Libraries as Cultural/Tech Developers: Two Great New Residencies


I’ve always been excited about (and I’ve tried to advocate for) libraries as “space of exception” for cultural creation and tech development. As the Library as Incubator project, the Reanimation Library, the Harvard Library Innovation Lab, and various library- and archive-based residencies attest, libraries are fertile grounds for creative work — literary and otherwise. Libraries and archives are also great potential employers and collaborators for artists, designers, technologists, etc., who want to apply their skills in an environment committed more to public service and open access than to market-driven imperatives. I’ve taken part in several discussions over the past few years in which we’ve built up excitement over the potential spread of library- and archive-based residencies. Just last January, after he and I took part in a big workshop up at Simmons College in Boston, Jer Thorpe posted a stirring call for “An Artist in Every Library.”

I’m really excited to see that, within the past two weeks, not one but TWO super-exciting new library residencies have arisen in New York (full disclosure: I’m on the board of trustees for the first organization, and on the fellowship jury for the second!)


METRO Fellowship

First, the Metropolitan Library Council has announced a brand-new fellowship program dedicated to “empower[ing] a small cohort of fellows to help solve cross-institutional problems and to spur innovation within our membership and the field at large.” METRO serves over 250 NYC institutions — from university and museum libraries to digital archives and documentary heritage services — by providing shared reference and research resources, and developing new collaborative services and systems. Among its many programs are the Knight Foundation-funded Culture in Transit mobile digitization unit and local activity within the National Digital Stewardship Residency; METRO also serves as state hub for the Digital Public Library of America.

The new METRO Fellowship invites artists, designers, technologists, engineers, researchers, entrepreneurs, etc., to submit proposals to partner with some of its member institutions to develop new technologies, systems, services, etc. — ideally prioritizing open tech, open access, data-driven methods, service design,  —  that will help to solve real-world, cross-institutional problems. First, METRO’s institutional members will submit “reserve pitches” regarding challenges or “problems of practice” they commonly face. “METRO staff and a fellowship advisory council will…work with each institution behind the scenes to understand and refine their pitches. This process will ignite instigations and provocations for potential fellows. In addition, it will begin to surface some of the hidden opportunities for cross-institutional collaborations.” After that period of refinement and inter-institutional connection-making, potential fellows will be invited to submit proposals in response, and METRO staff and advisors will then serve as liaisons to cultivate alignments between fellows and hosting institutions.

Institutions begin submitting their “reverse pitches” on February 1, then potential fellows are invited to chime in on March 15. More info here.



NYPL Remix Residency

And my friends at NYPL Labs had quite a bang-up week last week! Not only did they release 180,000 new digitized photos, maps, and ephemera into the public domain; unveil a few awesome tools for visualizing and remixing those digital collections; and open up all their digital collection data for searching, crawling, and refashioning; but they also announced a new Remix Residency designed to encourage “transformative and creative uses of digital collections and data, and the public domain assets in particular.” Applicants — artists, information designers, software developers, data scientists, journalists, digital researchers, etc. — are invited to consider opportunities for collection-based mappings, visualizations, generative art, games, bots, interactives — and, I’d add, other unnamed or unnameable genres!

Applications are due February 19 (see here for more info). The jury will be emphasizing the following dimensions in its review:

  • Creativity and engagement: Is the project re-using NYPL public domain materials in an engaging way that we haven’t seen before?
  • New perspective and usability: Will this project help users see the collections in new ways, by recontextualizing, remixing, or recombining the collection?
  • Feasibility: Is the project scaled and scoped so that it can be completed during the duration of the residency?

Apply, apply, apply!!


Gaps in the Map: Why We’re Mapping Everything, and Why Not Everything Can, or Should, be Mapped

I set out this summer to write a column for Places on mapping, informed by all the background work I did to develop my new “Maps as Media” grad studio. Today, my editors mercifully informed me that what I’ve written is not an article, but a pedagogical prospectus. Doh! I sort-of suspected that. Re-reading the piece again, after about a month’s distance, it’s now painfully clear: this thing is of a generic species for which there is no market. Another annoying quirk: I use the Royal We waaaaay too presumptuously, way too often.

Maybe I can salvage some of this crap for a more focused piece in the near or distant future? For now, however, I celebrate my glorious failure by posting it here, in the hope that some of it might be of use to some hypothetical reader — and with the expectation that the act of posting will be at least mildly cathartic for me.

Gaps in the Map: The Topologies of Cartography

Representing the uncharted or classified: hic sunt dracones, via Carta Marina; Google blur, via The Atlantic 

Are you excited by the idea of using bits to move atoms? Are you excited to directly impact logistics and transportation in hundreds of cities? Are you excited to help move people and things more efficiently around the world? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you are probably a great fit for Uber!

Back in July, Uber was seeking a GIS Engineer to contribute to the development of “robust mapping and logistics infrastructure” that could manage the “routing, navigation, dynamic pricing, supply positioning, local search, and real-time traffic patterns” of its international fleets of vehicles, drivers, and passengers. Meanwhile, Sanborn, the company born in the 1860s to create fire insurance maps, had openings for an aerial mapping pilot and a Natural Resources GIS Analyst Programmer; and ESRI (Environmental Systems Research Institute) listed 256 jobs on its website – everything from Apps Product Engineers to Multimedia Specialists to a Technical Advisor for the oil and gas industries.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps
Aerial Photography, via KLM
Aerial Photography, via KLM

GIS, or geographic information systems, specialists have reason to be excited, whether their skills are put to use increasing the world’s efficiency at Uber or not. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment opportunities for geoscientists are expected to grow 16% between 2012 and 2022; for surveying and mapping technicians, 14%; for cartographers and protogrammetrists (those who make maps from aerial and satellite imagery), 20%; and for geographers, an impressive 29%, growth driven primarily by the demand for geographic data and maps. Today’s and tomorrow’s map-makers and GIS analysts will, enthusiasts proclaim, help our scientists better understand the dynamics of climate change; help our law enforcement officials predict and prevent urban crime; help our policymakers develop global policies that respond to patterns of refugee migration; help to dispatch Uber drivers to waiting passengers; and help us find the best dry cleaners and donuts in town. Soon, if Silicon Valley has its way, we’ll have a map app for every conceivable localizable good and service or geographic flow. Our landscapes, rationalized via a universal calculus and rendered into normalized indexical domains, offer themselves up to be searched, tracked, coded, zoned, exploited.

The map, it seems, travels widely. It pops up regularly, as both material artifact and metaphor, in everyday conversations. Mapping presents itself as a valuable tool or method for everyone from journalists and epidemiologists to police departments and digital marketers. The widespread availability of constantly-updated GIS data, and the prevalence of constantly-refreshing screens, means that more maps are produced, and more of them enter our lives, every day. And those maps-on-small-screens are doubly pervasive: both actively and passively, overtly and covertly present and active. We actively seek out the map, typically by tapping the Google Maps icon on our phones, to orient ourselves and find our way.[1] Yet those maps are also covertly foundational, always “on,” even if only in the background, on our location-aware devices. The passive and continual monitoring of our whereabouts means that we’re always lounging, driving, or shopping (or engaging in less consumption-oriented, or perhaps even nefarious, activities) on somebody’s map – somebody who’s eager to route an Uber our way, or feed us advertisements for restaurants or movies that might be of interest along the next block, or track our movement across borders and point surveillance apparatae in our direction.

Anthropologist Clyde Kluchhohn (1949), media sage Marshall McLuhan (1967), and his promoter, adman Howard Luck Gossage, have all been credited with acknowledging that whoever discovered water probably wasn’t a fish. The implication, of course, is that the fish isn’t aware of its aquatic environment, its medium, because it’s immersed in it. It knows nothing else; or, if it does, it’s probably not long for this terrestrial world. We, however, live both inside and outside the proverbial and conceptual fishbowl: we live on the surface of the earth, but we’ve developed means of representing that territory to ourselves – and even seeing precisely where we lie within that territory: “You are here.” Maps are, of course, one such representational, orientational, and navigational tool. At the same time, the ubiquity of maps – their seemingly obligatory integration into our apps, websites, new forms of “data journalism,” and performance dashboards – has, to some degree, naturalized them, made them banal. We’re often unconscious of their existence both because we’ve dissolved them into our everyday landscape, and because they’ve rendered themselves imperceptible, passively operational, within that landscape. They’ve become, in a sense, our aquatic medium.

Maps in Data Journalism
Maps in Data Journalism

All the more reason why maps are not simply a concern for geographers and cartographers and GIS engineers; or for the programmers and designers who’ve found themselves working in the robust GIS industry; or for the countless artists who’ve taken up maps as their subject. Maps are a foundational part of the wired world’s social, cultural, and political terrain; and they’re of tremendous political-economic importance to the non-wired portions of the world that cartographers often depict (often for “development” purposes). Maps always have been, but are now more than ever, media.

Regarding maps as media encourages us to recognize their prevalence and value as a fundamental cultural form – but it also prompts us to supplement geography’s methodologies and critical frameworks with those from media studies. We’re invited to consider maps’ material forms, graphic language, and the protocols that direct their operation. We’re invited to consider the processes by which they’re created, circulated, and used – and by whom. We’re invited to examine the massive complex of industries now dedicated to their creation. We’re invited to consider the deep history of techniques, technologies, and sensibilities that informed the development of cartography – and to wonder how those fundamentals might still be present, in some form or another, in our maps today. We’re also invited to think about the “discourse network” of cartography itself, as it’s practiced in geography departments and labs and the satellite-inhabited exosphere, and to consider the politics underlying the practical and critical work through which map-making gets done.

The Mapping Mindset

Bentham's Panopticon
Bentham’s Panopticon

Just has the aquatic environment has shaped the fish’s modes of cognition, our cartographic environments have their own intellectual implications (more philosophically-oriented than the fish’s, we hope). We might attribute today’s mapping mindset to the rise of GIS, GPS, mappable data sets, Google Maps, and smartphones – but the intellectual ground was prepared, the field cleared, the foundation laid long ago to support today’s cartographic compulsion. The humanities and social sciences, in one of their many purported theoretical revolutions, have, over the past several decades, made a “spatial turn” – a redirection of attention toward space, rather than time, as a key critical and analytical framework (among our many other “turns” have been the cultural, the linguistic, the sensory, the material, the post-human…). Globalization in its countless manifestations, post-colonialism, accelerated urbanization and migration, the rise of mass media and particularly networked telecommunications, growing concerns over the environment and an expanding ecological consciousness, as well as myriad other political, economic, technological, and cultural forces, have all been credited with bringing space into relief.[2] The rise of spatial theory was both incited, and then chronicled and molded, by a rising crop of spatial theorists. Among them were emperors Michel Foucault, Henri Lefebvre, and Michel de Certeau; deputies and protégés Marc Augé, Gaston Bachelard, Jean Baudrillard, Manuel Castells, Gilles Deleuze, David Harvey, Edward Soja, and Paul Virilio; with Doreen Massey, Gillian Rose, Saskia Sassen, and Iris Marion Young counted among the few female officers. As in earlier ages of exploration, this one was mapped out primarily by men.

In such company, it is obligatory to cite Foucault – so, voilà!: “The great obsession of the nineteenth century,” he argues, “was history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world.”

