Dissertation acknowledgements

On Monday, I’m defending my dissertation. I have many people I’d like to thank, and yet I know that I’ve not even begun to thank everyone.

The eight years I’ve spent immersed in graduate school have changed my brain and who I am as a person. Going back to school in my thirties meant leaving behind my technology and design career for an architectural, academic one, and this dissertation is the culmination of that sometimes-difficult and always-exciting journey. I have many people to thank.

First, this project would not exist without the patient ear and expert guidance of my adviser, M. Christine Boyer. I greatly appreciate your willingness to listen (sometimes for hours!) as I tested hypotheses and hashed out arguments. Your expertise in the very worlds I examined shaped this dissertation, and I am deeply grateful. Axel Kilian, my reader, offered another layer of expertise in computation, modeling, and artificial intelligence, as well as firsthand knowledge of the MIT milieu. Ed Eigen helped to shape the dissertation in its early phases. Further, my project could not have come to fruition without the influence of other members of the faculty. Mario Gandelsonas generously provided many opportunities to examine contemporary digital issues through the Princeton Center for Architecture, Urbanism and Infrastructure. I took some of my favorite classes from Jean-Louis Cohen, Anson Rabinbach, Brigid Doherty, Tom Levin, and Devin Fore. I also wish to thank Beatriz Colomina, Lucia Allais, John Harwood, Spyros Papapetros, former Dean Stan Allen, and current Dean Alejandro Zaera-Polo. And my gratitude to the people who make Princeton go, who include: Hannah Butler, Daniel Claro, Rena Rigos, Jennifer Bauer, Camn Castens, Cynthia Nelson, Fran Corcione, and Rascal.

This project benefited from insightful interviews: John Frazer, Barbara Jakobson, Tom Moran, Michael Naimark, Paul Pangaro, Terry Winograd, and especially Nicholas Negroponte, whom I interviewed twice. Nicholas generously gave me access to his personal papers, which made it possible to write about the Architecture Machine Group at all. I have also exchanged email with Dick Bowdler and with Phil Tabor, and am particularly thankful for Phil’s great insights over the last decade.

Portions of this work were shared at conferences at MIT, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Umeå University, The New School, and Princeton. I published an interview with Nicholas Negroponte in A Second Modernism: MIT and Architecture in the PostWar, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013, edited by Arindam Dutta; a dictionary entry in Architecture School: 300 Years of Educating Architects in North America, edited by Joan Ockman, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012; an essay titled “Urban Software: The Long View,” in Habitar, edited by José Luis de Vicente and Fabien Girardin, 2010; a brief article, “Cedric Price’s Generator,” in Crit, 2010; and “Problems before Patterns: A Different Look at Christopher Alexander and Pattern Languages,” in interactions, 2009.

In 2010 and 2013, I spent parts of my summer at the Canadian Centre for Architecture. First, I used the Cedric Price Archive, a major source for Chapter Two. In 2013, I was the tutor for Toolkit on Digital, a two-week doctoral seminar that was vital for framing this dissertation. I want to thank Phyllis Lambert, Mirko Zardini, Maristella Casciato, Mariana Siracusa, Howard Schubert, Alexis Sornin, Albert Ferré, Colin MacWhirter, Renata Guttman, Tim Abrahams, Fabrizio Gallanti, Natasha Leeman, and all of the students. Special thanks to Antoine Picon, with whom I taught.

