Shannon Mattern

Episode 11





My name is Shannon Mattern. I am a, I would say a media design scholar, even though I am housed in a department of anthropology right now. I am joining you today from Hudson New York, about two hours north of New York City.


I’d love for you to talk about your practice. Your practice is really wide-ranging, and I think people see you as a media theorist, design scholar, writer, geographer, anthropologist, cartographer, advocate for libraries and open public access to knowledge. What occupies your time these days?


Well, I just want to, first of all, thank you and say how much I appreciate that really capacious and generous and inclusive list of titles. It has really been an honor for me, and I’ve been really pleasantly surprised throughout my career to be introduced at different talks or to have a preface when we enter a conversation when somebody will offer an appended label to my name that I never would have thought of myself. So I’ve been really kind of kindly invited and welcomed in by geographers and librarians and archivists and anthropologists and folks in media and design studies and architecture and urban planning. So that’s been a really gratifying part of my career. I have worked across a lot of different fields and tried to be respectful and do justice to the work in those different fields. And I think one testament that again is very satisfying that I think I’m apparently doing a pretty good job, is that folks welcome me into those fields then  to share my work. So that’s a really nice source of validation.

In terms of what’s occupying my thinking these days? I’ll just preface it by saying that a lot of kind of systems management things, to be honest, institutional management things, I am directing an undergraduate program in Anthropology and a graduate minor in Anthropology and Design. So just navigating the whole ecology, or actually competing ecologies of two different divisions of the university with their own ecosystems, their own kind of protocols, their own rules for operation. So that is a good portion of my time these days, and then teaching, teaching some new classes. And those are project-based classes, just because they’re not only about delivering content to students and managing a conversation, it’s also simultaneously managing a large group project. That requires a good amount of administrative and systems thinking labor.

02:26 On My Mind These Days

But when I do have the rare opportunity, and I hope to have more in the future, opportunities to think about kind of intellectual and creative things, I have been thinking primarily about how the pandemic has changed the way we think about cities and ecologies. 

The book that I published in August is called A City Is Not A Computer [Princeton Press 2021]. It’s a mashup, a mix up, an extending, kind of an elaboration of maybe eight or nine different articles I’ve written over the past decade or so for Places journal, which is an open access journal for architecture, urbanism, and landscape. I was invited to turn them into a short-form book. But really rather than just taking four articles, I really kind of wove together or grafted together, to use a metaphor from the book, maybe eight or nine different pieces. And one of the themes that emerged—in part because it’s driven by the titular article, “A City Is Not A Computer”—is what metaphors are actually useful in thinking about this moment, this era of rebuilding, of worldmaking to use a central theme for your project. 

So is it helpful to think of a city as a computational kind of—I wouldn’t even say ecology because ecology is a separate metaphor itself—as a computational object or system? Is it a biophysical body? Is it an ecology? Is it a machine? And I think that different policymakers and reformers and other folks who kind of build worlds use different metaphors in maybe productive ways and sometimes in kind of competing ways. And those really shape the discourse around these practices and the actual practical things that get done and how they’re then administered and maintained. So just these large questions of metaphors in this moment of rebuilding and repair are something that I think a lot about.

More concretely, I had been giving some talks about the book which again is about kind of data and information and the different types of knowledge that are embedded in our urban environments. I really draw on Christopher Alexander’s idea of the city not being a tree. And I actually wondered like, how is it actually like a tree and where are arboreal models useful for thinking about place and social networks, etc. 

So a couple months ago I published a piece called “Tree Thinking,” wondering how trees model, not only the way we think about computation in terms of algorithms called decision trees and random forests, but also how trees have been a fundamental part of intellectual history. We use trees as almost flowcharts for decision-making. Trees have also been a physical site in our landscape where people have congregated and done kind of community building type activities, made important decisions. So drawing out some metaphors from the book to think about the central role that trees play in shaping our thoughts, which is I know something that you’ve thought a lot about in your own work as well.

And then also drawing in something from my personal life, my own family is going through some challenges right now. My mom is declining into stage 6 Alzheimer’s. So that’s something I’ve been dealing with on a practical level with my family. And then also I wanted to do some research on it just to prepare myself for what’s coming and to think about, again, more metaphors about, what does the world look like to somebody whose map is shrinking.

So I published a piece just this past week, actually, about compassion and concealment. What are the worlds, what are the worlds that are built for folks whose mental, whose conceptual and cognitive world is shrinking? And how can we design physical spaces that foster the richest possible experience for those final years of life? So those are some things that have been immediately concerning me.



What I love about your work is you really help us to think about complexity. You don’t essentialize relationships that are highly complex. 

You’ve written about Microsoft technologists who are trying to build a planetary computer—one that and I’m quoting, that “could tell us exactly what we needed to do to protect Planet Earth, a system that was capable of providing us with information about every tree, every species, all of our natural resources.” So you critique that, of course. And you write, and I’ll quote a few sentences of yours, if I may: “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.” So can you talk more about that?