The present epoch will perhaps be above all the epoch of space. We are in the epoch of simultaneity: we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and the far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed. We are at the moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.[3]

Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1665-8
Vermeer, The Art of Painting, 1665-8
Nervous Net: Jay Forrester's World Dynamics, 1971
Nervous Net: Jay Forrester’s World Dynamics, 1971

But there’s a deep history to this new spatiality. The modern “epoch of space” – and the compulsion to diagram and map it – saw many foreshadowings in previous ages. Polymathic scholar Tom Conley tells of a “cartographic impulse” in 15th– and 16th-century France, driven by the discovery of the New World; a growing interest in mapmaking, he argues, paralleled the rise of a new sense of self and new forms of cartographic writing that, in both their content and form, explored spatial ideas.[4] The expansion of global seafaring likewise inspired the Dutch to take up mapmaking as both a vocation and a pastime, and to regard maps as both a source of geographic knowledge and a domestic decoration. As art historian Svetlana Alpers explains, 17th-century Dutch artists succumbed to the “mapping impulse,” too, emphasizing landscapes as subject matter and often depicting maps within their paintings, thereby transforming themselves into artist-cartographers (the same could be said of many contemporaneous Italian artists).[5]

Scholars of the late 18th century, preoccupied with “accuracy, numeracy, and measurement,” also committed themselves to “mapping ‘anything and everything’” – and, as Lauren Klein argues, to taxonomic representations of data and other early forms of data visualization.[6] By the following century, widespread “fetishiz[ation] of the map” had become part of a larger “fetishizing of vision,” as evidenced by the emergence of panoramas and photographs and plate-glass windows, and the fascination with collection and display.[7] The world itself became an exhibition.[8] Similar impulses, combined with a commitment to the late 19th-/ early 20th-century internationalist peace movement, fed Paul Otlet, Patrick Geddes, and Otto Neurath in their often collaborative experiments and grand proposals to collect, classify, diagram, and exhibit (in the form of “thinking machines” or “pictorial statistics,” or, as Lewis Mumford called it, “ideological cartography”) all the world’s knowledge.[9] With the Cold War, and its emerging communication and cognitive sciences and their new calculative and statistical techniques, those data maps increasingly took the form of circuits and nets. As Orit Halpern explains, “Cyberneticians and their affiliated disciplines became obsessed with data visualization” – particularly, visualizations of processes and patterned flows – as “the mechanism for consciousness.”[10]

Maps’ Topoi

That “network that connects points and intersects with its own skein,” an entangled map, would likely defy traditional cartographic representation and instead call for what Halpern calls a more “schizoid” diagram. Foucault’s network of vectors and folds is quite different from the map of the Low countries depicted in Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, or the birds’-eye city views of the 19th-century panorama, or a Google satellite map showing local bike routes. The vector-network, we might say, represents space as topology; the latter three maps, space as topography.

Topology is a branch of mathematics concerned with the spatial properties of an object that hold steady even if that object deforms, or stretches; in other words, topology is interested in abstract surfaces, vectors, trajectories, connections, rather than precise spatial locations.[11] Topological structures – “models, networks, clouds, fractals,… flows” and assemblages – are commonly used to describe myriad contemporary cultural forms, from technology to financial markets to geographies transformed by dynamic forces and mobility.[12] The archetypal subway map, which shows relations between lines and stations while “stretching the truth” in its representation of the above-ground geography, is a topological map – as are many indigenous maps. The recent flood of data visualizations is largely topological, too.

Marshall Islands Stick Charts
Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth's "Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences" from Diderot's Encyclopédie, 1780 (via Wikipedia)
Chrétien Frederic Guillaume Roth’s “Genealogical distribution of the arts and sciences” from Diderot’s Encyclopédie, 1780 (via Wikipedia)

Topography, meanwhile, focuses on graphically representing, or describing, the three-dimensional surface of an area, typically highlighting its local features. The topographic map is one form of cartography; the planimetric map, by contrast, relays the horizontal position of features without also showing relief.

Our current capacious uses of the term “mapping” – we “map out” our workflows and corporate architectures, our weekly schedules and errand itineraries – embrace both topoi: both network diagrams without material reference to physical space, and representations of concrete morphologies; both non-cartographic data visualizations and geographic representations.[13] Particularly when we’re working with GIS, though, it’s important to recognize that those topoi are entwined. The topographical has an underlying topology: the structure of the databases underlying our maps – which configures the relationships between plotted points, lines, and areas – profoundly informs the shapes those maps take. And our representations of geo-locatable data lend themselves to topological network analysis and the modeling of different behaviors and scenarios.[14]

Maps as Media

Through their studies of communication, which involved the creation of new topological diagrams, the cyberneticians were key players in the birth of media studies (McLuhan took inspiration from their work). What constitutes a medium has been endlessly (and often abstrusely) theorized. For our purposes, however, we’ll say that maps are media because they’re material (even the digital is a form of immaterial materiality) technologies and cultural practices of communication and representation.[15] I’m not the first to make such a claim: some folks in the businesses of making and studying maps have argued that maps are media because they’re composed of systems of visual language, or they’re means of propaganda, tools for the “manipulation” of meaning and the exercise of power.[16] Christian Jacob, in his The Sovereign Map, presents maps as media by examining both how they function as a means of graphic communication or a system of signs; and how they serve as “tool[s] of power” that “impose a vision of the world” and embody particular values and ideologies.[17]

Yes, maps are rhetorical and political – and by looking at the “medial” properties of maps, we can better understand how they convey meaning, exert influence, and carry bias. Yet media and cultural studies have long recognized the limitations of reducing artifacts to codes or semiotic systems, or to tools for propaganda. Maps, like the landscapes they represent, aren’t simply “texts” to be “read.” What’s more, geographer John Pickles argues, we “need an understanding of mapping that does not reduce the work maps do to the repressive exercise of power.”[18] Maps are more then hegemonic forces. Recognizing maps as media potentially opens up a more expansive understanding of how they operate.

First, maps-as-media are material artifacts, or interfaces, that adhere to particular protocols of communication. Jacob traces the map’s lexical variations – including the French carte, meaning card; the Latin mappa, or tablecloth; the Greek pinax, meaning tablet or plate – and notes that, while there is perhaps no particular concrete manifestation that defines a map, this etymology serves to remind us that the map is given form, instantiated in some way – and, I would argue, the nature of that formalization, even if only fleeting or imaginary, matters. Second, maps-as-media, like all media, are produced by myriad entities – today, by an increasing variety of individuals and industries – for various reasons, under particular conditions, and subject to both cartographic conventions and variable aesthetic or editorial choices. Bill Rankin, through his Radical Cartography project, calls attention to those protocols and conventions by juxtaposing data sets, or rendering the same set of data in varying styles, thus “provok[ing] slippages, overlaps, and multiple kinds of diversity.”[19] “My maps are possible only because of the diversity of data and software,” he says, “but most of my work is about making that data and software do things that they were never meant to do.”[20]

Bill Rankin's Radical Cartography
Bill Rankin’s Radical Cartography

Third, maps-as-media are distributed among myriad “users” in particular ways; and they’re accessed, “processed” (do we still “read” maps?), and interpreted by those users in different ways. Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson, and Martin Dodge propose a variety of methods – genealogy, ethnography, interviews, participant observation, etc. – that would help geographers better understand how people use maps “within particular contexts and cultures as solutions to everyday tasks.”[21] As Matthew Wilson and Monica Stephens note, in advocating for “GIS as media,” the “distinctly interactive” nature of contemporary maps allows for new uses: readers can adjust their scale and scope, reconfigure their data, put those data into motion, and even crowd-source new data (including intelligence from underrepresented groups), thus generating a “plurality of expression(s) and multiple documentations of ‘truth.’”[22]

Whether we’re considering a 14th-century portolan chart or the modern-day Uber app, our maps-as-media arise, circulate, and get used within various “discourse networks” – webs of people, instruments, institutions, specialized knowledges, and power – that constitute their own topologies.[23] One such player in this network is, of course, Google, with its extraordinary cartographic empire that has acquired the authority to “define borders and boundaries” and has, “without having any legal, political and democratic mandate,” replaced national agencies and international organizations in becoming “the referential map of the world.”[24] OpenStreetMap and other open-source initiatives, with vastly different collective values and spatial politics, now present a viable alternative.[25] Meanwhile, satellites, which are critical tools in both the production and distribution of maps, are “indebted to…institutions committed to seeing the world in military or logistical terms.”[26] It is our “civic responsibility and political obligation,” Laura Kurgan says, to understand how satellite images are generated; “for every image, we should be able to inquire about its technology, its location data, its ownership, its legibility, and its source.”[27] Pickles goes even farther, arguing that we need to consider the politics of the God’s-eye view, of the cartographic gaze, and “read against the grain of representational epistemologies.”[28]

Map-making is also what German media theorists would call a “cultural technique” – a set of operational processes, including means of training the mind and body, the creation of tools and systems of education, etc., that give rise to a cultural practice like cartography.[29] The cultural techniques approach takes a deeply historical view: it acknowledges that people were “mapping” and making map-like things long before they recognized their work as cartography.[30] Taking the long view helps us understand how “mapping,” through all of its entwined protocols and apparatae, has enabled people to grapple with fundamental human concerns: distinctions between inside and outside, or between nature and culture, for instance. Maps’ modes of representation, Bernhard Siegert says, signal the dominance of particular “epistemic orders,” or ways of knowing – ways of grasping “territory” at various scales, ways of understanding “property,” ways of negotiating the relationships between land and sea, ways of conceptualizing borders and nations, and so forth.[31] Examining our data-driven maps of today through a lineage that extends back through the proto-cartographic, we might wonder about the fundamental epistemological and ontological questions raised by our heat maps and Yelp maps. How might the tides have turned in those “epistemic waters”?

Yet it’s not only about the pictures of the world that maps present. The very existence of mapping as a large-scale media-production industry, and the means by which those maps are produced, raises questions about the values embedded in the system. Who has historically owned the means of describing space, and what have been their interests? What kinds of data have merited representation, and how have those data been generated, and what are their “geographies of knowledge”? What do we make of our contemporary interactive maps’ post-Copernican, egocentric orientation, which places you – not the earth, not the sun, not Jerusalem or Mecca – at the center? What happens when we hold in our hands manipulable maps that render space as something seamlessly traversable, rational, and exploitable?

The Ebstorf mappamundi, ca. 1235
The Ebstorf mappamundi, ca. 1235
Dan Zomack, Lenoir City, via Hand Drawn Map Association
Dan Zomack, Lenoir City, via Hand Drawn Map Association

And what kinds of spatial “epistemic orders” are eclipsed by this new egocentric framing, or “self-centering,” and real-time navigational assistance? Henry Grabar suggests that, with all this automation, we run the risk of shrinking our capacity for “spatial thinking” – for self-orienting and -navigating, for developing our own “cognitive maps” to find ourselves in the world.[32] Kurgan also laments contemporary maps’ “comfortable sense of orientation, of there being a fixed point,” which “put[s] the project of orientation – visibility, location, use, action, and exploration – into question.” Maps “let us see too much,” she says, “and hence blind us to what we cannot see, imposing a quiet tyranny of orientation that erases the possibility of disoriented discovery” – and, at the same time, “blinds” us (sic) to those “invisible lines” of people, places, and networks that are rarely regarded as cartographically significant.[33] (The ableist construction also highlights the dangers of ocularcentrism)

Finally, as someone who has, for many years, studied mapping through the lens of media studies – and who has looked at media through the framework of various institutional politics – I’d also suggest that the critical study of cartography itself, as practiced in geography and related disciplines, also constitutes its own historical cultural technique, a mode of inquiry and practice that warrants reflection. The politics of that earlier “spatial turn” – with Foucault and the French admirals at the helm, and the women and Global South below-deck – have shaped the terrain within which we make, use, and study maps today.

Together, these variables constitute the topology of maps-as-media.

Cartography as Media-Making

From 2010 through 2013 my colleague Rory Solomon and I taught a graduate studio at The New School, where our students researched historical media infrastructures (loosely defined) – the rise and disappearance of movie theaters in Greenpoint, the geographies of carrier pigeon networks and independent bookstores and newspaper delivery, the production and distribution of activist zines, the strategic siting of carrier hotels and data centers, the northward spread of Edison’s electrification – and plotted those infrastructures on a map. We approached map-making as media design: the students used the map as a framework within which they could tell spatial stories and make cartographic arguments, which were illustrated with a variety of media: “rectified” historical maps, archival photos, field recordings, student-produced video, interview footage, and so on.

Rather than use Google Maps or Historypin or one of the myriad existing mapping platforms, though, we worked over the course of several years with programmers and designers in the Parsons School of Design to develop our own map – one based entirely on open-source technologies, including OpenLayers and OpenStreetMap. Why begin tabula rasa? Because while those existing platforms lent themselves readily to geo-locating data – and particularly well to pinning random bits of archival material (“Hey, look at this cool old stuff I found”!) – they weren’t so great at providing context, or explaining relevance or significance, or highlighting provenance and giving credit to the archivists and artists and scholars who generated that “pinned” material, or creating a framework that gathered up all those data points into a compelling cartographic argument. And, frankly, we preferred not to rely on corporate platforms built on questionable politics, and which had no obligation to preserve our data.