My colleagues got me through my time at Princeton. I have very much enjoyed trading ideas, food, drink and kvetch with Anthony Acciavati, Alexis Cohen, Rohit De, Gina Greene, Urtzi Grau, Romy Hecht, Evangelos Kotsioris, Anna-Maria Meister, Margo Handweårker, Nick Risteen, Bryony Roberts, Irene Sunwoo, Diana Kurkovsky West and Grant Wythoff. Pep Avilès was not just a colleague but also my cohort-brother. There was a whole host of Green Room denizens: Cristóbal Amunátegui, José Araguez, Joseph Bedford, Marc Britz, Craig Buckley, Esther Choi, Anthony Fontenot, Justin Fowler, Ignacio González Galan, Vanessa Grossman, Matthew Mullane, Clelia Pozzi, Daria Ricci, Federica Soletta, and Meredith TenHoor. I’m deeply grateful for growing up with the colleagues I had who followed on to Princeton after our master’s degrees at Yale: they are family. Britt Eversole, thanks for the 2006 argument that assured we’d be forever friends and for all the conversations since. Federica Vannucchi, you’re my graduate school sister. I spent meals, holidays and celebrations with Sara Stevens and Joy Knoblauch. The Writing Center was a godsend. Two of my professors from the past deserve special mention: Keller Easterling, for introducing me to Cedric Price, and Claire Zimmerman for her mentorship and friendship since my first class at Yale in 2005. How would we all have turned out without you?

Thank you, Magdalen Powers, for your editorial prowess, penchant for Glühwein, and many years of friendship; Daniela Fabricius for sharing Butler, Berlin, Brooklyn, and beyond, and for imparting wisdom at the right moments; my fellow residents of the Camp Butler Home for Wayward Boys and Girls: Alicia Imperiale, Yetunde Olaiya, and Mareike Stoll; Janet Vertesi told me the day we met that we would be good friends and later saved me with a glass of rosé and truffle fries, and she and her husband, Craig Sylvester, shared many meals and conversations with me; and Paul Dourish, thank you for the conversations, support, and connections to ideas and people. Enrique Ramirez, you receive the most special mention. I would not have been here if not for you and could not have completed this without you. You’re the most brilliant person I know.

There are a few people who planted the idea to go back to school. Greg Veen, Anne Galloway, Mocha Jean Herrup, and Bryan Boyer offered me the early twinkling of an idea that I might want do a PhD in architecture more than a decade ago—Greg on a walk in the desert at Burning Man, Anne at South by Southwest, Mocha as we drove around San Francisco, and Bryan in conversations overlooking the Bay and as my architecture grandparent, albeit a decade younger than me.

Outside of school, many friends cheered me on. I’m deeply grateful for the support from friends near and far: Angela Allen, Boris Anthony, Jason Aronen and Jana Sackmeister, Marit Appeldoorn, Jennifer Bove, Tom Carden, Steve Champeon, Tom Coates, Elizabeth Churchill, Cletus Dalglish-Schommer, Andy Davidson, Nick and Heather Donohue; Jeff Drewitz, Schuyler Erle, Heather Hesketh, Dan Hill, Joe Hobaica, Robin Hunicke, Kani Ilangovan, Pableaux Johnson, Matt Jones, Tara Kriese, Lulu Lamer, Tom Meyer, Andrea Moed, Paul Mison, Martin Nachbar, Paul Houseman, Liz Lawley, Ali Muney, George Oates, Lucy O’Dwyer, Ross O’ Dyer, Simon Philips, William Pietri, John Poisson, Alicia Pollak,  Jen and Jeff Robbins, Celia Romaniuk, Shauna Sampson, Michael Sippey, Stephanie Corinna Smith, Tristam Sparks, Victor Szilagyi, Nick Sweeney, Kristen Taylor, Vicky Tiegelkamp, Leslie Veen, Anita Wilhelm, Allison Yates, Brian Yeung, Judith Zissman, Brian Zumhaugen, and many others I’ve surely neglected to list here. Thank you to Ray Koltys for building me an Arch Mac database so I could parse thousands of pages of material. And sadly, I also wish to acknowledge some friends who are no longer with us: Lee Dirks, Jeffrey McManus, Spiro Pina, and Laura Tatum.

