“Bureaucracy,” in Eduardo Staszowski and Virginia Tassinari, eds., Designing in Dark Times: An Arendtian Lexicon, (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2020): 66-9.


Of Mountains and Machines (on Armin Linke’s Alpi)

Of Mountains and Machines” (on Armin Link’s Alpi), Wildness Distant, Arthur Ross Gallery, Columbia University, October 2020


Data and the Pandemic

On October 21, 2020, Emily Bowe, Erin Simmons, and I joined Scott Knowles on COVIDCalls to discuss “Data and the Pandemic” [podcast]


Listening with the Pandemic

On October 4, 2020, I joined Mark Andrejevic, Andrew Brooks, Sean Dockray, Vladan Joler, Yeshimabeit Milner, James Parker, Thao Phan, and Joel Stern to discuss “Listening with the Pandemic” for the Unsound Music Festival


Phenomenology and Data

I joined Jocelyn Frank and Dietmar Offenhuber for “Phenomenology and Data,” hosted by the Princeton-Mellon Research Forum on the Urban Environment, Princeton University (virtual), on September 16, 2020. My talk, “Data Made Material,” examined the ways data capture our multisensorial experiences of the pandemic and the compounding crises of 2020.


Language and Communication Protocols

I co-organized and moderated “Protocols as Language and Communication” with artist Jesse Chun, media scholar Meredith D. Clark, assistive technology expert Chancey Fleet, and artist / educator / activist Taeyoon Choi. Hosted online by the Vera List Center at The New School.

Seminar 1: Protocols as Language and Communication from Vera List Center on Vimeo.


On Being Gaslit

Gaslighting, via Wikimedia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it went on.

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





The Scalar Logics of COVID

The Scalar Logics of COVID,” Harun Farocki Institut (April 25, 2020).


Media Materiality, Archaeology and Pedagogy

Scott Rodgers interviewed for the Data Materiality podcast, hosted by the Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Media and Culture and the Vasari Centre for Art and Technology (January 2020) [also on SoundCloud]


Interfaces Aren’t Just Screens

I joined Ben Green, Juan Francisco Saldarriaga, Sarah Williams, and John Schettino to share the following at the “Mobility + Spatial Agency: Autonomy in the New Urban Interface” panel at the Center for Architecture, New York, on September 12, 2019:

[2] This summer Google announced several new Maps features. The platform began offering live bus delay forecasts (which are particularly useful in cities that can’t provide such updates themselves). And it would predict how crowded your bus or train is likely to be.[1] Its AR Navigation feature launched in beta. Google also added a live speedometer, allowed users to report incidents like traffic jams and accidents, and introduced more multimodal transportation options – bike to bus to ride-share, for instance.[2] These hand-held interfaces promise – or least aspire to – a largely egocentric world of bespoke logistics and seamless connectivity. Those other people and vehicles that get in the way are subsumed into red “heavy traffic” notifications and stalled timers.

[3] The Maps app’s features ultimately became so robust – so insistent on alerting users to every minute deviation from optimal flow – that several sources offered tips for turning off Google’s flurry of distracting notifications.[3] Speaking of flurries of data: [4] Over the past decade or so, the classic mechanical split-flap board has departed from many train stations and airports, where it’s been replaced by much less enchanting LED or LCD displays, big versions of the same glowing rectangles that stare us in the face all day and keep us up at night. Maybe these new screens display the same information as the old boards – train line, time of departure, status, and track – but the means by which they do so is, I’d say, quite affectively impoverished. The flip boards’ small, moving, analog parts sounded out and performed time’s sifting and fluttering passage; theirs was a choreography that mimicked the frantic ballet of harried commuters. Their cadence was a tinny echo of a tiny steam engine. [5] LCD screens, by contrast, just glow, silently – and occasionally go haywire.

[6] Today’s transit systems are typically quite proud of their real-time data and user-oriented interfaces and apps, which enable travelers to worry only about origins and destinations, and very little in-between, outside, before, or after. [7] Yet many systems still print timetables – an undervalued genre of commercial literature that required inventive graphic design in order to convey vast amounts of information about every line and stop within a broad railway system, from morning to night, seven days a week. [8] The timetable has long functioned as an interface to a whole metropolitan area or region – sometimes even a whole nation – across an entire week. [9] Even in New York City of 2019, print and tape are commonly used mobility information interfaces.

I mention these historical and analog examples to remind us that the form of the interface matters. And that form impacts much more than the type or amount of information that can be conveyed. [10] A few years ago I wrote a couple articles in which I discussed the aesthetics and political significance of smart-city interfaces and urban dashboards, and I proposed a rubric for thinking critically about these tools, and asking how they work as both communication media and as political instruments.

I encouraged designers, planners, and technologists to develop a practice of interface critique that goes beyond the typical user experience research. [11] As I wrote in 2014, we “need to consider how these interfaces structure their inputs and outputs, how they illuminate and obfuscate various dimensions of the city, how they frame interaction, how that interaction both reflects and informs the relationship between citizens and cities, and ultimately how these interfaces shape people’s identities as urban subjects.”

