Jarrett Fuller: Hey, wel­come to Scratching the Surface. I’m Jarrett Fuller and this is my pod­cast about design crit­i­cism and prac­tice. This week’s episode is a tru­ly fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion with Shannon Mattern. Shannon is a pro­fes­sor in the media stud­ies depart­ment at the New School in New York City where she teach­es cours­es on a real­ly diverse range of sub­jects includ­ing maps, infor­ma­tion infra­struc­ture, urban intel­li­gence, and cities. Her research inter­ests are equal­ly diverse and include top­ics like media spaces, archives, libraries, and infra­struc­ture. She’s writ­ten mul­ti­ple books and writes a reg­u­lar long-form col­umn for Places, the online archi­tec­ture and urban­ism journal. 

In this con­ver­sa­tion, Shannon and I talk about media stud­ies, what it is, and what that means and how she got into it. And we also talk about the­o­ry and how to con­nect the­o­ry to prac­tice, and con­nect­ing the­o­ret­i­cal texts with phys­i­cal arti­facts. And how design and archi­tec­ture and media are dif­fer­ent ways of solid­i­fy­ing par­tic­u­lar ide­olo­gies. You know, media and media the­o­ry is a top­ic that comes up on the pod­cast a few times, and I’ve men­tioned find­ing a lot of rela­tion­ships between media the­o­ry and design the­o­ry? So I was real­ly excit­ed to talk to Shannon about these top­ics and see what kind of par­al­lels we could find. And as you’ll hear, this was a real­ly wide-ranging con­ver­sa­tion. Shannon is just so smart and this episode is just real­ly packed with wis­dom. I feel like I learned so much, and as I tell her at the end of the con­ver­sa­tion, my head was just spin­ning with new ideas and ques­tions and thoughts. So I think that this will be a con­ver­sa­tion that I return to a few times and one that I think you’ll get a lot out of as well. 

Remember if you’re a fan of the pod­cast and want to help sup­port it, you can become a mem­ber for $5 a month or $50 a year to receive an exclu­sive month­ly newslet­ter with addi­tion­al bonus con­tent and episode pre­views. Memberships real­ly help keep the pod­cast going and I just real­ly appre­ci­ate all of your sup­port, if you’re able to sup­port that. But, for right now, here is my con­ver­sa­tion with Shannon Mattern. 

Jarrett Fuller: I want to start at a very base, prob­a­bly over­ly sim­plis­tic lev­el, because you’re a pro­fes­sor in the media stud­ies depart­ment here at The New School. And so I kin­da wan­na start with what is media stud­ies? Like what does that actu­al­ly mean? 

Shannon Mattern: Okay, well that’s a very good question.

Fuller: Is that too…is that too weird to start that way?

Mattern: No, not at all. And there are still peo­ple I guess in more tra­di­tion­al uni­ver­si­ties and more tra­di­tion­al dis­ci­plines who don’t real­ly even regard it as kind of a legit­i­mate field of study. So it’s rel­a­tive­ly recent. It kind of coa­lesced as an academic—I would­n’t even call it a dis­ci­pline, it’s more of a field—around the time that Marshall McLuhan kind of became a big pub­lic fig­ure. So rec­og­niz­ing that media are not just kind of neu­tral sub­strates that car­ry con­tent. That they actu­al­ly play, as a graph­ic design­er or a design­er in any field would know, that the mate­ri­als, the forms used to con­vey ideas are just as potent as the actu­al infor­ma­tion and con­tent and data that you stuff into them. 

Fuller: Okay, so two ques­tions now, based on that. So then how do you define… I guess we’re even going to go even more…

Mattern: Oh sure.

Fuller: …sim­ply. What does media— How do you define media, then? 

Mattern: Well I’m going to give a deeply frus­trat­ing answer to that, too! Because like again—

Fuller: The ques­tions are just gonna get more and more—

Mattern: That’s okay. We can go deep­er, and [count the?] tur­tles all the way down. 

Fuller: Okay.

Mattern: So again, if you go to a more tra­di­tion­al dis­ci­pline, more tra­di­tion­al type of media stud­ies or com­mu­ni­ca­tion stud­ies pro­gram, they might be look­ing at things like radio, tele­vi­sion, film…and in more con­tem­po­rary decades they’ll look at dif­fer­ent types of kin­da Internet— Sorry, not Internet. But yes, you could look at the Internet but I was going to say inter­ac­tive projects.

Fuller: Right, right. Okay.

Mattern: Social media, for instance. 

Fuller: Okay. Okay.

Mattern: But, again, if you kind of the McLuhan tra­di­tion, and the much more capa­cious way peo­ple think about media today in a lot of the more pro­gres­sive pro­grams, media can be pret­ty much anything. 

Fuller: Yeah.

Mattern: And this again was McLuhan’s influence. 

Fuller: Yeah. Okay. So are you very much a… Is a McLuhan…kind of a touch­stone in this field of study for everyone?

Mattern: Yeah. I think he is, I would­n’t call him a taboo sub­ject, but he is some­one who is a name that shall not be named in many cas­es because he’s regard­ed as a…um…a not ter­ri­bly rig­or­ous schol­ar. He’s more known for like throw­ing probes out there and see­ing if they stick than actu­al­ly pre­sent­ing things he could sub­stan­ti­ate. Yeah.

Fuller: That was my hunch. I’m a— I mean I’ll just… Yeah, I’m a big fan of McLuhan. I have found so much kind of influ­ence, or the way I think about my work as a design­er? from him. But as I’ve start­ed to dab­ble more in read­ing kind of where you work, sens­ing a bit of a con­flict­ing rela­tion­ship there. So I don’t want to just be like, oh I love Marshall McLuhan and then…you know, kin­da ruin this conversation. 