One of the most fun parts of the last years has been developing a network of co-conspirators who rise to all kinds of intellectual mischief: Ken Anderson, Mouna Andraos, Marguerite Avery, Daniel Barber, Genevieve Bell, Rachel Binx, Catherine Bonier, Benjamin Bratton, Jennifer Brook, Stuart Candy, Ben Cerveny, Aaron Straup Cope, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Carl di Salvo, Aliki Economides, Jordan Ellenberg, Jeff Ferzoco, Adam Flynn, Brady Forrest, Hugh Forrest, Gioia Guerzoni, Marian Glebes, Garnet Hertz, Sha Hwang, Erin Kissane, Peter Krapp, Michael Kubo, Jesse Le Cavalier, Stephanie Lee, Ana Maria Léon, Golan Levin, Jen Lowe, Joanne McNeill, Wendy MacNaughton, Annette Markham, Alice Marwick, Heather Mathews, Peter Merholz, Stefano Mirti, Rudolf Müller, Ginger Nolan, Andrew Otwell, Véronique Patteuw, Nicola Pezolet, Aram Price, Howard Rheingold, Erica Robles-Anderson, Frida Rosenberg, Fred Scharmen (bok!), Doug Sery, Ben Shapiro, Jeremi Szaniawski, Bruce Sterling, Jer Thorp, Anthony Townsend, Rebecca Uchill, Jasmina Tesanovic, Kazys Varnelis, Jessica Varner, Theodora Vardouli, Rob Wiesenberger, Rowan Wilken, Janice Wong, Liam Young, and Mimi Zeiger. And on top of those instigators, some of my favorite and most sustaining connections have been virtual and often secret: thank you to HC, chix, #lgnlgn, and Eyeo.

Several wonderful communities around the world, in Umeå, Sweden, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, hosted me while I was writing this dissertation. My friends in San Francisco gave me workspace and apartments with dogs and cats to watch. I’m indebted to Jenifer Hope and Steve Simitzis for your suggestion that I spend the summer of 2011 in San Francisco, and to Jenifer and her husband Stephen Hope for giving me their house to sit. Thank you to Adaptive Path, especially Laura Kirkwood Datta, Rae Brune, and Jesse James Garrett. Further SF gratitude to Adam Hemphill; Steve Doberstein, and Elizabeth Letcher; Rena Tom and Derek Lindner; Rusty Hodge and Merin McDonnell; Jennifer Berry, and Paolo Salvigione, for introducing me to the Vallejo; Marcy Swenson and Dale Larson; Mike Kuniavsky and Liz Goodman. You keep me eternally homesick for San Francisco.

Asking “What do I have to do to spend some time in Sweden?” led me to spending a total of several months since 2010 in Umeå, Sweden, as a guest of the HUMlab. Patrik Svensson, thank you for having me—I’m so grateful for the lab, your hospitality and all the ideas and people I’ve encountered. I owe huge thanks to Emma Ewadotter, who knows when and why glitter is important. Thank you to all of the HUMlab people who made me part of your family: Elin Andersson, Coppélie Cocq, Jim Barrett, Carl-Erik Enqvist, Stefan Gelfgren, Stephanie Hendrick, Karin Jangert, Finn Arne Jørgenson, Cecelia Lindhé, Jenna Ng, Jennie Olofsson, Fredrik Palm, Satish Patel, Mattis Lindmark, Jim Robertsson, Jon Svensson, and Johan von Boer, as well as to my friends in the Umeå School of Architecture and the Umeå Institute of Design. And finally, to my Umeå family, who spent my 40th birthday with me: Lorenzo Davoli, Kati Häfner, and Adam Henriksson. A double thank you to Mike Frangos and Anna Johansson, for paintings and crayfish.

I spent two years on faculty at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, in what is now called the Media Design Practices program. The students were amazing, the faculty even more so. Thank you to Anne Burdick for asking me to join the faculty and for being the coolest chair of any department, anywhere, and to Sean Donohue, Tim Durfee, Shannon Herbert, Ben Hooker, Jennifer Krasinski, Thea Petchler, Kevin Wingate, and Phil van Allen. Staying with Chris Spurgeon and Barbara Bogaev made my trips to LA a special treat.