The mapping platform we made was more-than-a-little clunky, persistently buggy, not-so-pretty, and often a source of tremendous frustration. Plotting material required significantly more effort – and for that reason, more careful thought and parsimoniousness – than would’ve been required with a slick and seamless tool. Students had to model their own data, then manually link their individual data-points into networks of “related records,” which they then tied together via illustrated stories or interactive arguments. They had to do the hard work of building a topological foundation for their topography (and their maps were indeed topographic; they aimed to show the three dimensions of infrastructural activity – the aerial, the street-level, the subterranean – in a city distinguished by both its horizontal spread and its verticality).

Yet all that laborious manual control afforded many benefits. Students saw inside the proverbial black box; they watched software get made… and fail, and get (partially) fixed. Those small defeats and victories offered insight into how the system worked – and didn’t; the students ultimately learned a lot more from these error-pitted processes, uncomfortable though they were, than from their effortless interactions with Yelp or Google. The students made choices for themselves – about their maps’ scale of representation, or what base-map would serve as the substrate for all their plotted data – that probably would’ve been made for them by other platforms; and, consequently, they questioned and “denaturalized” many familiar, default means of representing space. And because the spatial histories they were piecing together required research across multiple domains – official city agencies, national regulatory bodies, various industries and special interest groups, individual stake-holders – the students also had to consider the breath of the “discourse network” invested in these spatial debates: what diverse entities were involved in the geographies of these stories? Did these various groups think about and represent space in similar or different ways across time – and could we reconcile their distinctive “cultural techniques” of mapping?

Several students began their projects searching eagerly for the “open data motherlode” that, they imagined, would reveal clear temporal and spatial patterns and allow them to make big, profound, earth-shattering claims: “I intend to cartographically correlate huge changes in socioeconomic data to movements in these massive infrastructures.” Yet, not surprisingly, those data epiphanies never arose. Epiphanies are hard to engineer (especially when you never studied statistics!). Eventually, most students came to appreciate how their overly-ambitious expectations were conditioned by the prevalence of GIS and the equally ubiquitous, and fetishistic, deification and reification of Big Data.[34] They, like many people, conflated “mapping” with “data visualization,” and the “GIS mindset” proved stifling to many of them. As historian David Bodenhamer explains, GIS can appear “reductionist in its epistemology”; it sometimes “forces data into categories; it defines space in limited and literal ways instead of the metaphorical frames that are equally reflective of human experience.”[35] For many students, those words rang true.

But mapping isn’t synonymous with GIS (and GIS isn’t necessarily about positivism and rigidity). Despite the fact that digital mapping platforms seem to call for the exploitation of data sources – the database behind the map seems to demand quantity and precision – cartography is not necessarily all about Big Data. The personal and the partial, the subjective and the speculative, can also be sketched out on a map – that is, if doing so would be both illuminating to the story or argument one is trying to tell, and ethically sound; making entities visible and locatable can, in some cases, represent a threat or a breach of necessary anonymity.[36] Eventually coming to terms with the “non-monumentality” of their conclusions, accepting that they wouldn’t be creating a heat map showing conclusive evidence of quantifiable macro-scale changes, our students recognized the breadth and flexibility and nuance of mapping as a method. While cartography doesn’t readily lend itself to the expression of ambiguity – maps don’t have “buts,” “ifs,” “howevers,” or other qualifying statements to convey the “interpretative nature of the mapping process” – they still found ways to map the qualitative, the necessarily incomplete and inconclusive, the fuzzy.[37] Sometimes that meant infusing a little poetry into their data models to capture the nuance and nebulousness of their subjects.

Visualizing Uncertainty, via Jibonananda Sanyal, Song Zhang & Gargi Bhattacharya, “A User Study to Compare Four Uncertainty Visualization Methods for 1D and 2D Datasets” IEEE Transactions…
Denis Wood, Everything Sings: streetlamp footprints
Denis Wood, Everything Sings: streetlamp footprints

Yet there’s a limit to the method’s flexibility; there’s only so far we can stretch the topography without shattering its underlying topology. Despite whatever opportunities we might have to detourn, or subvert, the map and its underlying database – to build self-reflexive critiques of the cartographic enterprise right into the map itself – we sometimes run up against the operative or epistemological limitations of these systems. Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift note the “difficulty of mapping something that is only partially locatable in time-space,” and of belaboring our subjects with mapping’s “history of subordination to an Enlightenment logic in which everything can be surveyed and pinned down.”[38] Sometimes it’s simply impossible to pin things down as a cartographic point, line, or area.

But the challenges go beyond dealing with a lack of spatial precision. Simply put, not all stories are primarily spatial. Not everything is mappable, and not everything belongs on a map. Framing all research questions, all narratives, all phenomena in terms of space, as the spatial turn inclines us to do, often distorts the content. It forces the territory – the phenomena we’re trying to represent, the histories and stories we’re trying to tell, the arguments we’re trying to make – to conform to the map in order to render itself representable. That translation of physical and human reality into data models and plottable points and lines often results in the loss of something essential and irretrievable. Such critiques have been lodged against “indigenous cartography,” or well-meaning development organizations’ promotion of cartographic literacy among indigenous populations in order to “empower” them to assert their own land rights. “The process of mapping,” Nancy Lee Peluso argued in an influential 1995 article, “almost forces the interpretation of customary rights to resources territorially, thereby changing both the claim and the representation of it….”[39]

Many of my students offered insightful reflections on the values and limitations of mapping as a method and a mode of presentation in their own projects[40]:

I think proximity is a point to be made, but not the whole point, and it might push users to get caught up in spatial observations.

I’ve noticed that all the presentations involved navigation tasks that would seem obscure without the author walking us through them. Why do the maps come so alive when we have a guide walking us through them?

When you see my map from far enough away, it looks like all of Brooklyn is covered in green circles, but zoom in further and there are gaps begging to be filled in. And I think for now at least, that’s how it’s supposed to look.

They came to accept that some gaps are supposed to be there, that their projects will be defined by holes and incompleteness.[41] In fact, as Peter Turchi writes in Maps of the Imagination, “a fuller understanding of what we don’t know” – or, I would add, of what we are not meant to know (e.g., what data is classified or otherwise obscured) – “is itself new knowledge, and redefines what we know. Omissions, intended or unintended, provoke the imagination.”[42] In recognizing what maps can and can’t do well, these neophyte cartographers were able to look at their maps more critically as media, and at mapping as a method — as only one of myriad media and methods at their disposal, and perhaps not the optimal ones for every job.

Herding Dragons: Mending Cartography’s Epistemic and Political Gaps

The failings of our mapping platform offered many happy accidents: in particular, they highlighted the limitations of the contemporary “mapping impulse.” By leaving gaps and intentional (and sure, maybe some lazy and unintentional) imperfections in their own maps, our students were able to graphically embed a critique of the cartographic enterprise. And recently, as I designed the next iteration of the course, “Maps as Media” – a critical study of the rhetorics, poetics, politics, and epistemologies of maps from across myriad geographic and cultural contexts – I sought readings and examples that would articulate those critiques, that would contextualize all those tensions we encountered in previous semesters. In the process, I, an outsider to geography, came to recognize that those gaps existed not only in the topography of the map or its underlying topology – the epistemological and political “dragons” historically depicted on maps’ uncharted territories or waters (“hic sunt dracones”). Those dragons also reside within the critical study of cartography itself – the topology of the discipline – and particularly in the not-terribly-diverse, Western-oriented discourse and its ocularcentric orientation.

The Age of Exploration and its ranks of cartographers were certainly dominated by Western white dudes (as has been most spatial theory). Yet in recent decades – particularly since the rise of “post-positivist” cultural geography, “critical cartography,” and approaches to counter-mapping – the field of geography has attended to issues of gender, race, class, and other forms of diversity. Cartography has embraced diversity both by mapping “difference” and inequality – that is, taking these issues as its cartographic subject matter – and by incorporating diverse and under-represented perspectives and subjectivities into its cartographic ideas and practices.[43] That said, it’s not uncommon to find recent map-related publications (particularly in the tech-oriented press) that mention nary a woman, collected volumes on cartographic ideas that include a trifling proportion of female or ethnically diverse authors, and conference panels featuring a wall of white men. These shortcomings are of course not unique to geography, but they’re striking nonetheless.

Wow – look at all those white guys! “The Future of Mapping” panel @ Mutek 2015

Through their work with other cultures, geographers and workers in international development organizations have recognized the diversity of practices by which people both cognitively and cartographically map their lands. Particularly illuminating has been the way that indigenous groups across the world “have embraced mapping as a way of reclaiming their sovereignty over the lands, negotiating aboriginal rights, and regaining dignity during conflicts with governments and institutions.” [44] While these indigenous mapping practices have proven successful, in some cases, in gaining recognition, and even reparation, for indigenous populations who have either been forcibly moved from their lands or are under threat of relocation, those successes sometimes come with a cost. In order to relay their claims in standard cartographic formats, these groups often have to reconceive their territories (a misnomer, in many cases, since some indigenous groups regard land as a common resource), or twist their topologies, to fit the map. “The main argument against the use of online mapping technologies,” Sébastien Caquard says, “is that it reinforces the subordination of indigenous spatial world-views to western technologies and perspectives.” It imposes ill-fitting cartographic conventions on a conceptual topology – a cultural technique of mapping – that evolved along a very different genealogical tradition.

What we learn from this mismatch is that many indigenous populations have their own long-standing mapping traditions. And those traditions might have material forms of communication, functions, modes of circulation, and public uses that differ dramatically from those of western maps. Recognizing these alternative traditions, Pickles suggests, would ideally prompt a “reopening of the cartographic canon to the cognitive, performative, semantic and symbolic richness of mappings, as well as the diversity of material products that embody those mappings.”[45] There are myriad ways of staking claim to or making sense of the lands (or seas, in the case of Inuit populations and other sea-faring or ice-dwelling groups) on which one lives, myriad ways of communicating what those lands mean to the population who chooses to represent it, myriad forms that those spatial representations can take, and myriad ways of evaluating their “truthfulness” or validity.[46] Ideally, our “mappings” – perhaps a more inclusive term than cartographies – would embrace that diversity.


M.W. Pearce and M.J. Hermann, “They Would Not Take Me There; People, Places and Stories from Champlain’s Travels in Canada, 1603-1616”

Contemporary mapping techniques and technologies, despite their “objectifying,” “rationalizing” and purported “masculinist” tendencies, aren’t inherently and exclusively imperialist or patriarchal, or necessarily incapable of dealing with diversity and different worldviews. It’s possible, Mei-Po Kwan argues, to appropriate and detourn geospatial technologies “to counter their objectifying vision.” Feminist applications of geospatial technologies promise to integrate “bodies, emotions, and subjectivities” into cartography by, for example, drawing inspiration from map artists and map activists, and experimenting with “more expressive and evocative forms of visual practices” – using the GPS to plot and reflect on one’s personal experiences, for instance, or making movies from 3D GIS imagery.[47] While geographers have, as part of their self-reflexive turn, thought critically about the politics of the cartographic gaze and the epistemologies embedded in their “optical regimes,” there’s still one persistent oversight: the focus on visuality. Nearly all definitions of maps distinguish them as a means of visual communication. In the preface to the first volume of the massive and monumental History of Cartography series, J. Brian Harley and David Woodward offer what is widely regarded as one of the most inclusive definitions of maps: “graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.”[48] Yet even this expansive, capacious definition limits the means of cartographic expression to the visual.

