This is the second installment in our series where we introduce you to key faculty at the New School who teach courses that complement design studies. Here we introduce Orit Halpern. Orit is Assistant Professor in history at the New School for Social Research and at Eugene Lang College. The New School for Social Research provides an education grounded in history and informed by a legacy of critical thought and civic engagement. The school’s dedication to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry reaches back to the university’s founding in 1919 as a home for progressive thinkers and the creation of the University in Exile in 1933 for scholars persecuted in Nazi Europe. To see more about Professor Halpern’s work, visit her website, The Eye of Time. Below she responds to our questions.
Can you talk a little about your work and the ways in which it intersects with design?
The great writer Fyodor Doestoevsky once said “we all know the answers, it’s the questions we must seek.” This comment has a lot to say to design. We often think we know the problems—whether in urban planning or marketing—but what new frameworks? What ways of looking at and rethinking a problem might make us suddenly answer differently? My work engages the history of design, communication science, cognitive and neuro-science, and computing to think critically about the future of design practice and to use history to destabilize our assumptions about the present.
A lot of my work engages histories of statistical and probabilistic thinking. While designers might not often thing about the history of the algorithm, or the types of computational logics encoded inside our most everyday applications and programs from social networks to global positioning systems, this obviously has enormous implications for what we design, and the impact of our technologies. History helps us visualize these logics and interrogate our most commonly held assumptions about data and information.
I also work a lot on histories of communication and control in industry, the military, business, science, and design. Using case studies like those of corporations like IBM, I show how companies reframed selling computers from selling an object to selling systems and networks through a series of new strategies in design, architecture, and marketing along with a reformulation of research, management, and technology.
These elements of my work on logistics, management, security, and life, engage with the basic question of what will a design of the future look like? Particularly, as we move away from designing static objects to designing processes—whether for managing corporations, health, urban spaces, or ecologies. These examples from the past shed light on the types of decisions, and the questions we might ask about the future.
What sort of relationship does your discipline have with design and the field of design studies?
I am a historian of science and I also have a degree in public health where I worked for some years. This is a hard question. Science often seems antagonistic to design, but I wonder if that is true. While it is hard to define science, at least in Western societies science is often defined by such terms as experiment, knowledge, and discovery; these are very important tropes and ideologies since the Enlightenment. Science is often considered a method, a process, a way of knowing and approaching the world. Is design? One wonders what forms of knowledge, experimentation, and discovery exist in the practice of design? I think a great deal, but its important therefore that the study of design begin to engage more heavily the study of the human and social sciences and the humanities. Designers need to become more explicitly interested in experimentation, in knowledge production, and in producing new visions (maybe facts) about our world, not just answering problems that others pose to them.
Which of the courses you teach might be of interest to students in the design studies program?
I teach Designing Security in the Fall 2012. The class asks how might the study of design, broadly conceived, help us to rethink our present, produce new methods in the social sciences, and critically examine the relationship between technology, media, politics, and governance?
The course will examine, from numerous disciplinary perspectives, the relationship between design, technology, science, and society with a focus on the period of the Cold War. From neural nets to marketing tactics to corporate architecture and management to financial instruments, this class will traverse a range of fields and disciplinary perspectives to examine the mid-century movement from object to process and the co-produced changes in knowledge, power, and economy. As a class, we will examine the shadow infrastructure—aesthetic, political, and technical—that supports our contemporary information economies and attentive environments. Readings may include: Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, David Harvey, Saskia Sassen, Donald MacKenzie, Peter Galison, Beatriz Colomina, Rheinhold Martin, John Harwood, Wendy Chun. The class will also be structured as an experimental lab, and students will be encouraged to experiment with different forms of documentation, media, and data collection as part of their practice.