Orit Halpern Former Senior Fellow

Orit Halpern
January - July 2018


Dr. Orit Halpern is a Strategic Hire in Interactive Design and Theory and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University, Montréal. Her work bridges the histories of science, computing, and cybernetics with design and art practice. Her most recent book Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945 (Duke Press 2015) is a genealogy of interactivity and our contemporary obsessions with “big” data and data visualization. She is now working on two books. The first, titled The Smart Mandate, is a history and theory of “smartness”, environment, and ubiquitous computing and the second tentatively titled Extreme Futures investigates how design and actuarial technologies manage un-representable and un- calculatable catastrophes of environment, security, and finance.

She is also a co-director of the Speculative Life Research Lab, a speculative design research cluster at the intersection of art and the life sciences, architecture and design, and computational media that is part of the Milieux, Institute for Technology, Art and Culture. She has also published and created works for a variety of venues including Grey Room, E-flux, Volume, The Journal of Visual Culture, Public Culture, Configurations, C-theory, and ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany.

She has an MPH. from Columbia University School of Public Health, and completed her Ph.D. at Harvard University in the History of Science.

Dated from 2018

Fields of research

cybernetics, design, urban design and planning, media genealogy, big data, infrastructure, history of the social and human sciences

IKKM Research Project

The Smart Mandate

The Smart Mandate is a history of intelligence and its relationship to the ideal of self-organization in the human sciences, digital media, and design. In it I trace a genealogy or the contemporary obsessions with "smart" systems. The narrative traverses fields ranging from finance, to strategists theorizing guerilla warfare in anti-colonial struggles in Algeria and Vietnam, to ecologists managing forests and animal populations, to the contemporary “smart” city. Through these examples, I 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 and financial benefit, a medium to be “sourced” as in “crowd sourcing” or “mined” as in data mining. Parallel to the production of population as medium came the rise of ecology; the reformulation of environment in terms of communication, responsiveness, and relational. I argue this joining of ecology and cybernetics since the 1960’s has developed new tactics by which to negotiate race warfare, sex, decolonization, and environmental catastrophe. I trace how entities once described as stupid, dangerous, irrational, and undemocratic were redefined as intelligent, networked, and valuable; and how new media technologies and practices were co-produced with this discursive shift. This shift from reasonable, then rational, to “smart” continues to inform how we design for and envision the future of human life, habitation, and the planet.

Recent publications

"The Smartness Mandate" w/Robert Mitchell forthcoming Grey Room 68 (2017)
"Hopeful Resilience" E-flux Architecture, Spring 2017
"Preemptive Hope" with Gokce Gunel, FibreCulture, Summer 2017
"Architecture as Machine: The Smart City Deconstructed" in Canadian Center for Architecture, When is Digital in Architecture, Berlin: Sternberg Press (2017) pp.121-134.
"Beautiful Data: A History of Vision and Reason since 1945" Durham, Duke University Press, 2015.