Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Architecture (page 1 of 2)

Anthony Townsend on Jane Jacobs and Facebook

I ran across a post written a couple years ago by friend Anthony Townsend about Jane Jacobs, Facebook, and urban neighborhoods:

If the physical form of a neighborhood is conducive to community, so is its virtual form. But the other striking thing about the list was that all the neighborhoods were in a state of change—gentrifying or recently gentrified. It’s certainly demographic: a neat and obvious alignment of hipster and blogger. But it also means that the newly emerging character of these places is being forged, at least in part, online. These are incontrovertibly real-world neighborhoods, but their community is as virtual as it is physical. With each year, we get better at navigating between the two.

Facebook and MySpace have begun to show how textured online group interactions can be. It’s easy to think of social networking in terms of Hudson Street, and easy to think of Hudson Street in terms of social networking. Both are at their best when they can successfully balance the public and the private.

Whole thing is worth reading. (So is Richard Florida's comment.)

Of course, there was a time when we talked about urban and online communities as mutually exclusive: remember when virtual communities were going to make cities obsolete? In contrast, today Anthony can assign Jane Jacbos or Christopher Alexander in a class on IT, and nobody is confused.

The Infrastructural City

From Metropolis, an essay on "Tracking the Future" that describes a recent book on new urban infrastructures.

The 50-year arc of engines and batteries puts us right on the cusp of viable clean-power transit. The computation and flexibility necessary to make better use of the energy feeding the electric grid are already available; they’re the same technologies keeping cell phones going for days on a single charge. And telecommunications itself is slowly but steadily having a noticeable effect on how and when we use energy, whether through the reduced need for office space because of flexible work locations, the creeping advance of videoconferencing, or even the use of online social networking to buttress face-to-face interactions. It’s not as if we can’t imagine what a viable future might look like (even if it is just as easy to summon a picture of total collapse).

What’s harder to grasp is the inherent flexibility of this new infrastructure. With The Infrastructural City, Varnelis, an architectural historian and the director of Columbia University’s Network Architecture Lab, set out to update Reyner Banham’s 1971 book, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies. The major difference is that where Banham saw in Los Angeles’s unplanned urbanism a logic that could be instructive, Varnelis views it as a city in perpetual crisis—a victim of its own infrastructure. The freeways are perpetually clogged. The wildfires burn faster the more they are suppressed. “Infrastructure is no longer a solution,” Varnelis writes. But he really means the old infrastructure, those masterworks built according to a plan….

The emerging infrastructure is different. Varnelis describes it as something multiple and shifting: “networked ecologies,” plural “infrastructures” that are “hypercomplex” and as likely to consist of legal mechanisms and barely visible cell-phone networks as the heavy stuff of tunnels and bridges. Inherently less apparent than the infrastructure that came before, they’re also as likely to be owned by corporations as by governments—meaning these networks can’t really be controlled, only “appropriated” according to their own logic. With traditional planning made impotent by capitalism and NIMBYism, rebuilding the city now requires a “new type of urbanist,” a designer Varnelis compares to a computer hacker who reimagines a new use for the underlying rules and codes.

Where’s my paperless office?

[Reposted from my Red Herring blog, 2005.]

Whatever happened to the paperless office? A decade ago, futurists and pundits were confident that personal computers, CD-ROMs, and the Internet would render books and magazines obsolete, turn paper money and checks into curiosities, and bring about the paperless office. Of course, none of these predictions has come true. Books and magazines are still around, and while total paper use has declined in the last couple years, offices use more paper now than before personal computers became commonplace.

What this suggests is that the relationship between the paper and electronic worlds is more complicated than we first thought. On its own, this is hardly surprising: it's a truism that we overestimate the magnitude of technological changes in the near term, and underestimate them in the long run. But understanding why early predictions about the death of paper haven't come true will help us map out some of the possible futures of paper in the coming age of pervasive computing. This is a world in which computers are small and cheap enough to be embedded in virtually any built object; information can be associated with everyday objects and places; and networking technology allows devices to communicate and cooperate on behalf of their owners.

If paper was supposed to be made obsolete by the personal computer, what future could paper have in a world in which computers fly off the desktop and are everywhere, in everything?

First we need to understand why we still read, write, communicate, and collaborate with paper, even as electronic substitutes have become cheaper and easier to use. After a decade of the paperless office not coming to pass, we have a good sense of what's going on.