Mattern: No. No, total­ly. I mean there are some peo­ple who, and this is again one of my many frus­tra­tions with the acad­e­my, who would judge some­one if they pro­claimed that they love Marshall McLuhan. But, whether or not you sub­scribe to his ideas or regard him to be kind of a rig­or­ous methodologist—which he prob­a­bly wasn’t—I think still some of the real­ly provoca­tive ideas he put out into the intel­lec­tu­al envi­ron­ment have informed a lot of peo­ple’s work, whether they will rec­og­nize it or artic­u­late it or not. 

Fuller: So how… I’m gonna make a lit­tle bit of a turn. How does one…get into this, or how did you…find your­self study­ing this and work­ing in this area?

Mattern: Well, I think the fact that I think I’m known by a lot of peo­ple for writ­ing about real­ly diverse sub­jects. And I think that comes from my back­ground. I start­ed out in high school think­ing I want­ed to be an engi­neer. So I did intern­ships in engi­neer­ing like aero­space and nuclear engi­neer­ing, just because that was kind of present in the uni­ver­si­ty town I grew up in. And I was good at math and sci­ence, so that’s what I should do. 

Then I want­ed to go to med­ical school, so I was a chem­istry major. But I always took a lit­er­a­ture course as an—I guess I could say an escape from the math and sci­ence every semes­ter and real­ized that that was where my great­est plea­sure was. So I switched to become a lit­er­a­ture major. And then ulti­mate­ly real­ized that, as I men­tioned before, I was just as much inter­est­ed as…the shape of the book. The fact that these Norton antholo­gies I had that were print­ed on this like onion­skin paper. And how did that shape my inter­ac­tion with the text? There was a cer­tain kind of affect that I brought to the read­ing process when the mate­ri­al­i­ty of the book was some­thing that I was so much ingrained with my recep­tion of those par­tic­u­lar texts. So that’s ulti­mate­ly where I start­ed to real­ize that I became just as much inter­est­ed in the media as the mes­sage, as you could say, and then ulti­mate­ly I did a PhD in media stud­ies, but even there I was kind of all—maybe for­tu­itous­ly all over the place. I took cours­es in urban plan­ning, urban his­to­ry, archi­tec­ture history… 

Fuller: Yeah. I wan­na talk about the PhD a lit­tle bit, because I did a lit­tle bit of read­ing on that. I have two ques­tions. First will be a hope­ful­ly kind of quick ques­tion and we can move on. As I was research­ing you I saw that your advis­er was Neil Postman. Is that the Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death Neil Postman?

Mattern: Yes. Yes.

Fuller: Okay. What was that like?

Mattern: What was that like? I’m not sure about this, but I think I was the last dis­ser­ta­tion defense he attend­ed before he passed away a year lat­er. So I was at the very end of his career. And his par­tic­u­lar areas of research I would say weren’t kind of top­i­cal­ly per­fect­ly aligned with mine. But his sen­si­bil­i­ty, his way of being a pub­lic aca­d­e­m­ic, a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al. His per­sona. The way he was in the world and the way he kind of prac­ticed his phi­los­o­phy was some­thing that I did­n’t see with a lot of oth­er aca­d­e­mics. And as I as a grad­u­ate stu­dent try­ing to fig­ure out like what kind of a schol­ar do I want to be some­day, the way he was in the world was some­thing that real­ly stood out to me. 

Fuller: Oh, that’s inter­est­ing. Okay. I want to come back to that because that’s a top­ic that I’m real­ly inter­est­ing in but I want to talk about the PhD itself because it’s called Building Ideologies? was the— 

Mattern: Oh, yeah. I would pre­fer to ignore and have the world for­get my dis­ser­ta­tion but yes, I wrote my dis­ser­ta­tion on architecture. 

Fuller: Okay, well the rea­son I ask that is… I obvi­ous­ly did not read it. I don’t know—

Mattern: Please don’t. 

Fuller: —total­ly what it’s about. But that title was fas­ci­nat­ing to me because I’ve start­ed to define design, and espe­cial­ly graph­ic design, as kind of… This phrase I’ve been using late­ly is design is ide­ol­o­gy made arti­fact? in a lot of ways, and build­ing ide­ol­o­gy” sound­ed like a very similar… 

Mattern: Yeah.

Fuller: And so I was just curi­ous. I mean, obvi­ous­ly if you don’t want to talk about it we don’t have to talk about it. 

Mattern: Sure, sure.

Fuller: But kind of what did that look like, or what was that research like? 

Mattern: Well, I had dis­cov­ered in grad­u­ate school that I was real­ly inter­est­ed in archi­tec­ture and space as a medi­um. Again you can see kind of that McLuhan influ­ence as well. And I want­ed to find a great case study. And it just hap­pened at the time that Rem Koolhaas was cho­sen to design the Seattle Public Library. So I went to Seattle, sat in on a lot of the design process, looked through all the doc­u­ments relat­ed to the design process. 

So I was just as much inter­est­ed in how that build­ing came into being. So the gerund of build­ing. So the act, the verb of build­ing. So how he did all this nego­ti­a­tion between dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers, city offi­cials, design­ers, fit­ting into the con­text of Seattle and its kind of rise through Amazon, and Microsoft, for instance. 

Fuller: Yeah.

Mattern: So I looked at how you essen­tial­ly through that design process nego­ti­at­ed kind of your ideological—not your, but many dif­fer­ent stake­hold­ers and publics’ ide­o­log­i­cal standpoints. 

Fuller: How did that influence…or, maybe influ­ence isn’t the right word, but I’m curi­ous how that kind of research and that project end­ed up set­ting you up for the career you had. And have, and it comes back to the very first answer that you gave about media not being this kind of neu­tral thing. And it sounds like you were look­ing at that very lit­er­al­ly in how it’s affect­ing space. 

Mattern: Right. Right. So in that research I looked at for exam­ple how the mate­r­i­al you choose to make a mod­el out of…

Fuller: Oh, interesting.

