Material Culture

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.


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?


A useless pictogram: Merely graphics, no instruction. Contrast this with the DOT pictogram for litter disposal:

This pictogram shows how the user is expected to interact with the object. Drop things into it!


Diffuse networks, interstitial space, the march of the trash cans. (Apparently an effort to combat improper cigarette disposal.)


A mobile coat rack, deployed in support of a game of boules in a Parisian park. Domesticated space, the park as literal urban living room. Proprietary, appropriateness: The metal chairs “belong” outside, but something meant for soft and fuzzy coats does not. Coats, like their humans, are inside creatures. The places and spaces where things are “supposed” to happen, the invisible rules that guide our existence, the benefits we accrue from occasionally disregarding them. (Some friends of mine buy a sofa at a rummage sale every summer and keep in the back of a pickup as comfortable seating for trips to the drive-in movie theatre.)



At BNP Paribas, an animated ATM within your ATM. Not so different from the incorrigibly peppy first-person of Washington Mutual ATMs. (“Hi! How should we talk today? English? Español?”) As graphics technology evolves, the more complicated the story that may be told. Remember those ugly yellow-on-black UNIX-terminal style ATMs? Or the ones with the most basic graphics and a perpetual bank-logo burn-in?

Abstraction, caricature, anthropomorphization, all in support of a financial transaction. Do these serve to more effectively replace a human teller or to augment an electronic transaction?


Herds on the streets of Paris. As I was preparing this post, sorting through the photos I have, I started thinking about what constitutes a herd and what doesn’t. A herd, I decided, is a group of similar objects that have chosen to gather together. (Or their respective owners have chosen to gather them together, as the objects lack agency.) This excludes merchandise for sale (one common owner; a herd represents compound decisions) and things that operate as indivisible objects (a metro train can be thought of as a herd of cars, but properly the train, while divisible, is an indivisible object—it needs all five cars to operate) and short-term high-turnover clusters of objects (buses arriving and leaving—there is something static to a herd.)


These photos, on the other hand, show proper herds: Static groups of diffuse, divisible objects that have clustered together through the actions of disparate owners. The motorcycles are an exemplar of the proper herd; these herds of police and medical vehicles are a little harder to define. If the place they gather is formally set, and not ad hoc as the motorcycles’ is, do they still constitute a herd? I would argue they do: Much as herds of animals can cluster out in the field, they can also cluster inside a defined corral. The motorcycles in this example are “out in the wild”—away from their respective home bases—and the emergency vehicles are “in the corral”.


The definition of a herd also assumes a lack of purpose and agency: A farmers’ market isn’t really a herd of humans, because the farmers have chosen to gather themselves there with an explicit purpose. These herds just are—waiting, in most cases, for their owners to return or for them to be pressed into use. The point of a herd is that it is inactive, that when active it is necessarily diffuse


Herds, lines, groups, order: The ways in which we organize our common existence.

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