Stranger Studies 101: Cities as Interaction Machines

{article from The Atlantic; text by Kio Stark; image one from flickr/albedo20; image two from Library of Congress: Crowd around a race car}

[The Atlantic] Editor’s Note: Nothing has challenged our notions about what it means to “know” or “meet” someone more than the various ways we interact online. With geolocation services like Foursquare and augmented reality applications on the horizon, what it means to be a stranger or a friend is only getting more complex. We asked Kio Stark, a professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program to share her syllabus on Stranger Studies here.

The students at ITP spend two years learning how to make and break all kinds of technology, and as Stark puts it, her classes “are about shaping a deeper, more rigorous understanding of the people my students are making things for.” So, this syllabus focuses more on people and how they interact in cities — the context for technology — than gadgets or software themselves. Think of this annotated syllabus from Stark (@kiostark) as your cheat sheet to understanding how cities or technologies can mass produce new experiences for humans.

I talk to strangers. It’s one of my obsessions, and this class in many ways emerged from my desire to understand why. When I began teaching about human social dynamics at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (a graduate program for geeks, hackers, technologists, and artists), I jumped at the chance to design a course about stranger interactions. Since Stranger Studies is not actually a discipline, I pretty much wrote the book on it.

This is a class on urban culture. My fundamental premise is that strangers and cities are inherently intertwined. The everyday nature of interacting with strangers is a byproduct of urbanization, which has created a culture of dense populations with sparse interconnections. That density and sparseness of connections itself is part of what defines ‘the urban.’ Living in cities has made strangers into a multitude: we brush past thousands of them every day. Even the simplest exchange among strangers can contain a tangled accumulation of meanings: what transpires may have physical, emotional, social, political, technological and historical dimensions. I show students how to unravel and understand these charged moments.

There are three broad themes during the semester.

  1. Why stranger interactions in cities are meaningful
  2. The spaces and the significance of the spaces in which strangers interact, and
  3. How strangers ‘read’ each other, how they initiate interactions, how they avoid interactions, how they trust each other and how they fool each other, how they watch, listen and follow each other.

Then there is the secret theme. I want students to fall in love with talking to strangers, to do it more, and to make technology that creates more plentiful and meaningful interactions among strangers.

The educational goals of the class are developing a refined set of skills for observing and interpreting strangers and their interactions;  getting a general understanding of what has been established (by a variety of disciplines) about where, how and why strangers interact;  and getting familiar with existing art and technology projects that involve strangers.

At ITP, this has a specific application, which is learning to recognize points of leverage that allow space for technology and art to make interventions in the social field in which strangers interact, or in a specific type of interaction strangers engage in.


Week 1: The History of Strangers
Until pretty recently, most of the world’s population didn’t live in cities, and so their contact with strangers was limited–mostly to the road and the marketplace. So it’s important to start with the fact that the ways in which strangers relate in public are both historically and locally contingent.

In the context of Europe and America, I give a grand tour of how these relations–and their meanings to participants–have changed over time and why. To begin to explore the emotional experience of these interactions, we read “The Adventure” by early sociologist Georg Simmel, one of his typological analyses of social roles. The adventure he has in mind is both an exterior and interior question, a state of mind as much as an activity.

We also read selections from Camera Lucida, a really wonderful book by Roland Barthes about how specific photographs produce emotional responses for specific people and not for others. Both of these have a lot to say about why and how we want to connect with people we don’t and often can’t know. What I want you to see is how lyrical and profound our smallest, most momentary connections can be. keep reading at

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