I am presently an assistant professor at the New School for Social Research/Eugene Lang College in History and an affiliate in the Culture and Media Studies Department and in the Design Studies MA program at Parsons the New School of Design.
In my work, I study the histories of digital technologies, cybernetics, the human and cognitive sciences, and design. I especially focus on histories of big data, interactivity, and ubiquitous computing. Here is a sampling of what I am currently up to:
My current book, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945, Duke Press Fall/Winter 2014, available here 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 working on two new book 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 the TIROS satellite metereology system, to finance, to contemporary "greenfield" smart cities in locations like Songdo, South Korea and Masdar near Abu Dhabi in the UAE, 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.
Strange Agency:A History of Post-War Intelligence
Freelancers Union Symbol taken from NYC Subway December 10,2013
The second book project, emerging from my work on cognition, examines the definition of intelligence and its relationship to the idea of self-organization from 1945 to the mid-1970’s. It is the history of what I am labelling "the agent based society". Linking together a history of intelligence and agency in the cognitive, neuro, and social sciences with art history and cultural history, Strange Agency will detail how collectivities, from insect communities to human crowds, went from being defined as dangerous, paranoid, and Fascist or Communist, to being a resource, the very site of political possibility, artistic potential, and financial benefit, a medium to be “sourced” as in “crowd sourcing”. I trace how entities once described as stupid, dangerous, irrational and undemocratic became intelligent, networked, and valuable.
At stake in these conversations about the future of intelligence was whether societies would be understood and governed as interconnected systems of co-dependent agents, or whether they would be viewed as a collection of individuals making choices, whose freedom had to be defended. Ideals of collectivity, particularly as espoused by the counter-culture and the emerging computational, financial, and cognitive sciences, did not automatically lend themselves to a faith in socialism or state planning however. Self-organization, autopoiesis, and networks preoccupied the political and scientific imaginations of artists, economists, psychologists and socio-biologists even as they simultaneously disavowed ideas of Enlightenment reason and liberal choice and agency. This seemingly contradictory discourse continues to drive the introduction of computation into our daily lives and to inform our ideas about clouds, crowds, political agents, and markets.
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.
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