Mattern: …or the degree of final­i­ty or rough­ness of a ren­der­ing could com­plete­ly shape the nature of a pub­lic debate. If you show a par­tic­u­lar pub­lic— Like, you have like a pub­lic forum, and you show them like some CGI ima­grey, they’re gonna say like, Well you’ve already fig­ured it out. What do you want us to say?” So just see­ing how the choice of modes of rep­re­sen­ta­tion, the media it’s pre­sent­ed through or on, lit­er­al­ly shaped how the whole dis­course was con­duct­ed, essentially. 

So how that set me up for the career that I have, I mean that’s a big sto­ry but I’d say that again, draw­ing on the literature—so not only like the pub­lished work but also the talk­ing to peo­ple in mul­ti­ple dis­ci­plines. And I talked to archi­tects, I talked to city plan­ners, I talked to the peo­ple who worked at the load­ing dock at these buildings.

Fuller: Oh, interesting.

Mattern: So get­ting inter­est­ed in again, how all those dif­fer­ent dis­cours­es and needs kind of have to con­verge and pro­duce a build­ing at the end that tries to sat­is­fy as many of these peo­ple. But also just rec­og­niz­ing the dif­fi­cul­ty and the real­ly amaz­ing chal­lenge of cast­ing your net wide and doing research on a par­tic­u­lar top­ic, and real­iz­ing how any spe­cif­ic designed object, you can trace its ten­ta­cles out incred­i­bly far and touch on the dis­ci­pli­nary knowl­edges and prac­tices of so many dif­fer­ent people. 

Fuller: I had read in prepar­ing for this anoth­er inter­view that you had giv­en and said that… I think I’m get­ting this sort of right, that post-PhD you were look­ing not just at aca­d­e­m­ic jobs but also at actu­al design jobs.

Mattern: Yes.

Fuller: What types of jobs would those have been? Or what was that kind of alter­nate career that you could’ve had?

Mattern: Well, I was doing a post-doc in art his­to­ry at the University of Pennsylvania. So that was anoth­er kind of for­tu­itous thing that hap­pened, because I was in this PhD in media stud­ies and had writ­ten about archi­tec­ture, a mod­ern archi­tec­ture his­to­ri­an expressed inter­est in work­ing with me, which is how I end­ed up in art his­to­ry. But, as the next step, I real­ized again—even then, which was almost fif­teen years ago or so. I real­ized that the aca­d­e­m­ic job mar­ket was already pret­ty pre­car­i­ous at that time, and con­sid­ered both for prac­ti­cal rea­sons that maybe I should look at oth­er options. But also because I think I would’ve been…equally hap­py. And for­tu­nate­ly, teach­ing in a school like The New School where they do val­ue mul­ti­ple forms as of— They rec­og­nize that schol­ar­ship is not just pub­lish­ing books in fire­walled jour­nals?, but actu­al­ly doing stuff in the world. I think that this has allowed me the job that I ulti­mate­ly got and am grate­ful for, allow­ing me to bring together…to con­verge those dif­fer­ent path­ways that I had carved out for myself. 

So I had thought about maybe get­ting an M.Arch actu­al­ly, for a while.

Fuller: Oh, okay. I mean, I was gonna ask like, was that a possibility?

Mattern: That was a pos­si­bil­i­ty. And then I did an intern­ship at an archi­tec­ture firm, was like nope, I’m not going to be doing that. I had total­ly glam­or­ized the day-to-day life there. But also, I had con­sid­ered work­ing in kind of not-for-profits or places like—I’m not say­ing I specif­i­cal­ly pur­sued these insti­tu­tions, but places like the Van Alen Institute, or the Architectural League, or orga­ni­za­tions like that. 

Fuller: Okay. I mean, I asked that ques­tion com­plete­ly self­ish­ly because I feel like that’s a ten­sion that I feel in my own career, and it’s kind of why I went to grad­u­ate school, was feel­ing like it was one or the oth­er and not want­i­ng to take one or the oth­er? And I think still now, after that, I still feel like I’m kind of strad­dling both of those in a lot of ways and want to be both a prac­ti­tion­er, a design­er, but also in acad­e­mia. And it’s a ques­tion that comes up on the pod­cast a lot, and even just when I talk to stu­dents who are kind of inter­est­ed in these things, feel­ing that if they go too far into the the­o­ry that it almost par­a­lyzes their mak­ing, because it’s too in their head or they get stuck in these ide­olo­gies and don’t want to con­tribute to it. So I don’t know if that’s a ques­tion. Do you know—

Mattern: Well it’s someth—

Fuller: Do you know what I mean there?

Mattern: Yeah. It’s some­thing I’ve thought about, too, because on occa­sion I will teach like our intro­duc­to­ry the­o­ry class. And there’s always, even if my class­es are kind of project-based I always incor­po­rate a lot of his­to­ry and the­o­ry. And over the course my near­ly twenty-year career, the way I teach the­o­ry has evolved pret­ty dramatically. 

Fuller: Okay.

Mattern: In part because my own rela­tion­ship to it has evolved as well. I used to be intim­i­dat­ed by it. I used to kind of deify these peo­ple, pre­sum­ing that they were pre­sent­ing some gospel that I just had to work and work and work to try to under­stand so that I could like, put on their glass­es and see the world through their lens­es. But ulti­mate­ly I real­ized that these are—and I’ve writ­ten this else­where, too—like, these are fal­li­ble peo­ple, often ego­ma­ni­acs, often real­ly bad writ­ers. And that’s why I can’t under­stand it. So it’s not to give up on them, too quick­ly. You put in the work to try to under­stand what they’re say­ing. But not to regard their work as gospel. Essentially to think of it as tools to think with. And that’s how I try to desacral­ize the­o­ry in my class­es, to help stu­dents think these are tools to be crit­i­cal, inter­est­ing frame­works that you can apply to the work that you’re doing. But they should not have the pow­er to become par­a­lyz­ing forces. 

Fuller: Right. I love that. That’s a great way to kind of phrase that. How does that kin­da play out in your own work, both as a teacher, but then also as some­one who’s doing your own research? How do you start to kind of think about how those things come together?

Mattern: How the­o­ry comes together?