I arrived at thinking about trees in part because I think this mode of thinking of technosolutionism applies both in the previous work I was doing on cities where you have these systemic deeply, historically rooted problems of social injustice, of disrepair that are highly systemic and complex in both the causes and then their potential solutions. And then you have service providers coming in and offering a computational model that will not only diagnose all of the problems, but pinpoint exactly where solutions are to be deployed in kind of precision ways or precision methods. We have a similar mentality applied then to ecological challenges. The tree was a really nice, not only metaphor, but also kind of instrument or a rhetorical hinge to go between thinking about cities and thinking about ecology, because, you know, you have the decision tree as a type of algorithm. It’s a mode of thinking. It’s a step-by-step way of moving through a problem-solution process. Especially when we algorithmisize these operations, it often black boxes the operations, or precludes the inclusion of variables that don’t lend themselves to datafication. And this is a problem, a challenge, both when we apply it in the urban terrain and in an ecological terrain. 

So not only do I think of the tree as a decision model, which has historically played a key role in determining everything from lineage to belonging, to helping make legal decisions. There’s something very helpful about it as a heuristic, but also there’s something reductive about it because a tree can’t encompass all possible variables. It doesn’t really deal very well with entanglements. 

Similarly in the ecological or kind of climate change remediation realm, a tree can be a relatively simplistic and also a very charismatic solution to complex problems. Who doesn’t love trees? Planting a new tree is like a celebratory occasion on a block or in a park. But they too, like so many other technosolutionist approaches lend themselves to kind of a quantitative measure of progress. We have planted in our city a hundred thousand new trees, or the world will plant one trillion new trees. A tree again is a very charismatic and beloved potential part of a solution to an ecological or systemic problem. But in some way, kind of diverts our attention to these larger systemic and really much more complex and messy things. If we want to get into things like colonial histories and legacies of environmental and racial and social injustice, I’m not sure that planting a tree on a block is going to solve these much longer, messier, more complicated issues.



How did you start thinking with trees or about trees?


I wrote an article for Places journal called “A City Is Not A Computer” maybe four or five years ago. And then someone reminded me that Christopher Alexander, who is an architect whose work has been very influential for programmers as well, also a very interdisciplinary thinker, a systems thinker, someone who thinks in terms of transferable or generalizable models. Alexander had written a book called “A City Is Not A Tree.” So I revisited that and wondered how he was using the tree as a model, as an intellectual kind of construct. 

But also because I grew up on the side of a ridge, in a rural area, surrounded by trees. My dad is a furniture maker. So I grew up with a barn in the back of our house where every time there was a farm sale or somebody was clearing a lot for development, sadly, my dad would often go to the sale and take whatever interesting tree species that were there and have them timbered or turned into lumber for him to make furniture with.

So just realizing, growing up in an environment where I realized that tree species were like different personalities and that we as humans relate to them in different ways based on the way they respond to a table saw, or the type of tools you’d have to use with them or the smell that they emit when you kind of plane them or sand them. I started to realize that there are these very different sensory characteristics to different species of tree. And they lend themselves to different applications in furniture making. 

So it kind of is an homage maybe to my parents. I wanted to maybe in this next phase of my career, move away a little bit from thinking so much about technology and data and get back to the material to things that were influential in shaping my thinking as a child and into my adulthood too. So trees are maybe a hinge, a model for me to think about how can I transition from thinking so much about technology to thinking more about ecology and material things again.



Another thing that I know you care deeply about is public libraries. You’re really committed to public libraries. It’s been central to your work, you write, for the last 20 years. Now, we don’t think a lot about the importance of public libraries, and perhaps often prefer to think about smart cities and smart technologies. Would you like to talk a little bit about how do libraries play a revolutionary role? We don’t think about libraries as being, you know, really revolutionary apparatuses. 


Well, I’m glad you asked. The fact that I’m a lifetime library goer I’m sure was one of my first kind of inspirations, but also being introduced in graduate school to the proliferating theories of the archive often used, again, in very metaphorical ways that we see across the arts, the humanities, to some degree, the social sciences. And that there was so much theoretical investment in the archive as a radical decolonizing institution. When meanwhile, I was visiting public libraries and ultimately writing my dissertation about them and realizing it’s not about people engaging with kind of romanticized documents. There is some of that in the library, but it’s also compromised bodies interacting with compromised bodies, often the most marginalized people in societies and also really beautiful exchanges of information happening where we’re validating community ways of understanding, where we’re kind of expanding our epistemological universe. I think there are just as much radical stuff happening in a public library as there is an archive, but there is such a dearth of theorization of the library compared to the archive. 

Also, moving from a small town to New York City for graduate school, it just became really apparent of how much a public library is asked to do. You know, as a provider of information, as a kind of an epistemological check to help people understand in this new age of proliferating online information in the late 1990s and early 2000s in particular, libraries are really starting to play a critical role of helping people to develop critical information literacy in their everyday lives. 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 don’t want to romanticize them. There are problems with the libraries and institutions as well, kind of still steeped in the same patriarchal, colonial and white supremacists legacies that the archive is. But still, it was amazing to me moving to New York City to see how much they’re being asked to do and how much they can actually handle on a shoestring budget—often, you know, dramatically understaffed and under maintained as well.

