The future in the past and past futures

In June, I spent several days in Nicholas Negroponte’s personal archive from the Architecture Machine Group era up to the founding of the MIT Media Lab — working my way through hundreds of documents and taking some 1600 images. I also had the chance to interview him about the early years of his career. He was gracious, if not a little self-conscious to be discussing things he built and wrote as a 20-something.

Looking at the material in his archive, it struck me that I was viewing one possible future, one version of how things might have turned out. For all of the things that didn’t happen the way they imagined, the seeds for many things were sown some 30+ years ago. It’s not a matter of what Negroponte and his collaborators got wrong, it’s what they got right — and more importantly, the big questions that still have not been answered.

Seymour Papert, founder of the Epistemology and Learning Research Group in the Architecture Machine Group, co-founder with Marvin Minsky of the Artificial Intelligence Lab (and creator of the Logo programming language), spoke to MIT news in 2002 about these big questions behind AI:

“We started with a big ‘cosmic question’: Can we make a machine to rival human intelligence? Can we make a machine so we can understand intelligence in general? But AI [artificial intelligence] was a victim of its own worldly success. People discovered you could make computer programs so robots could assemble cars. Robots could do accounting! AI… wasn’t supposed to end up like that. AI was meant for Bigger Things.”

In looking at these big ideas of early AI, it’s clear that the big questions still haven’t been answered — things like, What is the nature of intelligence when machines are involved? How do machines really help us learn? What does it mean to have augmented architecture and augmented bodies?

With so many big questions left unanswered, it puts the hype around everything from augmented reality to the iPad into context. There’s hefty precedent in projects and writings by ArchMach, the MIT Arts and Media Technology group and the Media Lab and its affiliated researchers. The Spatial Data Management System (1979) provided a spatial way to move through information and capture a layer; the  Aspen Movie Map (1978-80), which allowed its users to drive virtually through a city (and which was used for military simulations as well): Alexis Madrigal offers recent insight into the project. Does the iPad really revolutionize everything or is it just another version of the 1979 “Books without Pages” (which you can read here)?  

My last night in Boston, I had dinner with my friend and mentor, Shelley Evenson. “I look at the past because it’s the future,” I said, in our conversation about ArchMach. “Exactly!” she responded. And that’s just it. The big questions of the past haven’t been solved, let alone adequately addressed. In order to look at possible futures, we need to delve into the past. It’s where the important issues were first formulated. These pasts as also futures.

Two quotes, to close, that I found yesterday. The first from George Kubler in 1962:

“Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time.” George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, 1962

and this 1968 one, found in Cedric Price’s archive of his Magnet project, carefully written by hand in 1995.

“IT IS QUITE POSSIBLE FOR THE WORLD

AS WE KNOW IT NOW

TO BECOME UNREGULABLE IN IMPORTANT FIELDS

IN THAT IT MIGHT PASS THE POINT BEYOND WHICH

ANY CONSIDERED ACTION

MIGHT HAVE A STATISTICAL PROBABILITY

OF BEING WORSE THAN RANDOM.

THERE ARE MANY SITUATIONS IN WHICH

TO BE SYSTEMATICALLY LATE

IS TO BE SYSTEMATICALLY WRONG.”

–Sir Geoffrey Vickers, “Value Systems & Social Process,” 1968 (in Cedric Price’s materials for his Magnet project, 1995)

It makes me wonder, are we just replicating the past? And in so doing, are we systematically late — if not systematically wrong?

