It’s the second snowstorm in a week and right now, it’s the strange moment where I can feel the pressure change and sense the rest of the front that’s about to hit. They’ve closed Princeton today–in fact, they’ve closed most of the East Coast, from the sound of it, which also means that Enrique’s dissertation proposal won’t happen till next week and the Richard Sennet-Eyal Weizman-Teddy Cruz lecture will be rescheduled for tomorrow. During Saturday’s snowstorm, I baked bread, made coq au vin for hours in the slow cooker, started sewing a dress, and dyed my hair. Today will be geared more toward work and toward my own dissertation proposal.
First, I passed my general exam! It was a two-hour, closed-door critique of my work by Beatriz Colomina (head of the PhD program), Christine Boyer (my advisor), Ed Eigen, Spyros Papapetros and Brigid Doherty. It was very positive. I found it fascinating to see how the commitee drew links and connections through the body of work I had presented. It was apparent to them that I had a method and a clear set of interests (though the method is not as clear to me as it is to them–I inhabit it). They actually said that they enjoyed the papers — that’s the word they used. The committee thought my work needed to be theorized better and that media theory seemed to be useful (I have a meeting with the fabulous Tom Levin tomorrow to discuss). They thought my research paper — the one that will undergirds my dissertation — was the weakest, but I knew that: I had gone through 11 drafts of it and it was out of control. But that indicates to me that I have found the right topic for a doctoral dissertation. Overall, I got useful feedback that I can apply to both the larger scale of my work and the smaller scale.
The whole process of the general exam, from selecting papers to revising and expanding, to editing and presenting, really boosted my confidence — something I did not expect. It made me realize that I have a genuine body of work rich with research questions. It gave me a chance to see the common threads passing through the work: the things that tease me intellectually and won’t let me go. I now have all of these ideas of things I look forward to working on in a career, not just a dissertation.
I’m also ready to get back to writing, not just for my own work but out in the world. Maybe it’s time to start writing a column somewhere? We’ll see.
I’m grappling with two different directions on my dissertation proposal. On one hand, I can write about the introduction of the computer to architecture. There are three themes: methodology, representation, and generation. But really, it’s the generative systems that I think are really interesting. I have an idea about how architectural computing becomes computing architecture, how it on one hand ends up as ubiquitous computing, and on the other, as spatial metaphors for computing. There are reasons to do both: one is a straightforward dissertation; the other really ties together my big questions but might be harder to convince an architectural committee. I’m helped by the fact that much of these things happened within MIT’s architecture school, where the Architecture Machine Group existed and the Media Lab still resides (even if they don’t cross over at all with the history/theory/criticism part of the school). Talking with my advisor, Christine Boyer, will help: she listens well, she was at MIT in the period that I’m researching, and she’s done a good job of steering me the right way.
I keep coming back to haptic and physical engagement with space. Nicholas Negroponte & Richard Bolt’s 1977 Spatial Data Management System is really interesting in that it gave rise to the desktop metaphor, but what really intrigues me is the importance of “motor-memory reinforcement” — the notion that by physically putting something somewhere, or by going somewhere, it reinforces memory. They give the example of Simonides, the Greek poet famous for his ability to memorize long oratory. Negroponte explained in 1986, “His secret was to tie each successive part of a to-be-remembered poem or speech to a specific locale within the mental floor plan of either an actual or imagined temple. For each successive subsection of the talk to be given, the orator would mentally walk from place to place within the temple, rehearsing the appropriate material before some specific piece of statuary.” (Stewart Brand, The Media Lab, 1987, 138). This points out what eBook readers get wrong: the physical, haptic engagement of reading. It also points out a key question of what “future of reading” projects miss out on: the physics of authorship.
There’s so much possibility in that idea! It’s not about creating a metaphor, or a bookshelf on a device — that’s done and usually, done poorly (the iPad is no exception). It’s also not a gestural mode of interaction with a device — but what would happen if we created things that help us learn by our own movements? I’m going to work more on that in the coming days and share my thoughts about it.
I’m going to light some candles, invoke some hygge, and watch the snow fall… and write. I’ll let you know where this puts me next week.