Fuller: Yeah, how the­o­ry kind of plays into the work that you’re doing, whether you’re teach­ing it and kind of show­ing that these are not per­fect themes but then also as you’re fur­ther­ing your own schol­ar­ly research? How do you fit those in? 

Mattern: Right. I mean, some peo­ple when I’ll go give a talk some­where, they’ll intro­duce me as a media the­o­rist. And I will nev­er reject that. I will nev­er want to embar­rass some­body but hon­est­ly that label just does not…feel right for me. 

Fuller: Okay.

Mattern: Because I have just always assumed that like call­ing one­self a media the­o­rist implies…there’s a cer­tain kind of con­no­ta­tion to it that just does­n’t feel like it suits me very well. 

Fuller: So what do you—how would you…define—

Mattern: I don’t even know. Actually I much pre­fer when, some­times when I’ve giv­en a talk, peo­ple will say like, I don’t even know what to call you.” Like, I love that! That’s perfect. 

Fuller: Okay.

Mattern: But, any­way. How do I nego­ti­ate these things in my own prac­tice? And I think part of it is that some­times you might be asked you know, what’s your the­o­ret­i­cal frame­work, or what’s your method­ol­o­gy? I have got­ten real­ly com­fort­able with the fact that I don’t sub­scribe to the school of any par­tic­u­lar the­o­rist. When I write an arti­cle, I am not writ­ing it in the Bourdieuian frame. Or I am not kind of doing a Foucauldian analy­sis of any­thing. I start with the mate­r­i­al, with a designed object in many cas­es. And as I inves­ti­gate it do you know, a whole mix of dif­fer­ent meth­ods, dis­course analy­ses, kind of stud­ied mate­r­i­al objects them­selves, inter­view peo­ple often. I have read enough the­o­ry to know when oh, this is real­ly where kind of some…I don’t know, Simondon can become inter­est­ing or use­ful. So I allow them to kind of emerge when the mate­r­i­al actu­al­ly calls for it, and not make them kind of this per­va­sive, oppres­sive force through­out the entire thing that I’m think­ing of writ­ing about. 

Fuller: Yeah. I have— Okay. I have like five dif­fer­ent ques­tions, based on that answer, or like five dif­fer­ent thoughts that I want to try to form into a ques­tion, because I’m… I’m tak­ing what you’re say­ing and I’m apply­ing it…I’m kind of putting it into a graph­ic design con­text and think­ing how that could apply in graph­ic design. And I’m think­ing about two things specif­i­cal­ly that may or may not be con­nect­ed and this might be a dead end. I’ll just…warn you now. 

But one thing that that makes me think about is…the graph­ic design pro­fes­sion almost…this is an over­gen­er­al­iza­tion but, can often default to a kind of anti-theoretical approach, or kind of tries to keep that away? With a focus on mak­ing or on aes­thet­ics, or on kind of what the actu­al end prod­uct is like, with­out any kind of the­o­ret­i­cal rig­or about why these things exist, the cul­ture that they came out of, or are put into. Whether in a con­tem­po­rary con­text or in history—often, design his­to­ry class­es don’t real­ly talk about those things. It’s just…here’s a series of artifacts. 

Mattern: Mm hm.

Fuller: But then on the flip­side when there is some sort of the­o­ret­i­cal dis­course in graph­ic design—and I hear this a lot from my stu­dents and from lis­ten­ers of the podcast—it’s hard to under­stand, it’s too dense, and then they don’t see how it has any con­nec­tion to the work. To the actu­al mak­ing, to the actu­al arti­facts. And so, I guess if I were to put this into a ques­tion, and I don’t know if I can… I’d love to hear you talk a lit­tle bit about how these kind of the­o­ret­i­cal texts can be applied to the objects. Because you talked about look­ing at the objects first. For a design stu­dent, for ex—like let’s just make it real­ly sim­ple. For a design stu­dent who’s inter­est­ed in these things but does­n’t see any kind of con­nec­tion, how would you kind of help them begin or start to see how those things come together? 

Mattern: Well that’s a big ped­a­gog­i­cal chal­lenge. And I think that—

Fuller: I’m ask­ing because it’s like…what I want to know how to do, too, I think in a lot of ways. 

Mattern: Yeah. I think also I’ve maybe also come to real­ize that there’s a rite of pas­sage, a peri­od of strug­gle that you kind of have to go through. 

Fuller: Yeah. Yeah.

Mattern: You have to go through kin­da almost like the fetishiz­ing theory…

Fuller: Right, right. Oh yeah, I’ve been there.

Mattern: …the not know­ing [you have a client phase?]. And then you become…kind of pro— Disillusionment sounds like a bad thing. I think it’d be a real­ly lib­er­at­ing thing. So I feel like there’s no easy way, no easy kind of ped­a­gog­i­cal strat­e­gy that can help you take your grad­u­ate stu­dents or undergraduates…they do have to read the the­o­ret­i­cal texts. And then I think it’s…this is the chal­lenge, though. Because a lot of folks, they have those four years as an under­grad, or maybe two or three years as a grad stu­dent. Then maybe they don’t have a lot of oppor­tu­ni­ties to read the­o­ry, do read­ing groups or have a group dis­cus­sion about them after that. I had the lux­u­ry of being in these types of envi­ron­ments for twen­ty years or so. So I can allow my think­ing in rela­tion to the­o­ry to evolve. 

But, I wish there were a way to kind of com­press that rite of pas­sage you have to go through. But I think if you can plant a seed, that it becomes some­thing that peo­ple want to engage with in their pro­fes­sion­al careers, I think they will even­tu­al­ly get to that lib­er­at­ing feel­ing that this is a tool I can use and not like…a uni­form I have to wear and play a par­tic­u­lar role, liv­ing through this par­tic­u­lar theory. 