weeknote 02 and 03

Greetings from Mexico City! I’m on vacation, a tagalong for a commercial that Motion Theory is shooting. I keep having dreams about editing and rewriting, but I have nothing to do until February 3, when I have my oral defense. I think this is what they call vacation.
First: the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium was outstanding. This was my fourth and it was by far my favorite–maybe because it was in New York and not Redmond, WA, maybe because it focused on cities, maybe because I got to see some of my favorite people. I gave a 20 minute talk on the introduction of computing to urbanism and urban planning (see below)… the whole thing was great. I’d have more to say about it, but I came back to Princeton and put myself on total lockdown in Princeton for 8 straight days, pulling together the last of the revisions for my papers. I left my apartment maybe once a day, if that. The final day, I wrote and edited for 28 of 30 hours (1 1/2 of those I spent asleep, sort of). Writing nonstop like that is nearly impossible — it requires so much concentration, especially for academic writing. But somehow I got it done. It’s not perfect, but it will do, I hope. I’m mightily thankful for the help that I received in feedback and editing and layout: if not for that, it never would have come together.
What’s really hard about the way our generals work is needing to keep six separate topics in mind, moving from one to the next. No sooner was I finished with something on France in the 1880s than I had to move onto Pakistan in 2007, and back again to the 1960s in the US.
Here’s what I handed in.
  • Artificial intelligence and architecture: the introduction of the computer to the field of architecture (with Christopher Alexander and his interest in AI and cybernetics as a case study), 1960-75. I wrote a tidy version of this paper in May 2009. Then, I blew the whole thing up into a much bigger framework about how the computer affected architectural practice. I’ve written scores of pages that didn’t get included: the draft at one point was 50 pages long (what I handed in was 36 pages). After 11 different drafts, I whittled it down to a couple of key ideas. I convinced myself that it was okay–I would be writing a dissertation on the topic and I could reuse what I wrote and then deleted.
  • Paris & communication networks: The Hôtel des Postes in Paris, 1884 and the Parisian pneumatic tube network, 1866-1900 (something many people know I’m interested in, thanks to last year’s eTech Ignite talk). These two papers are parts of the same topic: urban-level communication in France in the late 19th century. When I first wrote the paper about Julien Guadet’s central post office in Paris in 2008, my central argument was that it functioned like a big computer atop a tangible network. That argument proved thin, so when I rewrote the paper, I instead focused on what made it a modern building and what made Guadet a modern architect — namely, the way that it served as a physical mechanism to organize and control bureaucratic processes. The pneumatic post paper, too, looked at how technology had shifted the relationship of space and time to the human body, goods, and the communication of information. I had originally thought I’d do a dissertation on 19th century communication networks but was talked out of it by the entire PhD committee. (I was blue about that, but now it’s fine: they were right.) The majority of my research for these projects involved French language engineering publications.
  • Levittown, PA and its mass-produced landscape (1950s). Levittown, the famous, mass produced suburb, also mass-produced its gardens. Most bizarrely, Levitt patriarch Abraham Levitt wrote a column on gardening for the Levittown newspaper. Why? The way to maintain the value of the investment the Levitts had made in the suburb was not through the house but through the value of the landscape. The homeowners (most of whom had been apartment-dwellers and were completely unfamiliar with houses and gardening) needed to be taught to tend their gardens.
  • Apparatuses in architecture: a close reading of two 1920s works by Adolf Behne, a German architecture and art critic. For this paper, I analyzed the way that Behne used the word “apparatus” (Gerät) and the notion of defensiveness — as objects develop their own disposition. In many ways, I think Behne presaged the holistic approach to design that software finds so popular (and architecture, well, doesn’t). My research was all in German; the most painful part was reading poorly photocopied Frakturschrift (old-fashioned German writing).
  • Contingent communication: how communication jumps from network modes, using Pakistan’s 2007 state of emergency as a case study. I looked at cable television, satellite uplinks, and FM radio. (People who are holding crisis camps for Haiti might want to consider non-Internet media as a way of establishing communication networks — especially radio.) The idea for this paper came from a question Usman Haque asked me during my eTech presentation on India and mobile phone sharing, although what I wrote had nothing to do with it.
I’m looking forward to being able to talk next week about location scouting and casting and shooting a commercial: not my work, but someone else’s. This week’s location scouting not only introduced me to rooftops, kitchens and backyards, but also canine sociology between well-socialized and not socialized. My favorite: a golden retriever named Archie who chased oranges and carried a toy steering wheel in his mouth.

weeknote 01

Been curious about this Weeknotes habit that various people are doing on their sites. Given that it’s the start of a year, I figure it’s time to write about what I’ve been up to. I wrote this blog post on Saturday afternoon on a plane between San Francisco and Newark, after a very, very early morning flight from LAX to San Francisco. I had spent nearly three weeks in Los Angeles for Christmas and New Year — a wonderful and quiet visit.
This week’s stupid waste of time was a catastrophic hard drive failure. My computer was running Electric Sheep (my friend Spot’s generative screen saver) on Sunday night. The computer froze and when I tried to wake it, it flashed a question mark and a file folder: the drive wouldn’t mount. Just a few days earlier, I had purchased a portable hard drive in order to move music and photos off of it but stupidly, I didn’t back up my documents and my desktop. It all could have been much worse: I have backups at home in Princeton.
I’m going to need the backups because I’m finishing my submission for my generals packet. PhD programs all have qualifying or general examinations at the end of the second or beginning of the third year. The architecture PhD program at Princeton follows a different format than most: we submit six papers we’ve written from our first two years of coursework, all of which we have expanded, rewritten and edited, culminating in an oral defense before a committee of four or five professors. It’s a formidable task. The rewriting, while interesting, is a never-ending slog–way too much of my own voice in my head–on subjects I’ve hashed over for years. The defense is, of course, scary, but when it goes well, it’s one of the rare times that you get the critique and close feedback of five brilliant people on 200 pages of your work. It also tends to deal heavily with the proposed dissertation topic.
My papers deal with a wide variety of topics. My packet will include papers on:
  • Artificial intelligence and architecture: the introduction of the computer to the field of architecture, 1960-75 (also my proposed dissertation topic)
  • The Hôtel des Postes in Paris, 1884
  • The Poste Pneumatique: the Parisian pneumatic tube network, 1866-1900
  • Levittown, PA and its mass-produced landscape (1950s)
  • Apparatuses in architecture: a close reading of two 1920s works by Adolf Behne, a German architecture and art critic
  • Contingent communication: how communication jumps from network modes, using Pakistan’s 2007 coup as a case study.
On the flight, I’ve been working on the talk I’m giving at the Microsoft Social Computing Symposium on Tuesday. I’ll be talking about how computers got introduced to cities — it’s part of my broader research. I’m grappling with my desire to share everything I know and the limitations of a 20 minute talk. I’ll have a lot of cutting and rehearsing to do. It’ll all be easier to put together when I get my hard drive back.