So I really wanted to lift them up as worthy of academic attention, of theorization, of recognition of the valuable political roles that they play in our society. And it was a challenge for me early in my career, coming out of Media Studies—I did most of my graduate work in Media Studies and Architectural and Urban History and Theory—trying to explain and justify to media scholars, why a library was an appropriate topic of study. And I was thinking, well, they are buildings full of books and media. If that is not enough, then I’m not sure what it is! But I also wanted to look at the design processes. Many libraries are designed through really robust programs of civic engagement because they’re a place that everybody in a community feels a sense of ownership over. And that really diverse local community is often invited into the design process. So I wanted to see how that process was mediated. Because not everybody’s a trained architect. They didn’t often know how to read blueprints or renderings in the public programs they went to. So how do architects and city leaders use different media forms to make it an intelligible process to the stakeholders so they can then shape the building and its programs that actually respond to their needs. So that’s in part why I originally became interested in libraries.

And then my research, going back to our conversation earlier on about the different communities I’ve been lucky to be involved in, librarians have really kind of warmly welcomed me. And I have been able to collaborate with librarians on public pedagogy projects. I’m the president of the Board of the New York Metropolitan Library Council, which serves several hundred libraries around the city, trying to find ways for them to share their efforts. So they’re not just all duplicating the same services, where can we network our efforts to serve the nine million people in New York City and its surrounding areas. And then I’ve kind of curated exhibitions with libraries. Those have been among the most fruitful collaborations with me that have both been inspired by my academic research and very much informed my more academic work also.



In the last 20 years, dissemination of knowledge has changed so much. I’m wondering how software, how networks, even the pandemic, how that might have changed some of the work that public libraries do. I know during the pandemic, New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, were doing book readings online that were hugely valuable in bringing people together. I wonder if you have any thoughts, how it’s changed in the last two decades?


Absolutely. And I think this is actually a process of worldbuilding too, not only kind of building an epistemological world, but also in sharing knowledge, in generating knowledge together, you’re actually making a statement about what values matter in a society. So that is a form of kind of ontological design as well. So I’m going back 20 or so years when I was writing my dissertation, I was looking at a lot of places, cities that were designing new libraries in the mid-1990s, into the early 2000s. And there, this was the rise of the consumer internet really, and new shifts in the physical form that computers were taking. We have these big CPUs with big monitors on people’s desks, but as you’re designing a building, you’re wondering, will these machines actually look the same way in six years when our building opens? So this was a big concern, how do you actually create a physical space to accommodate these really rapidly transforming forms of media? And then librarians taking on the role of critical information literacy, realizing that with the increase of people going online, that their role in not only the provision of information, but helping people to understand how to process it and filter through the data deluge, was not a new role—librarians have always played a role in helping people to sort the credible information—but the scale of it was exacerbated or ramped up with the sea of web-based materials. 

And then in more recent years, we have seen the rise of Web 2.0, social media, user-generated content, how that too requires new types of curation and kind of pedagogical framing for the way people access information. And then, especially during the pandemic, libraries were often information brokers or clearing houses for reliable, credible public health information, for information about employment—because a lot of people were obviously losing their jobs. Under-resourced school systems, including in New York City, the libraries step in to provide library services for schools that don’t have their own libraries. And there are plenty of them. So just the role they played in keeping education going in whatever form it could continue during the pandemic.

But then it’s not only about disseminating information. Over the years, we’ve also seen libraries take on the role of disseminating the networks necessary to receive information. So the pandemic also demonstrated how many people are on the wrong side of the digital divide, how many kids could not get online for school. How many people could not apply for jobs because they don’t have the internet at home. And there’s still a vast proportion of people in New York do not have reliable internet outside of work and school. They have to go to a parking lot at McDonald’s and sit in a car. Or sit on the steps of the library to access the internet. So some libraries were extending their wifi networks. Some of them were also renting wifi hotspots for people to be able to like rent the internet to take it home. Which also generated further discussions about what type of an internet do we want to build? Another ontological worldbuilding question. And what politics does this embody? So a friend and colleague of mine,Greta Abiramwith whom I have on the board of the Metro Library Council. She works a lot in digital equity and community networks. She’s done some partnerships with the Brooklyn Library and others, places around the city and around the country, places that are underserved by digital infrastructure, to ask, do you want to just get commercial service providers to come into your neighborhood, or do you want to build your own network that might work a little bit differently, that actually embodies the politics of knowledge that you want to define your community? So these are, again, big worldbuilding types of questions.

And one additional thing, not only about disseminating information and building networks, but it’s also about creating knowledge as well. This is something that has happened increasingly or the realization increasingly over the past several years or a couple of decades, that libraries are not just about disseminating published material. It’s validating the knowledge that is inherent in and lives within communities themselves. 