For one thing, new media wasn't the dawn of a revolution in the way content was created, distributed, and read, but the culmination of a decades-long evolutionary process bringing computers into publishing. In the 1960s and 1970s, publishers adopted mainframe computers to handle in-house editing and typesetting—work that ultimately yielded a printed book, newspaper, or magazine. In the 1980s, with the emergence of word processors, authors were able to produce their own electronic documents. Finally, in the 1990s, the falling costs of multimedia personal computers and appearance of Web browsers made it possible for readers to interact with digital texts. (The fact that had publishers had built up vast databases of machine-readable data that could go online also gave the Web an extra kick.)

For another, paper turned out to have certain qualities—or affordances, as Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper put it in their excellent The myth of the paperless office—that computers couldn't match. Few of us, it turns out, read in a straightforward way: we graze across several manuals and papers simultaneously, underline and annotate documents, or take notes as we write—all functions that can be only incompletely duplicated with computers. In many workplaces, paper documents are tools for organizing workflows, or serve as indicators of where work is building up: what is easily visible in the form of slips of paper moving about an office becomes obscured when that data moves onscreen. Spaces like whiteboards are better-suited to collaborative work than computer screens, as they allow multiple users to work simultaneously, to easily build on each other's ideas, and to see how a group's thinking is unfolding. Documents aren't just a recording or storage medium; they're a medium through which coworkers work, and through which collaboration happens.

Finally, a lot of skilled work is more than rule-following, and computerized workflows have a hard time accommodating to the realities of such jobs. In a police department that equipped officers with laptops and software for writing and transmitting electronic crime reports, for example, officers found that the sensitive work of dealing with victims and talking to witnesses didn't mix with typing on keyboards, or the rigid formulas that the software wanted to impose on the interview process. Indeed, Stanford sociologist Aneesh Aneesh has argued that this creativity-killing aspect of computerized work is exactly what many companies want when they install workflow systems.

The fact that paperless office hasn't come to pass, though, doesn't mean that it never will. After all, while desktop computers and clunky monitors still bear a family resemblance to the terminals and CRTs of a bygone era, technologies like smart dust, RFID, wireless, and flexible displays are completely different. Likewise, the vision of computing that drives pervasive computing research is nothing like today's chunky interactions with keyboards and monitors. Should it come to pass, the model will deeply affect the ways people will interact with information, and the ways information will interact with the world.

Most important, computers will be everywhere, and we'll interact with them constantly, but we'll hardly be aware of them. Think of what driving a car is like today. A luxury car can have a hundred microprocessors or more in it, monitoring and controlling everything from the ignition to the exhaust to the temperature of the seats. Yet the experience driving a Mercedes C-Class or a BMW 700 series car (so I'm told—I've never been behind the wheel of either one) is nothing like checking your e-mail or fiddling with a spreadsheet. An even better, or at least more financially accessible, model is the iPod. It's a big hard drive, some software, and thousands of files; but from an interaction standpoint, it's nothing like a computer.

A second change is that new mobile devices will allow us to access information in "real space" as well as "real time."

Finally, in the workplace, one will no longer have to choose between dealing colleagues and computers: digital devices will support face-to-face interaction, sociability, and creativity, rather than competing with them, forcing them into narrow channels, or redesigning the workplace.

So what does this mean for the future of paper?

The bad news is that while the "electronic piñata" will continue to get fatter and fatter, a smaller and smaller proportion of digital information will ever get onto the page. A lot that information is going to support machine-to-machine communication, and except in cases where there are liability concerns, won't get printed—and probably stored only for limited times. Likewise, "printing" an MP3 or video is nonsensical. Even instant message chats and camera phone pictures, despite their family resemblance to older media, are printed far less frequently than e-mails or digital pictures.

But the good news is that we'll keep sending around e-mails, PDFs, and other documents that need to be printed for one reason or another. This leads to one scenario, in which paper continues to be the celluose tail wagging at the end of the silicon dog. Paper remains a part of knowledge work, packaging, signage, and other familiar industries and products, but is slowly eclipsed by new display technologies, and it plays a vanishing role in entirely new kinds of work and social activity.

This is a simple extrapolation of current trends, and as such is a future that has a fair degree of likelihood. But there's a second, which you can see in weak signals coming from academic laboratories and a few startups: one in which paper becomes a digital medium.

Could paper become the hot new medium of the next digital age? The idea isn't quite as farfetched as you might think.

