hrs/ year.

And when I’m teaching a new class — as I did last spring, and as I’ll be doing again this coming spring — I’ll spend 40 to 60 hours designing the syllabus during the semester break. Yet that work builds upon months, if not years, of work: collecting resources, noting potential assignments and activities, etc. I have a “course planning” note on my phone where I keep a running list of texts, guest speakers, case studies, etc. I might add to new or continuing courses.


Then there’s advising. Faculty are commonly asked to set aside three hours per week for advising. I typically spend six to ten hours each week meeting with students — students in my own program, students from across the university, and a few students from other local grad programs — plus another few hours on email and Skype advising. In addition to providing basic academic advising, I also advise theses and dissertations. The time commitment here is highly variable: it depends on how many projects I’m advising simultaneously, where each advisee is in his/her process, and how many rounds of revision we need at each stage. This semester, for instance, I’ve read five dissertation chapters, which typically take me about five hours each, from three different advisees. I’ve worked through four drafts of a Master’s thesis proposal, which has required about 15 hours of advising, and I’ll soon read and respond to a full, completed thesis, which will likely take at least ten hours. And when I serve as an external reviewer for a dissertation, which I do a few times a year, I typically dedicate 15 hours to the task.

I keep in touch with alums, too. Each week, I spend an hour or two speaking with alums about their career goals and future plans. And I’m always writing reference letters and making reference calls — a few dozen calls for job opportunities every spring and summer, and a few dozen letters of recommendation for PhD applications, or for PhD candidates looking for jobs and fellowships, every fall. Each (prospective)PhD is roughly a six-hour investment: I typically meet with students to discuss their options, I write a custom letter for each applicant, I provide feedback on their statements of purpose and cv’s, and then I tweak the letter template for each institution and grapple with the schools’ idiosyncratic admissions and HR software. I should also account for all the letters I write for colleagues — for fellowships, grants, other jobs, etc. In all, I probably dedicate the equivalent of a full work week — about 40 to 50 hours — to letters of recommendation each fall. These past two weeks alone I’ve spent about 15 hours on the task. [Edit: scratch that earlier estimate; I did several more letters in December, upping my total investment to roughly 60 hours.]

I also regularly meet with junior colleagues about their publications, teaching, and faculty reviews. This, like advising, is almost always enjoyable — and it usually happens over food, so it’s hard to consider it “work” — but it still requires an investment of several hours every month. In addition, I commonly meet with visiting scholars — faculty from other schools, doctoral candidates or postdocs from abroad, itinerant research fellows who want to speak with me about their work — as they’re passing through New York. I dedicate a couple hours each week to these meetings.


And, oh, the committees! While I haven’t held an administrative position for a few years, my service responsibilities are no joke. I’ve chaired program development, curriculum, and faculty review committees. They all require a significant investment of time. A tenure committee, for instance, involves reviewing a 500+-page dossier (which requires close attention, since people’s jobs are on the line here; I should also note that I reviewed a 3000+-page (!!!) dossier last year for another institution); looking through hundreds of student evaluations; reading several dense external letters; meeting with colleagues to discuss the candidate, often debating at length over contentious cases; and then drafting and iteratively revising a committee report, which is a slow and meticulous process, since every word can be scrutinized by reviewers up the food chain. I typically serve on one of these committees every year, dedicating about 20 hours to the process. And most years I do a few external reviews, for other institutions, too; these take about ten hours each.

And for each of the past four years, I’ve also served on my division’s über-review committee, which reviews all of the other faculty review committees (we are the infamous committee on committees!) — up to twelve cases every fall semester — to ensure their adherence to a sound and just process (i.e., how does the evidence support the decision?). This committee’s both a joy — working closely with dedicated collaborators, learning more about our colleagues’ amazing work — and a holy terror: imagine coordinating eight people’s schedules to set consistent meetings; reading between one and three ~500-page dossiers every other week; meeting bi-weekly to review multiple cases; then collaboratively authoring reports — which, again, must be carefully wrought because they’re politically charged. I’d say that this review committee has easily required a 100-hour investment each fall.

But wait! That’s not all! We’ve got search committees. I’m on two this year. The first one required a ~40-hour investment. The second one’s beginning next week. We’ve also got all the little ad hoc committees and working groups and consultations and admissions reviews (and all the crappy enterprise software one must navigate in order to complete these tasks).

In general, I’d say I spend at least ten hours (and, occasionally, up to 30 hours) each week in service-related meetings and independent activities at school. Yet I also do a good deal of external service, too. I serve on editorial and advisory boards, contribute to design studies and competitions, consult on event and exhibition planning for other cultural institutions, and review manuscripts for journals and presses. The latter, again, requires a good amount of time. I can typically read a journal article manuscript and write up a review in three or four hours; I do this five to ten times each year. I also review three to ten book manuscripts each year, dedicating ten to fifteen hours to each project. This is fun, and it’s enlightening, but it’s work — and it typically happens on weekends.


