Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Architecture (page 2 of 2)

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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Another example of the tangibility of cyberspace

Nick Carr calculates that a Second Life avatar consumes as much electricity as a Brazilian:

If there are on average between 10,000 and 15,000 avatars "living" in Second Life at any point, that means the world has a population of about 12,500. Supporting those 12,500 avatars requires 4,000 servers as well as the 12,500 PCs the avatars' physical alter egos are using. Conservatively, a PC consumes 120 watts and a server consumes 200 watts. Throw in another 50 watts per server for data-center air conditioning. So, on a daily basis, overall Second Life power consumption equals… 60,000 kilowatt-hours….

Which, annualized, gives us [an average avatar consumption of] 1,752 kWh. So an avatar consumes 1,752 kWh per year….. [T]he average citizen of Brazil consumes 1,884 kWh, which, given the fact that my avatar estimate was rough and conservative, means that your average Second Life avatar consumes about as much electricity as your average Brazilian.

Which means, in turn, that avatars aren't quite as intangible as they seem. They don't have bodies, but they do leave footprints.

From Mark Baard via Tim Bray.

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“Putting computing closest to the source of value”

From Jonathan Schwartz:

[Oil companies put] sensors on spinning drill bits to extract seismic data, which then guides the bits as they descend into the earth (I had no idea you could actually steer a drill bit). And they do this on offshore drilling platforms. And after they pump crude into supertankers, they use data from sensors spread throughout the ships to monitor vibration, fluid dynamics and rotational physics – to keep the ships, and their precious sloshing cargo, moving safely in the right direction.

I was similarly surprised to hear a global relief agency describe the IT challenges of managing a disaster – starting with a need to supply computing capacity to remote disaster locations without power. More painfully, without desktop system administrators.

And then there's what Disney's up to, passing out trackable stuffed dolls to kids in their theme parks, so parents can follow them (as Scott would say, "that's not Big Brother, that's Dad…"). By tracking clusters of dolls, the operator can tell parents how long the lines are for a ride, and determine where to place concession stands (in front of waiting patrons, of course)….

All of the above are examples of putting computing closest to the source of value – and responding in near real time to a changing physical world.

Via Kempton

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Face to face in the virtual workplace

A recent article in The Guardian reports that "[a]s the virtual workplace becomes more prevalent, many staff find teamwork difficult to build."

For many freelance employees these days, turning up at the office is a rare occasion. As a freelance journalist, I'm part of a virtual team that communicates through email, or text. Not only do I rarely see my workmates, I can spend weeks not even talking to them. And I am not alone: non-verbal, virtual communication – particularly in white-collar workplaces – is becoming more and more common.

However, this trend is increasingly coming under scrutiny amid signs that more traditional methods – like face-to-face meetings and talking on the telephone – are more effective….

Somewhat ironically, the growth of virtual working over the past decade has highlighted the importance of non-verbal communication. Non-verbal cues – like body language, tone of voice and a simple glance – within a face-to-face conversation represent almost two thirds of the way we understand what is being said. "Non-verbal cues build trust," explains [occupational psychologist Caroline] Shearsmith. "People don't know how to communicate on email, for example, where things like sarcasm and jokes don't come across."

Much of the rest of the article is taken up with a Cisco Systems study that "shows that virtual teams can take up to four times as long to build trust than face-to-face teams."

The "somewhat ironically" bit struck me as notable, because it seems to me that the growth of various kinds of virtual work and virtual spaces have served to highlight the normally hidden values or uses of their physical counterparts– and stimulated innovation in them. Ten years ago, we were talking about the obsolescence of the office and library; but neither one has gone away. This despite the fact that tens of millions of people telecommute, more library patrons use online resources and interlibrary loan, and virtual call centers are giving outsourcing a run for its money.