Yes, graphic, from graphe, implies writing and drawing – but graphe is also at the root of telegraphy, phonography, and cinematography, all forms of inscription that when “played back,” or consumed, are experienced through vision, sound, and even texture.[49] Recognizing the sensory diversity of “graphic” media might allow us also to explore the potential for more sensorially diverse maps – maps better able to capture the aesthetic richness of our experience of place, and that needn’t collapse that multisensoriality into a single-channel representation. This concern with aesthetics isn’t simply about creating more “realistic” or immersive or creative or beautiful maps. Rather, expanding the sensory repertoire of our mapping techniques and technologies allows us to sanction and codify the critical importance of “non-ocularcentric” modes of experience and ways of knowing. The growth of sensory history and sensory studies – fields that recognize historical shifts in our prioritization of the various senses, that acknowledge the importance of non-visual perception in, say, nautical navigation, military operations, and urban planning – attests to the “validation” of our “other senses.”[50] What counts as a map – a term so capacious in its inclusivity of content – should perhaps be similarly inclusive in its material forms and sensory modes. If we think about maps as media, we can recognize the plethora of media at our disposal, all of which could potentially be marshaled to “graph” our spatial understandings.

Consider the recent explosion of interest in sound maps, which aim to get at the sonic character of various places. There’s a long history for such cultural techniques of mapping: Aboriginal cultures have long used songlines, or “oral maps” to navigate across Australia by musically connecting paths in the sky, among the constellations, to paths on the earth.[51] The Aborigines have cultivated a diverse landscape of cartography: the people of Fitzroy Crossing created a 26 x 32-foot painting demonstrating each person’s relation to parts of the Great Sandy Desert, and they presented it in 1997 before the Native Title Tribunal.[52] Australia’s High Court now permits indigenous populations to submit song, dance, and story as valid evidence in land claims cases.[53] Consider also the creation of tactile and sonic maps for the vision-impaired; users can touch a site on a tactile map and hear information about that location.[54] Finally, think about the possibilities of “deep mapping,” a multisensory, multi-media, multi-authored, inherently unstable and subjective approach to mapping that has been addressed in several recent publications, including my own.[55]

These maps – like those in my infrastructure mapping studio – encompass media in multiple formats, and methods ranging from GIS analysis to oral history and documentary photography. We might regard mapping as the “umbrella” strategy encompassing these other methods and modalities, or as only one component of a “deep” spatially-oriented methodology – one that incorporates other modes of inquiry and expression. Regardless, it’s important that we question the role played by each component of our conceptual and methodological mapping toolbox — that we resist the temptation to fetishize the data or the map, that we appreciate what each of our tools can and can’t do, and that we devise a strategy by which these various tools can work in a complementary fashion to do justice to the rich spatial and temporal dimensions of our subjects of inquiry.

Maps are media: they make themselves both actively and passively present in our everyday lives. They codify and inscribe those contemporary, historical, and perhaps even future realities and give them direction and meaning. They inform, persuade, and perhaps even manipulate. They validate or marginalize those to whom they do or don’t give voice. They embody our ways of knowing and relating to the towns, cities, nations, planets, and galaxies in which we live. They shape the politics by which we govern, shepherd, or exploit our environments, from the micro to the macro scale. And even in their gaps, they give shape to our limitations – to what we don’t and perhaps can’t know, at least not in the shape of a map. Those lacunae delineate that which can’t be pinned down – all the stuff that slips through the grand “graticule,” the epistemic grid of lats and longs.

*   *   *   *   *

[1] According to a recent Pew study, 41% of smartphone owners used their phones to access maps during the week-long study period. See Aaron Smith and Dana Page, “U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015” Pew Research Center (April 1, 2015):

[2] See Jo Guldi, “What Is the Spatial TurnSpatial Humanities (n.d.); Phil Hubbard and Rob Kitchin, Eds., Key Thinkers on Space and Place, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2010); Barney Warf and Santa Arias, Eds., The Spatial Turn: Interdisciplinary Perspectives (New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Michel Foucault, “Of Other Spaces” Diacritics 16:1 (Spring 1986): 22.

[4] Tom Conley, The Self-Made Map: Cartographic Writing in Early Modern France (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010).

[5] Svetlana Alpers, The Art of Describing: Dutch Art in the 17th Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993).

[6] Anna Marie Claire Godlewska, Geography Unbound: French Geographic Science from Cassini to Humboldt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999): 246. See also Lauren Klein’s talks and posts on data visualization.

[7] John Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World (London: Routledge, 2004): 134-6.

[8] Timothy Mitchell, “The World as Exhibition” Comparative Studies in Society and History 31:2 (April 1989): 217-36.

[9] Lewis Mumford, “Patrick Geddes, Victor Branford and Applied Sociology in England: The Social Survey, Regionalism and Urban Planning” In H. E. Barnes, Ed., An Introduction to the History of Sociology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press (abridged edition, [1948] 1966); Boyd Rayward, The Universe of Information: The World of Paul Otlet for Documentation and International Organization (Moscow: International Federation of Documentation, 1975); Nader Vossoughian, Otto Neurath: The Language of the Global Polis (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2011); Alex Wright, Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[10] Orit Halpern, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason Since 1945 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014): 185

[11] See also Celia Lury, Luciana Parisi and Tiziana Terranova, “Introduction: Becoming Topological of Culture” Theory, Culture & Society 29:4/5 (2012): 3-35. The authors argue that the “becoming topological” of culture is reflected in “practices of sorting, naming, numbering, comparing, listing, and calculating”; our predominant cultural forms include “lists, models, networks, clouds, fractals,…flows” and assemblages (4-5). Geographers and political scientists, they argue, “seek to describe dynamic relations and mobilities that cannot be contained by scaled spatial entities, such as territory” (5). “The effect of those practices is both to introduce new continuities into a discontinuous world by establishing equivalences or similitudes, and to make and mark discontinuities through repeated contrasts” (4).

[12] Lury et al.: 4.

[13] See Merle Patchett, “Geo-Imaginaries: Topology vs TopographyExperimental Geography in Practice (September 9, 2010).

[14] See Gary Christopherson and Craig Wissler, “Topology and Topological Rules: Geometric Properties that are Maintained in Spatial Databases” “Fundamentals of GIS” course, University of Arizona, Fall 2006.

[15] See Lisa Gitelman, “Media as Historical Subjects” In Always Already New: Media, History, and the Data of Culture (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006): 7.

[16] See, for example, Arthur H. Robinson, The Look of Maps (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976); J. B. Harley, “Deconstructing the Map” Cartographica 26:2 (Spring 1989): 1-20; A. H. McEachren, How Maps Work: Representation, Visualization, and Design (New York: Guilford Press, 1995); Denis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 1992); and the work of Mark Monmonier.

[17] Christian Jacob, The Sovereign Map: Theoretical Approaches In Cartography Throughout History, Tom Conley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006 [1992]): xv.

[18] John Pickles, A History of Spaces: Cartographic Reason, Mapping and the Geo-Coded World (London: Routledge, 2004): 114.

[19] Bill Rankin, “Cartography and the Reality of Boundaries” Perspecta 42 (Spring 2010: 44.

[20] Bill Rankin, “Redrawing the MapArchitecture Boston 18:2 (Summer 2015).

[21] Rob Kitchin, Justin Gleeson & Martin Dodge, “Unfolding Mapping Practices: A New Epistemology for Cartography” Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 38:3 (July 2013): 480.

[22] Matthew W. Wilson and Monica Stephens, “GIS as Media?” In Susan P. Mains, Julie Cupples and Chris Lukinbeal, Eds., Mediated Geographies and Geographies of Media (Springer, forthcoming 2016; draft available here.

[23] Media theorist Friedrich Kittler defines the discourse network as “the network of technologies and institutions that allow a given culture to select, store, and process relevant data” (Kittler, Discourse Networks 1800/1900, Trans., Michael Metteer, with Chris Cullens (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990: 369).

[24] Sébastien Caquard, Interview with Eva Salinas, “The Politics of Making MapsCanadian International Council (November 12, 2014). See also Alexis Madrigal, “How Google Builds its Maps – and What It Means for the Future of EverythingThe Atlantic (September 5, 2012).

[25] Laura Bliss, “Who Owns the Digital Map of the World?The Atlantic’s CityLab (June 25, 2012).

[26] Laura Kurgan, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology & Politics (New York: Zone, 2013): 31.

[27] Kurgan 26. See also the work of Lisa Parks.

[28] Pickles 13.

[29] Bernhard Siegert, “The Map Is the Territory” Radical Philosophy 169 (September/October 2011): 13.

[30] Geoffrey Winthrop-Young, “Cultural Techniques: Preliminary Remarks” Theory, Culture & Society 30:6 (2013): 3-19; Bernhard Siegert, “Cacography or Communication?: Cultural Techniques in German Media Studies” Grey Room 29 (Winter 2008): 26-47.

[31] For more on cartography’s self-critique of its own ways of framing knowledge, see Jeremy W. Crampton and John Krygier, “An Introduction to Critical Cartography” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 4:1 (2006): 11-33; and Denis Wood, “Counter-Mapping and the Death of Cartography” In Rethinking the Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 2010): 120-129.

[32] Harvey Grabar, “Smartphones and the Uncertain Future of ‘Spatial Thinking’” City Lab (September 9, 2014). See also Fredric Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping” In Cary Nelson and Larry Grossberg, Eds., Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988): 347-60; Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1960); Jody Rosen (“The Knowledge, London’s Legendary Taxi-Driver Test, Puts Up a Fight in the Age of GPS” New York Times Magazine (November 10, 2014)) on London taxi drivers’ extraordinary spatial literacy and capacity for improvised navigation.

[33] Laura Kurgan, Close Up at a Distance: Mapping, Technology & Politics (New York: Zone, 2013): 16-7.

[34] See my “Methodolatry and the Art of MeasurePlaces (November 2013).

[35] David J. Bodenhamer, “The Potential of Spatial Humanities” In David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, Eds., The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2010): 24.

[36] Some things, like domestic violence shelters, or the location of other at-risk populations, should not be mapped. See Selena Larson, “Crisis Shelter Workers Want Google Maps to Hide the Locations of Their SheltersDaily Dot (May 29, 2015).

[37] Pickles 35.

[38] Steve Pile and Nigel Thrift, Introduction to Pile and Thrift, Eds., Mapping the Subject: Geographies of Cultural Transformation (London: Routledge, 1995): 1.

[39] Nancy Lee Peluso, “Whose Woods Are These? Counter-Mapping Forest Territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia” Antipode 27:4 (1995): 388. As Denis Wood explains, indigenous people, when encouraged to map their “territory” “means taking on board all of professional cartography’s spatial epistemology, including its commitment to discrete boundaries, especially since these tend ot be bundled into available GPS and GIS technologies” (Denis Wood, Rethinking the Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 2010): 141).

[40] For more student reflections, see Shannon Mattern, “Cartographic ExcessWords in Space (December 17, 2011); “Embracing Those Gaps on the Map: Urban Media Archaeology, Take 3Words in Space (December 15, 2012); and “Mapping Gyros, Juloos, Disaster Ruins, Beer, Fallout Shelters, Drive-Ins, Serial Killers, and Other StuffWords in Space (December 18, 2013).

[41] For more on the incompleteness and partiality of maps, see Berhard Siegert, “Exiting the Project” and “The Permanently Projected World” In Cultural Techniques: Grids, Filters, Doors, and Other Articulations of the Real (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015): 142-5; and Peter Turchi, “A Wide Landscape of Snows” Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer (San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2004): 27-71.

[42] Turchi 47.

[43] See Gillian Rose’s Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) for more on the gender of geographic practice, and feminist approaches to cartography.

[44] Sébastien Caquard, Interview with Eva Salinas, “The Politics of Making MapsCanadian International Council (November 12, 2014).

[45] Pickles 15.

[46] Claudio Aporta and Gita Laidler recognized that, in mapping Inuit knowledge, one must represent both land and sea use: “the large expanses of blue that delineate the Arctic Ocean and Hudson Bay, among other major water bodies, are left relatively empty in most maps. These ‘blank’ areas are actually ice-covered white expanses for three quarters of the northern year” (“ISIP Seeks International Partners” IASSA.Net listserv (December 14, 2004); referenced in Woods Rethinking the Power of Maps). And Margaret Pearce and Michael Hermann incorporated Native narratives into their maps of Samuel de Champlain’s travels in Canada in the 17th century (Michael Hermann and Margaret Pearce, “’They Would Not Take Me There’: People, Places, and Stories from Champlain’s Travels in Canada 1603 – 1616Cartographic Perspectives 66 (Fall 2010).

