I am presently an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research/Eugene Lang College in History and an affiliate in the Design MA program at Parsons the New School of Design.
In my work, I study the histories of digital technologies, cybernetics, the human and social sciences, and design. Here is a sampling of what I am currently up to:
My current book, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945, forthcoming from Duke Press, is a genealogy of interactivity, the interface, and “big data”. Using the post-war science of cybernetics—the study of communication and control—as a point of departure, my book traces out the reformulation of observation and knowledge that occurred in a range of fields immediately after World War II. Linking design, architecture, and artistic practices with the life, human, and social sciences, I chart the relationship between contemporary obsessions with storage, visualization, and interactivity in digital systems to previous modernist concerns with archiving, representation, and memory. Post-war design and communication sciences increasingly viewed the world as data filled, necessitating new tactics of management to which observers had to be trained and the mind reconceived. Perception and cognition were redefined as one process and made analogous to a communication channel, and the observer was reconceived as both radically self-referential and environmentally networked. The book traces three key themes critical to this reformulation of observation and knowledge after cybernetics: the reconceptualization of the archive and the document in the communication and human sciences, the reformulation of perception and the emergence of data visualization and the interface as central design concerns, and the redefinition of consciousness into cognition in the human, neuro, and social sciences. Linking the architecture of attention to the logistics of cognition, the book traces shifts in knowledge to the organization of power, interrogating how transformations in ideals and practices of truth and data storage transformed older categories and territories of race, gender, and empire. I thus produce a framework for considering specific technological changes in media and the accompanying epistemological transformations that continue to underpin our contemporary relationship to the interface, and have restructured our practices of knowledge production, now in the name of “big” data.
Songdo, South Korea. Image credit: Orit Halpern (2012)
The results of these cross-pollinations between the arts, design, and social sciences has also impacted my choice of future research projects. I am currently developing two new projects. The first, titled Calculative Utopias, is an ethnography of digital infrastructures and a history of 'smart' territories and ubiquitous computing. Tracing a history of imaginaries and practices through a series of modern and contemporary case studies ranging from Le Corbusier's designs for Chandigarh, India, to contemporary "greenfield" smart cities in locations like Songdo, South Korea, the project interrogates the relationship between calculation, Utopia, technology, imaginaries of life, and urban form. I seek to develop a historical and anthropological account of the transformation of space into algorithmic territory. I ask under what conditions can entire cities be understood as technological commodities, and what are the implications for the organization and administration of life in these domains? What do machine architectures look like? What does it mean to design spaces for and by computational machines? What types of futures are being envisioned in these spaces? How do they relate to other histories of urban form, measurement, economy, and administration of populations? The research is global in dimension; I will integrate archival work in corporate and design history at such locations as IBM, Cisco, and other leaders in urban planning and digital infrastructure provision with ethnography in the present of spaces such as the smart city development of Songdo, South Korea, where I have already worked. An article from this research appeared in Public Culture in March 2013.
Infrastructures of Rationality
Herbert Simon (courtesy Carnegie Mellon University Archives)
I am also pursuing research into a history of post-war rationality that will traverse fields ranging from artistic practices and avant-gardes such as Fluxus and Archigram to finance to the work of behavioral and neuro scientists. Today, few terms are more critical to describing either economy or society then “rationality” and “neo-liberalism”. But despite the preponderant ubiquity of these terms, they are rarely defined with any historical specificity or separated from older ideas of reason, sense, agency, and knowledge. The assumption that liberal subjectivity and computational reason would be adjoined was hardly a foregone conclusion from the period between 1945-1970. This project will examine how, in the years after the Second World War, rationality was redefined in cybernetics and its affiliated neuro, cognitive, and social sciences as logically representable in a manner that had little to do with reason, consciousness, or autonomous choice, but everything to do with rethinking humans, machines, and systems in terms of communication, control, and information. This redefinition of rationality provided a new epistemological infrastructure with vast impact for many fields from architecture to politics.
Counter, however, to our commonly held assumptions, in the post war period rationality, even in game theory, was often defined as paranoid, dissociated from consciousness, and pathological. Early computer programs, for example, demonstrated that only the profiles of paranoid schizophrenics could be programmed, and cybernetically informed psychology studies found rational people the most likely to be brainwashed and become violent. Artists, such as the Fluxus group, and Jean Tinguely, inspired by computers, staged elegant displays of self-destructive suicidal machines to the pleasure of crowds at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Architectural collectives, such as British group, Archigram, embraced the absurd logics of cybernetics and game theory to produce fantastical walking cities and novel environments. Bounded rationality and subjective measures were popularized by figures like Herbert Simon giving birth to contemporary finance. Rationality, then, was a blessing and a curse—a technological opportunity and a self-destructive tactic. Could rationality be affective and logical, paranoid and reasonable, progressive and destructive, centralized and networked? All at the same time? Reconciling these dialectics became a fantastical imperative for re-engineering everything from machines to minds.
This is thus a complex history. It was not only in the territory of game theory that a great deal of work was done—aesthetic, political, and technical—to make rationality computational and algorithmic. By examining alternative sites where rationality was defined, popularized, and contested I hope to redefine our understanding of “infrastructure” in terms of epistemology, and examine the dynamic logics supporting our contemporary, digital culture. This is a history of a transformation in economy to flexible accumulation, affect, and finance, and the accompanying shifts in subjectivity and aesthetics that aided, abetted, and often contested the future of reason.
Rethinking the nature of technologies in new terms of infrastructure and epistemology also demands rethinking the form and methodology of historical work. As part of my scholarship I am also part of a number of labs in collaboration with artists, designers, and architects that are experimenting with new research protocols and formats for writing and visualizing social science and humanities research. This ranges from new curatorial projects with design and technology museums, to developing methods for creative data visualization and design and architecture interventions in urban spaces. I have also regularly worked with artists to produce different web based narratives and imaginary documentary forms for telling stories about topics such as biological personhood in a genomic age and about human-animal interactions in the work of Von Frisch and his honeybees. What unifies these projects is a concern with how our forms of perception, attention, and narration condition our actions and imaginaries about the future of technology, and of our relationships to each other and other agents in our world.
I think technological history in terms of infrastructures of sense, epistemology, culture, and governance. My work brings history of science and design research to bear on our ideas of technology; redefining media technologies away from objects, to focusing on processes, techniques, epistemological conditions, and aesthetic concerns that create the fields from which technologies emerge and act. In tracing these complex histories, my work offers a historical and ethical account of our contemporary technological condition.
Welcome to my site, for more information about myself and my work please go to:
Committee on Historical Studies
The New School for Social Research
80 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY. 10011