A number of scientists are experimenting with printing electronics on coated paper. Regular paper, with its network of wood fibers, is far too coarse to print circuits; but coated papers and paperboard composites (which mix paper and other materials) show promise. This spring, in fact, Swedish company Cypak AB announced that it had printed a computer on a paper-plastic surface; the device's capability places it somewhere between a Sinclair Z80 and a Radio Shack TRS-80. (Interestingly, the company isn't selling the device as a low-end computer, but as a smart, high-end RFID tag.) This may sound pretty underwhelming, but anyone who bought a Z80 in, say, 1979 can remember how fast the personal computer evolved in the next ten years.

But why even try to make a paper computer? Why not stick with silicon or plastic? Paper is cheap, its properties are well-known, and yet it's versatile. With the right processing or coating, it can be fashioned into everything from packaging for appliances, to a medium for ultra-sharp photographs, to tissues. And you can make it by the mile. Paper, in other words, is a malleable, mature, slightly boring technology: perfect for cheap, flexible devices.

And of course, paper is appealing because of its affordances: its flexibility, its brightness, and its familiarity. For companies trying to make paper-like electronics, it makes sense to try to actually, well, just use paper.

The Cypak case points to a scenario in which paper, far from being an afterthought in the digital world, becomes an integral part of it. Paper becomes a substrate for a new generation of flexible electronics, highly portable displays, active and reactive packaging, and dynamic signage. At the same time, printing becomes a key manufacturing technology for flexible electronics, as desktop printers acquire the capability to turn out highly customized electronics (as discussed in an earlier column), while industrial printing becomes a tool for manufacturing trillions of data tags, sensors, and processors.

In other words, it's likely that in the future computers won't make paper obsolete. It's even possible that computers will become paper.

Smart home, smarter home

[Reposted from my Red Herring blog, 2005]

When modern architecture emerged in the first years of the last century, it threw down a gauntlet at the feet of traditional neoclassical and academic architecture. Modernism's style was stripped-down and functional. It celebrated the beauty of machines and the art of engineering, and expressed itself in concrete and steel, rather than brick and wood. Most important, it declared that the future would never again look like the past: from now on, architecture would be about innovation and change, not about working with timeless principles and eternal proportions.

Implicitly at first, and then consciously, architectural exhibits became predictions. Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion house, first exhibited in 1927, exemplifies how modern architecture backed into the futures business. The Dymaxion house was a hexagonal structure, suspended from a central load- and services-bearing column. Virtually everything in it was made of aircraft-grade medal. The house wouldn't be built on-site, like traditional houses; instead, it would be mass-produced, like cars or cans of peas, and delivered to owners.

Soon "the home of the future" became a stock element of every architectural exhibit, World's Fair, forward-looking corporate display, or popular magazine special issue. (Even World War II couldn't derail them: a 1943 brochure showed a couple admiring a neighborhood of modern houses under the caption, "After total war can come total living.") Sporting automated kitchens, robot butlers, furniture that you washed with a high-pressure hose, and helipads (the long, sad story of why we don't have personal helicopters or jet packs will have to wait for another time), these houses were sleek temples of convenience, promises of a world in which the home would be as frictionless and worry-free as a department store.

Of course, almost none of this has come to pass. Instead, the "home of the future" projects serve as textbook examples of how you can get the future wrong, and why.

Consider the 1950 Popular Mechanics article, "Miracles of the Next Fifty Years." As Geoffrey Nunberg argued, the essay—which is a perfectly reasonable example of the "home of the future" genre—suffered from two problems.

The first is that, as Paul Saffo would put it, it mistakes a clear view for a short distance. Its all-plastic, shiny surface future is one that takes 1950 styling trends and extrapolates them into the future. It's the kind of future in which tail fins have grown and grown, reaching astronomical proportions and becoming the vehicle. The future is today's coolest stuff covering the world. This habit, as Nunberg puts it, of "taking some recent innovation at the steepest point of its curve and projecting it linearly to a point where it has swept all its predecessors aside," is a particularly easy one to fall into in an age when rapid change seems to be the norm.

The second problem is that it doesn't have any space for demographic, social, or cultural change. In the Popular Mechanics future, Mom would stay at home with the robots, hosing down the house after Dad had flown off to work in his personal helicopter. Now, if there's any single change in the last 50 years that's most powerfully affected everything about home life, it's been the wholesale movement of women out of the house, and the emergence of women as economically independent members of their households. Nothing about the house has been unaffected by women working outside it. We don't have plastic furniture and floors, but the widespread acceptance of prepared foods, the popularity of home security systems, the transformation of the minivan into the family living room—none of it would have happened had June stayed home, waiting for Dad, Ward and the Beaver.