[47] Mei-Po Kwan, “Affecting Geospatial Technologies: Toward a Feminist Politics of Emotion” The Professional Geographer 59:1 (2007): 24, 30. See also the growing body of literature on “affective geographies.”

[48] J. Brian Harley and David Woodward, Preface to Harley and Woodward, Eds., The History of Cartography, Vol. 1, Book 1(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): xvi.

[49] See James J. Hodge, “Marey’s Graphic MethodTransliteracies Project, Research Report (March 5, 2006), and Lisa Gitelman, Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines: Representing Technology in the Writing Era (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) for more on the “graphic” root of many historical media.

[50] See, for instance, the work of Constance Classen, David Howes, and Mark M. Smith, Diane Ackerman’s The Natural History of the Senses (New York: Random House, 1990) and the Sensory Studies research network. See also my “Silent, Invisible City: Mediating Urban Experience for the Other Senses” In Frank Eckardt et al., Eds., Mediacity: Situations, Practices, and Encounters (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2009): 155-76.

[51] Ray P. Norris & Bill Yidumduma Harney, “Songlines and Navigation in Wardaman and Other Australian Aboriginal Cultures” Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 17:2 (in press): 1-14.

[52] Geraldine Brooks, “The Painted Desert” The New Yorker (July 28, 2003).

[53] Grace Koch, “We Have the Song, So We Have the Land: Song and Ceremony as Proof of Ownership in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Land Claims” AIATSIS Research Discussion Paper 33 (July 2013). See also Ronald Conner on how the Tapeba people of Northeast Brazil use toré, “a song- and percussion-driven circle dance and sacred ceremony” to specify land claims (“Land and Indigeneity in Toré Songs of the Brazilian Tapeba PeopleEthnomusicology Review 17 (2012)).

[54] “Tactile Map Automated Production” The Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute:

[55] David J. Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris, Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (Indiana University Press, 2015); Shannon Mattern, Deep Mapping the Media City (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015); Todd Presner, David Shepard & Yoh Kawano, HyperCites: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press / metaLab Projects, 2014).


Scaling Firewalls: OutTakes on Library Logistics

On Wednesday, June 24, Urban Omnibus — an online journal dedicated to urban architecture, art, policy, and activism — will publish an article I’ve written on “library logistics.” Given the journal’s focus, my “Middlewhere: Landscapes of Library Logistics” attends primarily to place-based infrastructure — but we can’t consider the library’s built environment and its physical logistical systems apart from its digital resources. Our libraries are hybrid environments: code-spaces, algorithmic architectures. Their digital resources — both front- and back-of-house, both patron-facing and employee-oriented — are a critical part of the library’s infrastructure — one that, by allowing libraries to “outsource” many of their logistical operations and to rely on resources housed in the Cloud (despite the obvious risks inherent in such delegation of responsibility and resources), can free the physical library infrastructure to do what it does best: accommodate people and material things, and facilitate their movement and coming together.

Because the published article merely alludes to this “virtual architecture,” I offer here a discussion of the many ways in which New York’s libraries are scaling firewalls and laboring to shape the digital landscape in such a way as to smooth the pathways from resource “discovery to delivery” – pathways that bridge the physical and the virtual, the on- and off-site, the local and the global. This post builds on information relayed, and arguments offered, in the Omnibus piece — so I recommend that you read it before reading this. Thanks!

University of Utah's Marriott Library
University of Utah’s Marriott Library

The creation of shared resources and logistical systems like BookOps and ReCAP (both of which I address in the published article) requires the syncing of technical protocols, consolidation of databases, and generation of middleware to aid in the translation between different operating systems and their often competing logics. But that field of translation, the realm of middleware, doesn’t always remain hidden in the “back-end” of libraries’ logistical systems. It’s not simply a staff concern. As more of our libraries’ physical collections move off-site or into compact storage, and as they’re re-organized in accordance with an efficiency-driven database logic – once that’s unintelligible to patrons – it’s through the library catalog and Internet searches that patrons discover this wealth of resources. As those shared collections grow, as the universe of resources available for discovery expands, that discovery is increasingly mediated through a digital interface – one whose clear and compelling presentation of information is highly dependent on the intercommunication between myriad nested software platforms in the background. Thus, the politics of protocols and firewalls, or access policies and interoperability are more apparent, and relevant, to patrons, too. That’s why it’s important to recognize that the library’s logistical landscape is widely distributed across a global digital terrain – and that librarians, archivists, and their associates expend a great deal of labor in traversing digital and physical barriers to bring those resources to us in our libraries, in our homes, and on our phones. In a sense, librarians function as “middleware” themselves in their advocacy for open systems and logistical access.


Rebecca Federman, the NYPL’s Electronic Services Coordinator, negotiates with the vendors of over 300 research databases that are available in the system’s research libraries. She estimates that hundreds are also accessible in the branch libraries. Some of these resources can be accessed remotely, via the library’s website; while others are firewalled and available only on-site in the libraries. Federman works with the database companies to determine how many access points the libraries are permitted to offer, and where they should be.[i] Meanwhile, Josh Hadro, Deputy Director of NYPL Labs, negotiates “digital content partnerships” with programs like Google Books and the HathiTrust, which is a large-scale, secure, collaborative digital repository (one focused, unlike Google, on preservation) of books digitized by Google, the Internet Archive, and other libraries. Hathi, in consolidating materials from multiple sources, has to translate between myriad digitizers’ metadata schemes. The NYPL has, since 2004, allowed Google to scan its public-domain material. That material is then included within the HathiTrust catalog, and the NYPL’s own catalog now links to the Trust. Through its cooperation with these initiatives, Hadro says, the NYPL’s contributions “serve not only a local constituency, but also ‘the Internet’ at large.”[ii] Similarly, the NYPL’s patrons, like all library patrons, benefit from digital repositories that draw on materials from the world at large.

Linking Open Data cloud diagram 2014, by Max Schmachtenberg, Christian Bizer, Anja Jentzsch and Richard Cyganiak.
Linking Open Data cloud diagram 2014, by Max Schmachtenberg, Christian Bizer, Anja Jentzsch and Richard Cyganiak.

Facilitating this global, networked service is the library’s linked data initiative – a goal the NYPL shares with many public, private, and academic libraries. Shana Kimball, the NYPL Labs’ Manager of Public Programs and Outreach, explained that the initiative promises to “de-silo (e.g., make interoperable) our various catalogs” and to “integrate our collections into the broader net ecosystem to enhance discovery of and access to these resources.”[iii] This involves creating a “registry system that will give unique web identifiers (URIs) to every resource in [the library’s] collections.” The web addresses associated with these identifiers could then provide distinctive sets of information that are legible to either humans or computers: for humans, “bibliographic information, curator and staff annotations, crowd-sourced information, and links to connected related resources,” and on the “computer-readable page,” “machine-actionable” data that could be useful to developers, systems, and search engines. The project – which extends far beyond the NYPL – speaks to the value of translating across operating logics in order to distribute library resources as widely as possible, and to make them as interoperable as possible.


Library Simplified
Library Simplified


The library has also collaborated with the Digital Public Library of America and First Book, a nonprofit that provides books to needy children, to create Open eBooks, an app that makes hundreds of public domain eBooks available to all kids, and offers thousands of popular e-books, for free, to children in low-income families.[iv] Micah May, the NYPL’s Director of Strategy, says that the library is also working with Brooklyn and national partners to “unify discovery” of the systems’ various e-resources. Using open-source software and open standards, the Library Simplified project aims to streamline e-book lending, in part by helping patrons easily navigate digital rights management technology, and to improve the e-book reading experience. The Labs, too, have sought to develop new tools for visualizing and searching within their network of archival resources and helping patrons identify and navigate connections between them.[v]

NYPL Labs visualization tools
NYPL Labs visualization tools

May says they also want to bring those digital resources into more physical settings – providing e-resources to classes, offering more remote services, etc.[vi] Sam Rubin, Chief of Staff at the New York Public Library, noted another Tri-Li (three-library) collaboration dedicated to providing access to the city’s disenfranchised and bringing library resources into off-the-grid areas: the HotSpot program loans free wireless modems to patrons without home internet access, thereby helping them navigate past their own logistical barriers.[vii] And through the Culture in Transit program, a Knight Foundation-funded partnership between the Metropolitan New York Library Council and the Queens and Brooklyn public libraries, a “Mobile Digitization Specialist” is available to help any interested cultural heritage institutions scan and generate metadata for items in their collections, and to then make those materials available through the Digital Public Library of America and its New York State hub.


All of these initiatives, May suggested, illustrate the myriad ways that libraries “are trying to change the environment we’re in,” in part by cultivating a more just, inclusive, equitably distributed logistical landscape. Through projects like Readers First, “a movement to improve e-book access and services fro public library users,” and the development of other APIs that allow for access across various digital platforms, libraries are trying to force e-book vendors, who tend to “bundle” their offerings, to instead “open their architecture.” “Libraries wrestle with distributors and publishers for interoperability,” he says. In a sense, librarians function as “middleware” themselves in their advocacy for open systems and logistical access.


** And because my original draft of the article was obnoxiously long, we had to cut a number of divergences and a lot of endmatter — including this footnote about the decades of research into, and experience with, shared print repositories: “OCLC has been investigating shared print management: how libraries across a region can consolidate and preserve their print collections.[1] Since 1987 Ohio’s libraries have been working together to provide state-wide access, through OhioLINK, to their collective print and digital resources. Maine’s major libraries and library consortia have come together to found the Maine Shared Collections Cooperative, and various library consortia in the western US have formed the Western Regional Storage Trust, a shared print repository for journal archives.”


[i] Rebecca Federman, phone conversation, May 21, 2015. Federman also noted digital negotiations among the members of the Manhattan Research Library Initiative (MaRLI), which offers NYPL cardholders the ability to borrow select research material (the research collections typically don’t circulate), and to access select materials from Columbia and NYU. The institutional members, Federman says, often discuss divisions of labor in acquiring materials: they often agree that, for some resources, all the member libraries will have access to digital content, while one institution will agree to purchase the print version.

[ii] Josh Hadro, Deputy Director, NYPL Labs, phone conversation, May 21, 2015.

[iii] Shana Kimball, email conversation, May 18, 2015

[iv] See Institute of Museum and Library Services, “Open eBooks FAQs”:

[v] See also Matt Miller, “The Networked Catalog” NYPL Labs Blog (July 31, 2014):

[vi] Micah May, phone conversation, May 15, 2015.

[vii] The city-wide Summer Reading program, Rubin acknowledged, is another Tri-Li programmatic collaboration that unites the three libraries in encouraging kids (and their families) to read for at least twenty minutes every day throughout the vacation months.


The Organic Fantastic — or, Welcome to Brooklyn, Wegmans.

In celebration of the exciting news that a Wegmans supermarket is coming to Brooklyn, I thought I’d dig out from the archives an article I wrote during my first year in grad school, when I was a very un-ripe twenty two. I was taking a class on propaganda, and I decided to focus my final paper on how propaganda techniques could be spatialized in retail design. I knew the perfect case study.

When I was growing up in Central Pennsylvania, we’d occasionally trek north to Williamsport for the Little League World Series, or to visit the music store where I bought and serviced all my musical instruments. And while we were in town, we’d sometimes stop at Wegmans. I always wished we could have such a good-smelling, chromatically riotous wonderland closer to home — but Wegmans didn’t come to State College until after I moved to New York, in 1998. Since then, when I’ve been home visiting family, I’ve made many visits to the hometown shop. Now they’re coming to me here in New York — yet, I regretfully admit, I doubt I’ll visit them after they settle in at the Navy Yard. Because Brooklyn tends to take good things and make them insanely annoying.

Speaking of annoying: let’s get to it. Here’s the barely post-adolescent me — speaking to you from across time, in 1999 — on grocery merchandising. I did some “fieldwork” at the Williamsport Wegmans for this story. My note-taking and not-surreptitious-enough photographing freaked out the manager, who asked me to leave. I was quite proud of my transgression.


