Material Culture


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Found this on my bike after class. Another example of security promotion through microtargetting.

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Sorry for the radio silence. It’s been busy here. New material is in the works.

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I probably owe an explanation for this earlier post. Sprinkles? Betty Crocker? Modernization? 

Well, yeah. Over the course of this semester, I’ve noticed the extent to which the way I look at the world is influenced by what I’m studying. Last semester, I was taking courses in architectural history, material culture, and airport development, and when I looked at the world around me, I thought about it in those terms. My course load this semester has a different, more historical mixture, and one of my classes stands out for how strongly it has affected how I look at the world.

That course, Making America Modern, 1880-1930, is a junior seminar taught by Jean Christophe-Agnew. It covers the fifty years in America when modernity touched down, the world slid sideways, and everything changed. The foundations set during this time remain in place: we are borne ceaselessly forward by machinery set running over a century ago. 

We find modernity everywhere, in the history of our newspapers, our technologies, our mass culture. And so too in the mundane and everyday: These sprinkles index modernity, telling a story of changes in society, technology, culture, gender relations. The ice cream parlor, their host, was made possible by advances in industrial refrigeration (1870s), the invention of the ice cream soda (1874-6) and the ice cream sundae (1890s), the proliferation of the counter-service soda fountain (1903). The spread of the soda fountain and the ice cream parlor was enabled by the transition from a rural agricultural economy to an urban industrial economy, and it, in turn, enabled the rise of a new public and a non-gendered urban social sphere. 

Modernization is like the Big Bang. It dropped a fiery mix of ideas, sparkling new and bubbly hot, and we have watched them pool around us, solidifying in strange peaks and voids. Sprinkles are one of the hunks of rock hurled out of the explosion, through which we may reveal and understand the past.

Patterns, seams, juxtapositions. The meeting of protocols and materials.

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Modification, personalization: Yale’s light trucks, used by its Custodial, Facilities and Grounds Maintenance departments. Relationships made material in bumper-stickers and eye-shadow headlights, identities structured and affirmed.

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A collection of trucks idling on York Street at midday, all making deliveries.

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Different backgrounds, similar tasks.

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A tension between form and content.

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Trucks as a kind of mobile Journal of Urban Typography.

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A momentary herd, parked nose-to-butt up the block.

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The relatively young Swindle Magazine (which bills itself as “the definitive pop culture and lifestyle publication” and whose server may be down at the moment) has an article about the history of spray paint, aptly titled “The History of Spray Paint”. The article, while short, reminds us of the that every object trails a history behind it, like the wake that follows a moving boat. The four-dimensional view extends to material culture, too.

Spray paint specifically is interesting because it’s one of a category of objects that allows direct interaction between the user and the built environment, typically for annotation of some sort (benign, artistic, or destructive). Other examples of this category include hand tools (screwdrivers, hammers, etc.) and binding substances (rope, tape, glue, etc.). Maybe someday, cell phones or digital cameras will be able to leave metadata latent in the environment, although you could argue that GPS satellites already do this.

How do we leave our (physical/electronic) mark on the built environment? Possibly related.

[Swindle Magazine via surplus and the mongrel arts.]

Corbu would be proud; we have made our buildings into machines for eating. The ways in which our environments deliberately modify us and our behavior. (Reflections, refractions: You can barely make out the salamander on my t-shirt, reflected on the right side.)

I just finished Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. Solnit captures a time of significant technological changes, writing about the period stretching from 1870 to 1900. As an aside, almost, she talks about the changes in horse racing brought about by the availability of clocks and the standardization of a national time. With clocks, she writes, we could race time:

To race the clock is to race time itself in the present and the historical record of the past, to attempt to break the record as though it were a real thing like the ribbon broken at the finish line of a race. It’s to race against an idea.

To what ideas do our buildings demand we subscribe? From political dogma to architectural idealism? How are we shaped by them? How do we respond?

Like a lot of bloggers, I track my site’s stats—hit counts, traffic patterns—and I noticed that a disproportionate number of the search queries people use to find my blog are about pictograms, those little symbol-signs used as visual shorthand for the tasks and objects we are likely to encounter during travel. (For some reason, this post about trash pictograms seems to be especially popular.)

So here’s a brief introduction to pictograms: The most iconic set of pictograms are the DOT pictograms. These were commissioned in the 1970s by the US Department of Transportation in an attempt to alleviate confusion between different pictogram sets in different venues. Before the DOT commission, different venues developed their own sets of pictograms, so “telephone” or “elevator” would be represented by a different symbol depending on where you were—the pictograms at LaGuardia were different from those at O’Hare were different from those at LAX, etc.  

