Molly Wright Steenson: Shifting time
By Steve Portigal at 12:40 pm, Tuesday January 17 2012
Part 12 of 19 in the series the Omni project

This interview has been edited, condensed, etc.

Molly Wright Steenson is an architectural historian, designer, researcher and strategist. She is a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University’s School of Architecture, where her dissertation, “Artificial Intelligence, Architectural Intelligence: Nicholas Negroponte ad the Architecture Machine Group” looks at the intersection of technology and architecture in the 60s and 70s, and how AI and architecture created groundwork for contemporary human-computer interaction. Molly began working with the Web in 1994 at a wide variety of Fortune 500 and smaller, creative companies. As a design researcher, she examines the effect of personal and mobile technology on people’s lives, with recent projects in the US, India and China. She was a resident professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea in Italy and holds a M.A. in Architecture from Princeton, a Master’s in Environmental Design from the Yale School of Architecture and a B.A. in German from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Molly’s lived online at Girlwonder.com since the mid-90s. She travels too much and she probably knows someone you know.

the Omni Project: How do you define technology?

Molly Wright Steenson: Technology is a device, the connective tissue, the functional implement. I’m especially interested in how technology drives our communication, whether we’re talking about the Pony Express, the pneumatic post, or the Internet.

tOP: What insight can we gain from the way we conceive of and discuss technology?

MWS: One of the hangovers of Web 2.0 and the there’s-an-app-for-that mentality is that success in technology values the market and shipping a project, not a critical viewpoint or different design questions that can lead to breakthroughs we haven’t had before.

One reason I love teaching in schools of design is the speculative nature of student design work: it does not need to make it to market to be successful; it does not need to answer to a bottom line or an uncreative client. What it needs to do is address the question of the application of art, the incorporation of a stance or point of view, and the execution on a variety of levels, whether drawn, rendered, built as a model, told as a story, presented as a fly through, or enacted as a performance. In order to develop novel ideas for the mainstream or commercial world, it’s important to spend time on speculation and surprise.

I approach technology from a historical perspective to look at the foundations of why we turn to different technologies to help us communicate, to consider the kinds of problems we had in the past and the interfaces we developed to help us deal with it. For instance, telegraphy boomed in the 1870s because it was inexpensive and theoretically instantaneous, but it was difficult to get a telegram across a crowded city like Paris quickly, due to traffic and the labor required to transmit and transpose the messages. So it made more sense to build a network of cast iron pneumatic tubes between post offices, to bypass street-level traffic. Every major financial center had this problem; financial centers drive communication needs and thus the technologies that support communication. Paris developed the largest pneumatic post network in the world with 450 km of pneumatic tubes, and at one point processing 12 million pieces of pneumatic post.

Pneumatic tubes. Doesn’t that seem elaborate? A technological wonder? Magical? Steampunk? Yet at the time, given relationships between civil engineers and the government and communications, it made sense to build something this elaborate. What could we learn from this decision today? What does it teach us about our questions of interface, of network, of capital, of finance?

tOP: As a historian, do you privilege the past over the future? What is the benefit of looking backwards when looking forwards?

MWS: Becoming a historian provided another perspective: it shifted time for me. I like looking at things flatly: newer does not necessarily mean more advanced. My perspective considers equally the contemporary impact of mobile phones on urban India or social network technologies in China, or Web 0.0 and 1.0, or the projects Nicholas Negroponte led as a part of his Architecture Machine Group at MIT in the 1960s and 70s, or the pneumatic post in the 1880s. All of these contexts-and many more I have yet to discover-represent possible futures that haven’t happened yet, or might happen in a different way. They’re all fruitful and ripe contexts for investigation.

So what about near-past casting, instead of future-casting? I’m struck by what Haruki Murakami said about his new novel, 1Q84 in a New York Times interview

“Most near-future fictions are boring. It’s always dark and always raining, and people are so unhappy. I like what Cormac McCarthy wrote, The Road – it’s very well written…But still it’s boring. It’s dark, and the people are eating people…George Orwell’s 1984 is near-future fiction, but [1Q84] is near-past fiction. We are looking at the same year from the opposite side. If it’s near past, it’s not boring.”

Thinking slightly back in time spurs different thinking.

tOP: When you look at your life, what impact is technology having?

MWS: Molly Steenson has come unstuck in time, to borrow liberally from Kurt Vonnegut. I’ve lived my life online in some manner or another since 1992, on the Web since 1994, and as girlwonder.com since 1997. I maintain a huge network of people and things, and for better or for worse, the technologies that illuminate our social network makes these things all the more possible. In some ways, I feel a lot more like people a generation younger than me who grew up with the Web and mobile technology: it’s very much a part of who I am. It’s sometimes bewildering to people my age or older outside of high tech culture.

tOP: A network of things?

