Technology is Not Enough: The Story of NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program

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4th Floor of ITP at 721 Broadway, photo by Jason Huff

NYU’s ITP (Interactive Telecommunications Program) celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2009, but much of the program dates back to forty years ago. The graduate program is “dedicated to pushing the boundaries of interactivity in the real and digital worlds.” This year is also a landmark year as founder Red Burns is starting to archive the program's history. The archive is beginning just as New York City, with its thriving startup scene, is starting to feel geeky enough to be a natural home for the innovative program.1 Beyond its original intentions, the program is pioneering in "physical computing," as coined by a faculty member. It has even managed intellectual property policies that let students keep full ownership of their ideas.

As I sat down for an interview with Burns in her office at 721 Broadway, she searched for a copy of the first grant proposal she wrote to set up the Alternate Media Center (AMC) in 1970-71, which later—in 1979— would become ITP. “If I could find that—I would die to find it. It must be the worst proposal, but it was original and it was fresh,” she declared. That lost proposal is what started everything; it helped secure grant money from the Markle Foundation, workshop space in the two floors above Bleecker Street Cinema in Greenwich Village and essential equipment.

Bleecker Street Cinema circa 1970, photo by Robert Otter via Soho Memory Project

The year the AMC started was the same year Sony introduced the first portable video recorder—the Portapak. The units cost around $1500 to buy, but according to a New York Times article from that year, they could be rented for $75 a day. Burns and her collaborator, George Stoney, with

 

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Stranger Interactions with Kio Stark

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Last month, I visited the BMW Guggenheim Lab for a talk by my friend Kio Stark, author of the novel Follow Me Down. Kio is interested in cities, technology, and intimacy; the intersection of which is explored in the class she teaches at ITP on stranger interactions.

"Cities are machines that produce interactions," she explained at the outdoor lecture hall. While most of us go out of our way to avoid having to acknowledge persons we do not know, she argues the presence of strangers is probably why you live in a city in the first place. "The culture of cities is a culture of strangers." 

Stranger interactions can be emotional and meaningful. Most of us can recall some insight gleaned from a fleeting interaction with someone at a coffee shop or queuing up for a train. Kio says it's actually "good for your brain" to talk with strangers as we become more creative when our frame of references grows wider. Stranger interactions make us more tolerant people, and also expand "our sense of the group we belong to."

She concluded the talk with practical advice on how to go about initiating and/or welcoming stranger interactions. Much as I appreciated the lesson, as a hardnosed introvert, I was still not so inclined to put it all in practice — intending to step out for the interactive portion of the event. But before I could stealthily exit out the side, I was paired with an enthusiastic freshman at NYU. As part of the assignment, we struck up conversations with people and asked "what are you afraid of?"

While the answers from these strangers we met were thoughtful and the experience of meeting them randomly was empowering, in the end, the conversation I had with the girl I was partnered with ...

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