Arts & DesignFeatureMedia/PublicsVerticals

OBJECT AMERICA: The Model 500 Telephone

An interdisciplinary reimagining of America

Telephones are emblems of power for President Trump, key devices for running his hyper-mediated reality TV show presidency. “I have great phones, I have phones — let me tell you. The technology that we have in this country is incredible,” Trump boasted to Sean Hannity soon after taking office. From the deluge of tweets fired off at odd hours by the President on “Trump One” or “Trump Two” (the name staffers use to refer to his two cell phones), to the claims made early in his presidency that former President Obama had his “wires tapped,” phones are key to this administration’s power.

Telephones are two-way devices — tools for sending signals and receiving them. While Trump’s interest is primarily the former, firing off his opinions, we initiated the Observational Practices Lab in 2016 precisely to support the latter, to explore the various ways we can take in information. We decided to observe the phone itself.

Considering the phone as a simple device of media technology, its initial function has been transmitting and receiving auditory signals, facilitating communication. However, as Stephen Kern points out in The Culture of Time and Space: 1880-1918, the telephone had an even broader impact and “made it possible, in a sense, to be in two places at the same time” (p. 69). Today’s phones are not only ubiquitous objects; they also provide us with an omnipresence that shifts our understanding of time and space. The news cycle is 24 hours, Trump’s tweets are a steady stream, and our bodies are subject to the dislocation caused by needing to be everywhere all the time. Yet careful observation necessitates embodied awareness, steady focus on the object of attention. Simply asking people to observe a physical thing cuts against this trend of being everywhere all the time and locates the body in a specific time and place.

What exactly does it mean to “observe”? Neither neutral nor passive, the act of observation has real consequences for our everyday lives. How do observational practices shape the thing under investigation; how might the very act of structured attention change the perceiver(s) and by extension create new communities? To what extent do observational practices from across disciplines actually define what we know about the world? How might these practices help create national identities and affect our day-to-day experience? Since the election of Donald J. Trump it has become increasingly clear that we have different worldviews and frameworks for judgment. It is crucial that we try to understand how others — particularly those unlike ourselves — see the world. And how might we listen?

As a response, The Observational Practices Lab at the Parsons School of Design aims to provoke dialogue and instigate critical reflection about the very nature of observation across disciplinary boundaries. Observation is fundamental to ways of knowing, yet it is rarely investigated as a set of comparative methods and contingent practices. As Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck point out in their seminal book The History of Scientific Observation, the process of observation is not specific to any discipline, social class, professional community, or situation:

Throughout its long history, observation has always been a form of knowledge that straddled the boundary between art and science, high and low sciences, elite and popular practices. As a practice, observation is an engine of discovery and a bulwark of evidence…It is pursued in solitude but also in the company of thousands. (P. 7)

The lab’s aim is not to define the term observation. Instead, we are interested in cultivating an open dialogue across diverse practices about the imbedded concepts, disciplinary processes, and methodological challenges inherent in conducting observation(s). How can different disciplines learn from another’s approaches to observation? Which methods are best suited to which subjects and why, and how can observation itself create communities and initiate a new view of our everyday reality? We believe that the understanding of the complexities of everyday life can only be deepened through cross-disciplinary insights that transcend the boundaries of expertise. The formation of the lab was partly inspired by two historical precedents that reached across disciplines: the archives of everyday life created by the transdisciplinary British Mass Observation Movement and the extensive observations of the American continent conducted by the German polymath Alexander von Humboldt.

Initiated by an artist, an anthropologist, and a journalist-poet in 1937, the Mass Observation movement grew out of a sense that the experience of the “mass” of people was not being reflected in the media. The group sought to create a new representation through an “anthropology of ourselves,” an archive of extensive observations of everyday life by citizen observers. This sense of being fed up, misrepresented, and confused about the country as it was reflected in media, resonates with the heated debates in the US today — including the precipitous influence of “fake news” and the outcry around whose “America” is really being represented. The Mass Observation movement sought to embolden people to take seriously their own immediate observations of their everyday lives, and the value that might have for others.

Given that the Observational Practices Lab is situated in New York City, it is humbling (and useful), therefore, to ponder a larger “America” in the historical context of observations conducted by an influential early explorer seeing the continent for the first time. Alexander von Humboldt first came to the “New Continent” (specifically South America) in 1799; thinking beyond disciplinary boundaries to gain holistic understanding was one of his key concerns. As an explorer, naturalist, and geographer, he was driven by the idea that “Everything is Interconnected” and he used his observations to unify diverse branches of scientific knowledge and culture.