The Organic Fantastic: Grocery Merchandising and the Immersive Propaganda Technique

You double-check the list: milk, bread, and orange juice. Easy enough. The bread’s in the last aisle, and the milk and o.j. are in the back, left-hand corner of the store. Should take five minutes—max. Don’t need a cart—just a shopping basket. Ooh, do I smell apple pie? Why, yes. There’s a chef baking apple pie in the produce section. And there’s a special on Granny Smith apples. I’ll pick up a half-dozen. And what’s this? Caramel apple dip? Mmmm. Let’s try it. And if I’m making a pie, I need stuff for the crust. I’ve got flour and butter. Oh, I’m out of cinnamon. I’ll just pop into aisle four and pick up some cinnamon—and ginger. And, oh wow, this looks great: salt-free vegetable seasoning. Now this would be wonderful on some grilled veggies. I could just hop back over to produce and pick up some carrots, cauliflower and broccoli, maybe some squash. Oh, yeah, and those little button mushrooms, too. Okay, good. That’ll be tomorrow’s dinner. Now, what did I come here for? Milk. Back, left corner. I’m walking directly to the back left corner. My attention will not be diverted. But hey, what’s this? They’re cooking some nice steaks in the butcher shop. I really shouldn’t, but it smells heavenly. I’ll pick up a few and freeze them. Okay, now for the milk. I’m walking to the milk. All I need is milk. Hold on. Free samples. Can’t pass up free samples. Oh, my. Cheese and crackers. Ooh, fantastic. This would be perfect for the office party tomorrow afternoon. Great. Now: milk. Skim, where’s the skim? Do I want fat free skim, light skim, heart-healthy skim, skinny skim, or organic de-creamed milk? The organic stuff is probably chemical-free. I’ll take it. Oh, and over here’s the o.j. I forgot about that already. I’ll pick up some calcium-enhanced juice. Cool! Here’s that new orange mango kiwi juice I saw advertised yesterday. I’ll try it out. Alright, the basket’s full. Time to head to the checkout. Do I have everything? No, I need bread. Bread, bread, bread. Here it is. Whole wheat? Whole grain? 100% Natural whole grain? Wheat-free natural? Stone-ground whole grain? Sheesh. But, wait. The store bakery makes its own whole wheat. And I bet it doesn’t have any preservatives. But the bakery’s back by the deli. We’ll just run back there quickly. Here it is: 100% whole wheat. Good. Let’s get out of here. Hey, check out these muffins!….

Sound familiar? Rarely is a trip to the grocery store a simple in-and-out dash. Retailers wouldn’t allow it. They want to keep you in the store as long as possible. They want you to come into contact with as much as the merchandise as possible. Simply because they want you to buy as much as possible.

Why is it that we always end up leaving the grocery store with much more than we had intended to buy? What is it about that huge, impersonal, warehouse-like space that turns our willpower to mush? We needn’t be ashamed. In the grocery store, we’ve got a whole system working against us. Retailing—specifically, merchandising and retail design—is a science, a technique. The grocery store is an immersive, hermetic medium for propagandistic communication. But we rarely see it as such.


We fancy ourselves a nation of critical consumers. We read our Consumer Reports. We encounter advertising with a healthy skepticism. We price shop—through catalogs, on the Internet, through flyers. We make out our shopping lists, our shopping itineraries, and set out on our missions: to spend our well-earned paychecks frugally, to find some great deals, to “beat the system.” Why is it, then, that we become such spineless blobs when we hit the stores? Chee Pearlman of I.D. magazine offers an answer:

The whole place has been masterminded by a ‘supermarket architect’ whose aisle and ‘endcap’ strategies optimize your viewing angle and tantalize your kids. Every decision about color, light, temperature, smell and even music has been scientifically calibrated to excite the buying impulse. And with good reason. A full two thirds of the purchases made during the 107.8-minute average visit to the supermarket are unplanned… (47).

If only we knew the retailer’s stealth strategies. If only we could recognize the totality of forces converging in a retail outlet, impelling us to buy, buy, buy. We must learn how to read our environments: to identify the propaganda techniques employed in retail design and to recognize the connection between particular design choices and consumer behavior. Perhaps by understanding the science, or technique, behind retail design and merchandising, we can better understand why we are compelled to consume—and then better control those compulsions.

[Remember: you’re reading the words of a 22-year-old idiot!]

According to Michelle McLachlan (“Food for Thought”), “few retail categories are as sensitive to changing shopper lifestyles and habits as the grocery and supermarket segment. Few categories are as sensitive to new ways of presenting merchandise or layout of stores….” Grocery stores face increasing competition from eat-in and take-out restaurants, large-scale “food clubs,” and e-commerce. They must accommodate dual-career households with strict time constraints. In response to these market dynamics and demographic changes, grocery store designers must create an environment that “stimulates and communicates with the customer”; they must fashion an entertaining and emotionally and viscerally appealing experience (McLachlan, “Food for Thought”). Michael Friedman writes: “Shopping is an instinct. People love to go shopping, but they don’t like to go shopping for boring items. Good graphics, lighting, colors and layout are what make a store exciting. What’s needed is a sense of discovery.” The grocery store isn’t just a store anymore. It “aestheticizes” and animates our “instinct” for food shopping; it turns this instinct into a fetish.

In Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes, Jacques Ellul explains that propaganda “short-circuit[s]” all thought and decision (27). It works at the level of the unconscious. It exploits our needs, instincts, customs, and “unconscious habits” in order to “persua[de] from within” (64). We have a biological need for food, but advertising and merchandising—in short, all of consumer propaganda—create supplemental, superficial needs.   We don’t just need fuel for our bodies; we need fat-free, organic, kid-tested/mother-approved, 100% natural, free-range fuel.

The grocery store—a hermetically sealed environment full of visual, verbal, olfactory, and tactile stimulation—provides the perfect container, or medium, for this inside-out propaganda. It’s an immersive environment. The grocer “leaves no part of the [consumer’s] intellectual or emotional life alone; man is surrounded on all sides” (Ellul 10).


Today’s grocery stores seem to be completely self-sufficient worlds. Many now have their own post offices, pharmacies, banks, photo centers, restaurants, lounges, and even doctor’s offices. Dependent solely on fluorescent lights for visibility and a ventilation system for oxygen, the consumer has nearly no contact with the outside world. Few stores have windows. Ellul suggests that this isolation is necessary in a propagandistic environment, where the consumer “must not have outside points of reference” (17). The grocer must “create a complete environment for the individual, one from which he never emerges” (Ellul 18).

The consumer does eventually “emerge” from the grocery store—but he never escapes from the consumer environment. The retail outlet serves as only one element of the consumption “system.” Ellul recognizes that propaganda depends upon a “totality of forces”—including advertising, other media products, education, etc. The propagation of the consumer myth depends upon a “total propaganda.” “The propagandist must utilize all of the technical means at his disposal—the press, radio, TV, movies, posters, meetings….” (Ellul 9). And, I would add, public space—in this case, commercial space.

All of these technical means, when integrated, produce a propaganda “technique.” Each of the “technical” qualities Ellul attributes to propaganda can also be applied to the consumer environment. First, retail design and merchandising are subject to the law of efficiency (Ellul 4). Second, merchandising depends upon scientific research—particularly in psychology and sociology. In fact, Paco Underhill, in his 1999 book Why We Buy, speaks of the “science of shopping.” He writes:

…an important medium for transmitting messages and closing sales is now the store and the aisle. That building, that place, has become a great big three-dimensional advertisement for itself. Signage, shelf position, display space and special fixtures all make it either likelier or less likely that a shopper will buy a particular item (or any at all). The science of shopping is meant to tell us how to make use of all those tools (32-3).

The merchandising technique also favors a particular methodology: ethnography. Ellul writes: “what is needed nowadays is an exact analysis of both the environment and the individual to be subjected to propaganda” (4). Thus, both a macro- and micro-level contextual analysis will provide the retailer with data regarding “the sentiments and opinions, the current tendencies and the stereotypes among the public he is trying to reach” (Ellul 34). Third, merchandising’s techniques depend on control; its procedures are “rigorous, precise, and tested” (4). The retailer must “control [the technique’s] use, measure its results, define its effects” (Ellul 4).


Efficiency. The supermarket must position itself as the most efficient food-shopping destination for its consumers. Michelle McLachlan of Display & Design Ideas (“Food for Thought”) suggests that grocers place prepared foods at the front of the store “both as reference points to attract shoppers and as aids for the convenience of shoppers in a hurry.” She recommends rotating the merchandise throughout the day in order to appeal to consumers with different needs: single portions at lunch for business people on the run, family portions in the evening for homeward-bound moms (“Designing Dinner”). McLachlan also foresees tomorrow’s grocery stores becoming multifunctional town-centers, complete with party planners and caterers, dry cleaners, restaurants, and banks. This “one-stop shopping experience” could decrease the time and hassle of grocery shopping.

But merchandising techniques must also prove efficient for the grocers themselves. Underhill measures retail design efficiency in terms of a few key variables. First, the conversion/closure rate refers to “the percentage of shoppers who become buyers” (35). Second, the in-store time—that is, the amount of time a customer spends inside the store—is “perhaps the single most important factor in determining how much she or he will buy” (37). In order words, retail designs and merchandising plans that invite the consumer to linger and browse typically yield higher sales. Third, the interception rate refers to the number of shopper-employee contacts. A retail design that allows for maximum contact between consumers and workers usually increases the size of individual sales (Underhill, 1999, 37). Finally, waiting time influences profitability. Thus, efficient delis, checkouts, etc.—those with little or no wait—usually encourage purchases.

Arthur Andersen’s Senn-Delaney consulting group turns the food retail outlet into a well-oiled machine. The group offers guidance in category management, franchising, foodservice/meal solutions, labor management, perishables improvement, shrink management, store expansion, store layout & design, technology implementation, and other retailing functions (, “Satisfying Grocery Customers”). Their Customer Satisfaction Program, they claim, can produce a two-percent increase in grocers’ sales. As part of their efficient category management program, Senn-Delaney and their clients “plan strategically and think analytically and creatively” in order to develop business strategies “category by category” (, “Capturing Categories that Drive Traffic”). Senn-Delaney even optimizes areas that other consultants overlook—including the staging, packaging, processing and storage areas of a grocery store (www.senn-delaney,com, “Design Your ‘Store of the Future’”). The consultants also explore technology opportunities that can “improve the customers’ perception of value and achieve operational and financial goals” (, “Computing Technology Opportunities”).

Logistical-efficiency and cost-efficiency seem to be the retailers’ primary goals. Because space is at a premium, and because grocery retailing typically offers only a two- to three-percent profit margin, grocers must design and spend wisely (“To Market, To Market”). Senn-Delaney advises its clients to employ flexible retail designs so that retailers can “quickly modify store layout, marketing strategies and the merchandising mix to satisfy customer demands without incurring significant capital investment” (, “Design Your ‘Store of the Future’”). In short, efficiency means balancing customer satisfaction with retail profits.

Research: Context. But how do grocers know what makes their customers happy? They must know the playing field. As Ellul recognizes, a company must conduct research on both a macro- and micro-level; grocers must familiarize themselves with the individual consumer, the consumer society, industry trends, market climate, etc. Such research involves psychology, sociology, anthropology, kinesthetics, anatomy, and a host of other humanistic “-ologies” and data-driven “-istics.” For example, Senn-Delaney derives its Customer Satisfaction Index by measuring customer satisfaction through focus groups, interviews, and surveys; by comparing satisfaction levels with competitors’ levels; and by identifying “critical, high yield opportunities for revenue enhancement, cost reduction and improved customer satisfaction” (, “Satisfying Grocery Customers”).

