"People have so many different conceptions of what a machine could be," says Orit Halpern. "But very few people think about where these notions come from and what they mean. That's where my research begins."
As assistant professor in history at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College, Halpern researches the history of interactivity and studies the impact of digital media on society. She focuses on how contemporary modes of digital interaction emerged from cybernetics, "the study of communication and control."
"After World War II, experts from sociology, psychology, politics, and computer science came together under the banner of cybernetics to start rethinking older models of human behavior and psychology," says Halpern. "It's all about feedback, and it's the origins of our current digital interfaces."
Halpern's own background is as cross-disciplinary as her approach to research. Before earning a PhD in the History of Science from Harvard, she worked in international development and became interested in the effects of computer systems on societies. She has written several articles and a book, The Eye of Time: Histories of Representation, Archiving, and Perception in Cybernetic Thought (forthcoming, Duke). With her brother Tal, an artist, Halpern has also created installations exploring science, nature, and culture.
Halpern's training in historical research makes her a somewhat unorthodox addition to a design faculty. But as media evolve, Halpern's expertise can provide digital designers with crucial insight into the role of their work in society. "Digital interfaces are becoming more and more part of our lives. It's important for designers to think sociologically, to consider not only how behavior informs their designs but how their designs shape behavior."