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.
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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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 scratchingthesurface.fm. Thanks for listening.