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9 squares

1 min read

Check out cool collaborative animations at 9 squares.

Tim's 10 second research statement

1 min read

On sovereignty:

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Mini-research profile: Giovanna Di Chiro

6 min read

Matt Zucker and Joshua Brody sat down with Giovanna Di Chiro last week to ask her a few questions about her research.

Q: What do you research?

Giovanna Di Chiro: I ask what makes people decide to join or build coalitions and alliances across different social, cultural, political, and geographic boundaries, around or in support of social and environmental change.

Q: What’s fun about it?

GDC: I love working with different groups of people who are, from the ground up, challenging dominant hierarchical conceptions of nature and culture and working together to take action to solve social and environmental problems in their own communities.

Q: Can you give an example of one of those dominant conceptions of nature and culture?

GDC: That there is a categorical separation between nature and culture. For example, as part of my research, I interviewed community activists in South Central LA who were fighting the proposed siting of an incinerator in a primarily African American and Latino community. They told me that they had approached the Sierra Club to ask for help to stop the incinerator – which they felt would worsen the already high rates of asthma and other environmental illnesses in South Central – and the Sierra Club told them that that was a public health issue, not an environmental issue. Activists thinking about breathing clean air and protecting their community see the environment and health as interwoven, whereas the dominant construction separates non-human from human or social questions. We need to understand all of the connections, including exposures seeping into people’s bodies, their lungs and skin. People living in so-called environmental justice (EJ) communities (like South Central or Chester) often describe a negative connection with their environments (their environments are seen as dangerous, polluted, and unhealthy) rather than expressing feelings of the wonders and majesty of an abstracted notion of nature (for example, how some environmentalists might describe Yosemite). In EJ communities, there is an understanding of completely interwoven connections between the environment and life experience; these are the communities who are burdened with the lion’s share of the negative externalities caused by the unsustainable practices of our economic system.

Q: Does ecotourism also challenge the dominant conceptions?

GDC: It depends – tourism as a mode of knowing & experiencing is a modern invention about having leisure time to experience something unfamiliar but through an experience of consuming the “exotic”. It has traditionally been a way for leisure classes to go elsewhere to experience and consume difference in the form of exotic lands and peoples. There are different kinds of ecotourism, and some are more politically oriented. Some eco-tourist companies encourage tourists to get involved in a community project or initiative that they find important and that may support the needs of the local community (working on a local farm, building houses, installing an irrigation system). Then, there’s the kind you’re probably thinking of, where a developing country may want to develop an ecotourism industry to exploit for their own economic needs, like “Come here and experience the beauty of Jamaica,” and people think they’re experiencing an environmentally friendly resort (at bargain basement prices), but it can be just greenwashed. Tourists don’t want to know that an economically struggling country (like Jamaica) cannot upgrade its infrastructure and when you flush your toilet it’s going into the Caribbean sea. This kind of ecotourism can participate in problematic framing of nature and culture, and some cultures as being more natural than cultural. It most often reproduces, rather than challenges, the dominant conceptions.

Q: Do you see your research as subversive? With these type of challenges, who is the audience? What is the result you’re hoping to achieve?

GDC: To me, academic work is about challenge and critique of received assumptions.  I think environmental studies, which emerged as a field, an interdisciplinary field, in the 1970s was challenging perceptions of the natural world and social world that were conventionally assumed objects of study in the academy. So yes, it’s subversive in that it is raising questions about what are the objects of knowledge that we’re actually studying. Fields are a product of the moment when they emerge, and environmental studies emerged in the crucible of the ecology movement in the late 60’s and 70’s. It is challenging the fundamental concepts of “Man and Nature.” That can be subversive, yes.

Q: So a discipline arises out of some big new idea, but then perhaps it crystallizes.  Does the revolution become the establishment within a few decades?