Fuller: This con­nects nice— This might be a good way to come back to when you were talk­ing about Neil Postman and kind of being a pub­lic schol­ar kind of writ­ing for an audi­ence. Because that’s anoth­er ques­tion that comes up a lot in these con­ver­sa­tions. Especially when I talk to archi­tec­ture crit­ics who are writ­ing either in kind of dai­ly news­pa­pers or mag­a­zines, they’re not writ­ing for oth­er archi­tects in a lot of ways? And this always comes up because so much of graph­ic design writ­ing is for the pro­fes­sion? And I’m very inter­est­ed in how one can write rig­or­ous­ly about a pro­fes­sion for peo­ple who are not in the pro­fes­sion?, but also not dumb it down that the peo­ple in the profession…scoff at it?

Mattern: Yeah. Well this might lead me to go back and add anoth­er sec­tion to that ques­tion you asked before as to how to teach this type of rela­tion­ship to the­o­ry. I think also it’s a selec­tion of the arti­facts and texts that you expose stu­dents to. So one thing I have kind of found has worked real­ly well over the years is that if you do want them to read the heavy the­o­ry, you pair it then with an appli­ca­tion text. And then some­thing from the pop­u­lar press so they actu­al­ly see this is not just some­thing that is liv­ing float­ing around in the ether in some rar­efied realm. This actu­al­ly applies in some type of actu­al design prac­tice in the world. Not only in kind of a para-academic text, but then you actu­al­ly see it applied, even though some­thing in The New York Times might not actu­al­ly evoke the name of Althusser or Marx, they will have seen the pro­gres­sion of abstrac­tion to con­crete­ness. So I think that pair­ing of read­ings and exam­ples can help peo­ple to make the tran­si­tion to see the applic­a­bil­i­ty of the­o­ret­i­cal and crit­i­cal con­cepts in every­day practice. 

Fuller: And so was this some­thing that was appeal­ing to you when you were doing your PhD, and even now that you’re writ­ing not just for acad­e­mia, but that your writ­ing is out in the world for oth­er peo­ple to read? Was that a con­scious deci­sion I guess is kin­da the question.

Mattern: Well maybe it was in the back of my mind, because I was con­sid­er­ing you know, non-academic careers. So I did think about engag­ing with dif­fer­ent publics in dif­fer­ent ways. But it’s part­ly in a way that the acad­e­my is set up, in that you are dis­cour­aged from doing any type of non-academic type—traditionally aca­d­e­m­ic work until you get tenure. So it’s something—actually I start­ed to write with non-academic pub­li­ca­tions even before then. But I did feel like I had to do my duty and play the whole peer review game. Which I hard­ly ever play any­more because I don’t think the peer review has a whole lot of val­ue to add, at least in my expe­ri­ence. I’m sure peo­ple will dis­agree with that. Some have had some great expe­ri­ences. But in the end, the wait, the…rigamarole you have to go through, I don’t know is that much more valu­able than the real­ly fan­tas­tic rela­tion­ship I have with my edi­tors at Places Journal, or when I work with the Harvard Design Magazine. That back and forth I have with my edi­tor’s some­thing you do not get in a peer-reviewed jour­nal, and it’s ulti­mate­ly much more reward­ing because they have you trans­late your maybe abstruse ideas into con­crete kind of artic­u­la­tions that a gen­er­al pub­lic or an informed pub­lic can understand.

Fuller: Yeah. How does that shape…or does it shape at all, your own research or your top­ics, or how you talk about your top­ics, that act of work­ing with an edi­tor for pub­lish­ing in Places instead of a peer review? Does that actu­al­ly change the research process at all?

Mattern: Yeah. I would say so. And part of it is that if you’re doing like an aca­d­e­m­ic research project you typ­i­cal­ly spend just… You’re doing your empir­i­cal part look­ing at the actu­al sup­posed top­ic if you’re doing a case study of a designed object or some­thing. But you also are spend­ing a huge time doing kind of a lit­er­a­ture review and then fram­ing a lit­er­a­ture review, look­ing at who has said what about this, what the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works are used, what meth­ods have pre­vi­ous schol­ars used. I knew that work to some degree, but that is also the stuff that I keep in the back of my head, and it influ­enced my writ­ing. And maybe I’ll put it in a foot­note. Or maybe I’ll say in the mid­dle of an arti­cle you know, this actually…to use a canon­i­cal exam­ple like, Hannah Arendt can help us think through this idea so let’s talk about her for three sen­tences. But I think if I were writ­ing an aca­d­e­m­ic arti­cle that would all be fore­ground­ed and I would spend a lot more effort kind of mas­sag­ing that work and set­ting— It takes you so much set­ting up before you actu­al­ly get to your top­ic in aca­d­e­m­ic writing. 

Fuller: I mean, the rea­son I ask that is…because I’ve been think­ing a lot about… Well, I think every­body’s talk­ing a lot about this kind of idea of fake news and this has come up on the pod­cast a lot and it’s the exam­ple that I to go to because I think it’s real­ly easy? That the tech­nol­o­gy indus­try I feel like is real­ly talk­ing about that more, and real­iz­ing that things like Facebook—and I worked at Facebook for a while, so I maybe am espe­cial­ly con­scious to think­ing about this? And I think that fits direct­ly into what you were talk­ing about at the very first ques­tion, of these dif­fer­ent medi­ums have bias­es and are not neu­tral? And I think it’s just as much a design prob­lem? And…I…I don’t know how…how design­ers can start to talk about that in an edu­cat­ed and informed way of what are we as peo­ple who maybe have often thought of our­selves as just dec­o­ra­tors or as just the visu­al fin­ish at the end, real­iz­ing that that’s not all…? That’s not just what we do? And that we have some complicit…

Mattern: Yeah.

Fuller: …in some of these things? And I’m curi­ous if you have thoughts on kind of… And we don’t don’t have to lim­it it to fake news or Facebook, but to the role of design in all of these things that we’re talk­ing about. And how the act of design­ing and the act of cre­at­ing these arti­facts are push­ing par­tic­u­lar ide­olo­gies, or are maybe kind of being invis­i­bly fur­ther­ing ide­olo­gies. [crosstalk] Do you know what I mean—that was a real­ly weird way to phrase that ques­tion. Do you know what I mean? 