And one example is particularly germane to your podcast, Elaine, is the new Greenpoint Library Environmental Education Center. Greenpoint, as you might know, is the home to several Superfund sites. And in their settlement with one of the energy companies, they got a large settlement that the community then decided to put into a trust. And then they determined that they were going to build a library with that money. That’s part of what they chose to do with it. And this library really emphasizes—it’s a full service library—but it also really emphasizes environmental justice materials like published materials. They also are creating kind of an environmental oral history project, building what it would mean to have data sets, Indigenous data sets of Indigenous environmental knowledge. So really validating the knowledge about environmental justice and history that is actually lived in the community. And then how do you find a way to archive that, preserve it and make it shareable within a community? So that’s another example of the library being a more active information knowledge producer, rather than just a disseminator.



Caring and compassion I think are very much present in your work and your interactions with different groups. So I wonder if we can shift to talking about methods. Methods I always think of as creating knowledge, but also creating care, creating modes of attunement, modes of belonging. Terms like interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity or transdisciplinarity: What do those terms mean to you? What do they hold for you? 


So I know there has been some theorization and discussion about what it means, these different prefixes in front of disciplinarity, what does it mean to be inter- or trans- or anti-. Some people even claim to be anti-disciplinary. And I have to say maybe on my more kind of rambunctious days, I would say I am anti-disciplinary just as much as I may be anti-academy or anti-institutional. 

One of the takeaways is that “inter” in a way implies a space in-between. It recognizes the value that disciplinary training brings to the table. You realize that there is something very fruitful and necessary about being trained in a particular set of methods and then being able to transfer that to something else. Or, being trained in multiple fields, having that depth of knowledge in multiple terrains, and being able to reside comfortably. Where sometimes I imagine a lot of people who work in interdisciplinary spaces, institutions that don’t always make that a very comfortable place to reside. Being a permanent translator has a lot of extra labor and emotional burden that isn’t always recognized. So I think that the prefixes preceding “disciplinary” really call into question, what value do we see of having disciplinary rootedness? Is that a necessary precursor to one then being able to work in between them?

I think maybe my trajectory might’ve given me maybe not a distinctive perspective, but it was helpful for me. I started off in chemistry as an undergraduate, thinking I wanted to go to medical school. You know a lot of humanists talk about the lab in a more, it’s like an experimental learning space. I was in a lab where there are like Bunsen burners and beakers and titration equipment and gas chromatographers and mass spectrometer machines and things like that. So that’s a very different set of methods that are very tool-driven. 

So being there for a few years and always taking a literature class as an escape from math and science and realizing ultimately that’s a lab in its own way, but its tools are very different. The role of people talking, discussion, played a very different role in these two different spaces, the chemistry lab versus the literature classroom. So I think that being exposed simultaneously to those and ultimately deciding to move more towards the humanities than the sciences, I am very grateful that I had that scientific exposure initially because it helped me to appreciate the distinctiveness of the spaces I am in now, of the value of triangulating, of the value of bringing together people from very different knowledge spaces or terrains into the same room to just address these wicked problems we were talking about before. 

I’m not sure that I have a fixed position. I’m not really an advocate or an evangelist for any one of these positions. I know students really love thinking about working in interdisciplinary ways, and I always want to encourage that in my classes. And I know we’re going to talk about teaching in a bit, but I also always have to offer the caveat is that sometimes working in transdisciplinary ways isn’t legible to potential employers, especially if you want to stay working in the academy. So just reminding folks that the world needs to catch up to interdisciplinary work. 

But also reminding people that disciplines are in a way, like a — they’re a fiction! If we look at the history of the academy, the way we have separated the epistemological world into disciplines has shifted dramatically over thousands of years. So the disciplines we have today are in part a historical accident. They are perpetuated through funding streams, through hiring processes, through various path dependencies within institutional structures. They do not have to be the way they are. That’s a liberating thought to a lot of students and to me too, but it’s hard to do anything with that realization because so much of the world requires you to work within those reified boxes.



So you use the words “grafting,” also “patching” as poiesis, as method. In your introduction you write that the term graph derives from the Greek, graphein, which means to write. You’re such a prolific writer and wide-spanning thinker, I’m really really interested in how you think about critical inquiry, grafting and patching, what those methods might do in your practice. 


That is a great question. And I owe a debt of gratitude to curators at the University of Toronto. They have an art gallery there, and they were doing an exhibition about kind of ecologically themed art. They produced these little newspapers, thematic newspapers, or broadsides that they then distributed through the gallery. And the theme of one of them, they had asked me to write about grafting, which honestly wasn’t something I’d written about before. So then I researched the process and realized what a fecund metaphor it is. It’s a method, not only in kind of botany and horticulture and industrialized agriculture, but given the variety of approaches to grafting and the fact that it can be something that’s mechanized and institutionalized and industrialized, or it could be something that’s a real art as is the case with so much production, as is the case with scholarship. Some people just churn out materials. For other people, it’s an art form. It’s a really thoughtful practice. Not to say that they’re diametrically opposed. You can still be productive and be thoughtful about it. But I just thought that the range of ideologies and modes of practice that are embedded within the realm of grafting just was really eye-opening, enlightening to me. It proved to be especially useful for the book where 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. 

