Catching up

I’d been chugging along, updating Girlwonder frequently and then school started up again. Somehow, I’m now midway through my final semester of coursework at Princeton.

This month is the month of conferences… today at O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology conference, I present “Shared and Sometimes Stealthy: India’s Mobile Phone.” Then, I go to my 12th South by Southwest Interactive, where I moderate a panel called Tangible Interactions in Urban Spaces on Sunday. Finally, at the end of March, I deliver a paper on pneumatic tubes at the Yale School of Architecture, my alma mater, during the Spatial Illiteracies symposium.

It’s otherwise been a good semester. I’m immersed in Marx (a Marxist theory class taught by Ben Conisbee Baer), global cities, cybernetics and urbanism, and 20th century intellectual and cultural history.

I’ll catch up on more later… I’m off to finish putting together my talk!

Happy trails, Jenn!

….and she’s off.

My best friend, Jennifer Bove, is moving across the country. She’s joined Kicker Studio, a design consultancy that says, “We do interaction-infused product design for: consumer electronics / appliances / mobile devices /kiosks and touchscreens / interactive environments /robots / responsive objects.”

Jenn and I have known each other 16 years as of this month. We met as exchange students in Montpellier, where we became part of an inseparable trio with Brett Lund. Over most of the years I’ve known her, we haven’t lived in the same place: I was in San Francisco, she was in Washington DC and then New York. But other years, we’ve been much more proximate. When I was a professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea, Jenn was a student and we lived next door to each other. And for the last 3 years or so, she lived in New York and I lived in the next state over, so I saw her at least every two weeks if not more frequently.

I’ve never had a friend like Jenn. She’s the person with whom I feel the most comfortable. She’s brilliant and funny and friendly. She ran the Jennifer Bove Home for Wayward Girls, where I stayed frequently, in Carroll Gardens. I already miss her.

San Francisco, she’s all yours as of this weekend. In the meantime, she is chronicling her road trip on her website. Be good to her and make her fall in love with the city and with northern California, okay?

Thinking about Maxi

On Active Social Plastic, I wrote about Maxi, the pop culture feminist webzine I co-founded with Janelle Brown, Heather Irwin and Rosemary Pepper in 1997. When we launched, it met with both acclaim and criticism. We were too feminist, we were too lipstick; we changed the tone of women’s media, we helped to build a community of women who are insightful, strong and powerful (and at the center of much of the potential for digital and media culture today).

We ran the project for 2 1/2 years, until Fall 1999. Labors of love are hard. When Maxi died, I regretted it but hadn’t missed it as a project until the A Few Zines panel at Columbia that Mimi put together. It’s made me think about a number of things … but in particular, about the kind of collaborations that the early web engendered (no pun intended). Would we have started it if we were 25 years old today, and if we had, would anyone have noticed? How much would we have pushed boundaries, discovered success, failure, HTML and UNIX and Photoshop?

I’ve not collaborated upon anything like Maxi since we folded, although I had a fierce, collaborative camaraderie with the other four students in my master’s program; we put on a conference and organized a class. We talked about a book but we’ve been too busy to start it (three of us are in Ph.D. programs, two of us are teaching full-time).

The discussions I’ve had about magazines since then, however, revolve around architecture and design culture, around the possibility of creating something published in small runs, 500 copies, with gritty covers–the absolute opposite of a project that could have near infinite distribution. I wonder what that experience would be like.

The series of tubes is out of control

Yesterday, I woke up to a bunch of comment notifications on a post I’d written about pneumatic tubes and the postal service in France on Active Social Plastic, my other blog. My first thought was, “Uh oh. Spam.” (There’s an inferiority complex for you.) It turned out that Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing had linked to my post. It was heartening and inspired me to update more of the paper I’m writing right now about the birth of the pneumatic post in Paris.

If only academic writing were as easy as a blog post, or for that matter, a paper proposal for a conference. The pneumatic tubes paper seems to be about everything and nothing. On one hand, it’s good that this is the case: it’s likely a dissertation topic or subject for a book. On the other hand, what part should be the focus? Is it the specific interfaces for the network? Is it the fact that it was supposed to be auxiliary and yet reflected a massive expenditure and outlay? Is it about economies of scale and the introduction of other products and services in the communication economy, like parcel post and banking? To what extent is it about the failures and promises of telegraph? Should I write it as an argument or as a narrative? How should I undergird it other architectural historical arguments or theories, like Sigfried Giedion on the importance of iron in 19th century as the subconscious formation of architecture? And what about Walter Benjamin? What about the concept of the image?