[12] I offered a partial checklist of items we might want to consider in assessing these tools: What’s it made of, what’s it scale, where is it located, and how is it oriented? In what modalities can people interact with it? What senses are engaged? Is it interactive? How might these features include or exclude particular users – particularly those with disabilities, or those who speak other languages? How is the content composed and arranged on the screen or in the soundscape or tactile environment? How does the interface orient us both in our immediate location and within larger systems? How does it “frame” or segment its content – via boxes and buttons and borders? What data models underlie that content – and how do those data models embody a particular way of knowing the city, or extracting data from it? What other ways of knowing are left out? What can’t we map? What forms of experience or knowledge are simply unrepresentable in an interface? And what can we simply not know?

[13] The answers to these questions have consequences that run much deeper than travelers’ sense of personal autonomy and individual agency, which are among the variables highlighted in the program for tonight’s discussion. The urban interface – of which transit apps are one delimited variety – also has the potential to promote or discourage infrastructural literacy, to include or exclude different urban subjects, and to frame users of urban services as something more than users: maybe as publics or urban citizens.

[14] In those earlier publications, I noted that typical smart-city interfaces tended to frame their users in two primary ways: “as sources of data that feed the urban algorithmic machine (à la Google Waze), and as consumers of data concerned primarily with their own efficient navigation and consumption of the city.” Ultimately, most smart-city interfaces prioritize “corporately-managed or crowdsourced situational information, instrumental rationality and personal consumption and convenience.” What’s lost, in many cases, is “environmental wisdom, political agency and social responsibility.”

[15] Yet in a different context, the very availability of transit data, and the ability to cross-reference various data sources from governments and corporations and individual users on a map or screen, represents a tremendous act of collective citizenship. Consider one of Sarah’s projects, Digital Matatus, which she might tell us about later. The map reveals a self-organized macro-scale order underlying Nairobi’s competing private bus companies.[4] It was generated by laboriously tracing every route through the city – and the data that fieldwork generated has become a public data set, which Kenyans can then use to create their own transit tools. [16] We can find newer kindred maps in Beirut, Dar es Salaam, and Accra, among other cities.[5] Many of these projects come IN both web and print form.

[17] We might consider other modes of informational inclusivity. Hong Kong and San Francisco use tactile and audio maps for the vision-impaired. Other systems, like Seoul, use audio cues within their trains and stations. I’m currently working with the Architectural League of New York to edit a series on “digital frictions” for their Urban Omnibus publication; [18] one of our contributors is Chancey Fleet, a librarian at the Heiskell Braille and Talking Book Library and a prominent accessibility advocate. She’s written a fabulous piece about accessible tools for navigation, and the way they create frictions between the map and the territory. It should be published in early October.

[19] These types of projects are about personal autonomy and agency – but they’re also about building an inclusive public. They’re about recognizing diverse modes of experience and ways of knowing. What other bigger pictures, or larger ethical frameworks, could our mobility interfaces encompass? What about mobility’s environmental impact – or its correlation to economic opportunity? Instead of valuing efficiency by default, [20] and perhaps allowing for a few “scenic route” alternatives, what if our mobility interfaces also gave us the option of viewing data in relation to [21] environmental justice or health or other values that matter to different communities? What if they gave us the option to learn a bit about transit history or infrastructural politics? What if they gave city governments and transit agencies and their publics an opportunity to envision future versions of themselves – and to lay tracks to their realization? [21]


** Thanks to @alexgekker, @blprnt, @incognitosum, @julianisland, @justinpickard, @k_llyi, @MatthewBattles, @rmartincole, and @ZachMelzer


[1] Alex Fabrikant, “Predicting Bus Delays with Machine Learning,” Google AI Blog (June 27, 2019); Taylah Hasaballah, “Transit Crowdedness Trends from Around the World, According to Google Maps,” Google Maps Blog (June 27, 2019); Khari Johnson, “How Google Maps Uses Machine Learning to Predict Bus Traffic Delays in Real Time,” Venture Beat (June 27, 2019); Paul Sawers, “Google Maps Now Predicts How Crowded Your Bus or Train Will Be,” Venture Beat (June 27, 2019). Kyle Wiggers, “Google maps Now Lets You Pair Transit Directions with Biking and Ride-Sharing,” Venture Beat (August 27, 2019). The Citymapper, Transit, and Moovit apps provide comparable services. Thanks to @alexgekker for encouraging me to acknowledge these services.

[2] John Porter, “Google Maps Can Now Tell You Your Speed in Real Time,” The Verge (June 6, 2019); Nick Statt, “Google Maps is Borrowing Another of Waze’s Best Features with Traffic Slowdown Reporting,” The Verge (April 5, 2019).

[3] Italics mine; Cameron Faulkner, “How to Turn Off Google Maps’ Many Notifications,” The Verge (June 26, 2019).

[4] Justin Patinkin, “These Digital Maps Could Revolutionize Nairobi’s Minibus Taxi System,” Next City (February 11, 2014).

[5] See Alessandra Facchin, “Mapping and Representing Informal Transport: The State of the Art,” DensityDesign (May 8, 2019).