If you want to write in an interdisciplinary way, I think thinking about the practice of writing and research as grafting has a certain ethic, at least for me, or ethos implied in it, especially if you want to do the grafting as a thoughtful, considered art form approach, which is what I would want to align myself with. There you have to understand what root stock you’re dealing with. You have to understand like what’s in the soil, what is in the root stock, and then what are the new kind of cuttings that you’re then adding onto that? So understand that whole process of like, what are my foundations, what is establishing the soil? What are the ecological conditions that are kind of shaping the entire terrain in which this new grafted entity is coming into being and hopefully developing. And then what are the new scions that you are kind of sticking into the root stock. And then how will they merge together? What is the process that you can actually foster a fruitful and productive merger? So these are questions that I think are really usefully applied, at least in my practice to other endeavors, like especially interdisciplinary scholarship too. So that accident of being asked to write that little essay about grafting helped me to rethink a lot of methods that I didn’t have a term for in the past. And suddenly it was this kind of retrospective way of thinking like, this is actually a really useful way of thinking about what I’ve been trying to do all along.



So the title of your collection of essays is “A City Is Not A Computer”, as you mentioned, and the subtitle is “Other Urban Intelligences”. So two-part question. One is: city, I know cities are very meaningful for you, but why the scale of a city. And then the second question is to ask you to talk a little bit more about the “other urban intelligences.” What kinds of intelligences maybe become evident if you think about the urban versus the rural?


Okay. That’s a great question. So I think part of my fascination with cities is coming from the fact that I didn’t grow up in one and then moving to New York City suddenly. I had you know gradual acclimation to urban environments over the period, but then moving for graduate school at the age of twenty one to New York City was quite a culture shock in the most kind of delicious way. I mean, I was just overwhelmed in a sublime way with just the variety of resources and new things I can learn and how the city itself was teaching me so much. I learned just as much from the city and its public institutions and kind of cultural associations or organizations as I did from my classes, I would have to say. And the fact that there are established discourses of urban studies I wanted to be able to tap into and make my work intelligible to existing discourses and disciplines. 

But also over the years as I have added to my repertoire, my oeuvre, I have really enjoyed thinking across scales and particularly how scales have to translate ideally would translate between one another. So I’ll think about how a database is structured and how that database then renders itself, intelligible in an interface, and how those machines have to be networked into like a technical network of some sort. And how we have to build architectures to accommodate those things and the way people then interact with those interfaces. And then those accumulations of architectures then form a city. And that city does not exist kind of as a hermetically sealed, isolated entity around which we could draw a thick line. A city is engaged in multiple internal and external flows with its regional environment. 

And if we look at the contemporary crisis of supply chains, we recognize how everything is so globally interconnected too, and the supply chains connect all the way back to the databases that we use to organize them and to monitor them. So just really thinking about how these different scales of organizing people and resources and information are definitely entangled and are ideally interoperable. 

Those have been the types of things I’ve been most excited in thinking about. And I had to kind of choose a home base or a scale for which I could then zoom in and out. And the city seemed an appropriate one to start with, because again, it has this recognizable discourse. The whole title of urbanist, which is kind of a controversial title—some people think it doesn’t mean anything, I think it’s actually a really productive title because it combines people who do urban studies, think about urban history, people who also practice in that realm as an architect, as an urban planner, as an urban technologist. So the city is a really kind of productive and ripe area where a lot of different disciplines are converging in their thinking. So it’s already a very interdisciplinary field of study. So 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. So it was kind of a medium-scale that allows me to move in and out from.

And then the second question was about…



Urban intelligences, I love this phrase. I’m curious about other forms of intelligence. So I’m wondering about this phrase “urban intelligence,” and what kinds of work you might want it to do.


I chose the phrase “urban intelligence” quite a while ago in some of my early writing about smart cities. In part, because even the term “smart cities,” which honestly drives me crazy. It’s a buzz word, a brand name that means so many different things in different contexts. It’s become hackneyed, almost desemanticized because it means so many different things. But just the fact that there’s an epistemological claim being made there. What does it mean to call something “smart”? Why don’t you call it a “wise city” as some activists do? They prefer the term, a wise city or a sage city? I mean, we can use so many different synonyms here, but what does it mean to call something smart? “Smart” is, again, one of those almost prefix-like terms that we can apply to a whole bunch of different things. And it typically means data driven, algorithmically determined modes of operation, often driven by corporations. So I wanted to ask what it meant to call something smart. And what if we substituted in some of those other synonyms? What types of other ways of knowing, valuable intelligences, forms of kind of lived knowledge, are bracketed out that don’t lend themselves to this type of data-driven way of thinking about smartness. 

So it encouraged me to ask questions about methods, about epistemology, and this is where our conversation about the libraries might circle back to that because libraries are great at recognizing that yes, we have to collect urban data. Yes, we have to help people become kind of data literate, but at the same time, those aren’t the only ways of knowing our communities. A census isn’t the only way of understanding a population obviously. This is why we compound big data-based methods with ethnography. And I think libraries are good at recognizing that because we have to have data literacy, digital literacies, but also supplement those then with the oral histories, with the conversations that happen in real time between intergenerational communities. So these are among the different types of intelligences that libraries and schools and other cultural institutions do help us to recognize. Not everything can be rendered into a data model and not everything can be “smart”, brand name “smart”, or kind of TM, trademark “smart.” 

