I am presently an associate professor at Concordia University in Montréal. My work bridges the histories of science, computing, and cybernetics with design and art practice. I especially focus on histories and practices of big data, interactivity, and ubiquitous computing.

Here is a sampling of what I am currently up to:




Beautiful Data

Description: humanuseDescription: songdocontrolroomDescription: neuralnets1


My current book, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945, Duke Press 2015, available here is a genealogy of interactivity, the interface, and “big data”. Using the post-war science of cybernetics—the study of communication and control—as a point of departure, my book traces out the reformulation of observation and knowledge that occurred in a range of fields immediately after World War II. Linking design, architecture, and artistic practices with the life, human, and social sciences, I chart the relationship between contemporary obsessions with storage, visualization, and interactivity in digital systems to previous modernist concerns with archiving, representation, and memory. Post-war design and communication sciences increasingly viewed the world as data filled, necessitating new tactics of management to which observers had to be trained and the mind reconceived. Perception and cognition were redefined as one process and made analogous to a communication channel, and the observer was reconceived as both radically self-referential and environmentally networked. The book traces three key themes critical to this reformulation of observation and knowledge after cybernetics: the reconceptualization of the archive and the document in the communication and human sciences, the reformulation of perception and the emergence of data visualization and the interface as central design concerns, and the redefinition of consciousness into cognition in the human, neuro, and social sciences. Linking the architecture of attention to the logistics of cognition, the book traces shifts in knowledge to the organization of power, interrogating how transformations in ideals and practices of truth and data storage transformed older categories and territories of race, gender, and empire. I thus produce a framework for considering specific technological changes in media and the accompanying epistemological transformations that continue to underpin our contemporary relationship to the interface, and have restructured our practices of knowledge production, now in the name of “big” data.


The Smartness Mandate


Songdo, South Korea. Image credit: Orit Halpern (2012)



The results of these cross-pollinations between the arts, design, and social sciences has also impacted my choice of future research projects. I am currently working on two new book projects. The first, titled The Smartness Mandate, is an ethnography of digital infrastructures and a history of 'smart' territories and ubiquitous computing. Today, growing concerns with climate change, energy scarcity, security, and economic collapse have turned the focus of urban planners, investors, and governments towards computational technologies as the site of value production and potential salvation from a world consistently defined by catastrophes and "crisis". In response, there has emerged a new paradigm of design and engineering obsessed with "smart" infrastructures. Such "smartness" must be understood as quite specific as it directly refers to computationally and digitally managed systems-from electrical grids to building management systems-that can learn, and in theory adapt, through analyzing data about their environment and the systems they manage. Whether threatened by terrorism, sub-prime mortgages, energy shortages, or hurricanes, the response is surprisingly similar-build more machines and add more sensors. I want to ask, therefore, what do machine architectures look like? What does it mean to design spaces for and by computational machines? What types of futures are being envisioned in these spaces? How do "smart" infrastructures reformulate and relate to older histories of politics, habitat, measurement, economy, and the administration of populations? To theorize our responses, this book maps two vectors in history and the present. In it I offer: 1) a genealogy of how smartness has become the new dominant model for negotiating insecurity and managing economy; and, 2) outline the cultural logic of this new "smartness" mandate. I do so through a series of case studies in computing, finance, and urban planning, examining how ideas of territory, political-economy, agency, and futurity have been reconstituted in relation to calculation and "high" technology infrastructures. I integrate archival work in corporate and design history from the Canadian Center for Architecture, the United States National Archives, the Smithsonian Museums, MIT, and IBM, with ethnographies of smart city development in locations such as Kolkata, India, Hudson Yards, New York, and Toronto, Canada.


Resilient Hope


Diagram from C.S. Holling, “Resilience and Stability of Ecological Systems,” demonstrating theoretical examples of various reproduction curves (a, c, and e) and their derivation from the contributions of fecundity and mortality (b, d, and f).

My second book project, Resilient Hope emerges from my work on cybernetics and design, examining how cybernetics and the environmental sciences merged to produce new concepts of ecology and habitat embodied within the discourse of "resilience".

Today few terms are more central to policy, planning, or economics then the term resilience. From urban planning to stress testing in economic markets, we have come to understand systems as constantly in a state of crisis that needs perpetual management. This project traces the rise of resilience as a dominant epistemology and practice in environmental management, urban development, and finance. The research will have two elements: 1) a historical genealogy of how ecology and cybernetics merged to reformulate ideas of environment, climate, energy, economy, and life; and, 2) contemporary ethnographic investigation of contemporary risk management practices in urban design, logistics, environmental management, and financial regulation. Historically, I look at three developments central to theorizing resilience: 1) I trace the rise of ecology as an information science, including C.S. Holling’s research into resilience in the management of natural resources and the Club of Rome’s 1970s reports which first used computers to simulate planetary futures. These practices went on to influence population management, industrial design, architecture, and urban planning through figures such as Jay Forrester at MIT and designer Buckminster Fuller, 2) I investigate the histories of resilience planning and scenario planning in the energy, urban, and security sectors with focus on organizations such as RAND and Shell Oil that pioneered the practice, and 3) I look at the emergence of noise, cybernetics, and information as central to redefining the agent in economics and finance, concentrating on the late work of Friedrich Hayek, Lawrence Sanders, and Fischer Black and Myron Scholes. My intention is to map a political economy of resilience that links financial logics to how new spatial territories and forms of governance over populations are being produced in our present. In the present, I situate these histories within case study research into how resilience is impacting design and planning in urban development, logistics and supply chain management, and finance particularly in derivatives and reinsurance markets in Chicago, United States and London, United Kingdom.

Rethinking the nature of technologies in new terms of infrastructure and epistemology also demands rethinking the form and methodology of historical work. As part of my scholarship I am also part of a number of labs in collaboration with artists, designers, and architects that are experimenting with new research protocols and formats for writing and visualizing social science and humanities research. This ranges from new curatorial projects with design and technology museums, to developing methods for creative data visualization and design and architecture interventions in urban spaces. I have also regularly worked with artists to produce different web based narratives and imaginary documentary forms for telling stories about topics such as biological personhood in a genomic age and about human-animal interactions in the work of Von Frisch and his honeybees. What unifies these projects is a concern with how our forms of perception, attention, and narration condition our actions and imaginaries about the future of technology, and of our relationships to each other and other agents in our world.


Welcome to my site, for more information about myself and my work please go to:


About me




Contact Information:

e: orit@post.harvard.edu