I’m writing the tubes paper for a class on Walter Benjamin, “Image, Interior, Archive,” taught by Brigid Doherty. The class took on the Arcades Project and a number of Benjamin’s other writings. Brigid is an outstanding professor, razor sharp and intense. I started keeping near transcripts of what she said in class in order to revisit it later: she delivers so much information when she speaks. This is not unintimidating. Add to it the fact that she, along with Tom Levin and Michael Jennings in the German department at Princeton, are among the foremost translators, scholars and interpreters of Benjamin. The three of them just published the Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, a new translation of that essay and other published and unpublished works. It’s even the second class I’ve taken on Benjamin and the Arcades — I took the first one my first year of graduate school with Henry Sussman (who’s like the Howard Rheingold of comparative literature and media). I could probably take five more classes on it and never get to the heart of it, it’s so intense a work. Anyway.

Today, I need to find the thread of this paper. I write 2000 words, only to throw away 1000. My sources are in French, which slows me down. There’s always more I could research and look for but I somehow need 20 or so pages on one thing. This part is the hardest part.

2008 cities

As inspired by Jason Kottke (and as reported previously on this site about 2005 and 2006… 2007 skipped because it was an awful December and January), my 2008 year in cities. A * means multiple, non-consecutive trips.

I traveled a lot; I also lived in Berlin for the summer. Of my personal velocity, Dopplr says:

* Minneapolis, MN

* Realitos, TX
* San Antonio, TX
* New Haven, CT
* Princeton, NJ
* New York, NY
Savannah, GA
Austin, TX
* San Francisco, CA
* London, UK
* Berlin, Germany
Copenhagen, Denmark
Goch, Germany
* Düsseldorf, Germany
Hamburg, Germany
Budapest, Hungary
Lake Balaton, Hungary
A night on a train between Budapest, Vienna and Munich
Paris, France
Utrecht, the Netherlands
Monticello, NY (for All Tomorrow’s Parties)
Memphis, TN
Charlotte, SC (stuck overnight)
Montreal, Quebec
Redmond, WA
Nassau, the Bahamas
Chicago, IL

Paper writing time

The way things work in my PhD program, we have a 12-week semester and then we write research papers. The papers aren’t generally due within the semester. In the winter, we hand them in in January, during the reading period.

I’m firmly in the middle of that period right now. So far, it’s going well. I’m writing a paper about urban pneumatic tube networks and I’ve been working on a more theoretical angle that ties in Sigfried Giedion and Walter Benjamin, as well as some more contemporary information theory. I’m not convinced about how I’m going about it so far but I’ll feel much more comfortable when I start writing about the network itself. It surprises me to find myself writing my second paper on some aspect of 19th century Paris and its architecture and urban infrastructure, but it turns out to be the most interesting case study. I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t love Paris: I find it overwhelming. (I like Berlin better, but you probably know this about me.) At any rate, it’s harder to study things that I love. Either that, or I might be discovering I really like Paris’s subterranean wackiness and its unwavering devotion to its networks.

Two things are hard about the papers: the slog and the self-doubt. My first PhD student paper ballooned to 50 pages with no end in sight. It turned out there was no central argument. Now, I carry around a book called The Craft of Research, suggested to me by my undergraduate professor Lew Friedland, to remind me how to structure arguments when I get lost in things. Academic writing is hard and it’s scary to admit that. It does not come naturally to me. I spent years trying to write clearly and simply, and while I try to do that in my papers, I need to construct more complex arguments than anything in the Web or the design world asked of me. Last year, I collapsed into tears after 8 hours in Marquand Library, where food and drink are not allowed. It didn’t help that I didn’t eat as I worked on my paper about Xanti Schawinsky and that I really needed something to keep my blood sugar stable. By the end of the three papers I had to write, I was dejected and exhausted.