But then also kind of drawing on some of your work, thinking about multispecies intelligences as well. There’s a lot to be learned and a lot of kind of computer scientists and digital theorists have recognized that there’s much to be learned about distributed or embodied intelligence from things like octopi or bats or slime molds or organisms or entities that have other ways of experiencing space, of navigating space, of collectivizing the preservation of memory. So maybe there’s a lot to be learned about what matters by recognizing how these other species cultivate and preserve intelligence in their own ecologies.



One of the reasons that I wanted to call people’s attention to the paucity of computational models of thinking about building worlds. I mean, there are plenty of computer scientists and urban tech people and data driven urban planners who do believe that everything can be rendered computational, that you can build a computational model for everything. Not realizing, first of all, the hubris of such assumptions. The Microsoft example you used earlier about we’re building a computer that can model everything in the global ecology. Count every species, determine how every species kind of interacts with one another, and then make smart precision interventions to save the planet. I mean, there’s something admirable about that and utopian, but also something very hubristic about it.

Going back to our conversation on methods, presuming that the only way we can know is through kind of computational modeling. 

I wasn’t thinking about my recent Alzheimer’s research in relation to this, but now that you asked that question, it does become really apparent to me that in the piece I wrote about Alzheimer’s, I ended with this really lovely art project that was at one of the Venice Biennales where some architects were trying to render the activity that was happening in a particular kind of a memory care facility where all of the residents were supposedly engaged in this collective enterprise of drawing a plan of the building. But what we ultimately realized that each of them is really just drawing their own little world, their own cell, and there could be something very isolating and depressing about that, but there’s also, I think something really beautiful. It’s like a world of many worlds. 

As I have visited many memory care facilities recently, imagining my mom’s future and looking where she might be at some point, it can be a really depressing place, but there’s also something potentially magical. And I maybe I can find a better adjective, but I’m just going to go with magical right now, or maybe hopeful to realize that, with respectful and compassionate care for people who are experiencing dementia, one of the prevailing modes of care is to validate their world. Rather than keep trying to pull people back into your “No, today is Tuesday. It’s 3PM. Your husband is dead.” Instead of doing that saying, “Let’s live in your world.” Rather than retraumatizing you repeatedly, let’s actually engage in a form of compassionate fantasy together. Fantasy for me, reality for you. So this whole question of who gets to say what’s real, whose epistemology matters the most, whose ontology matters the most. So there was something really beautiful about this artwork that really embodied the best case scenario of imagining a dementia care facility as something that is a world of many worlds. And with compassionate care, it can be that. I realize this is also purely utopian because with the problem of staffing, underpaid staff, kind of under-resourced institutions, you don’t have the capacity to have a staff member who’s kind of entertaining 50 different ontologies simultaneously. But if we did have a world that was designed to facilitate this type of compassion, this would be the ideal situation. We recognize that we can have multiple worlds coexisting simultaneously.


I have to sit with that, that’s incredible. I love this: how to inhabit different ontologies. Thank you. Thank you for that.


I’m still thinking it through. You know, it’s something I’m still living through and I realized the actual limitations of operationalizing, something like this, because, you know, a particular architectural facility can only accommodate so much. Staff can only do so much. You know, some people’s worlds that they create for themselves are scary, frightening, threatening places. And I don’t know that we want to necessarily condone or perpetuate that if people are putting themselves in harm’s way. Yeah, so there have to be some compromises to what I’m thinking through here, but there is also something kind of beautiful and poetic about validating these multiple ontologies that are kind of existing simultaneously in the same space.


Yes. There’s something in between standardizing different imaginaries, different ontologies into kind of grid-like logics and multiplicity, right? There’s something in between that, that we haven’t quite found.



That might be a nice way to shift into teaching, which in a way is inhabiting other ontologies all the time, or proposing new ones, imagining new ontologies that might work a little bit better, less violently. So I’d love to ask you about pedagogies, in and beyond the classroom. I know you take your students out and do field visits, you work with the libraries, you do lots of collaborations. How do you think about teaching – and that question is leading into, how might you imagine a classroom at any level or of any kind to address the spectrum of ecological, technological, ethical questions that you engage with?