Underhill adopts a less methodical approach to data collection. He and associates from his company, Envirosell, sit for hours in a store, observing physiological and anatomical factors like customers’ bodily movement, transit obstacles, walking pace, line-of-vision, and hand and arm carrying capacity. They also examine behavioral differences based on gender, age, and other demographic and psychographic factors. But Underhill favors aesthetic, or sensory, analysis above all. He focuses on how consumers interact with or experience merchandise: how they test the firmness of a head of lettuce, savor a free sample of Virginia ham, squeeze the Charmin, knock on melons, and shake bags of potato chips. He writes: “…the most powerful inducement to shopping—the opportunity to touch, try, taste, smell and otherwise explore the world of desirable objects, and how the artful juxtaposition of those objects can sometimes make all the difference in the world” (164).


Control. Underhill’s field notes and Senn-Delaney’s indices and codes allow for definition, measuring, and testing. They foster rigor and precision. Such indices allow Senn-Delaney to quantify as much of the shopping experience as possible—and these numbers promote a sense of control over the environment or understanding of the frustratingly irrational consumer. The group regularly measures such variables such as average wait-in-checkout, average grocery out-of-stock, and average customers-per-cashier-hour. They know that customers wait at the check-out for an average of 7.7 minutes, but with the proper improvements, a grocer can cut the wait to one minute (, “Satisfying Grocery Customers”). On average, cashiers handle 25 customers per hour, but with the proper technological and logistical corrections, a grocer can increase that number to 36 (, “Satisfying Grocery Customers”).

“Optimizing” the grocery store requires continuous monitoring of these variables. Senn-Delaney, for example, works with its clients to develop an automated “layout scorecard” that continually measures the impact of implemented layout changes (, “Design Your Store of the Future”). Accurate definitions of variables and rigorous measurement allow the retailer to exercise control over the customer’s satisfaction—and ultimately over the store’s profitability.

Strategy: Implementing the Research. How does the retailer “operationalize” this rigorously collected data? Some retailers use demographics and psychographics in planning their retail design. Michael Friedman claims that a designer must know his or her “audience” (the consumer) in order to create a shopper-friendly environment. For example, baby-boomers, who are typically less mobile than younger consumers, require smaller stores, an easily maneuverable layout, and ample seating/resting areas.   Michelle McLachlan suggests regionalizing grocery stores: individualizing stores in a chain by tailoring merchandise to local demands. Wegman’s, an upscale New-York based grocery chain, draws on psychographic data. Through market research, the retailer determined that health is important to its target consumer. So throughout their stores, Wegman’s displays signs with nutritional information and offers nutritional brochures. All of these customization programs serve a dual function: they serve both to accommodate, or entertain, the consumer and to “elicit spending” (Friedman).

Underhill incorporates knowledge of physiology and anatomy into design choices. He suggests that in creating and positioning signage, retailers must consider what shoppers will be doing, thinking, feeling, seeing, etc., in each zone of a store. “You have to deliver the information the way people absorb it, a bit at a time, a layer at a time, and in the proper sequence” (Underhill 62). If customers seem bogged down at a particular area in the store, retailers should provide extra baskets or carts. After all, the more they can carry, the more they’ll buy! In addition, Underhill says that store layout should be informed by considerations of “flow.” The retailer must decrease or eliminate blind spots and obstacles to movement. Optimal design “understands our habits of movement and takes advantage of them” (Underhill 76). It also exploits effective synergies and adjacencies—zones or products that, when positioned in close proximity, promote cross-purchases. For example, if a grocer shelves spaghetti sauce right beside the pasta, a consumer is likely to pick up a container of each in a single movement.

In his hundreds of hours of observing customers, Underhill has identified a few environmental factors that enhance the grocery shopper’s experience and consequently increase the likelihood that he or she will make a purchase. First: touch. The retail environment must involve the customer; it must maximize “shopper-merchandise contact” (168). Grocers can turn their stores into a “sensualist’s journey” by offering food samples, demonstrating food preparation in a test kitchen, or by grilling some steaks in the meat department.

From a FastCo article on how grocery store layout is "wrecking the planet"
From a FastCo article on how grocery store layout is “wrecking the planet”

Second: discovery. The store layout should “…seduce shoppers through the aisles with hints of what’s to come” (Underhill 158). Wegman’s employs a “looping” layout—not your typical supermarket circuit—to guide shoppers through the store. As the customer enters the store, he or she encounters the produce section, an open area featuring “islands” of fruits and vegetables, many of which are displayed in rustic crates, decorative baskets, or farm wagons. Around the perimeter of this area are the cake bakery, the bread bakery, the deli, a fruit bar, a dessert/pastry bar, and the prepared food section. As the customer “loops” through this area, he or she inevitably loops by certain displays repeatedly. If a customer passes by those tempting muffins or appetizing prepared foods enough times, he’ll eventually break down and buy something.

Store layout maps out and sequences the shopper’s experience in the store. As Underhill says, retailers must take into consideration what shoppers are thinking and feeling during particular stages of the shopping experience. When the shopper enters the store, he or she is in the mood to buy—and perhaps most vulnerable to visual merchandising “tricks.” Therefore, retailers typically put the most attractive products…and the fresh foods up front (“To Market, To Market”). These goods appeal visually to the consumer and at the same time provide a high profit margin for the retailer. Home Meal Replacements, typically positioned in coolers close to the front entrance, can secure 40% to 60% profit margins (McLachlan, “Designing Dinner”).

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The necessities, like milk, juices, and eggs, however, are positioned at the farthest possible distance from the store’s main entrance. A shopper may think he’s dropping by to pick up some eggs, but when he treks back to the far right corner of the store, he inevitably passes hundreds of enticing displays. It’s highly unlikely that he will leave with nothing more than a dozen eggs.

Wegman’s positions displays of appliances and other high-margin goods adjacent to appropriate food sections. For example, in between the butcher shop, the seafood section, and the produce area, Wegman’s had constructed a pyramid of George Foreman Fusion Grills—perfect for grilling a steak, a filet or fish, or some fresh vegetables.

“Zoning” techniques determine which products are placed where. Retailers group product categories into zones in order to encourage customers to purchase an entire “ensemble” of goods. A retailer might position breads, meats, cheeses, and condiments together in a picnic-themed display in order to encourage customers to buy all the ingredients needed to construct the perfect sandwich. In Wegman’s “Football Zone,” the retailer has arranged sausages, cheeses, chips, dip, pretzels, tortillas, and salsa on a cart draped with football team flags and pennants. If someone is hosting a football party, he or she can easily pick up a few packages of each of these “football foods.” The “Holiday Cookie Zone” features chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, peanut butter, coconut, M&M’s, shortening, evaporated milk, etc.—all the ingredients for a batch of homemade cookies.

McLachlan suggests creating “separate merchandising areas…with distinct presentation elements” for each product category (“Food for Thought”). Aesthetics help to “thematize” distinct zones of the store. A theme packages all the goods displayed in the zone into a narrative, a “stage set,” or some other sensory appeal strategy. Themed zoning encourages consumer involvement with the merchandise, extends the time the consumer spends in the store—and, consequently, increases sales.

McLachlan suggests that grocers zone their Home Meal Replacement (HMR, or prepared foods) areas as separate establishments, with their own entrances and check-outs. She advises the grocer to incorporate flattering lighting, graphics explaining the food preparation, and handsome visual merchandising in order to create an upscale, entertaining atmosphere. Appropriate presentational strategies can de-emphasize the “packaged” nature of “pre-packaged” foods. According to Michael Crosson of Jon Greenberg Associates, a classy presentation can build consumer confidence, reinforcing the sense that “This is the same thing I’d do at home if I had the time” (McLachlan, “Designing Dinner”). Thus, in theming and presenting its merchandise a retailer must take into account the consumer’s thoughts and values. Grocers must consider how a working mother feels about stopping by after work to pick up a pre-cooked lasagna for her family’s dinner. Crosson claims that the presentation must “appeal to both the social elements of eating, and the practical” (McLachlan, “Designing Dinner’).

According to Nick Giammarco, president of Marco Design Group, grocery shopping is no longer a necessity; today, it’s is a “lifestyle trip” (McLachlan, “Designing Dinner”). Today’s grocers have to somehow make chicken breasts and Cheerios exciting—and associate them with a desirable lifestyle. Harris Teeter, a North Carolina-based grocery store chain, uses a “stage set” approach to zoning. Rush Dickson, Senior Vice President of Design and Image Development, says: “It’s an attempt to create some atmosphere for what can be pretty boring merchandise” (“To Market, To Market”). Wegman’s has turned its bakery into an open theater. Customers can watch as bakers knead dough or craft icing flowers for a wedding cake. The store also hosts a weekly televised cooking demonstration.


But retailers can also opt for a more low-key approach to theming. Demographics indicate the shoppers are spending less time at home. In response, some designers have created a domestic ambiance in order to draw customers into the store. Wegman’s, for example, displays its wares in baskets, urns, or wagons, on fruit carts or antique hutches, and even in bathtubs. Many, like Wegman’s, have incorporated coffee bars to invite relaxation and prolong the store visit. Such domestic touches convey a sense of comfort and familiarity; they blend repose and active consumption.

Even the manufactured goods for sale can visually communicate an ideology. What, for example, is the message behind a pre-packaged four-course Thanksgiving dinner for twenty? What can we say about our culinary culture when fruit can be eaten in a flat, sticky sheet plastered on a cellophane square? Peter Hall argues that the design of our snack foods is itself a technique, another element of the merchandising system. “Snackitecture,” he says, “is an art as complex as its mother architecture.” He writes:

Its practitioners are as guilty as their fellow designers of the postmodern game of self-reference, introducing a hyperreal handful of digestible signifiers and meta foods into cereal and snack bowls: French Toast Crunch, a shrunken version of its namesake; Swiss cheese-flavored crackers, manufactured in the shape of pieces of Swiss cheese. But snackitects also face the kinds of constraints familiar to all designers. Their constructions must simultaneously impress two clients, child and parent, with diametrically opposed expectations (61).

Hall captures what is perhaps the greatest challenge of design: balancing its appeals and its obligations.


Balancing Appeals. According to Ellul’s model of propaganda, grocery merchandising and retail design depend upon stabilizing a host of appeals and strategies and motivations. Perhaps most important, though, is the supermarket’s ability to combine integration and agitation propaganda. Design, merchandising, and operational (management, logistical) strategies promote a myth: the consumer myth—an ideology based on manufactured needs, superficial satisfaction, and waste. But they also communicate a call to action: a call to buy. And this call arises through a mixture of overt propaganda—signage, coupons, fliers, advertising—and covert propaganda—zoning, visual merchandising, product placement, adjacencies, and retail themes.

Rooted in science, focused on efficiency, centered on control, the techniques of supermarket merchandising and design reveal what they are: a propaganda system. An enclosed, embodied, immersive propaganda system. But as Ellul suggests, awareness is a necessary first step. Maybe we can learn to critically consume our consumer environments as skillfully as we consume our media products and packaged goods. We can learn how to read our built spaces. The idea of spatial literacy requires that we begin to ask new questions: Hey, haven’t I passed by this chocolate display five times now? Why are there tiki torches in the meat section? When—and why—did my optometrist move his office to the Shop-n-Save? Sure, they seem like silly questions—but that’s only because they haven’t been asked before. And that’s because we rarely regard space as an ideal medium for propaganda, but it is. Don’t believe it? Just check out your grocery bill.

Works Cited

Dugdale, Juanita. “Order in the Court.” Interiors March 1999: 32-4.

Ellul, Jacques. Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes. New York: Vintage Books, 1965.

Food Marketing Institute. “Supermarket Facts: Industry Overview 1998.”   1998. 11 Nov. 1999 <>.

Friedman, Michael. “Future Shop: Industry Pundits Peer Into What May be in Store for Supermarkets.” Progressive Grocer Nov. 1999. 11 Nov. 1999   <>.

Hall, Peter. “Eat Me.” I.D. Sept.-Oct. 1998: 60-63.

McLachlan, Michelle. “Designing Dinner: As Consumers Spend More of Their Food Dollar on Meal Solutions, Supermarkets are Having to Upgrade Their Looks.” Design & Display Ideas. 11 Nov. 1999 <>.

McLachlan, Michelle. “Food for Thought.” Display & Design Ideas March 1998. 11 Nov. 1999 <>.

