Orit Halpern

Orit Halpern is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Her work explores the histories of digital technologies, cybernetics, the human and cognitive sciences, and design. She is particularly focussed on histories of big data, interactivity, and ubiquitous computing. Orit’s latest book, Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Duke University Press, 2014) is a genealogy of interactivity, the interface, and “big data”. Using the post-war science of cybernetics—the study of communication and control—as a point of departure, the book traces the reformulation of observation and knowledge that occurred in a range of fields immediately after World War II. Linking design, architecture, and artistic practices with the life, human, and social sciences, Beautiful Data charts the relationship between contemporary obsessions with storage, visualization, and interactivity in digital systems to previous modernist concerns with archiving, representation, and memory. Post-war design and communication sciences increasingly viewed the world as data filled, necessitating new tactics of management to which observers had to be trained and the mind reconceived. Perception and cognition were redefined as one process and made analogous to a communication channel, and the observer was reconceived as both radically self-referential and environmentally networked. The book traces three key themes critical to this reformulation of observation and knowledge after cybernetics: the reconceptualization of the archive and the document in the communication and human sciences, the reformulation of perception and the emergence of data visualization and the interface as central design concerns, and the redefinition of consciousness into cognition in the human, neuro, and social sciences.
Other initiatives include Calculative Utopias, an ethnography of digital infrastructures and a history of ‘smart’ territories and ubiquitous computing, and Strange Agency The latter concerns the definition of intelligence and its relationship to the idea of self-organization from 1945 to the mid-1970’s. It is the history of what I am labelling “the agent based society”. Linking together a history of intelligence and agency in the cognitive, neuro, and social sciences with art history and cultural history, Strange Agency will detail how collectivities, from insect communities to human crowds, went from being defined as dangerous, paranoid, and Fascist or Communist, to being a resource, the very site of political possibility, artistic potential, and financial benefit, a medium to be “sourced” as in “crowd sourcing”

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