Mattern: Sure. No, no. Yeah, I under­stand what you’re get­ting at. And ide­ol­o­gy is def­i­nite­ly a core part of the kind of things I think about. But I think I often pair it with epis­te­mol­o­gy, too. So like, how we know what we know. And that’s a lot of my work, is look­ing at how design at dif­fer­ent scales… So I look at kind of the design arti­fact like the screen, how use the real estate, to use an ide­o­log­i­cal term—the real estate of the screen, to the medi­at­ed object—the gad­get itself, to right now I’m work­ing on a project on fur­ni­ture. So how we design media fur­ni­ture in an archi­tec­ture scale, and the urban scale, and kind of the infra­struc­tur­al scale. And how if you think about each of those as kin­da of designed objects or sys­tems, that they have the capac­i­ty to non-neutrally shape the way we know things. So they par­tic­i­pate, these objects actu­al­ly par­tic­i­pate in what and how we know things in the world. 

Fuller: Right. 

And of course knowl­edge has, in Foucauldian terms, like, is pow­er at the same time so that’s where ide­ol­o­gy comes into play nec­es­sar­i­ly in all cas­es, too. So yeah, I do think that whether it’s design­ing par­tic­u­lar inter­faces, you know, the way we design bal­lots, the way we design online forms we fill out. The fact that you know, even the box­es we have to check, the user agree­ments we just…you know, auto­mat­i­cal­ly check the box. These are either encour­ag­ing kind of con­tem­pla­tion or just rote kind of scan­ning at par­tic­u­lar infor­ma­tion. So there are lots of dif­fer­ent design dis­ci­plines that can kind of—their forces con­verge in mak­ing things kind of either trans­par­ent or opaque knowl­edge. Things that you just glide through or things that’re actu­al­ly worth contemplating. 

Fuller: What I’m inter­est­ed in is where in the design process those types of ques­tions are raised. And I know you’re not a design­er, but I’m curi­ous as some­one who is on the oth­er side and who has spent a lot of time study­ing this, when are those quest—when should those ques­tions be asked? Because it seems like for me, and I don’t mean for this to be so neg­a­tive. But it’s after the fact, a lot of times? And how do you start to bring in these ques­tions into the design process? You know what I mean?

Mattern: Yeah. That’s a real­ly chal­leng­ing process. And in part because of the way I know a lot of design, actu­al prac­ti­cal appli­ca­tions, are kind of sequenced where you’re trad­ing things off to dif­fer­ent teams or dif­fer­ent teams are work­ing togeth­er. It can be real­ly dif­fi­cult to have this kind of ide­al­ized way of respon­si­bly, eth­i­cal­ly prac­tic­ing design. And then how that can actu­al­ly play out in a real kind of com­mer­cial set­ting, for instance.

Fuller: Yeah. Right. 

Mattern: But for exam­ple, if you are design­ing an app that is pro­mot­ing kind of I don’t know, mar­gin­al­ized pop­u­la­tions’ use of pub­lic ser­vices, for instance. You might say well we real­ly need to think [indis­tinct] with our graph­ic and inter­ac­tion design­ers about how to make this intel­li­gi­ble and seam­less, etc. At the same time, per­haps you should be ask­ing the ques­tions like why an app, you know. Is that actu­al choice of modal­i­ty the best thing? So it’s kind of one of those infra­struc­tur­al recur­sion type of ques­tions. So, it’s not just a mat­ter of kind of inte­grat­ing these eth­i­cal and crit­i­cal ques­tions into the sen­si­bil­i­ties of one design­er. The fact that each kind of dif­fer­ent capac­i­ty of design is so inte­grat­ed with all the oth­ers to pro­duce a designed thing at the end, means that I don’t know where you actu­al­ly insert the ques­tion, it’s just that every­body should be ask­ing it from the very begin­ning of the project.

Fuller: Right, right. I have a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent, com­plete­ly oth­er ques­tion that I’ve been think­ing about through­out this whole con­ver­sa­tion, and you’ve used metaphors of real estate and archi­tec­ture in talk­ing about kind of dig­i­tal spaces also, and I think that comes back to kind of your ear­ly research. I’m curi­ous, do you see…parallels in how the phys­i­cal world has been built up and the way dig­i­tal medi­a’s being built up? You know, are the ways of think­ing, the ways of inter­act­ing, the ways of com­mu­ni­cat­ing the pol­i­tics of the phys­i­cal envi­ron­ment, are those being echoed pret­ty close­ly online?

Mattern: Uh, I would­n’t say ter­ri­bly close­ly. It’s not as if we can find kind of mor­pholo­gies we can say like, look at this par­tic­u­lar build­ing and say, Oh look, it’s the Internet writ large,” for instance. 

Fuller: Yeah.

Mattern: Because so many of our cities and our towns pre­ex­ist­ed, or kind of pre­dat­ed the rise of dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies. That said, dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies have allowed for an entire­ly new form of urban­ism. I would­n’t say entire­ly new, but a some­what nov­el form of urban­ism, like data-driven urban­ism, build­ing tab­u­la rasa as we’re doing in a lot of kin­da smart city projects around the world. In those cas­es I do think peo­ple have aspi­ra­tions to think about if the Internet were the fun­da­men­tal mor­phol­o­gy, pol­i­tics, ide­ol­o­gy, econ­o­my, if we could use that as kind of like the ur-network form for all ways of think­ing about social­i­ty and urban­iza­tion, how could we make it man­i­fest in built space, for instance. 

