Red Burns, “Godmother of Silicon Alley” #ALD13 @findingada


The passing of the brilliant, inimitable Red Burns, co-founder and chair of the ITP program at NYU, was met with an incredible outpouring of memories, eulogies, and video tributes to celebrate what an incredible impact she had on the lives of so many of those who would go on to brave new territories at the intersection of art, design, interaction, and technology.

While there were many to choose from (including ITP, Rhizome), here is a selection from the New York Times obituary:

Ms. Burns has been hailed as the “godmother of Silicon Alley” for helping to turn out 3,000 graduates of the university’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, which she ran for 28 years. Many have become part of the brain trust of Silicon Alley, as New York City’s answer to Silicon Valley is called. They work at Google, Apple, Microsoft and Disney as well as at small start-up firms.

Her purpose was to produce people, rather than just technicians, who could use technology to perform interesting and helpful tasks. Beginning in the early 1970s, working with George C. Stoney, a film professor, she created an informal N.Y.U. program called the Alternate Media Center. One of its efforts was to develop a two-way television system that allowed elderly residents of Reading, Pa., to interact with one another and “visit” community sites like the city center and the Social Security office.

She and Mr. Stoney explored the possibilities of the Sony Portapak camera, the first portable video camera, seeing it as a way to force social change. An early initiative used video to document a faulty stop light to force City Hall to provide a new traffic light.

When the computer became dominant, I.T.P. won notice by coming up with novelties like a talking gumball machine and a refrigerator with a video of a mother’s face projected on its interior back wall. When a visitor took a box of chocolates out of the refrigerator, the mother taunted: “Yeah, that’s just what you need! More chocolate.”

As the dot-com revolution gathered speed, the center was ready. Typical of its alchemy was a 2007 student project that devised a way for thirsty plants, with the help of sensors placed in the dirt, to signal over a phone line that they needed more water. (Read more here.)

And in her own words, here is a selection of text from the presentation she would give to incoming classes at ITP.

You are here, and I welcome you.

Look around you. You come from parts of the world that many of you have never visited.
As you come together, depend on each other, you will find yourself wearing the ill-fitting clothes of someone else’s world and dine on what is the strange food of someone elses thought.

If you can resist the temptation to run back to the shelter of your own comfort zone—if you permit yourself the intellectual curiosity to explore your differences just as you would explore a new city, you might be pleasantly surprised.

Collaboration will jar you—provoke and confront you with different ways of looking at the world—allow this to happen, embrace it…

Each day is magic for me.

I hope it will be for you.


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