I’m a Postdoctoral Researcher at Microsoft Research and a member of the Social Media Collective. I work out of the Microsoft Research New England Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Before MSR, I was a PhD student in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill University, where I completed my doctorate with Jonathan Sterne. Thanks for visiting!
My research looks at the cultural origins and social implications of standards, infrastructures, and default operating conditions. Which is one way of saying I study how people make the stuff that we take for granted. In my graduate work I studied the decision making that went into crafting black-boxed technologies, and in my postdoc work I’ve been looking at cases where that black box cracks open – by force or by chance – and experts are called to explain the contingency and reasoning behind their choices. More details below.
The manuscript of my first book, Proxies: The Cultural Work of Standing In, is under contract at the MIT Press (to be included in the Infrastructures series). In the book, I look at the contingent practices that institutions use to enact and maintain standards through human labor, embodied performance, and the materialization of abstract ideas in physical substances. “Proxies” are material stand-ins of a vernacular world and the book traces the choice, crafting, and maintenance of proxies as controllable simulations of a world “out there.” Based on studies of three proxies—the International Prototype Kilogram, the Lena test image, and the standardized patient program—I argue that the attempt to account for the local and specific ways the world works, forces standards to be constantly calibrated, tweaked, repaired, and shored up. This book maps the standardization process as an attempt to make infrastructure out of the stuff of everyday life.
Proxies are usable chunks, workable samples, and data sets, but they are also starting points, training materials, and a shared ground of value. To chart the lifecycle of a proxy is to chart its leaks and its contaminations, the way it takes on new meaning and gives off unintended signals. Through proxies, I argue that if we think of standards as powerful, calcified, and inert instruments of homogenization, we risk losing track of their vulnerability, their pliability, and their destructibility. The work of choosing proxies is shared across cultural, scientific, and technical domains; we find proxies everywhere someone needs to leverage a simulation of the world for making hypotheses about how a technology will perform. In recent years, we have come to call many of these simulations of the world “data.” But, as this book argues, understanding our samples of the world in this way only tells us part of the story. The proxies in this book take the form of metal prototypes, magazine cut-outs, digital images, and human performers, and each requires strict protocols for keeping these entities viable as measurable instruments. Proxies brings theories of media, performance, representation, and the labor of maintenance to bear on the history of data-as-things and data-as-people, showing, along the way, how the work of making representative stand-ins constitutes a fundamental practice in the crafting of a shared world.
Though much of my research is historical, I have also been writing about contemporary media technologies. A forthcoming article looks at the origins a new phenomenon: the light-mitigating orange light of “night modes” on electronic devices (i.e., that thing where your phone turns orange at ten o’clock). In this project, I uncover how a new default screen setting is changing the aesthetics of nighttime lighting, and exposing assumptions about what constitutes a healthy relationship between screens, bodies, light, and labor.
Since the confirmation, in 1980, that artificial light can disrupt a person’s circadian rhythms, many groups and individuals have sought means of either mitigating these effects or harnessing them for therapeutic uses. In recent years, self-illuminated screens (like those of computers, phones, and tablets) have been targeted as particularly pernicious sources of sleep-disrupting light. In this project, I trace the origins of research into artificial light as a compounding source of fatigue, and develop a concept of “media prophylaxis” to analyze the ways technologies are offered as both solutions to the challenges of calibrating one’s body with its environments, and as defenses against endemic, human-made harms.
Zero Days: The history of the Year 2000 Problem and the politics of technological repair
Since 2015, I’ve been collecting materials for a second book on a recovered history the Y2K bug, and taking seriously an event that has come to represent a punchline to the 1990s. I approach the organized response to the perceived threat of the Y2K bug as one of the greatest, public-facing attempts to educate and train individuals and organizations to manage the unforeseen, and potentially devastating, effects old computer code and legacy software can have on contemporary computerized infrastructures.
A benefit of this project is that people often tell me where they were on December 31, 1999. If you’d like to tell me where you were, send me an email!