It's easy to focus on the flash; it's harder to see the slower, deeper changes that will really have a profound impact on the way we live.

Like many futures, the smart home is arriving late and in unexpected ways. For most of the twentieth century, "smart home" projects were either whiz-bang demos of The Amazing Future, or corporate agitprop—Your Future, brought to you by General Electric. But in the last ten years or so, the smart home has grown up.

What's happened is that the smart home has become a laboratory. It's gone from being a place where the future is on display, to a place where the future is uncovered and experimented with. Smart home projects at places like Georgia Tech and MIT are filled with sensors and video cameras, and are designed to allow engineers to observe how people actually live with furniture with health monitoring technology, or smart medicine cabinets, or ambient displays. There are two things notable about this new generation of smart home research, things that offer some clues about what the smart home of the future might really be like, and how we might get there.

First, there are actually several different kinds of "smarts" that a smart house could possess, each with different aims and missions, and appeal to different kinds of people. Today, you can buy systems that are essentially remote controls for your whole house: central displays that let you program the dishwasher from your bathroom, or turn on the home theatre from the kitchen. These are basically convenience devices. At another level are infrastructure control systems, which manage heating and cooling, turn off lights in unused rooms, or schedule household tasks for off-peak times. These systems are mainly designed to conserve consumption of energy and water. Other systems aim to be more like software agents for the kitchen, helping you figure out what you can make with the nearly-random contents of your refrigerator, sending orders to the online grocer, and suggesting dishes for this weekend's dinner party.

Two other kinds of smart home systems are aimed mainly at the elderly. One connects elders who are still active but live alone with family and friends. These might remind a user that they haven't talked with a relative in a few days (or, for more distant relatives, weeks), or link with calendaring systems to schedule get-togethers with neighbors. They might also analyze a resident's sleep and activity patterns, and alert a child or doctor if an elderly parent's routine shifts dramatically—an indication that something could be wrong. Other, more complex systems are designed to assist elders who have problems with household tasks or memory. These might consist of monitoring devices in rooms or furniture that closely follow vital signs, provide guidance in preparing meals and other daily tasks, and warn against potential dangers—an unattended pot boiling over, a bath that's too hot, clutter on the floor that could create a hazard.

Almost all of these systems exemplify a second big shift in thinking about how smart, and how active, a smart home should be. The ideal smart house used to be one that would be able to take care of everything for you—become a "machine for living in," to borrow modern architect Le Courbusier's phrase. A lot of current work on the smart house, in contrast, aims to create systems that help residents do things, instead of doing things for them. Some engineers still dream of creating adaptive houses that learn and cater to residents' preferences; but as MIT professor Stephen Intille put it in a description of the House_n project, "our primary vision is not one where computer technology ubiquitously and proactively manages the details of the home. Technology should require human effort in ways that keep life as mentally and physically challenging as possible as people age." Work on communications and monitoring systems has taken off thanks in part to the discovery of a clear relationship between isolation and depression: elders are much more likely to stay active when their social lives are active, and they're in touch with family and friends. Likewise, there's evidence that remaining mentally and physically active can help elders fight the appearance of Alzheimer's. Having a house that takes care of you, in other words, can be bad for you.

So how will the smart home arrive? Here's a short list of broad predictions.

First, there will be no single "smart home." People who are interested in shrinking their energy budgets may never be in the market for a virtual butler, and vice versa. Instead, there will be a wide variety of smart houses, all configured to the needs and interests of users.

Second, the smart home will be built up appliance by appliance, and room by room. Intelligence is much more likely to come to houses through smart appliances, and to grow up in devices that have a functional relationship—the appliances in a kitchen, for example—than from the top down. Construction companies have tended to exhibit less interest in smart home systems than electronics companies. If this continues, expect the smart house to be more of an emergent, ad-hoc thing.

Third, elders will be some of the earliest adopters. It's cool to have a remote control for your house; but a system that will let your 80 year-old mother continue to live safely in her own house, which lets you know whether she's doing okay, and which warns you if she gets ill or depressed will deliver a serious benefit that people will pay for. Technologies that allow elders to "age in place" will look even more appealing once you consider the high cost—both financial and psychological—of nursing homes, and the projected shortage of nurses throughout the rapidly-aging advanced world. Further, these are systems that have multiplier effects: unlike smart kitchens, assisted living systems deliver benefits to entire families, including children who live far away.