Essentially, what seems to be happening in corporate offices is that spaces for doing what you might call fairly routine knowledge work, administration, and service work are being blown away, but the spaces are being converted to support more unusual or innovative kinds of work. While much of a company's office space might have once been designed to enforce established processes (just as a company's competitive advantage was based on doing familiar things ever more efficiently), today more emphasis is placed on fostering creativity, developing new products, or solving complicated problems.

Likewise, in contemporary library design, sociability is the new black: libraries aren't just places to commune with books and sit quietly, they're places to meet and work with like-minded people. Academic libraries have pursued this vision aggressively, but even public libraries (like the new San Mateo city library) are designed less around providing fixed services than spaces that users can borrow and customize.

In both cases, users and designers of these spaces discovered what the Cisco study confirms: the continuing importance of face-to-face communication– or perhaps more accurately, the difficulty of replicating its subtleties online.

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Another view

From UC-Irvine professor Mark Warschauer, "The Death of Cyberspace and the Rebirth of CALL:"

The notion of "cyberspace" suggests that there exists a virtual, online world that is distinct from our real world. "Cyberspace" is a type of fantasyland, where we take on cyber-identities and engage in virtual reality. But then, when we leave cyberspace, we come back to the "real world".

I would contend, in contrast, that the significance of online communication lies not in its separation from the real world, but rather in how it is impacting nearly every single aspect of the real world. Just like there is no such thing as "speechspace" or "writingspace" or "printspace," so there is no cyberspace. The notion of cyberspace is thus not helpful for understanding the very real impact of online networking on our lives, and indeed the concept of cyberspace is slowly dying out.

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Fuller online

Before I became a futurist, I spend some time at Stanford, working with the Buckminster Fuller collection. One of the things I worked on was digitizing the massive audio and video holdings, which consist of several thousand hours of Fuller’s lectures, seminars, and other events.

Back then (in 1999 and 2000), digitizing the stuff looked really hard, and making it publicly available seemed pretty daunting. What a difference a few years make. Now, Stanford’s put a big slice of the Fuller audio and video online. Really amazing stuff, particularly in the 1950s, when Fuller was in the habit of turning on a tape recorder when he thought he was doing something interesting, not just when he was about to give yet another lecture.

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Happy birthday Bucky

Buckminster Fuller was born today.

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Lloyd Kahn’s latest book

I first read Lloyd Kahn’s Domebook years ago, when I was first working on the Bucky project. Domebook and Domebook 2 are remarkable books, amazing cultural artifacts that reflect the idealism of the communitarian strand of the counterculture. Now, he has a new book about building:

For Lloyd Kahn, the hand-built home is still where it’s at

Before McMansions, before the counterculture was granite and marble, there was Lloyd Kahn, champion of the hand-built house, a road-kill-skunk skin warming his chair, a chin-up bar suspended from the rafters.

For 35 years, Kahn, 69, has been a steadfast chronicler of offbeat owner-built shelter: straw and mud houses, solar-powered houses, geodesic domes beloved by hippies (of whom Kahn was one) and made from chopped-up cars pounded into submission and bent into triangles….

Now, from his home down a brambly dirt road with no name in Bolinas, the self-consciously reclusive coastal village in Marin County, comes “Home Work: Handbuilt Shelter,” his latest ode to humankind’s ability to create, often out of nothing, expressive and in some cases profoundly bizarre dwellings.

Dispersal and the American dream

This morning I came across Margaret O’Mara’s winter 2001 essay on dispersal and the aftermath of September 11th. It’s a bit similar to what Steven Johnson wrote in Wired at the time, but more historically-grounded: what’s especially interesting is how she connects dispersal to the growth of suburban high-tech industries and regions, like Silicon Valley.

I could kick myself for not seeing the connection myself. I’ve always been interested in how Bucky made use of the dispersal movement in his refashioning in the 1950s, but never followed the story out into industry, and tried to figure out what impact it actually had on industrial location and growth. Not that I’m competent to do that kind of thing, anyway. So it’s good that someone can make the connection.

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