Homophily: The Urban History of an Algorithm at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial
Courtesy Chicago Architecture Biennial / Cory DeWald, 2019

Homophily: The Urban History of an Algorithm will be on view at the Chicago Architecture Biennial from September 19, 2019 - January 5, 2020.

An exhibit focusing on the urban origins of the term homophily, its formalization and proliferation through the algorithmic logics of online networks, and the risks we run when it becomes not just a descriptive model but a prescriptive rule for social life.

A companion essay to the exhibition is published in e-flux Architecture here.

 

Coined by researchers Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton in an influential 1954 study of friendships in Addison Terrace, a public housing project in Pittsburgh, the concept of “homophily” names “the tendency for friendships to form between people ‘of the same kind.’” Focusing on the residents' attitudes toward racial integration and segregation, they concluded that close friendships form and persist not simply on the basis of shared identities but thanks to shared values and beliefs. The model of homophily was born in this mid-century urban struggle over race and space. 

CSR’s installation looks at the legacy of the concept of homophily, presenting a set of data visualizations that show its contemporary applications in the digital world. Today homophily underlies much of what happens in our online interactions, following the assumption that “similarity breeds connection”. What began as a formal explanation of social life in a housing complex has become an algorithm that shapes much of the dynamics of digital space, driving everything from targeted advertising, to viewing recommendations, to predictive policing on the streets of Chicago. As homophily turns from a description into a norm, it helps create a social world in which previously-held identities and positions are reinforced and concentrated rather than challenged or hybridized.

Project Team:
Laura Kurgan, Principal Investigator, and Director
Dare Brawley, Assistant Director
Brian House, Mellon Research Scholar
Jia Zhang, Mellon Research Scholar
In collaboration with:
Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media and Professor of Communication, Simon Fraser University

Graduate Research Assistants: Alanna Browdy, Rebecca Cook, Audrey Dandenault, Tola Oniyangi, Andrea Partenio, Juvaria Shahid

Graphic Design: Studio TheGreenEyl

Research for this exhibition was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Canada 150 Research Chairs Program, and the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. With thanks Leslie Gill Architect for design consultation, and to the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Harriet Zuckerman, Robert Lazarsfeld for assistance and reproduction permissions on archival materials.

 
Homophily: the Urban History of an Algorithm
An installation for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial
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The word "homophily" was coined by researchers Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton in an influential 1954 study of friendships in Addison Terrace, a biracial housing project in Pittsburgh. They were suspicious of the "familiar and egregiously misleading question: do birds of a feather flock together?" They suggested that friendships form and persist not simply on the basis of shared identities but thanks to shared values and beliefs. They focused on "racial attitudes," and discovered that people with what they called "liberal" values about race were much more likely to be friends with each other, as were people with "illiberal" positions. In a quirk of statistical reasoning, they used only the survey results from white residents: the black population was so overwhelmingly "liberal" that comparison was impossible. The model of homophily – "the tendency for friendships to form between people 'of the same kind'"  – was born in this conflictual urban battleground around segregation and integration.

The afterlife of the concept and its formalization has been remarkable. Today it functions as the principle underlying much of what happens in online social and economic interactions, the axiom that ‘similarity breeds connection.' What began as a description of social life has become an algorithmic rule shaping it: homophily drives targeted advertising, recommendations for purchases and viewing, the promotion of certain types of content on social media platforms over others, and the predictions about crime that guide pre-emptive policing. More or less invisibly, it guides us to people, commodities, destinations, and ideas, among other things, and is widely blamed for creating a social world in which previously-held identities and positions are reinforced and concentrated rather than challenged or hybridized.

The exhibition puts the formalization of homophily in tension with its conceptual and historical origins. The exterior of the five-walled space is covered in custom LED panels that simulate homophily and the segregation that it produces. Inside, a series of probes into the archives of Lazarsfeld and Merton uncover the history of the concept of homophily and its influence on urbanism and network science. Their archive is not simply something from the past. It speaks directly to our present, our segregated cities and our polarized platforms, where the effects of research in a housing project now reverberate at much greater scale in networks and networked cities.