I have two German host families who have supported me since the year the Berlin Wawll fell. Big hug to my wiedergefundene German sister Birke Gregg and her family. My German host family Lia, Hartmut, and Oliver Fest and Sabrina, Nico, and Jonas Adomeit have welcomed me every year in Düsseldorf since 1989, and again many times in the course of researching and writing this dissertation. Sadly, we have just bid farewell to my host father, Hartmut, on November 15, 2013.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’ve come full circle: It’s wonderful to be back here nearly two decades after I left. Special thanks go to Greg Downey for his mentorship, and to Lew Friedland, who launched my first career in 1994 and who reeled me back in in 2012. I’m particularly grateful for the friendship of Lucas Graves, Emily Callaci, and our renegade writing group with Stephen Young and Judd Kinzley; and friends Mark Vareschi, Matthew Berland, Tullia Dymarz, Eliana Stein and Randall Goldsmith, and the reconnection to my old friend Ralph Cross. And Sarah Roberts, thank you for turning me on to the Internet in 1993 and for entrusting me with your home in 2013.

In closing, I want to thank the people I go home to.

Simon King, you’re the best surprise in every way, and you make my world so vivid. I love you for arches, mountains, canyons, maps, birds’ nests, landscapes, beaches, sitting on the floor listening to records, and adventures. With you, everything is possible. &&&

There is nothing without family, and mine has put up with my unusual path while providing me with so much love and support. Thank you to my brothers’ families and my awesome niece and nephews: Andy, Carrie, Jack, and Maddie; Ben, Alexsis, and Sam; to my stepfather, Chuck DuFresne and my stepmother, Dr. Carol Coleman Steenson. You’ve all asked me when I’m going to be done with the dissertation; the answer is, “Now.”

Finally, I dedicate this dissertation to my parents, Professor Mike Steenson and Judge Mary DuFresne. You’ve never asked me to be anything other than who I am, and you’ve supported my eclectic path for doing whatever that meant for the last four decades and change. I learn so much from you, I emulate you, and I love you.



Welcome to Madison!

I’ve done it! I just moved back to Madison, Wisconsin, almost exactly 18 years after I left. I have joined the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an assistant professor, where my focus is digital media studies. I’m surrounded by an outstanding group of colleagues and students and can’t wait for the semester to get rolling—which it will, in one week.

This semester, I’ll be teaching Media Fluency for the Digital Age and shadowing the Introduction to Mass Communication class, which has 400 students. It also means that I’ll be returning to blogging, as well as teaching students about it.

It is exciting to be back here. When I moved to New York in 1995 and then onward to all the places I’ve lived, I never expected that I would come back to Madison, let alone to be on the faculty of this university. To make things even more poignant, my parents went here as well. Coming here again closes a loop in my life, completes a phase or two and starts another. I’m delighted, I’m excited, I’m excited.

99% Invisible!

So exciting: 99% Invisible interviewed me about pneumatic tubes for the first episode of their new season!

If you’re not familiar with it, it’s a wonderful podcast by Roman Mars, with help from Sam Greenspan on architecture and design. It became the most funded journalism Kickstarter project ever a few months ago (2nd in publishing).

Want to know more about pneumatic post? Read my article in Cabinet, “Interfaces to the Subterranean from summer 2011.  

Roman and I met 2 years ago in San Francisco on Parking Day in San Francisco in a tiny tent outside of Ritual Roasters. He told me about the show then, and two years later… it really is a series of tubes. He and Sam are so very talented, and it’s a big deal to be on the show. Pneu. Ma. Tique! Swoosh.


Big news and updates

As of January 2013, I will be joining the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication faculty as an assistant professor, where my focus will be on digital media. I could not be more delighted. In 1994, 18 years ago this month, I did my first web project in that program; now I will count the professor who led that project as my colleague.

When I explain to people where I’m going next, they ask, how do you go from architecture to journalism and communication? The fact is, my work has always been about the materiality of communication and information. My dissertation is about how architecture materialized information in the 60s and 70s in the work of Nicholas Negroponte, Cedric Price and Christopher Alexander, but my research on pneumatic tubes and postal services deals with the same thing.

So now I’m back in Umeå, Sweden as a visiting researcher and guest of the HUMLab—the same people I visited last year. The Ume River flows by outside the Arts Campus, the days grow longer, the air grows more blustery each day. I’m finishing my dissertation, arguing with my arguments and developing some courses for the new school year.