This particular project, OBJECT AMERICA, was born out of discussions about how to utilize the Observational Practices Lab after the election. In the face of an administration trying to “Make America Great Again” we have to ask, what is this “America”? We focused on one everyday “American” object to ground this investigation. Our intention is to shake up the way we habitually perceive an object. This mode of perceiving is culturally and socially conditioned. Donald Norman describes our conditioning through “Mental Models”:

Mental Models, our conceptual models of the way objects work, events take place, or people behave, result from our tendency to form explanations of things… We base our models on whatever knowledge we have, real or imaginary, naive or sophisticated. (P. 38)

Indeed, we may need these “Mental Models” to organize our everyday — but if we don’t pay attention, our daily rhythm is dominated by digitally connected calendars and social platforms that swamp us with detailed information about our friends’ lives (or Trump’s most recent incendiary remarks). The tools we created to serve us, to improve our communication and to better our lives, instead create an environment of putative ongoing urgency. It is not surprising, therefore, that many of us tend to accept “the news,”, “the truth,” or whatever object we are paying attention to, the way our society — or the President — wants us to see it.

The “object“ of research for OBJECT AMERICA, we decided, should be something relatable, something that could be found in everyday American life, a physical thing that a majority of Americans would have had contact with. We invited Ellen Lupton, Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, to join the project and choose an object from the museum’s collection that she believed would represent “America” into the future. She chose the model 500 Telephone, 1953 (introduced in 1949), designed by Henry Dreyfuss & Associates (USA) for Bell Laboratories. After its introduction, this phone became widely used, arguably the standard, in American households.

As mentioned above, the Observational Practices Lab does not want to define observation but create an open space for researchers to describe their methodologies and practices freely. We do believe, however, that a primary source is necessary for any kind of observation. We bought fourteen phones on eBay so that each researcher would have their own physical object to work with as primary source material. These model 500’s were not completely identical since they were witness to the everyday private lives of homes across America, a quotidian experience made visible by the scratches and marks, written phone numbers and scrawled-upon stickers. Simultaneously, we defined fourteen disciplines that we thought would be able to provide a transdisciplinary and collaborative 360-degree look at the phone. Within each discipline we identified New York-based researchers who offered specific professional insights but already showed interest in cross-disciplinary discourses based on previous projects or practices.

On September 7, 2017, researchers “met” their objects at the Cooper Hewitt Design Museum, where the Observational Practices Lab introduced the project and Ellen Lupton presented the Model 500. In a series of three panels, these researchers came back together and shared their findings with the public and our graduate students. The video below is a collection of short excerpts from the briefing and the presentations of nine researchers:

  1. Ellen Lupton
    Senior Curator of Contemporary Design at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City
  2. Cindi Katz
    Professor of Geography in Environmental Psychology and Women’s Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York
  3. Anuja Bagul
    Senior Material Scientist, New Technologies at Material ConneXion
  4. Roarke Menzies
    New York City-based Artist and Composer
  5. Marco Tedesco
    Research Professor at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of the Columbia University and Adjunct Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS)
  6. Lisa George
    Empirical applied economist specializing in industrial organization and political economy, and Associate Professor of Economics at Hunter College
  7. LB Thompson
    American Poet and Creative Writing Instructor at The New School
  8. Michael J. Barany
    Historian of modern science and mathematics, and is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the Society of Fellows at Dartmouth College
  9. Fernando Kawai, M.D.
    Geriatrician and Palliative Care Physician and Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine at Weill Medical College of Cornell University
  10. Katie Merz
    Visual Artist based in New York City

You can find full-length videos from all presenters on objectamerica.org.

How can observation continue to expose, elucidate, or speak back to systems of power and politics? The Observational Practices Lab is planning three more phases of OBJECT AMERICA in 2018/19, 19/20, and 20/21. Our aim is to make visible the unseen, and speculate about the future of America, through three new “American” objects housed in different types of US collections. During this era of the Trump administration, we seek to create a platform for open exchange, exploring other ways of seeing, in an environment of playful curiosity, intelligence, and mutual respect.

Thoughtful transparency about how we see the world — through particular methodologies, reflections, curation and policies of accessibility — will remain crucial, even more so in a world that delegates increasing power to Big Data, Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence. Listening to our guest-researchers and their diverse ways of seeing a single object, we believe all the more that educating and training these digital automated systems needs to be inclusive of individual and transdisciplinary voices, including the unexpected and the absurd.

Also for you:

Pascal Glissmann

Previous post

Alabama on My Mind

Next post

Revisiting Ta-Nehisi Coates on White Supremacy