These are great questions. I mean, teaching is in most days, most semesters, like my favorite part of my job, to be honest. Sometimes when other pressures like administrative concerns weigh in, I feel like I’m not at my best as a teacher when it’s a little bit less enjoyable, just because I feel like I’m not doing as well as I want to. And it happens to be the case this semester. So many external life pressures are making me not be as good of a teacher as I want to despite my attempts to do so. Of a piece with my scholarship, I often cite my students’ work, mention them in the acknowledgements of most of the things that I write. Sometimes I collaborate with them on projects. You know, there’s a critique of some scholars, some faculty that they teach the books they write, or they teach classes only related to the research they’re doing. In my case it often comes from the other direction. So I’ll often design a new class based on things that I hear students wanting to discover or realize that there’s something percolating in the university or the student community and it connects to something where I think I can offer something from my own areas of interest. So I’ll design a class about it, teach it once or twice. And then I realize, when I was teaching that class, I really wish there were an article that did this, that compared these things, but I couldn’t find it. So I guess I’ll write it. So a lot of my scholarship comes from the classroom in that way. Especially synthetic pieces or places that try to draw connections between different disciplines. So that’s one way that teaching kind of fits into this larger, I guess we could say ecology or world, epistemological world.



And then what would I imagine a classroom or pedagogical experience to be like, if it engages with all the complexity we’ve been talking about, I really have to think more about that. And this is something that I want to think through because I am teaching a new class in the spring called “Redesigning the Academy.” I direct this Anthropology and Design program. And I had to make it legible to students that this is about design and we’re going to rethink how knowledge is produced. Some folks said, why don’t you have a class about the commons, and I’m like, that’s huge! And we could do a whole class about redesigning the commons, but I really want us to kind of limit our focus a little bit, look on why the American academy is the way it is, why it doesn’t have to be that way. 

I’m also sensing lots of student frustration, not only in relation to job market, the dearth of tenure-track jobs, the brokenness of the peer review system, the types of scholarships that are validated, the folks who were historically marginalized and continue to be, and the limitations of what kind of work matters, the unequal distribution of service. You know, all of these different things. I don’t want it to be a grief session. I don’t want to be a grievance-based syllabus, but because students see these problems, I want us to instead look at Critical University Studies, which is kind of a field in itself, and then draw from art and design, especially people who are imagining new forms of radical pedagogy or new ways of engaging their extra institutional or intergenerational and interdisciplinary, and how we could possibly imagine infusing the more traditional academy with what we learned from these external kind of modes of operation and examples. So these are questions to answer your second question. This is something I really want to think with my students about over the course of the spring semester to imagine what that classroom. And that classroom could be the city writ large, it could be like a traveling troupe on a cruise ship, whatever the case may be. It wouldn’t be a cruise ship because of the carbon footprint, but what form that could take.


I love that you’ve already designed a class around this!


Part of it’s based in my own frustration. I’m lucky I’ve passed through tenure. I’m a full professor and I can make some choices that maybe other people don’t have the luxury to, but just seeing the feeling of constriction among students in particular, about the limited opportunities they have in the academy and the hoops they feel they have to jump through to do work that counts. I just wanna encourage them. They have the potential maybe to reshape. They’re the next generation. I may be kind of the middle generation here. We have the potential to reshape things for a future, for whatever academy might remain, if one does.


The problems have become so so obvious with a pandemic in the last two, three years. It’s become really difficult to just brush them away. 



Just a couple of the things I would mention, like concrete things is, I did a collaborative during the pandemic. I was realizing that a lot of our anthropology students realized suddenly like, oh my gosh, there’s a vibrant world online that I didn’t really consider to be a legitimate world in itself. So they discovered this whole vibrant field of Digital Ethnography that existed within Anthropology, but especially in Media Studies. So there were quite a few folks who got over a sense of disappointment that they would have to focus a lot of their work on digital interactions. So I designed a January intensive workshop on Digital Ethnography and because we were remote, I said, why not take advantage of kind of the distributed knowledge of people who know all about this around the world? So I co-taught this thing with Annette Markham who is in the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and Me Luka at the University of Toronto. So just the idea of having inter-institutional collaborations, where we are taking advantage of the distinctive contributions that collective minds can bring together. We open-sourced all of our materials, made it publicly available for anybody who might want to use it. So this is not novel. I mean, it was just one example of things that have been done elsewhere, that I think— geographic collaborations, inter-institutional collaborations, commoning resources—all of these things are things that I would want to be a part of a future.


As you were talking actually, I just realized that you’re modeling in many ways, a university of the future, right? And I’m thinking you put all your syllabi online, you work very collaboratively with your students. You’re an incredibly generous professor, faculty, colleague. Yeah, so actually, wait a minute, Shannon’s already modeling this. It just hit me when you’re talking. I’m like, wait, I’m asking for something in the future, but it’s actually present in your classrooms at the moment, which is really wonderful actually. It just hit me, yeah, that it exists, right?


That’s really lovely. I appreciate that very much. I think there’s a lot more to be done also, but I will also say going back to your earlier question about what I’m working on right now, there are risks to this too. Not only especially for junior scholars, making yourself legible, having to fit within institutional structures, like the fact that we have reified the 15-week semester. This is something I talk about and I’ve gotten much more flexible in talking individually with each student about what you can accomplish in 15 weeks. Because some of them have macro-scale projects they want to work on, where my class is just one little part they can carve out from a larger enterprise. So rather than submitting something final to me and imposing a false, or maybe even destructive sense of finality on their project, let’s see about what stage can we stop the flow in 15 weeks, then we can talk about what you’ve accomplished in our 15 weeks. And what you want to accomplish in the future. So just the reification of these architectures.