40 things

A list I started before I turned 40 on November 26: 40 things that have made me who I am that I did before turning 40

1. Becoming fluent in German

2. Becoming fluent in other languages (French, Dutch, Italian), though I don’t maintain them

3. Living many places that weren’t home, not at first, on three continents

4. Listening to independent music

5. Doing radio

6. Writing about music

7. Becoming someone who can go running

8. Falling in love with communication technologies of all kinds

9. Identifying with terriers

10. Falling in love

11. Falling in love in a foreign language

12. Learning to play classical guitar and flute, even if I don’t really play now

13. Doing theater as a kid

14. Doing things where I’m not the best in the room

15. Teaching

16. Going back to school

17. Writing

18. Playing in a youth symphony and hearing what music sounds like when it floats in the air before setting onto the audience

19. Going to weddings, showers, reunions and funerals, even when they’re far

20. Singing at the top of my lungs in public

21. Going to Burning Man, and then not

22. Going to South by Southwest for 14 years, with # 15 coming up.

23. Living in San Francisco

24. Studying things I’m not good at

25. Studying things I couldn’t learn on my own

26. Studying things I am good at

27. Being mentored

28. Mentoring

29. Having friends much younger, much older and about the same age as me

30. Using online community, the web, social media for 20 years this year

31. Dancing, often not well

32. Studying architecture

33. Teaching design

34. Handing in my undergraduate thesis

35. Meeting you (my friends)

36. Walking around Barcelona with a digital camera in 2000, to teach myself how to see small details

37. My family

38. Books and reading

39. Always noticing the quality of light

40. Flirting

Report from Umeå

Above: a beautiful and violent sunrise at 8:15 am (the picture was taken from my bed!). No snow yet, which is rare, but the light is really something—that is, until the sun sets at 2:30 in the afternoon.

For the last three weeks, I’ve been a visiting researcher at the HUMLab digital humanities lab at Umeå University in Sweden. The community here is wonderful: a great group of postdocs, researchers and happy geeks of different stripes, all exploring technology and digital strategies in their work. How does an anthropologist model a site and its spatial relations? How do we create ideas of futures in literature, text and image? How does religious practice play out in the digital world? It’s been a fascinating set of discussions and scholars to meet and I’ve liked how it’s stretching my brain. I’ve given three lectures since I arrived: in the QUMU lecture series on qualitative methods, in a cognitive psychology class, and my first weekend, as a part of the Umeå Institute of Design Fall Summit (which I wrote about earlier). It’s been great to connect with students at the design school, too: I’ve spent a lot of time with Adam Henriksson, Lorenzo Davoli and look forward to our future exchanges. I feel sad to be leaving so soon.

Um, and I turned 40. 40, it turns out, is awesome. They don’t tell you this when you’re 30 and I think it’s because if we all knew that it was awesome, we’d adjust our ages upward.

My final week here will be even busier, as we host the Critically Making the Internet of Things conference. I’m giving a short talk on pneumatic tubes, moderating a virtual and live discussion with Anthony Townsend, Haiyan Zhang and Liz Goodman participating from afar, and hosting a workshop called Future Things with HUMLab postdoc Mike Frangos. I’m really looking forward to seeing friends like Bruce Sterling, Jasmina Tesonovic, Anne Galloway (double yay: I miss Anne a lot) and Kathleen Fitzpatrick, and seeing their reaction to Umeå in the winter.  In addition, I’m doing lots of writing writing writing, wrapping up two chapters of the dissertation and finessing another, preparing for job talks in the US, and putting together ideas for classes I’d like to teach.

Hard to imagine that in one week, I’ll return to the States, soak in LA’s sunlight as we hit end-of-term reviews at Art Center for our Graduate Media Design students, a visit to San Francisco, and visits to Madison and then Minneapolis for the family. In 2012? I think I’m staying put.

My last note of my 30s

Left, age 29. Right, age 39.

Today, I am 39. Tomorrow, I will be 40. 

