Dec/07
Jennifer Light

Playing at City Building

A century ago, American children regularly played at city building in schools and youth serving institutions. Much of this activity took the form of “junior republics” – miniature cities, states, and nations run by kids. With supervising adults in the background, the young officials made laws, took civil service exams, paid taxes, ran restaurants, printed newspapers, and role played other civic activities. This talk, which draws on my forthcoming book States of Childhood, explores the historical and contemporary significance of these participatory simulations. I'll argue that the history of the republic movement helps to make visible children’s widespread contributions to American city building, and how their varied contributions were rendered invisible through an earlier era’s discourse about simulation and play. I'll also discuss the republic movement's resonances with a range of contemporary techniques and technologies from role playing and gamification to virtual worlds and augmented reality games, and suggest how recent work in the history of computing and information technology is making available new bodies of theoretical and empirical research for scholars and practitioners seeking a “usable past.”

Jennifer Light

Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society; Bern Dibner Professor of the History of Science and Technology; Professor of Urban Studies and Planning

Jen Light’s eclectic interests span the history of science and technology in America over the past 150 years. She is the author of three books as well as articles and essays covering topics from female programming pioneers, to early attempts to organize smart cities, to the racial implications of algorithmic thinking in federal housing policy, to the history of youth political media production, to the uptake of scientific and technical ideas and innovations across other fields. Professor Light is especially fascinated by smart peoples’ bad ideas: efforts by well-intentioned scientists and engineers to apply scientific methods and technological tools to solve social and political problems—and how the history of their failures can inform contemporary scientific and engineering practice. 

Light holds degrees from Harvard University and the University of Cambridge. She has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study and the Derek Brewer Visiting Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. Her work has been supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and honored with the Catherine Bauer Wurster Prize from the Society for American City and Regional Planning History and an honorary doctorate from the Illinois Institute of Technology. Light serves on the editorial boards IEEE Annals of the History of ComputingInformation and CultureHistorical Studies in the Natural Sciences; and Journal of Urban History. Professor Light was previously on the faculty of the School of Communication and the Departments of History and Sociology at Northwestern University.