Pearlman, Chee. “Editor’s Note: Food for Thought.” I.D. Sept.-Oct. 1998: 47.

“Senn-Delaney.” Arthur-Andersen Website. 11 Nov. 1999. <>.

“To Market, To Market: Supermarkets Right for Time and Stomach Share.” Visual Store. 11 Nov. 1999. <>.

Underhill, Paco.   Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

Vanderbilt, Tom. “The Sugar Rush.” I.D. Sept.-Oct. 1998: 48-51, 85.


Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography + Social Thought

Carousel 4 - About Us

I’m pleased to be serving as a faculty fellow in the newly formed Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography and Social Thought at The New School.

Funded by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and based in The New School for Social Research, the Graduate Institute for Design, Ethnography & Social Thought incubates transdisciplinary ethnographic research at the intersection of social theory and design and fosters dialogue on related themes across the university. 

I’ll be sharing my research, on “Intellectual Furnishings,” on November 7. Several of my faculty colleagues, as well as a number of fantastic invited guests, will be sharing their work during a seminar series that meets every other Friday from 11 to 2. You can find the schedule here.


Reclaimed Hardware

Fixing a door in the woodshop
Fixing a door in the woodshop

I grew up in a hardware store. Well, actually, I grew up in a house that my dad built using materials from the family-owned hardware store. My room in that house had a wall full of windows that that overlooked a farm and the wooded hills flanking it. Immediately outside those west-facing windows was a Japanese Maple — my favorite tree — and every night at sunset, the setting sun’s glow filled my room with orange, casting shadows of those dancing Maple leaves on my closet doors. My own private magic lantern show.

I loved my room.

That hardware store had its own charms, too, its own aesthetic pleasures. It was where my dad spent most of his time, which meant that my mom and brother and I spent a good deal of our time there, too. But the store’s biography begins before us. My grandfather ran a copper manufacturing company for much of his adult life, but when his three boys were grown, he and a partner bought a hardware store that sat on a sliver of a site along Spring Creek, on Potter Street, in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. By 1976 my grandfather had become sole-owner, and four years later the store, Triangle Building Supplies, moved to a bigger site, in a more central location near the high school (and, significantly for my brother Nathan and me, right next door to Pizza Hut!). The new site offered enough space to add the machinery necessary for a construction business. My dad, Rex (known affectionately as “Triangle-saurus Rex” — get it?!), eventually became president, his younger brother headed up the construction business, and his older brother, an architectural engineer, was in charge of design.




When Nathan came of age he worked in the lumber yard. I was often recruited to feather-dust the cans of paint, sort screws and nails and washers into their appropriate bins, organize the paint chips, and affix price stickers — using an insanely awesome price gun — to packets of seeds and sandpaper. It struck me very early on that this was a place of men and boots and pick-up trucks and dust — and, at the same time, sublime order. Everything had its place. And those things encompassed every possible form and variation: wires and cables, pipes and elbows, flat-head and Phillips head screws, roofing nails and finishing nails — all in innumerable yet nearly imperceptible variations in length and diameter. When I was on shelf-stocking duty, I had to match the objects I was holding in my hand — and the barcode on the box that we pulled off the truck — to the diagram and barcode on the bins to make sure I was placing everything where it belonged.



Growing up in this environment impressed upon me that everything can be made — by us, by regular people.  It helped me appreciate how our world hangs together: how buildings stand up, how electricity gets to the power outlets behind my bed, how water gets to our kitchen sink, how vegetables grow in our garden. That store provided the material and the tools that gave rise to nearly everything in my childhood home (it certainly helped that my dad was skilled in pretty much all trades, and a fantastic cabinetmaker) — and most of the furniture I have in my apartment here in Brooklyn. The store also cultivated my interest in the aesthetics of organization, although I never would have used such a phrase in my feather-duster days.




And now, after over four decades of providing employment to hundreds of loyal employees, of Christmas parties and corny advertisements (which Nathan and I loved mocking) on the local radio station, of supplying materials for the construction of thousands of local homes and businesses, of sponsoring sports teams and donating supplies to needy families and actively engaging in the community, the three Mattern boys are selling the store. It’s the end of an era. And the change is bittersweet.

I’ve seen the toll that small business ownership — particularly in the shadow of Lowe’s and Home Depot, both of which came to town, with their obnoxiously big shopping carts and parking lots, over a decade ago — has had on my dad and his brothers. Plus, years of having to deal with customers’ — often friends’ and colleagues’ — unpaid bills and shoplifting, along with fluctuating construction markets and lumber prices and zoning codes, take their toll. And then you have the occasional customer who decides to sue after trying to take a drink from a pressure-washer (there really should’ve been a warning label!).

The new owners are a vibrant young family, who we all hope will have fresh ideas for re-establishing the hardware store — long a fixture in America’s small towns — as an integral part of our local social and physical infrastructure: an organic, locally-sourced, grass-fed, GMO-free alternative to the big boxes. I wish the new folks all the luck in the world. That store means an awful lot to me. I want desperately for it to keep generating the dust of productivity — to keep serving all the local skilled trades-people, to keep empowering everyday people to make things, to keep serving as a symbolic hub for a small town — for decades to come.







“Re-envisioning Branch Libraries” Design Study RFQ Announced

Marina Branch Library, Tom Eliot Fisch /Field PaoliMARINA BRANCH LIBR (David Wakely). Via Architect’s Newspaper

For the past several months I’ve been honored and delighted to join forces with the Architectural League of New York and the Center for an Urban Future to research the state of branch libraries in New York’s three library systems: the NYPL, the Brooklyn Public Library, and the Queens Public Library. Today, I’m excited to say, the ArchLeague announced the branch library design study that we’ll be shepherding throughout the summer and fall. I’ve pasted their announcement below; you can visit the ArchLeague’s website for more information, including the full Request for Qualifications.

Request for Qualifications (RFQ)
Re-envisioning Branch Libraries
A project organized by the Center for an Urban Future and The Architectural League

Submission Deadline: June 20, 2014
Pre-registration encouraged by June 9, 2014
Download a PDF of this RFQ

Branch libraries are serving more New Yorkers in more ways than ever before, yet they remain undervalued by policymakers. This summer, The Architectural League is collaborating with the Center for an Urban Future on a design study that will articulate new architectural, financial, and programmatic possibilities for these essential, neighborhood-based resource centers. Over the next few months, we will periodically be releasing features here on and on Urban Omnibus that explore different aspects of branch libraries in New York, touching on the diverse architectural forms of this particular public building type as well as investigating the vast proliferation of vital services they provide. This series of online content will complement and inform the design study, leading up to a public event this fall where participants in the design study will present their work. This event will include broad-based discussion with advocates and policymakers about the challenges and opportunities facing branch libraries.

The challenges that branch libraries face include enabling access to the burgeoning resources of the digital world while continuing to circulate books and other print resources; enhancing capacity to serve as physical and civic hubs of their communities; and accommodating the full range of programs they offer, from adult literacy and ESL to after-school programs for children and teens and technology training for senior citizens.

We invite architects and designers interested in participating in this design study to organize interdisciplinary teams and to submit qualifications and a statement of interest in response to the Request for Qualifications, accessible here. A selection committee will recommend up to six teams to participate in the design study. The designs generated will be used to provoke conversation about how best to support the library systems through design, funding, and public awareness of the vital services they provide.

Tulare County Free Library, Allensworth, California. Robert Dawson + Josh Wallaert. Via Places
Tulare County Free Library, Allensworth, California. Robert Dawson + Josh Wallaert. Via Places 

New York City’s 211 branch libraries provide vital social infrastructure for the empowerment of communities and their residents. Some of this empowerment is economic: library programs offer opportunities for skill-building and life-long, non-institutional learning—opportunities that support those New Yorkers eager to share their skills and knowledge, those who seek a “third place” to investigate and incubate new business opportunities, and those who lack the basic language, literacy, and technological skills needed to access decent paying jobs. And some of this empowerment is personal and civic: libraries are social hubs, providing crucial services, including child care and language acquisition workshops, and affording both individual and collective opportunities for the free acquisition of knowledge.

Yet, a range of obstacles—financial, political, and architectural—prevents New York from realizing the full potential of its branch libraries. Few libraries are open more than 40 hours a week. A majority of the buildings were built before 1975—many before 1929—and are now in urgent need of physical upgrades. Older library designs do not respond to the usage patterns of specific user groups—like seniors, teens, or recent immigrants—and even some newer branches are poorly configured for contemporary programs, with insufficient space for classes, collaboration, or computers. The proliferation of services libraries provide suggests a rethinking of the spatial organization of staff and users, quiet and loud, private and public, physical and digital resources. The adoption of new technologies has only just begun. Demand for library services is very high but not evenly distributed: some branches are prohibitively congested, while others have underutilized spaces that could be re-imagined for new uses, such as small business incubators, co-working spaces, community rooms, or classrooms.

The libraries need new options and ideas. How might branch libraries realize efficiencies in their existing physical plants? How could programming expand beyond the footprint of their buildings? What other models of service delivery—on-site or off-site, through partnerships, pop-ups, and more—are applicable? What are the design, technology, and infrastructure innovations needed for neighborhood libraries to meet the demands and context of urban community life in the 21st century?

Design Study
Last year, CUF published Branches of Opportunity, a report that details how New York City’s three library systems serve more people in more ways than ever before, yet remain undervalued by policymakers. In early July, CUF will publish a follow-up report, a “blueprint” that extensively documents the physical plant and capital needs of New York City’s branch libraries. The release of this blueprint will coincide with the launch of a three-month design study, directed by The Architectural League. Over the course of the study, up to six interdisciplinary design teams will address questions of location, development strategy, financial feasibility, operation, spatial organization, and architectural form.

Possible approaches to the architectural, financial, and programmatic limits of existing branch libraries are numerous: reimagining existing buildings and reconfiguring interior and exterior space; pursuing creative partnerships with a variety of non-profit and for-profit entities; identifying potential new sources of revenue; adapting to demographic changes in the city, including the growth in the size of the senior and recent immigrant populations; acknowledging and responding to the use of city capital funds.

To investigate some of these approaches, design study teams will produce design concepts and development strategies, communicated through narrative descriptions, financial scenarios, drawings, and other means as appropriate. The Architectural League will provide the selected teams with background materials including specific design challenges and CUF’s two reports on branch libraries. (Branches of Opportunity can also be accessed here.) Architectural League staff will interact with and provide guidance to design teams at a number of points during the design study process.

Each team will present its work at a public event in the fall of 2014, which will be attended by leaders from public policy and cultural institutions, the library systems, and city government. The Architectural League will work closely with each team to refine ideas and communication strategies for this event.

Project Team
David Giles and Jeanette Estima, Center for an Urban Future
Rosalie Genevro, Anne Rieselbach, Cassim Shepard, The Architectural League
Shannon Mattern, The New School

Selection Committee (in formation)
David Adjaye, David Adjaye Associates (invited)
Seema Agnani, Chhaya Community Development Corporation
Sarah Goldhagen, The New Republic
Eric Klinenberg, New York University (invited)
Henry Myerberg, Henry Myerberg Architects
Lyn Rice, Rice+Lipka Architects

Request for Qualifications
For more information on the design study, complete submission instructions, or to signal interest in participating, read the full Request for Qualifications. Pre-registration is encouraged by June 9th, and the deadline for submission of materials is June 20th.


Interface Critique

via CitySDK 

I’m writing a new piece for Places on prospective/speculative “interfaces to the smart city” — or points of human contact with the “urban operating system.” As I explained to the editors,

I’d like to consider these prototyped urban interfaces‘ IxD — with outputs including maps, data visualizations, photos, sounds, etc.; and inputs ranging from GUIs and touchscreens to voice and gestural interfaces — and how that interactive experience both reflects and informs urban dwellers’ relationships to their cities (and obfuscates some aspects of the city), and shapes their identities as urban “subjects.” I’m particularly interested in our single-minded focus on screens (gaaaahh!): are there other, non-“glowing rectangle” / “pictures under glass“-oriented platforms we can use to mediate our future-experiences of our future-cities?


Measurement Aesthetics

ACRE Units of Measure
ACRE Units of Measure

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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