MWS: I’m interested in how things mediate connections between people-the relations they bring to bear. Some parts of actor-network theory (ANT) influence on how I think about people and interactions with places and things. ANT doesn’t necessarily privilege people (or users) at the center of an interaction, but rather actants: human or non-human elements that stand in relation to each other. The relations become particularly important. So when I look at the world that we interact with, I see people and infrastructures and interfaces. I see people as interfaces for ideas, and interfaces as ways to get what lies beneath and makes ties us together.

When I wrote about the Poste Pneumatique (published in short form in Cabinet, a clip available here) and about the Paris Central Post office, I went back and looked at all of the interfaces I could determine: brass cranks, cast iron tubes, steam engines, water for the steam, cast iron and glass desks for mail sorting, elevators for moving the post, chutes for sending it to the basement. I also looked at the relations that these enabled between people and financial systems, between the movement of capital and the development of communication networks.

But these same kinds of interactions are why I was fascinated by the phone book as a kid, of how to call a foreign country (though I didn’t have anybody to call and I didn’t go overseas till I was 17), why I still stop and look mail sorting facilities and switches and wires. Somehow, they seem to represent us and the relations we build between ourselves. I guess you could say I’m an infrastructure nerd, or a media and communication nerd.

tOP: You have a strong connection between what you are learning and how you are living. How do they drive each other?

MWS: One of the reasons that I went back to school was the experience I had living in Ivrea, Italy, when I was a professor at the Interaction Design Institute Ivrea. Ivrea was the headquarters of Olivetti, and although it’s been there since Roman times, it’s best known for its role as a modernist social-corporate utopia. We lived in Talponia (mole city) – a huge 1972 semicircular residence built into the side of a hill, with a meadow in the middle. It was parts Logan Run, parts northern Italian idyllic, and it changed me. For that matter, it changed all of us who lived there. I came back to the US, fairly undone from the whole experience of living and working there, inspired by the architects and industrial designers I worked with, and needed to change my focus. That’s how I ended up studying architectural history: I wanted more depth than my previous career in user experience afforded.

Asking “What can I do to spend a month (or two, or three) where you are?” leads to wonderful things. I just came back from a month in Ume?•, Sweden, where I was a resident at the HUMLab (the digital humanities lab at the university), where I turned 40. Two years ago, I spent the summer in Montreal at the Canadian Centre for Architecture There’s been Berlin, Bangalore and Copenhagen while I’ve been in grad school. In all of these cases, the travel isn’t random: it’s connecting with people and projects and places that I know, and as a student, I’m lucky to have the flexibility I do.

tOP: If society is changing through technology, what is gained, and what is lost?

MWS: Look at this quote: “…the transmission of intelligence, in the most literal sense of the term, annihilates both space and time.” [1] It’s the case today, certainly, but the quote is from 1850, from Dionysius Lardner, and the technology in question in that quote: the electric telegraph. “Nothing facilitates and develops commercial relations so effectually as cheap and rapid means of intercommunication,” he writes.

It seems to me that we’re grappling with the same question today that Lardner asked, whether at the speed of rail travel, as he addressed it, or at the speed of nanoseconds and the scale of planetary orbit. What are we gaining or losing? Maybe that’s the wrong question.

Okay, one thing. I have this thought that we’ve lost our senses of proxemics and proprieception, thanks to our reliance on the mobile phone screen we always looked down at before we make our next move, and it’s changed people’s walking and peripheral vision, even when they don’t have their devices in front of them or in their hand. I think we’ll learn how to reintegrate and multitask both with people in front of us on the street and as we drift in the third space of mediated communication, but it’ll take some time. It makes it really annoying to get anywhere quickly, even in a place like New York or a busy international airport (especially at the top of an escalator, but I digress).

tOP: What else do you want to tell us?

MWS: I’d like to pick up the things I’ve loved but that somehow fell away over the years: playing classical guitar and flute, acting, writing poetry. I’d like to do more of the things that I enjoy but am not awesome at, like running, or drawing and watercolors. My life’s about to focus a lot as I finish my dissertation and find (a likely academic job). And I want a dog.

[1] Dionysius Lardner, Railway Economy; a Treatise on the New Art of Transport, Its Management, Prospects and Relations (London,: Taylor, Walton and Maberly, 1850), 18.

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2 Responses to “Molly Wright Steenson: Shifting time”

    Thanks for a very thought-provoking interview!

    This line caught my attention: “the speculative nature of student design work: it does not need to make it to market to be successful” My experience in undergrad resonates with that, but now that my grad program is interdisciplinary, there is often a different definition of success in design classes. I’m still wrapping my head around the results of that, but novelty, speculation and surprise tend to be valued less than the ability to produce something real.

    Comment by Kristine 01.17.12 @ 6:43 pm


    The Italy experience resonates with me, perhaps for different reasons. The idea of looking to the future through the past feels considerably different in the Italian culture, which has such deep historical roots. There is much more to look through, much more to see, and much more to try and understand when trying to pull some threads forward into the future. I was always amazed by the rich context for design and petrified by the stranglehold of history there. Although, perhaps ironically, Italian design history is filled with incredibly forward-thinking conceptual experiments.

    Comment by Tamara Christensen 01.18.12 @ 11:43 am