And then there’s research. That typically happens in the summer. If I do any writing at all during the academic year — and particularly during my committee-heavy fall semesters — it happens between midnights and 3am’s or on Saturday and Sunday mornings. I do do a number of talks and conferences throughout the year (which gives me lots of waiting-at-the-gate and airborne time to read dossiers and theses), and I manage to find time to put together presentations for these events — but, really, pretty much all my heavy lifting happens during the holiday and semester breaks (which are productive times simply because there are no meetings!).

Et Cetera

I’m sure I’m forgetting stuff (like the crappy software we have to use for our annual reviews, which requires that I spend 15 hours every spring on data entry!). For the most part, this is how I spend my time. I probably over-prepare, I probably read too closely, I probably offer too many comments on my students’ work. I’m a little bit obsessively thorough, and, try as I might, I don’t know how to fix that. I should say no to more stuff, but saying no makes me feel guilty. I’m never sure what my colleagues are doing, so I’m never sure if I’m doing “enough.” Yet I do know I’m not alone in this uncertainty.

Ping Zhu. Sometimes I’d just like to hide behind a plant.

Sharing Is Tables: More Images

Wegner Papa Bear Chairs @ Facebook, via Coriander on Dezeen 

On Monday, October 9, e-flux architecture will publish a piece I’ve written on the furnishings of digital labor. Here are a few other photos of the sites I reference in the article:

Library Room @ Lumosity, via designboom
Wegner Shell Chairs and Chalkboard Wall @ Evernote, via Dezeen

PhDs for Polymaths (2011)

Over the past couple years I’ve taught a few graduate classes that incorporate ideas from the Digital Humanities and emphasize “multimodal scholarship,” and I’ve been conducting research on praxis-based PhD programs. It’s for these reasons, I assume, that the planning committee for our graduate students’ Critical Themes in Media Studies conference asked me earlier this year to organize an opening-night panel on multimodal doctoral work and praxis-based PhDs. So, for the past couple months I’ve contacted graduate directors and colleagues at various local institutions to ask if any of their students are completing non-traditional (i.e., multimedia, performance-based, practice-based, etc.) dissertations on media studies-related topics. Their recommendations have helped me to pull together an impressive panel of three inspired young artist-scholars. Next Friday evening, April 15, at 5:30pm, before Clay Shirky’s opening keynote, we’ll be gathering in the Teresa Lang Center, on the 2nd floor at 55 W 13th Street, to talk about “The Multimodal Dissertation.” Come join us.

Multimodal scholarship, writes USC’s Tara McPherson (2009), deploys “new experiential, emotional, and even tactile aspects of argument and expression” in order to “open up fresh avenues of inquiry and research.” How might we in Media Studies transform the media technologies that have traditionally been our research subjects, into researchtools, and thereby “open up fresh avenues” of creative scholarship? This panel examines how these new modes of scholarly practice are informing doctoral education. Our three panelists discuss how they’re infusing media-making into their dissertations, and how they’re navigating the still largely uncharted terrain of multimodal scholarship.

The Sound of America: Sound, Sensation, Sentiment, and Knowledge in American West Tourism

Jennifer Heuson 

Links between the American West and American identity, memory, and history are well documented. America constructs its uniqueness through the land and people west of the Mississippi. American West tourism is a crucial form of this construction.

Traveling west has become a ritual of citizenship, a pilgrimage to the birthplace of a mythical America. This is the America of cowboys and Indians, of gold mines and train robberies, of wild horses and still wilder people. It is an America of the past, performed in the present, informing the future. While scholars have devoted much energy to unpacking the significance of Wild West mythologies, two important areas remain underdeveloped: tourism and sound. My work engages both as key to the production and circulation of the “Wild” American West and its meanings. Tourist experiences of the American West play a pivotal role in knowledge of American history and identity. Yet, such experiences are neither natural, nor benign. They are mediated, historical, and political. They are actual and imagined. They are also sensual. It is the power of the sensual, living tourist encounter I hope to uncover by engaging its sonic contours. The sound of the American West, as a national soundscape, reveals much about how America is known, remembered, and imagined. It also hints at the future forms of American politics, at home and abroad.

Marquee Survivals: Racialized Urbanism in Cinema’s Recycled Spaces

Veronica Paredes

Marquee Survivals is an interactive, digital dissertation that explores contemporary conceptions of the repurposed movie theater. Across the United States, twentieth-century movie theaters have been converted into a variety of different establishments, including churches, swap meets, clothing and electronics stores. This project unravels how discussions surrounding these former movie houses racialize the spatial and historical perceptions of American popular media. In unpacking nostalgia’s place in touring the extant structures of film exhibition, Marquee Survivals highlights the roles race, ethnicity, and nation play in constructing the cultural narrative of cinema’s decline in the American downtown.