But even with our exist­ing cities I think that dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies are shap­ing the way peo­ple are think­ing about how to main­tain them, or how to adapt cer­tain areas. So, some peo­ple are propos­ing using dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies to do more performance-based zon­ing, for instance. So you can do kind of live read­ings rather than hav­ing restric­tive kind of sta­t­ic sens­es of what can hap­pen in cer­tain parcels of the city. Instead you let peo­ple do what they want as long as they don’t go above a cer­tain deci­bel lev­el. Or as long as like they’re not emit­ting kind of offen­sive smells or chang­ing air qual­i­ty mea­sur­ably. So, as long as you can mea­sure those things, they’ll sup­pos­ed­ly allow sort of greater flex­i­bil­i­ty. The chal­lenge is like, the zon­ing serves more pur­pos­es than mea­sur­able sen­sors actu­al­ly allow you to capture. 

Fuller: Yeah. This is a ques­tion that I ask every­body. And I’m espe­cial­ly curi­ous as some­one who’s…you know, very out­side of graph­ic design. What are the…from your view, what are the…what do you see as the issues or top­ics that graph­ic design­ers should be think­ing about right now, or if there’s some sort of crit­i­cal gaze on the pro­fes­sion and the work. What are the things that are kind of press­ing graph­ic design right now?

Mattern: Well that is a huge ques­tion and you’re ask­ing a non-graphic design­er. I think that some of the ques­tions you asked in terms of how graph­ic design can par­tic­i­pate in a lot of these kind of cr— In acad­e­mia there’s a cri­sis for every­thing, so we overuse the term cri­sis.” We use it far too often. But like the cri­sis of cred­i­bil­i­ty, cri­sis of epis­te­mol­o­gy. So the fact that again, you are not just shap­ing con­tent. You are shap­ing the way peo­ple know things. And the way kind of social net­works form, as I’m sure as some­one who for Facebook you are very much aware of. 

So rec­og­niz­ing these kind of real, fun­da­men­tal, kind of much low­er on Maslow’s hier­ar­chy of needs type of func­tions you’re actu­al­ly serv­ing, you’re kind of not at the aes­thet­ic tip. You are actu­al­ly serv­ing again down that stack of infrastructures. 

Fuller: Yeah. I mean the rea­son I ask that question…and that was a great answer because I was— My follow-up ques­tion is what are the issues or top­ics that are fac­ing media right now, or as some­one who works in media stud­ies who is not a media the­o­rist, but what are the… What would a media crit­ic, what should they be look­ing at right now? And I was curi­ous if there were par­al­lels between… What are the par­al­lels between the kind of issues that peo­ple study­ing media should look at and peo­ple study­ing graph­ic design should look at.

Mattern: I think so. Again, and I don’t want to reify this whole stack metaphor, too, because that has got­ten… It has been coopt­ed by cer­tain kind of the­o­ret­i­cal schools in recent years even though it’s like a very old mod­el that kind of like net­work engi­neers and peo­ple have been using for a long time. 

But any­way, this idea that there are kind of dif­fer­ent lay­ers of infra­struc­ture that you have to work with. I think that’s some­thing that media stud­ies peo­ple and crit­i­cal data stud­ies peo­ple, crit­i­cal algo­rithm stud­ies peo­ple are becom­ing more aware of. And rather than media lit­er­a­cy used to be the thing that was some­times taught in school. If you came from a good school you prob­a­bly had a media lit­er­a­cy thing. And that’s been around for sev­er­al decades. And there you would kind of look at an adver­tise­ment and see how women were rep­re­sent­ed. Or watch a film and see how African Americans— So it was very tex­tu­al analysis-oriented. And I think that again, look­ing at that stack, I think media stud­ies rec­og­nizes that that’s not enough. 

You also have to have peo­ple ask ques­tions about what are the dif­fer­ences between the dif­fer­ent screens you’re encoun­ter­ing dur­ing the day. Or, how does net neu­tral­i­ty fac­tor into what you can even see on your screens. And the peo­ple who you share your soci­ety with. So look­ing at all these dif­fer­ent lay­ers of kind of hard­ware, and net­work and sup­ply chains, all this kind of stuff. 

Fuller: Right. And those are all design— I mean those are all design ques­tions, then, also. 

Mattern: Yes. 

Fuller: It’s all the same, kind of the same kind of thing. That’s real­ly interesting.

I have kind of two ques­tions that— The last ques­tion that I ask every­body is, who are the kind of the writ­ers, or the crit­ics, or the­o­rists who have real­ly influ­enced you? So I’m going to ask you that ques­tion, but then I’m gonna ask you a follow-up ques­tion which is, if you were putting togeth­er a read­ing list—and I’m sure you prob­a­bly have a read­ing list—for some­one who is new to this field, or a graph­ic design­er who is inter­est­ed in these par­al­lels, who are those writ­ers or those books that they should read as kind of a good entry into think­ing about these things?

Mattern: Could you say the sec­ond one again? I’m less clear how that’s dif­fer­ent than the first.

Fuller: Oh yeah. So the first one is just who has influ­enced you, and then the sec­ond one is some­one who’s new to all of these, who are the good kind of…intro, kind of primer peo­ple to…get­ting to study­ing these things. 

Mattern: Okay—

Fuller: And they might not be dif­fer­ent. I did­n’t mean to com­plete­ly sep­a­rate them. 

Fuller: Okay. Well, these are the types of ques­tions that I wish I had kind of looked through my book­shelf before I came here because I know I’m gonna for­get some peo­ple who have been super for­ma­tive. But the peo­ple who’ve been very influ­en­tial to me were—I would say some of the schol­ars I read ear­ly in grad school who total­ly— I’ve men­tioned McLuhan. That was one, and I encoun­tered him as an under­grad­u­ate. Harold Innis. He’s an edi­tor who’s an econ­o­mist, who also thought about kind of infra­struc­tures as media also. 

And then a cou­ple peo­ple I encoun­tered real­ly ear­ly in grad­u­ate school real­ly shaped my research agen­da from there on, and those would be Beatriz Colomina and Lynn Spigel, who is a media and design his­to­ri­an who’s writ­ten a lot about how the rise of the tele­vi­sion and the rise of the mid-century home kind of shaped gen­der and class rela­tions with­in fam­i­lies, for instance. Diane Harris also writes about some of this stuff. 