A decade ago, I was miserable. I had just met people who would become dear friends (Louisa, Tom) in Chicago and who I still adore, but didn’t know them well yet. I’d been laid off twice in a year. My boyfriend and I had an acrimonious breakup. I’d just bought a condo and it was beautiful but I couldn’t unpack. By July 2002, I gave up and moved back to San Francisco. I thought I’d return to the dotcom and web world of my 20s and my old friends.

But that’s where everything began to change. Three days after arriving in SF, Judy Wert and Nathan Shedroff started recruiting me for a professorship at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy, and right after I turned 31, I found out I got the job.

In my 30s, I…

spent most of my 30s in and around design and architecture schools. I was a professor at Ivrea, a master’s student at Yale and a PhD student at Princeton. Ten years ago, I never would have imagined that I would have gone back to school, let alone at an Ivy League institution. I probably wouldn’t have imagined that I’d be a design professor. I really probably wouldn’t have imagined I’d become an architectural historian or an historian of cybernetics and artificial intelligence.

started teaching. I love teaching and even more than that, I love advising students on their projects.

lived in Chicago, Italy, San Francisco, New Haven, Princeton and Los Angeles. I have lived for a month or more in Copenhagen, Bangalore, Berlin, Montreal and now, Umeå, Sweden.

loved a lot.

met wonderful people, stayed in touch with old friends, found my way back to people who mattered dearly, and yet still miss people I’ve lost so much.

ended up in places I never would have guessed.

Tomorrow, I will be 40. I…

don’t own a home, I’m not married, I don’t have children, I don’t have a dog. Thinking that all of those things will change in the next few years.

have friends as young as 20 and as old as their 70s. I love navigating the things we have in common across our ages. I’m friends with people I loved more than I can possibly explain. I’m friends with generous people and new people and people I do projects with and people who visit and people who invite me to wonderful places and people I admire. Lots of people I admire.

will finish a dissertation and then I’ll become a professor, if things go the way I hope they will.

still love music and am better clued in thanks to my hipper friends.

don’t plan to go skydiving because I prefer the view from the plane and scuba diving to the thought of hurtling through the air.

don’t have a bucket list and don’t know that I want one. Life’s good enough, the way it’s unfolding.


I’ll report back from 40 but in the meantime: thank you, 30s, for being so weird and surprising. Nothing went the way I would have expected when I was 29, but it’s so much better than what I could have imagined. I’m thankful, I’m amused, I’m happy.


Hello again, Girlwonder! This missive reaches you from Sweden, where I’m on my way to Umeå. I’ll be spending a month here doing a fellowship with the HUMLab at the University of Umeå. Tomorrow, I’ll be speaking at the Umeå Institute of Design fall conference organized by Matt Cottam, along with Russell Davies, Dave Vondle and Matt Ward, and next month at the Critically Making the Internet of Things conference. It’s a delight to be back, to come a little bit earlier in the winter this time around… I came last year to Umeå to speak at the Media Places conference, which kicked off a friendship with Patrik Svensson, the head of the lab, and fomented the idea of delving into some digital humanities research here. Also, my family background is largely Scandinavian, with the Swedish branch of the family originating not far from Umeå: where no one will ever mistake me for Italian, everybody looks like me in Sweden.

There’s lots to catch you up on, much of which I’ll write about in the next few weeks. I spent the summer in San Francisco, writing my dissertation from a desk kindly provided by Adaptive Path, with a few intermittent weeks in Princeton for dissertation boot camp and summer barbecuing. We had a reunion for the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy in September, which I followed with a visit to Milan and London. The school year is rolling again at Art Center College of Design, and I’m teaching writing and advising thesis year students in the Graduate Media Design Program. And I turn 40 in 15 days, a milestone birthday that portends to be the start of an amazing decade. I will be in Sweden, maybe at the Treehotel, maybe in Berlin. And amidst the writing and movement, I’m applying for academic jobs.

A little op-ed in Domus

My friend Fred Scharmen and I wrote a piece for Domus titled “Architecture Needs to Interact,” about better crossovers between architecture and interaction design — or for that matter, all of the design disciplines. It gave us a chance to reflect upon some of what he learned as an master’s in architecture student at Yale, and what I was exposed to as a professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea.

Give our op-ed a read and let us know what you think.