Author Archives: Scott W Schwartz

I am a PhD candidate and Adjunct Lecturer at the City University of New York (CUNY). My research centers on the material culture of knowledge production, specifically the intersection of quantification and vulnerability. I have conducted fieldwork in the Orkney Islands, Iceland, the Aeolian Islands, and New York City. I am a frequent collaborator with artists and curators, with some such manifestations appearing in the Queens Museum and Radiator Gallery.
Island lazzaretto of Venice

40: Quarantine & The Origins of Computation

Quarantine is a number. Quarantine was the name given to the strategy of isolating potentially harmful populations for forty days in an effort to impede potential dangers. Deriving from the Italian word for forty (quaranta), alongside quarantines there existed the trentine (thirty) and sessantine (sixty), each defined by the number of days of mandated isolation. The word took its meaning following the Black Death and subsequent waves of plague. It was first legally enforced in Ragusa (Dubrovnik today) in 1377. Today, especially at this precise moment, quarantine is rather estranged from this history. (read more...)

Using a flamethrower with U.S. Forest Service

The Memory of Fire: Burning Backwards into the Future

Fire breathes oxygen. Fire consumes organic material. Fire ages and dies. Fire runs, jumps, and simmers. Fire responds differentially to external irritants. Fire has moods. Among many of its seeming affinities with metabolizing life, fire also has an excellent, perhaps perfect, memory. As such, wildfires have one inviolable rule: never backtrack. Fire never goes backwards, never rewinds. Because of this stubborn refusal one of the most successful and widely practiced approaches to halting the progress of wildfires is to pre-burn swaths of land toward which a fire is raging. Once fire comes upon a burnt landscape it cannot proceed, it starves to death. When employed indirectly to create a control line, this strategy is called burnout. However, this strategy can also be employed to directly attack a fire by igniting a blaze and propelling it into the path of a wildfire. This is called backburning. Conclusively, you can fight fire with fire. (read more...)

Overhead photo of excavation site in Smerquoy, Scotland on a sunny day with the sea in the background. Translucent text over the photo says "What are you doing down there"

Neolithic Plumbing: The Landscape is a Machine

Water is, among its many attributes, fluid. Left to its own devices it runs, spills, flows, leaks, crashes, and splashes. Holding H2O still is nearly impossible above 0°C. An ambitious enough goal in water management is containment and, if lucky, control. Mastery over the whims of water is of paramount concern today across a number of socio-environmental spheres—coasts flood, deserts desiccate, Flint contaminates, and California incinerates. The various infrastructural and political hydrology problems posed by Anthropocene conditions have inspired a number of technocratic and neoliberal solutions (e.g., the $118 billion storm surge gates in New York or monetization of dehydration in Africa). A brief look at archaic relationships between water and society, however, suggests conceptual alternatives to such high-energy and high-cost survival designs. Two such examples are examined below: the gravitational plumbing at the Neolithic* site of Smerquoy in the Orkney Islands and the Persian yakhchāl, a pre-Alexandrian ‘icebox’. These (read more...)

Battery Life: Charging Culture at the End of Energy 

Vodka-tonic. Take my picture. Charge my phone. Vodka-tonic. Take my picture. Charge my phone.  This (or a similar sequence) is an irritatingly common refrain heard by many waitstaff at lower-tier upper-class Instagram-approved destination restaurants in New York City—presumably other variations proliferate throughout the world’s urban centers. While vodka and digital reproduction make fruitful grist for social critique, the focus of the following is on the request to infuse one’s portable appendage with fresh electricity. There are a number of intriguing aspects of this “charging culture,” from its role in the resource consumption chain (Parikka 2015), to infrastructural adaptations appearing in charging societies (Larkin 2013), to the implications of portable appliances on mobility studies (Schiller 2011), to the novel linguistic interactions engendered by electronic communications (Squires 2010). In concert with these developments, the following discusses the metabolism of charging culture—that is, the processes that are necessary for the maintenance of life. (read more...)

Promotional image from demonstrating a focus on converting science into profit. It shows an arrow reading "story" pointing to an xray of a human head. On the other side of the head are lines connecting to rectangles with: message penetration, brand awareness, product anticipation, product differentiation, appropriate utilization.

SciCom: The Slippery Business of STEM Promotion

“One thing is certain: When something is scientifically complex, it’s harder to understand and to communicate” ( Regardless of its accuracy, this is a commonly repeated sentiment across many public domains. However, this particular claim was produced within the branch of marketing known as Science Communications with the peculiar intent of convincing drug companies they need to hire “creatives” to extol the virtues of biochemistry to physicians. This is just one manifestation of the Science Communications field, which includes academic journals, NGOs, and PR firms. Armed with the more edgy truncation “SciCom” (or SciComm), the field increasingly resembles other promotional paradigms such as experience design (UX) and immersion marketing, wherein the goal is to seamlessly weave advertising into the condition of being alive. (read more...)

The panoptic eye of temperature.

Deep Thunder: The Rise of Big Meteorology

Today has been predicted 26 billion times. The same could be said for tomorrow and the foreseeable days to follow. This prodigious divination is the work of just one entity—IBM’s The Weather Company. These 26 billion daily forecasts of IBM likely represent only a small fraction of the models and projections to which any particular day is subjected (the financial and military sectors are equally ambitious prognosticators). Backed by IBM’s computational juggernaut, The Weather Company is burning through terabytes at a brow-furrowing velocity in its effort to fit the world into a forecast. (Listen Now...)

An black Amazon Echo is adorned with a bright green speech bubble saying "Let me get that for you."

Dumbwaiters and Smartphones: The Responsibility of Intelligence

“I don’t have to drink alone,” she paused for comedic effect, “now that I have Alexa.” Thus was the punchline of a story told by a widowed octogenarian at a recent wedding. Alexa is a mass-produced personality that can play music, suggest items for purchase, monitor consumption and health habits, or, like any good friend, just listen. While all these tasks could be performed in silence with various algorithmic appliances, Alexa and her cousins from Google and Apple are imbued with a perceived autonomy directly stemming from their capacity for vocalization. Speech, it seems, beckons the liberation of abiotic materials from their machinic programming. (read more...)