Yes, which I guess leads to the other part of the teaching question, whether you see universities or centers of higher learning or institutions as up to the task of some of the really complex, you know, wicked problems we face?


That’s something, again, I hope to explore in the spring class. I think there’s so much to be learned from these extra institutional models, these more ad hoc or radical pop-up, deliberately kind of ephemeral forms of learning experiences or social networks of skills-share or knowledge sharing. And I don’t necessarily think that universities need to encompass or absorb those. I think there’s a real value to keeping some of these things external, because if you were to encompass everything in the university, you would deflate and kill the specialness. I like having a multitude of learning spaces. 

Going back to multispecies, I think they’re all different species of learning spaces, and it’s valuable to have multiple because each different architecture, each different set of social network, each physical setting, each mode of exchange allows for different types of learning experiences. And I think that maybe the most productive thing is to try to move between them. Not trying to, again, merge them, but to allow the multiplicity to be there, but to think between them and move between them.


Is it useful to think about systems or ecologies when it comes to teaching? 


I think so, especially if you are designing for the “whole student” as some people say. Or especially over the course of the pandemic, there’s been a lot of discussion about designing for trauma-informed teaching, for instance. We’re just recognizing that the students are bringing so much with them to the classroom. So many challenges and so many interesting and really incredibly valuable personal experiences and forms of knowledge as well. So just finding ways to teach for this whole person, being compassionate, and also really trying to find ways to take advantage of all of the intelligences that the collective brings into the room.

But then also, especially going back to our discussion of interdisciplinarity, I really love that almost all my classes draw people from across the university. So I’ll typically have between maybe eight and twelve different disciplines represented in the same room, which makes it so much fun. We’ll have a jazz student speaking to somebody who’s like a computer scientist, who’s talking to somebody who’s in like environmental resource management. We can find themes going back to your idea that we should have more thematically organized education. We can ask, like, what does improvisation mean in your different realms? How is improvisation a method in your different kind of contexts? So there requires, you know, understanding the system or the ecology of different fields. So that as a teacher, you could maybe try to facilitate or ask good questions that allow people to be able to translate between their different experiences. So I do think having a systemic sensibility is really useful to fostering a classroom that does make the most of an interdisciplinary community.



Beautiful. That was such a great answer. I’m wondering if you want to say some words about a project you might be working on. What’s up next, a book you might be working on or media that you’re particularly interested in?


Sure. So I haven’t had a leave in about a decade and I hope to have a whole year off next year, which I’m super excited about. Hasn’t been approved yet, but I’m keeping all kind of extremities crossed for that one. And there are a couple of projects that I have in my list, my long list of aspirational projects, and two of them are books. One of them is about furniture as an epistemological object. So I’ve written a few pieces over the years about, for example, the furniture in Silicon Valley workspaces and how these long communal tables and all this kind of hyper designed furniture in a way forces bodies to comport themselves in a particular way and pushes them into certain types of labor relations in different ways. So that was one piece. I wrote about the history of the closet. I wrote about the history of the shelf, the history of like 19th century dressers with secret drawers and how that relates to the rise of secrecy and new epistolary forms in the 18th and 19th century. So a whole bunch of different pieces over the years about furniture as a thing to think with and through, and a way of organizing our modes of knowledge making and preservation. So I really want to do like a creatively formatted book, like a furniture catalog that’s publicly intelligible, but still kind of scholarly informed academic book, but just structured like a furniture catalog, drawing on different kind of, not necessarily canonical, but different species of furniture and how that creates our thinking environments for us.

And then the other project is about sound design. I wrote a piece a couple of years ago called things that beep. It’s about the way so much of what we think of as natural or incidental sounds in our environment are actually engineered: the crinkle of a potato chip bag, the sound the engine of your car makes, the bell on the subway doors as they open and close, the different notification sounds that my phone has unfortunately been making as we’ve been talking today and all the different settings that you can change on your iPhone, just the industries and thinking that cultivates those choices and what types of engagement their designers are trying to create between us and our technology and our material world. So that would be another book, thinking about sound design as kind of a worldbuilding experience too. It’s shaping, through sonic engineering, our relationships with our technologies and the larger material world.


Oh, I can’t wait. Both of them sound amazing. They sound so fun.

Thank you so much.


Thank you. It’s always a pleasure to speak with you. You’re such a generous interlocutor, a great person to talk to. So I hope we can do it in person sometime soon.



You’ve just listened to episode 11 of the Multispecies Worldbuilding Podcast. 

My name is Elaine Gan and this was a conversation with Shannon Mattern, a theorist and professor of media, design, and architecture based in New York. Episode 11 was collaboratively produced and composed with the brilliant and inimitable Ernst Karel and Joe Hazan. It was recorded on November 2021 at the Newsstand Studios at Rockefeller Center in New York City. To hear other episodes, please visit or please subscribe through any of the major podcast platforms. Thank you very much for listening.


Prev DEAR CLIMATE with Una Chaudhuri + Marina Zurkow

Comments are closed.