GDC: Yes! I think environmental studies, as is the case with any institutionalized field, can lose its edge. Currently, I’m writing about the emergence onto the scene of a new human-nature concept being proposed by an international body of geologists, climatologists, historians and others:  the Anthropocene (the Human Age), the idea that the human species has become like a geomorphic force imprinting its destructive effects on the planet including widespread pollution, massive species extinctions, glacial melting, and climate change. The pan-species argument of a universal human, I think, is problematic because it implies all humans are equally culpable and bear equal responsibility for the mess we’re in. Like other critics, if a new label is warranted, I’m more inclined to call this era the Capitalocene, because the human species didn’t cause the current crisis – a particular political-economic system that arose in a particular historical moment in particular national and cultural contexts did. My intellectual leanings were definitely influenced by mentors and colleagues in the History of Consciousness program, which is an interdisciplinary PhD program at UC Santa Cruz. Scholars in HistCon highlight precisely the dilemma that you just expressed: that ideas are formed in particular historical and cultural moments, and sometimes crystallize as tradition or disciplines and get sedimented in those ways. Then in response to diverse forms of resistance or critique, new historical conditions, encounters, and entanglements, they’re pushed in different ways. What is examined by scholars in the field is the historical contingency of different kinds of knowledges, assemblages of information, and products of disciplines; people analyze the construction of the appearance of solidity and certainty, which then may result in the sedimentation of norms and orthodoxies in what is then called a “discipline.” I think I lean toward, and have a comfort level with the idea of the entanglement of knowledge systems, with research and action as “muddles.”

Q: Thanks!

Draft 10-second research statements

1 min read

Joshua Brody: Computation: sometimes easy, sometimes hard. Why are hard problems hard?

Giovanna Di Chiro: Stories for connecting in the Anthropocene, or better, Capitalocene, when the world is falling apart.

Matt Zucker: Robotics is hard. Math can help. So can imitating humans.

Andy, Tim, and Matt think this guy is cool:

Week 2: Joshua Brody, Tim Burke, Matt Zucker

2 min read

We started out discussing Tim's post of the Valve Software company handbook, and how it shared aspects in common with the Agile Manifesto and the Occupy Wallstreet ethos, all of which seem to offer up a less-centralized, less-top-down attitude towards collaboration.

Valve handbook (especially viewed as an autobiography), as well as the idealization of Building 20 at MIT both seem to be post-hoc catalogs of the circumstances leading up to phenomenal success -- a way to give a recipe to "catch lightning in a bottle". We're skeptical about reproducibility about some of these things. See previous bad business writing about Xerox PARC or Bell Labs.

Regarding the Polymath formula for collaboration, it seems like they did a lot of things right, including: a) choosing facilitators so well-established they could act purely altruistcally; b) choosing problems that could be discussed asynchronously; c) working in a regime appropriate to the power-law distribution of contributors. It's really important for facilitators/moderators to protect against destructive/distracting influences.

We talked some about failed collaborations at Swarthmore, and wondered whether there were structural themes that underlied them. Might be a rare department on campus that has shared affinities/culture that faculty organize around, since they are formed piecemeal over time. Worse with faculty at large.

Tim wondered what you might get if you organized asynchronous online discussions about curriculum at the college? Would we see the same, vertical, repeated sequences, or would we see more things like the 360 program at Bryn Mawr?

Thinking about the interplay between architecture, collaboration, and creativity: we shared the consensus that Building 20 is not actually an architecturally-caused phenomenon. That said, it's really vital for spaces to fit needs for creative work. Needs to fit the culture, too -- witness the math student lounge in the Science Center vs. the Engineering living room in Hicks. We spoke about Neil Gershenfeld (of Center Bits & Atoms @ MIT) just trying to increase traffic through the space. Ditto for Youngmoo Kim at Drexel ExCITe center. STATA center at MIT has a neat hub-and-spoke model of central collaboration space ringed by offices. New Yorker has a cool 2011 article about Pixar Headquarters that we thought fit in well with the readings.