Incorporating methodologies from diverse academic disciplines, Marquee Survivals is also a networked digital dissertation that complicates dominant understandings of cinema’s early exhibition spaces by connecting them to present-day media consumption. Working toward an alternative media historiography of the repurposed movie theater, Marquee Survivals marries film theory and history, cultural studies, and digital media production. This presentation will feature documentation of Marquee Survival’s design processes and struggles. What are the challenges of building a distributed dissertation project that has equal investment in achieving rigorous scholarship and an affective user experience?

Hitting Walls (v.XVII): Some Strategies, Several Projections

Carlin Wing

Hitting Walls uses the sport of squash to address colonial histories, globalization and the potential for serious play within overdetermined structures. The project exists as a series of iterations made in a variety of media including large format photography, appropriated webgrabs, video, sculpture, performance, participatory activities and academic lectures. The most recent completed iteration took the form of a lecture and workshop on ball-making methods at Machine Project in Los Angeles this past January.

I expect my dissertation to exist as one more iterative element of this larger project. My broad goal is to use my dissertation as an opportunity to experiment with and make a claim for hybrid formats of intellectual work. As this is my first year in a doctoral program, it does not seem particularly helpful to pretend that I already know what form my dissertation will take. I cannot even, at this stage, claim with absolute confidence that it will make sense to me four years from now to consider the project to be part of Hitting Walls. I do expect a large amount of the work to be written but I also intend for there to be play within that writing, as well as essential elements, visual, aural or otherwise, which will work with the written components.

I would like to take the opportunity of this panel to briefly share a few of the Hitting Walls projects and to discuss various ways to experiment with academic, as well as other, forms. I would then like to open up a conversation that I am just beginning to have within my own department about how a dissertation is, can and should be defined. Right now it seems like a matter of shaping some good questions, setting them loose, and seeing how they ricochet.


“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,


Maps as Media, Round 2

I just completed my second round of Maps as Media, a graduate studio in which we examine the history, politics, aesthetics, and methods of maps — and of mapping as a mediated methodology. Among the semester’s highlights:

And because our students came from a range of programs — Media Studies, Environmental Policy and Sustainability, Theories of Urban Practice, Design and Urban Ecologies, Design + Technology, Architecture, and Media Management — they brought with them an exciting mix of interests, disciplinary knowledges, and methodologies. This was a remarkably engaged and generous group; they all consistently shared their advice and expertise to improve one another’s projects. And we all benefitted from the able assistance of Fernando Canteli De Castro, who helped us navigate through the world of data sets and mapping software.

Once again, I was impressed by the range and quality of students’ projects:

Interested in mapping from the perspective of artificial intelligence, Alex speculated on how an AI in a post-human age might use cartography to “analyze humanity through its wreckage.”

Anna’s atlas contained a variety of maps that “illustrate the role that welfare policy ‘reform’ played in the economic and sociospatial transformation of Los Sures (or “Southside”, Williamsburg)” — specifically, the changing character, form, and demography of the neighborhood.

Christopher, who once worked for a luxury watchmaking company, was interested in strategies for mapping time — from micro-temporalities and our individual quirks of temporal perception, to cosmological and geological timeframes.

Francisco created a set of audio-visual compilations to map sound in the subway — ideally to encourage deeper consideration of how noise impacts both transit workers’ and commuters’ mental and physical health.

Han, a game developer, created a series of prototype games designed to help children develop various spatial skills, from “mental rotation” to map reading to 2D-to-3D translation.

Heming wanted to understand the complexity of street life in New York’s Chinatown. In one project, she catalogued nearly 1000 Chinese-language street-level signs around and beyond the “official” borders of Chinatown, demonstrating that the neighborhood’s linguistic reach exceeds its political boundaries.

Inés created a physical map — with embedded audio players and an augmented reality layer featuring site-specific mini-documentaries — that demonstrated how public sports fields in the five boroughs function as sites of community-building, particularly among ethnic populations.

Jakob’s gorgeous atlas explored “the legacy and ongoing impact that urban renewal polices” — beginning with the 1949 Housing Act — “are having on the geography and social landscape of New York City.”

Jiyeon wondered how we might more compellingly and meaningfully map personal data yielded through “quantified self” technologies. Inspired by Lev Manovich, Daniel Goddemeyer, Moritz Stefaner, and Dominikus Baur’s On Broadway project, she geo-located and color-coded her Instagram photos and translated her daily movements about the city into colors and forms that she then rendered as textiles and jewelry.

Kate contrasted various “authoritative” modes of mapping East Williamsburg — e.g., via borders, zoning, the designation of official landmarks, etc. — with approaches to participatory mapping that reveal alternative conceptions of those same three variables.

Kevin experimented with new ways of mapping the subway system, so as to make its three-dimensional architectures and ambient intelligences more intelligible to patrons.

Environmental educator and sustainability policy analyst Tara sought to map New Yorkers’ proximity and access to, and their affective relationships with, “wilderness.”

Zin, an architect, studied existing transit patterns in her home with of Yangon, Myanmar, and proposed new routes that would connect to the city’s areas of development, link its greenspaces, and incentivize residents from all socioeconomic classes to make more frequent use of public transit.