Stranger Studies 101: Cities as Interaction Machines


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.


Week 2 & 3: Disruption
Significant things happen when we talk to strangers: we're interrupting the expected narratives of daily life, shifting perspective, forming unexpected connections. For me, that feels like waking up. I'm interested in how artists and thinkers engage with the concept of disruption, what disruption accomplishes politically, emotionally, aesthetically, what it reveals. Brecht's alienation effect, Situationism, and the relational art movement are crucial here. 

To see a personal form of disruption in action, we look at "Gotham Handbook," a collaborative project between artist Sophie Calle and writer Paul Auster, in which he gives her a series of instructions for interactions she must have with people in public places, and she (grumpily, reflectively) documents the process. Last time I taught this class, we also had performance artist Darren O'Donnell, the artistic director of Mammalian Diving Reflex, as a guest. All of this is geared to understanding the why of stranger interactions and their effects--as well as starting to learn some strategies students can carry into the world.


One of the things that makes me happiest about teaching this class is the passion with which the students conduct their field assignments. I watch how the experiments change their perceptions and their way of moving through the world. You might find it does the same for you. Take a chance next time you've got a Saturday to spare. Go out and muck around in human nature for yourself.

#1: Questions and Answers

It's time to do some disrupting of your own. I'm making that easy by giving you a structure within which to stage your own interactions with strangers, allowing you to explore the dynamics of stranger interactions first-hand. As a group, we decide on an interview question--last semester the question was, "What are you afraid of?" You will each get 10 strangers in public places to answer the question (you might need to ask more than 10 in order to get 10 responses). You will need to document their answers in one of two ways: a portrait with a transcription or, a video clip. You will also need to submit a written 'journal' of your own feelings during the interactions, and your interpretations of your subjects' reactions to the interaction.

#2: General observation
The goal of this assignment is to hone your ability to observe public behavior. Spend two hours in a public place where you are not likely to encounter people you know. Sit still. Unplug your devices, get off the grid. Watch people. Take notes on what they do and don't do, how they interact with one another. If you are inspired to invent backstories for any of them, make sure to specify the details about them that inform your narrative. So for example, if you conclude that someone is rich, what told you that? Their posture, their skin, their clothing?

#3: Iterative Requests:
This assignment playfully engages you with the dynamics of helping behavior. I suggest working with a partner--for your safety and to embolden you. It works like this. You start by asking someone for directions. If they give you directions, ask them to draw a map. If they draw a map, ask for their phone number in case you get lost. If they give you their phone number, call it. You'll need to document each encounter carefully, so write it up as soon as it's concluded. Note who you approached, why you chose them, what your impression is of the kind of person they are (i.e.what you can observe directly--male/female, tall short--and what you infer), and how they respond to your requests. Your partner should keep distance enough so they're not detected as part of the experiment, and should take their own notes on your interactions and vice versa.

Week 4: Who's a Stranger?
It turns out it's not such a simple question to sort out. I focus on how the stranger archetype has been defined and understood, and is relationship to how cosmopolitanism works.  We look at how cosmopolitanism is perceived and how it can be socially and structurally enabled or discouraged. Readings include another Simmel archetype, "The Stranger," and essays by urban theorists Richard Sennett ("Cosmopolitanism as Social Experience") and Kurt Iveson ("Strangers in the Cosmopolis"). These are critical political questions, and reveal another realm of motivation for connecting with strangers.

Presented by

Kio Stark writes about and teaches relational technology and human social dynamics at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. Her work focuses on stranger interactions, intimacy and technology, and technological authenticity. She blogs at  and . Her first novel, Follow Me Down, will be published in Spring 2011.

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