Seattle Public Library

I'm just back from three days in Seattle, where I was at a workshop organized by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. During these workshops, I like to get out and take a walk during lunch: I find it helps my mental state to be able to walk around, get some air, and focus on things that aren't post-its or roadmaps.

Yesterday I meant to go to the waterfront, and the new Seattle Public Library main branch, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA. I never made it to the waterfront.

via flickr

SPL is one of the most amazing buildings I've seen in years. I think it's as impressive as the Sydney Opera House, though for different reasons. It's just a shame it's constrained by its site, and is surrounded on all sides by other buildings; at the same time, that downtown location and accessibility is critical to its success as a working library.

Looking down from the 10th floor, via flickr

The most striking thing about it is the amount of energy the program devoted to, well, books. It's interesting to compare the building to another well-known modern public library closer to home. When it opened a decade ago, the San Francisco Public Library was criticized for being a building that wasn't really very book-friendly. (Not only that, but author Nicholson Baker, whose Vox is one of the most brilliant pieces of erotic writing ever, wrote about a large-scale destruction of portions of the SFPL book collection.) Indeed, SFPL was basically out of space when it opened; and its high-minded schizophrenia about what a library would be in the future resulted in a building that's hard to navigate and make sense of.

Living Room, via flickr

In contrast, the Seattle Public Library is designed with the assumption that it has to be a space in which physical, printed media and electronic resources coexist, and are used by librarians and patrons alike for the lifetime of the library. As Koolhaas later explained (in the beautifully-produced book about the library), "Our ambition is to redefine the Library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store where all potent forms of media– new and old– are presented equally and legibly." (11)

Mixing Chamber (signage by Bruce Mau) via flickr

This is clearest in the fifth floor Mixing Chamber, which is "located at the interface between the Library's physical and virtual collections" (111) (the main entrance is on the third floor, and the stacks start on the sixth). The Mixing Chamber also pulls together reference specialists, with the aim of minimizing the number of steps patrons have to go through to get questions answered or find resources. (Koolhaas architects Joshua Ramus and Dan Wood visited other libraries, and searched for a David Halberstam book or federal document; it usually took them six stops, thanks to the "infernal matrix of materials, technologies, [and] 'specialists'" that define the conventional library.)

Mixing Chamber, via flickr

As the book puts it, "The Mixing chamber is… a trading floor for information ochestrated to fulfill an essential… need for expert, interdisciplinary help. The Mixing Chamber consolidates the library's cumulative human and technological intelligence: the visitor is surrounded by information sources." (38)

Living Room, via flickr

Koolhaas and Ramus also make the good point that there's been a tendency with recent libraries to create spaces that are completely generic, that could just as easily be reference departments or conference rooms or stacks. This reflects a lack of faith in the future of libraries, and tends to result in spaces that are uninspiring, and quickly become crowded and confused. In contrast, they've created a combination of spaces, some quite flexible and dynamic (like the main entrance and Living Room), and others with a more fixed program (the stacks, most notably). The result, I think, is a wonderfully varied and interesting building, and one that beautifully captures– and serves– the current hybrid state of libraries.

Another reminder of how the Internet is connected to nations

From the New York Times, John Markoff on the changing geography of the Internet:

Internet Traffic Begins to Bypass the U.S.

The era of the American Internet is ending.

Invented by American computer scientists during the 1970s, the Internet has been embraced around the globe. During the network’s first three decades, most Internet traffic flowed through the United States. In many cases, data sent between two locations within a given country also passed through the United States.

Engineers who help run the Internet said that it would have been impossible for the United States to maintain its hegemony over the long run because of the very nature of the Internet; it has no central point of control.

And now, the balance of power is shifting. Data is increasingly flowing around the United States, which may have intelligence — and conceivably military — consequences.

Textual spaces

If you're in Philadelphia in the next couple months, check out the "Textual Spaces: an Architecture of Reading" exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania:

As we seek to understand the way in which the act of reading is defined by its material constraints, our line of questioning necessarily extends to the spaces in which reading takes place. Where do we read? And how do those places affect our reading? To answer these questions is to move toward an architecture of reading. To place a book within the rooms of a house or public space shifts the significance of historical context from background to foreground. Just as the material constraints involved in the process of printing, binding, and selling books arguably shape the attitudes of readers, so do their physical surroundings add to the shape of their reading experiences.