For obvious reasons, I’m trying to keep that from happening this year. I’m getting enough sleep, setting page limits (Cory’s recent tips helped), giving myself small rewards, eating properly, exercising, even. I’m hoping to make it through without dissolving in a self-loathing mass.

girlwonder is back

Let me start this entry simply. I miss girlwonder.

I’ve done less personal and public writing in the 3 1/2 years since I started graduate school. That feels like a long time. A year ago, I started Active Social Plastic to think about things related to my intellectual pursuits, but it’s not quite the same. I hold it up to the kind of expectation I have for my academic work, which makes it less fun. It feels like work.

Part of the reason I stopped writing on girlwonder is structural: I very quickly had to move the site off server where it had been posted and have never been able to reimport the posts. It also coincided with the period when I began teaching undergraduates. Do I really want them knowing about my bouts of depression or my ex-boyfriend woes from 5 years ago? Not really. Some of it has to do with the intensity of school, especially in my first year. Everything was so very intense, it felt almost impossible to communicate it outside of the five people in my class, the other students in the school and the handful of professors I worked with closely.

That’s not to say I didn’t try. I created a blog on Vox, which allowed me to post privately to friends when I wanted. In the meantime, Facebook exploded and I began using Twitter. My Twitter stream is private; I have 1500+ contacts on Facebook. Is there anywhere where I can say anything about how I feel and what I think? I’ve decided I’d like to try and yet, I can’t really explain why I want to do it. Perhaps it’s as simple as wanting my own room to decorate as I please.  Things are different now than when I first started a personal site some 15 (!) years ago. At that point in time, the public online was small. When I wrote about how I hated my job in 1996, my coworkers weren’t reading it. Now, I must assume that my future academic employers, my fellow students, and the students I teach will all read this. (Twitter’s the place for my snarky comments since I control who reads what I post and trust me, there are plenty.) For several years, I’ve felt like I really can’t say anything of any mettle online, unless it’s in a private community: too much can be taken out of context too late. And that happens, anyway, over drinks and at dinner, not just online

What I’m curious about is being able to write again in a way that doesn’t feel like work. I’d like to try this other outlet for a while, too, and see what happens. So hello again, and welcome to Girlwonder, the personal blog, or website, or even homepage of one Molly Wright Steenson, age 37.

Active Social Plastic: please visit me there

2010 update: Active Social Plastic is on hiatus and I’m handling its content here on

I’ve moved!  I am blogging at Active Social Plastic — please find me there.

Otherwise, I have completed my third semester of my PhD at Princeton University in architecture. My topics of interest include 19th century Paris, postal services, pneumatic tubes; 1920s and 30s Berlin and German cultural history, functionalism; 1950s and 60s cybernetics in England and the United States and the connections of art, architecture and systems theory; 1960s-70s Italian industrial, product and furniture design; Playboy magazine and its influence on architecture, design and technology especially in the 1960s-1970s; 1970s responsiveness and mobility in architecture.

Coming soon for Girlwonder dot com: some kind of more professional description. Stay tuned, but do visit Active Social Plastic for my occasional commentary.

QotD: Looking Back…

What part of your childhood do you miss the most?
Submitted by Maretta.

I miss the neighborhood where we lived: Macalester-Groveland in St. Paul, Minnesota. I grew up on Goodrich Avenue in St. Paul, which was walking and biking distance to all kinds of things. I had a best friend next door (Gretchen) and across the street (Krista), and other friends down the block (Krissi and Susan). The proximity to Macalester College was terrific, of course, but there was a soda fountain, good alleys for riding bikes through puddles, places to get candy and baked goods, two outstanding bookstores (Odegaard and my beloved Hungry Mind, both closed).

When we were 13, my family moved to a suburb. It was the right thing to do as far as space was concerned, but I lost all of my mobility: there was nowhere to bike, nowhere to visit, and for that matter, no friends in my neighborhood. The summer between 7th and 8th grade, I took "Acting, Music and Dance" at Macalester's TCITY (Twin Cities Institute for Talented Youth), and one day, sat down in front of my old house and just cried.

My brother Andy lives two blocks from this house now; my Dad still teaches a mile away from it at William Mitchell College of Law. Every time I visit home, without fail, I drive by it and wave. The crabtree we planted nearly dwarfs the house now; the skyline locust that replaced the elm tree after the Dutch elm disease outbreak is broad and mature. I still dream of that little house when I think of home.

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