So a lot of these peo­ple made fem­i­nist schol­ar­ship some­thing that was real­ly con­crete and acces­si­ble for me, because I did read kind of fem­i­nist schol­ars who did like, fem­i­nist the­o­ry. But when I saw it actu­al­ly play out in like, Lynn Spigel or Diane Harris’ work, that real­ly kind of made it seem acces­si­ble and con­crete to me. 

Fuller: And that comes back to what you were talk­ing about ear­li­er, pair­ing these things with actu­al arti­facts. And so that was there from…that was very ear­ly on for you, you were see­ing that happen.

Mattern: Absolutely, yes. Yeah. 

Fuller: Yeah that’s interesting.

Mattern: Who else do I have a lot of books from? Well, you know, every­body goes through their Walter Benjamin phase as well, too. So that was for­ma­tive for me for a while. And Lewis Mumford I still think is pret­ty amaz­ing. Again I’ve spo­ken to some archi­tec­tur­al his­to­ri­an friends, which I am not, who have said that again, like with McLuhan there’s some shame in acknowl­edg­ing that you’re influ­enced by Mumford—

Fuller: Oh real— Oh I did­n’t know that.

Mattern: —but he said maybe there’s a resur­gence of Mumford. I don’t know that, either, so I’m kind of shamelessly… 

Fuller: I love that.

Mattern: I’ve always been…kind of a mar­gin­al fan of Mumford, just— First of all his ambi­tion. The fact that who else writes an entire his­to­ry of the city, this is essen­tial­ly some of the books he’s writ­ten, and the breadth of top­ics he’s cov­ered, too.

Who else? I was informed at times by—not nec­es­sar­i­ly by the writ­ing style but the ideas of peo­ple like Donna Haraway, if [indis­tinct phrase]. So a lot of post­fem­i­nist the­o­ry and posthu­man­ist the­o­ry I got real­ly into for a while in grad­u­ate school. Some of this stuff I kind of either grew out of, or moved beyond, but it still is very much…it’s in the back of my head inform­ing the types of things that I think about and enjoy.

Johanna Drucker is anoth­er per­son. I know that Anne Burdick men­tioned her— Anne Burdick’s work, also as well. Catherine Hales is some­body else that she men­tioned. Matt Kirschenbaum is a [indis­tinct] schol­ar. So his work. I think Anne might’ve men­tioned all these folks also. 

Fuller: Yeah. She had the best— Sorry to inter­rupt you. Everybody always says exact­ly what you say when I ask this ques­tion, every­one’s like, Oh, I wish I looked at my book­shelf. You shoul­da warned me. This is the hard­est ques­tion.” She’s still the only one who just…[crosstalk]…was ready to go, just had every­body. It was great. 

Mattern: Just jumped into it. That’s great. I’d also say like Lisa Parks— 

Fuller: That name sounds familiar.

Mattern: …who is an infra­struc­ture schol­ar. And one for stu­dents, who’s actu­al­ly in terms of age and senior­i­ty junior to me but has been a great kind of me, Nicole Starosielski is her name. She’s at NYU. She again, like Neil Postman, who I admired just as much for his schol­ar­ship as for like the way he was a schol­ar in the world, Nicole is just an incred­i­bly gen­er­ous per­son, who when she works with you on a project, all the base moti­va­tions that humans bring like jealousy…kind of one­ups­man­ship, she just does not have that. She gen­uine­ly wants to make your work bet­ter and engages in a real dia­logue with you. So, her work is great, and just the way she actu­al­ly is a schol­ar in the world is I think some­thing that’s real­ly admirable. 

Another per­son who’s like that also is Tara McPherson. She’s a USC media schol­ar who looks at lot at like the his­to­ry of race in cod­ing, and fem­i­nism in pro­gram­ming. Miriam Posner is anoth­er per­son who’s also— Lauren Klein. 

Fuller: See…you’re doing fine. You’ve been—

Mattern: Okay, but I’m sure there are peo­ple that I’m not remem­ber­ing at all. 

Fuller: No, this is great. Is there…is that…do you have anoth­er list for the per­son new to this or would you recom—or are all those people…would you rec­om­mend them just across the board? I don’t mean to add more pres­sure to you.

Mattern: I think a lot of those peo­ple are acces­si­ble, or they have— I would also add Jussi Parikka, of the media archae­ol­o­gy peo­ple. But I think some of these peo­ple have pub­lished in more publicly-accessible venues. So they do have their kind of slight­ly more inac­ces­si­ble, abstruse aca­d­e­m­ic work. But they do have some stuff out there that is also publicly-accessible as well. 

Who else? I think also a lot of the more pub­lic schol­ar­ship venues that we were talk­ing about are a great place to encounter these folks, like— Or when I write for Places Journal

Fuller: Yeah. That’s where I first read you, was a piece you’d writ­ten about libraries for them a cou­ple of years ago. 

Mattern: Oh yeah. And then like, and I’m not sure how to pro­nounce it. Aeon? They pub­lish a lot at Cabinet Magazine in Brooklyn. Yeah, so these types of venues I think are really…accessible and engag­ing ways to encounter kind of the­o­ret­i­cal or more aca­d­e­m­ic type of work in a less stereo­typ­i­cal­ly aca­d­e­m­ic setting. 

Fuller: Yeah. I love that. This was so great. I had a lot of fun. I feel like…my head is just spin­ning with ideas and oth­er ques­tions. I could eas­i­ly talk to you for anoth­er hour or two about these things. So thank you so much for your time. This was so fun.

Mattern: Thanks for join­ing me in my unair­con­di­tioned office. 

Fuller: Nah. I love it. It’s great.

Mattern: Alright.

Fuller: This episode was record­ed on Feburary 21st, 2018 in New York City. Our theme music is by Andy Borghesani. We’re on Twitter and Instagram at sur­face­pod­cast. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and SoundCloud, and at scratch​ingth​esur​face​.fm. Thanks for listening.

Further Reference

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