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Retro Arcade set

For those of you old enough to have played video games in the late 1970s or 1980s– the halcyon days of Defender, Xevious, and Tron, not to mention a Pac Man franchise that rivaled CSI– the terrific retro arcade photset on Flickr is not to be missed.

Perhaps I'm just over-generalizing from my own over-excited teenage reactions to these kinds of spaces, but I think these arcades, with their spaceship or Buck Rogers interiors, darkness lit only by the neon and the light of the games, played an underappreciated role in creating a psychological association between computers and space– or alternate spaces.

called Station Break. The arcade was on the edge of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, near student eateries, bookstores, and the city's only independent movie theatre. For a teenager, it was a neighborhood that spoke of leisure, freedom, and escape. The arcade itself was like another world.

The appeal of these spaces hasn't disappeared entirely, though most arcades are gone. The memory of the old arcade model was compelling enough to inspire MAME developers to create a virtual arcade, and there's a pretty clear linage from Station Break to Chuck E Cheese to the Pizza Planet in Toy Story. For those who really want the old experience, a Springfield, MO arcade, 1984, is a nostalgic re-creation of arcades from the era, right down to the 50+ classic games.

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Constructing the scholarly habitus

A little while ago, Kevin Kelly suggested that the habit of sitting at desks might be "a short-term anomaly" that we would abandon in the future. This got me thinking: what is the ergonomic history of writing and thinking? Five hundred years ago, what kinds of spaces did philosophers or essayists construct for themselves; how were they furnished; and how did they work in them? There are lots of pictures of scholars or saints at work– Saint Jerome in his study and all that– but how idealized are those? How well do they reflect what scholars actually did?

I asked Anthony Grafton what had been written on the subject, and he suggested, among other works, Gadi Algazi's 2003 article, "Scholars in Households: Refiguring the Learned Habitus, 1480–1550." It's a really excellent piece of work, and it'll resonate with anyone who ever writes within sight of children's toys, or revises articles on nap drives. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that Algazi's Web page mentions that he has three children!) Here's the abstract:

Until the fifteenth century, celibacy was the rule among Christian scholars of northwestern Europe. Celibacy was a major element of the codified cultural representation of the scholar and his specific way of life, sustained by peculiar institutional arrangements and daily routines. Founding family households implied therefore a major reorganization of the scholar’s way of life. Broadly speaking, this involved refashioning the scholarly habitus (understood as a system of durable and transposable social dispositions), redefining social relations, and developing the necessary material infrastructure. The paper focuses on three aspects of this process during a period characterized by uncertainty and experimentation. It discusses the structure of scholars’ families, arguing that at least until the middle of the sixteenth century, received models still persisted, while new viable models for articulating family reproduction with the transmission of scholarly dispositions had not yet crystallized. It then turns to the reorganization of domestic space, focusing on the different uses of the study to manage social distance and regulate domestic relations. Finally, among the different manifestations of the scholarly habitus, it argues that the emotional detachment of learned men was itself a learned habit. The well-documented discussion of competing options for organizing scholars’ family households and cultivating an acquired nature in academic settings provides an exceptional occasion to examine the way a group habitus is reshaped and to explore the cultural work involved in this process.

Of course, there's Dora Thornton's The Scholar in His Study: Ownership and Experience in Renaissance Italy, which I've encountered a couple times, but never looked at with this particular subject in mind.

There's also some work on commercial and mercantile calculation and writing. I think Alfred Crosby talks some about this in one of his books, and of course there's JoAnne Yates' Control Through Communication, which is full of interesting detail on 19th-century business information practices.

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Anthony Townsend on presence

My colleague Anthony Townsend recently gave a talk in Newcastle about mobility and presence:

[W]hat I want to talk about is not the future of mobility but rather, the future of presence. By “presence” what I mean, is that if movement or travel is a means – then presence is the end. And so I want to broaden the discussion of mobility to include technologies and practices of telecommunication – ways of being "present" at remote locations….

I keep looking at the map of my social network on Dopplr, a site that lets people share trips, and realizing that young people are defining their very identity through mobility, and network-enhanced and augmented mobility. We need to appreciate just how deeply embedded this high degree of personal mobility has become in our lives, and plan for lots of it rather than pretending we can socially engineer ourselves to stop. This is not just my group here of globe-trotting hipsters, its also the millions of Britons who'll holiday in Spain and Greece this year.

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