Note — Jun 26, 2022

Rambunctiously Anti-Disciplinary, an Interview with Shannon Mattern

Superb interview with Shannon Mattern, who has not only done a lot of super interesting thinking on a variety of topic, not only reinvents how she teaches those things, but also speaks in a jealousy-inducing clear and erudite fashion.

In terms of topics covered, if this newsletter didn’t exist, I might declare this transcript as a founding document. The interview covers virtually every topic I write about here, or aim to better understand, all in super clear, fascinating, and generative ways. Design, computing, trees, epistemology, cities, urban intelligences, librairies (“librairies as statements of what matters”), worldbuilding, creation of knowledge, anti-disciplinarity, metaphors, technosolutionism, “‘grafting,’ and ‘patching’ as poiesis, as method,” “living in a world of many worlds,” a university of the future. A must listen if there’s ever been one.

There’s too much in the interview to summarize here, but one point I’ve taken particular note of and will likely come back to in a post is where Mattern talks about the city as a home for her thinking, a place to zoom in and out from. I include cities often in the newsletter and have been asked why on a couple of occasions, and this will now be my revisionary history reason why. She says, “the city is a really productive and ripe area where a lot of different disciplines are converging in their thinking, it’s already a very interdisciplinary field of study. I wanted to take advantage of that, but then use the city as my starting point to think, to scale down, to think about the media objects, the information infrastructures, the architectures within them, and then scale up and think about these larger systemic things.” The next day I read this by Drew Austin (which would have been featured on its own but is paywalled), where he goes in the same direction: “One of the reasons I like saying that I write about cities is that they’re a pretext for writing about almost any cultural phenomenon (this is increasingly true of technology too, along with many other topics). Cities are simply dense assemblages of all the things that humans do, so if something involves people, it usually involves cities as well.

As trees become data points, they are all too readily cast as easy fixes for profound problems, trees as tools of carbon capture, tall timber as an instrument for sustainable construction, green barriers as sound buffers along roadways, sylvan solutions to systemic snafus. The media scholar, Jennifer Gabrys argues that such approaches are efforts to frame and tame hard problems, wicked problems, in computational terms. In other words, these technological tools promote technosolutionist responses to problems that are simultaneously ecological, cultural, social, economic, and political.” […]

They are spaces of intergenerational learning, they’re spaces of kind of civic engagement. And also where other social services fall short because of neglect and underfunding. Public libraries often have to pick up the slack there. That’s not something we’re typically going to ask an archive to do. So just the fact that there is so much that they’re expected to do and that they manage it for the most part. […]

I’m trying to look at how cities are to some degree kind of computational, they’re kind of information processing activities happening there, but they’re also spaces of kind of serendipity and arts and poiesis. And grafting proved a really useful metaphor and method to think about not only the combination of the art and the engineering, the art and the science, but also a mode of writing too.