On view at the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial September 18,2019 – January 5, 2020.

A companion essay to the exhibition is published in e-flux Architecture. 

Research for this exhibition was supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Canada 150 Research Chairs Program, and the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. With thanks Leslie Gill Architect for design consultation, and to the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Harriet Zuckerman, Robert Lazarsfeld for assistance and reproduction permissions on archival materials.

In collaboration with:

Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Canada 150 Research Chair in New Media and Professor of Communication, Simon Fraser University

Graduate Research Assistants: Alanna Browdy, Rebecca Cook, Audrey Dandenault, Tola Oniyangi, Andrea Partenio, Juvaria Shahid

Graphic Design: Studio TheGreenEyl

Project Team
Name Project Role
{{person.name}} {{person.role}}
 
Project
Homophily: the Urban History of an Algorithm
person role
Author(s): 
Laura Kurgan, Dare Brawley, Jia Zhang, Brian House, Wendy Chun
Publication date: 
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
Publication name, page number: 
e-flux Architecture
Description (optional): 
Coined by researchers Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton in an influential 1954 study of friendships in Addison Terrace, a public housing project in Pittsburgh, the concept of “homophily” names “the tendency for friendships to form between people ‘of the same kind.’” Focusing on the residents' attitudes toward racial integration and segregation, they concluded that close friendships form and persist not simply on the basis of shared identities but thanks to shared values and beliefs. The model of homophily was born in this mid-century urban struggle over race and space. This article uses series of probes into the archives of Lazarsfeld and Merton to uncover the history of the concept of homophily and its influence on urbanism and network science. Their archive is not simply something from the past. It speaks directly to our present, our segregated cities and our polarized platforms, where the effects of research in a housing project now reverberate at much greater scale in networks and networked cities. IMAGE CREDIT Aerial view of Terrace Village under construction, ca. 1940. Source: Allegheny Conference on Community Development Photographs, 1875–1981, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center, Pittsburgh.
Intro text (homepage): 
An article in e-flux Architecture on the urban origins of the term homophily, its formalization and proliferation through the algorithmic logics of online networks, and the risks we run when it becomes not just a descriptive model but a prescriptive rule for social life. Published in conjunction with an exhibition for the 2019 Chicago Architecture Biennial.
Lead image: 
Author Last Names for table: 
Kurgan, Brawley, House, Zhang, Chun
Publication short title (carousel): 
Homophily: the Urban History of an Algorithm
Is Website?: 
no
dashboard_sort_date: 
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
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Jia Zhang Contributes to "Who We Are" at the Museum of the City of New York

 

Powers of Ten: Census Edition and Cross-sections Map for New York City are on view at the Museum of the City of New York. Both maps aim to change the interfaces designed for Census data by using physical scale and experiences as orienting concepts for visualizing the contents of the Census.

These two digital maps designed by Mellon Associate Research Scholar, Jia Zhang, are being exhibited as part of "Who We Are," from November 22, 2019-September 20, 2020.

About "Who We Are":
New York City is a dense, chaotic mosaic of some eight and a half million people, each with their own individual stories. How can we possibly understand and describe this endlessly complex collectivity – what we share and what distinguishes us? Census data has long been a resource used to draw out unexpected and provocative patterns, connections, and insights about who New Yorkers are since our nation’s first count in 1790. In anticipation of the 2020 census, Who We Are: Visualizing NYC by the Numbers showcases work not just by data analysts and demographers, but also by cutting-edge contemporary artists and designers who use these tools to enliven and humanize statistics and to shed new light on how we understand our urban environment and ourselves. Together, these intriguing and varied works demonstrate the power and importance of numbers in helping us understand who we are.
Read more here.