So, what's ITP all about?

I get to understand my environment, by making models, by asking “what’s going on here”. For what it’s worth, here’s what I make of ITP. At the end are some thoughts on what could be done differently. (This is not meant to be definitive – I might change my mind by next week.)

When you look back at what ITP has done over time, and its precursors, it seems clear what its mission is: development of a critical perspective on technology and its impact on society, with a very strong emphasis on “learning by doing”. This critical perspective is very much driven by social, cultural and artistic factors, but not exclusively. If you look at the history of the program, it seems pretty consistent. This focus on critical understanding of technology is what attracted me to ITP in the first place, and what has kept me here.
ITP’s history is important, because it shows what has changed, and what has stayed the same.

Around 1974, the big deal was cable TV. Red Burns was very involved with the efforts to ensure community access to cable channels. In addition, there was a lot of interest in giving communities acess to the tools and information they needed to make the most of those channels, since access without tools would be somewhat pointless.  That led to the Media Access Centers, which were run from a department/office that was an ancestor of ITP, the Alternate Media Center.

After cable, in the late 70s and early 80s, the big deal was interactive television and interactive television. The involvement with Time Warner and Tokyo Broadcasting (they fund Red’s chair) started around this time or shortly thereafter. I think this when the program became formally known as Interactive Telecommunications Program. Interactive video, multimedia CD-ROMs, Hypercard were the things people worked on. Interaction became the center of the program, because ultimately that’s one of the most important interfaces between people and technology. I’ve heard interesting stories from alumni about this period: very strong emphasis on networking technology, few full-time students, a lot of people from the business world, and very little emphasis on art & design.

I first visited ITP during the late 80s and early 90s, while there was still a lot going on with Interactive TV, there was the beginnings of 3D graphics and stuff with microcontrollers. At some point one of the labs was full of Sun and Silicon Graphics workstations. Apple computers started to appear. ICM was taught using HyperCard.  This was a time of a lot of experimentation, and ITP seemed less focused.

The mid to late 90’s were the time of the dot-com boom. It was clear that in terms of social, cultural, etc impact the Internet was a central technology, and one that fit clearly with ITPs remit. However, since it was also the center of an economic boom, for a while there was a pretty clear path for ITP graduates, into a high-paying job. I think that most of the visible ITP alumni started their career during this period, and created the perception of ITP as a web/interaction-design/digital-media program. There was a massive emphasis on Web technologies and, the beginning of the PIC era of microcontrollers. This was also the beginning of the Age of the Wooden Mirror, and ITP’s involvement with more art & design themes.

Where we are now is interesting: there are a lot of things going on in technology that are important, but there is no single one that is as central as the Internet was in the late 90s. The courses certainly cover a lot of stuff that is important: ubiquitous computing (p-comp and net objects), mobile tech, assistive tech, dynamic web, social networks, privacy & surveillance, rapid prototyping, sustainable energy, computer graphics, games, etc – but none of these predominate. None of these courses will make you an expert – but they will give you the basis for an intelligent understanding of the technologies.

Note how over time, the technologies that are focused on have changed, a lot. The common theme is “learning by doing”, and interaction – what happens where humans and technology come together.

Since I come from a corporate technology background, I found ITP appealing, in that it addresses technology from a series of perspectives that are *not* purely technical or economic. I like the “hands-on” emphasis on learning. In that sense it is working very well.

I’ve de-emphasized art and design as a key part of ITP. This is because, frankly, very little about it works like an arts degree program, or a design program. Very few of the classes are focused on artistic production, and the program as a whole is pretty disconnected from the art world. Serious critique is almost entirely absent. Art at ITP is interesting because it is one perspective for understanding technology, but it is not the only one, and it is not, in my view, the central one. (Though two of my favorite classes at ITP were art classes, taught by an artist!). The design focus at ITP is useful, not for the aesthetic quality of the output, but because of the focus on use.

In terms of making ITP an even better place, what I would do is this:

  1. Shift the balance a bit more towards critical analysis, vs. basic technology training. I think Clay’s classes are so popular precisely because they address this need – the “what’s it all about” discussion.
  2. Engage with other parts of NYU to fill in the basic technology stuff – a lot of people have discovered that it is much more cost effective to take your basic PHP, web design, video classes, etc. in other NYU depts than at ITP. I notice a lot of people struggling with issues that are really basic engineering problems for other departments, and when this is the case, we should reach out.
  3. In the same vein, open up to other parts of NYU that are dealing with the human impact of technologies. Two that spring to mind immediately are the Math Dept’s media lab (next door!) and the Music Tech program. I suspect that upstairs and downstairs at 721 B’way we’ll find more kindred souls – though maybe not.
  4. Together with Stern, a bit more emphasis on economic impacts of technology. I know that we don’t all want to start a business or get a business job, but economics is a pretty important way that we evaluate how technology affects society. (Also potential inspiration for cool art projects – money *is* an interactive technology). Apparently ITP used to have a much greater focus on this area.
  5. In terms of outward projection, seek to get more exposure, not just for “cool projects” but to ground-breaking ideas coming from ITP. I think it would be helpful for ITP to have a more visible presence as a source for world-changing ideas, not just “stuff”.
  6. Make the process of choosing the technologies to focus on a bit more transparent: right now games, mobiles, social network are “hot”, but what is on the horizon? (I’m guessing maybe biotech, including genetics).
  7. Have a contest to make an installation piece that is as memorable and iconic as the Wooden Mirror. It’s great, but it’s been up for 9 years!!!

I am a bit concerned that in the absence of a strong thread of critical thinking/analysis within the program (and no grades), people will tend to drift towards making showy projects that get blogged about, at the cost of really thinking about what they are doing. If ITP gets a rep as “that crazy place with the wooden mirror in the lobby” vs a place that produces people who really “get” all sorts of tech, then we’ll get pigeonholed.

The image that I would like for ITP to project to the world is that we prepare people who “get” the impact of technology on the human world, regardless of what the specific technologies are. Some of us will reflect that understanding in art, some in strategic planning for media companies, others in academic papers or by starting companies, yet others in ways that are impossible to anticipate. The common factor is a far broader vision, grounded in a solid critical and analytical base.

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