At the DOT’s behest, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, now simply AIGA, reviewed 28 pictogram systems in use throughout the world—at airports, at stadia, at hospitals, at Olympic Games—evaluating each system for legibility and readability. (AIGA was concerned not only with how successfully a sign could convey its message, but also at what distance and at what size it could be read. That’s important for wayfinding, which is another post entirely.) Using this information, AIGA produced a total of 50 pictograms for the DOT, 34 in 1974 and another 16 in 1979.

The pictograms were released into the public domain in order to speed their adoption, and they remain copyright-free. The complete set of symbols is available online, through AIGA, in both .gif and .eps format.

There’s not a lot of secondary-source work on the pictogram, and the best resource for the history and development of the DOT pictograms is the report that the American Institute of Graphic Arts produced back in the 1970s. Symbol Signs, second edition, was published in 1993 by AIGA. (The full citation is: The Professional Association for Design for the U.S. Department of Transportation. Symbol signs, 2nd ed. New York: American Institute of Graphic Arts, 1993. The library of the nearest university is probably your best bet.)

The report is fascinating: There are tables upon tables of the different pictograms used by each of the pictogram families: 24 different pictograms for “telephone”, 40 or more for “restroom.” The report lays out, with remarkable clarity, the classifications and criteria used to determine the best format for a given pictogram. Reading the report is like going back in time, to when pictograms were part of a local culture, the local dialect of a commonly-understood speech.

As with most global standardizing movements, we’ve lost something in quest for efficiency, in our impulse to streamline, in our desire to standardize the way we communicate with the built environment. The clarity we’ve gained is (of course) more important than retaining confusing and outmoded sign systems, which is why the AIGA report is so valuable: through the report, the pictogram families survive as historical artifacts, as testament to the way we used to see.

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Flyers left under windshield-wipers for the car’s owner. This practice assumes a relatively tight correlation between user and object (that is, leaving a flyer on a car is the same as handing it to someone) and a relatively small temporal lag (that a flyer left on a car will be received the same day or so).  Our automobiles as proxy for our selves—a metal body standing in not for our flesh-and-blood incarnations, but for us. The car becomes our body, the windshield wiper no different than a hand. 

In this way, the car is like a part of our data shadow. A data shadow is the mass of information that follows us around—bank records, social security information, voter records, tax returns, phone numbers, email addresses. It is the shorthand for a system too large to process people and which must instead process information. We are not authenticated—at the airport, at the bank, during a credit-card transaction—our data shadow is. The data shadow acts as proxy, and the system assumes a tight (or tight-enough) correlation between us and our data shadow that each may stand in for the other. The system reveals itself in its breakdowns: Minors are able to buy alcohol not because they are 21, but because they can manipulate their data shadow through borrowed or forged ID to say they are 21. The data, not the person, is authenticated. (And even our proxies have data shadows—the car has its VIN, license plate number, automated toll boxes. Or are our proxies’ data shadows a part of our own?)

The more central and integral things become in our day-to-day lives the easier they are able to act as our proxies: murder suspects are exonerated by their MetroCards or their cellphones. How long before these proxy assumptions are hacked, and a bank robber, say, is caught on security camera in Manhattan at the same time his cell phone and MetroCard place him in the Bronx? When do proxies cease to be trustworthy?

Or more directly, what qualities keep proxies trustworthy? Security researchers have proposed all manner of proxy tests, from the “security questions” we have to jump through to get at our bank accounts to the PINs that have been with us since the checking card reared its plastic head. But these rely on the user providing a second set of information—a second key—to authenticate the first, which reduces abuse but does nothing to solve the root problem that information is itself a proxy. One of the more interesting proxy tests does not ask for information but instead asks decision-based questions: Would you do this or that? People can forget information, the system reasons, but they are unlikely to fundamentally change how they make decisions. 

As more and more proxy services converge in a single device—email and telephony on my iPhone, or library, dining, print/copy, and door-access services on my school ID—the value of that device increases. Will we soon realize über-devices—devices that integrate every proxy service, every data shadow link we need? This tightens the data shadow and strengthens its link to the shadow’s owner, but does nothing to solve the critical failing of a data shadow: regardless of how tightly it fits its owner, it is still separate from its owner. The flip of an über-device is a world of ultimate disposability, where we have no proxies and our data becomes a part of us. Might biometrics be the answer?

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