Archibald Post 6: Inventing the Future through Anti-Disciplinary Research

The Media Lab’s epigraph recognizes the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as “Elegant code by witty programmers.” Yes! From the outset, Stewart Brand affirms legislators as coders. Take that SR! In fact, despite its 1987 publication, The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT is an incredibly relevant text that speaks to many of the issues we are discussing in class. I’m particularly interested in the Lab’s establishing mission, and want to compare this to its present day philosophies.

Inaugurated in 1985, the MIT Media Lab was the result of years of proposals and funding acquisition by Nicholas Negroponte and Jerome Wiesner. During his time as a visiting scientist in 1986, Brand notices that the Media Lab isn’t concerned with the “publish or perish” mantra that guides academics in traditional science laboratories; instead, the Lab’s motto is “demo or die” (4). This emphasis on making and experimenting certainly feeds into the digital humanities’ ‘building’ and ‘doing’ concerns. Furthermore, the formal policy at the Lab is to “invent the future” through its work with electronic communication technologies; Brand expands on this by claiming that “the binding principle at the Media Lab, the primary theme, is conversation, with computers and through computers” (7). From its establishing moments, then, the Lab was specifically aware of the increasingly symbiotic relationship between the human and the digital. Interestingly, Brand identifies that his book is really examining two labs that shape one another—the physical and the networked—which plays into our conversations about DH labs’ negotiations of material and virtual spaces.

Brand details a host of projects and products that the Media Lab was working on, and I found two concepts arising from these discussions especially helpful. First is Seymour Papert’s idea of “bug appreciation,” whereby an individual can personally isolate and fix technological problems that they are confronted with (126). Second is his recognition that society prefers planning over tinkering, but that tinkerers are incredibly valuable due to an ability to negotiate and adapt learning experiences (129). With regard to DH pedagogical strategies, these are exactly the types of productive skills that I think students at high school and tertiary levels should be learning: not to ‘know’ everything, but to have firm processes and experiences behind them so that they are prepared to jump into unfamiliar situations with confidence in both failures and successes. Experimenting is the key word in this type of learning, and this plays into the Media Lab’s focus at large.

The present-day Media Lab has a list of guiding principles that are elaborated on in an interview with MIT’s current director, Joi Ito: http://www.wired.com/2012/06/resiliency-risk-and-a-good-compass-how-to-survive-the-coming-chaos/. Essentially, the Lab prefers:

Resilience > Strength,  Pull > Push,  Risk > Safety,  Systems > Objects,  Compasses > Maps,  Practice > Theory,  Disobedience > Compliance,  Crowd > Experts,  Learning > Education

All of these principles can be summarized as a type of anti-disciplinary research that eschews traditional structure (embodied by Ito himself, who started but never completed two academic degrees). Furthermore, the Lab has changed somewhat in research direction; its motto is still “inventing the future,” and it primarily investigates and designs in the world of electronic communication technologies, but it is especially concerned with projects aimed at “human adaptability” (MIT Media Lab). It therefore hosts research groups in areas such as affective computing (bridging the gap between human emotion and computational technology, for example using Google Glass to identify individual stress factors http://bioglass.media.mit.edu/) and biomechatronics (enhancing human physical capabilities, as seen in this project building better communications between amputees’ residual limbs and their powered prostheses – http://biomech.media.mit.edu/#/portfolio_page/neural-interface-technology-for-advanced-prosthetic-limbs/).

Reading about the Media Lab’s establishing and contemporary research goals is exciting and inspiring; the Lab has pioneered incredible innovations, such as BiOM bionic lower-leg systems, 3D digital holographic printing, and the electronic ink technology used by Kindle etc. However, I am wary of the capitalist structures governing its work: the Lab receives immense amounts of funding from corporations such as Apple and Twitter, who then directly benefit from Lab research. On the other hand, the Lab tends to make its research public, for example its programming is usually open source. Does this mitigate the potentially negative consequences of corporate investment?

Works Cited:

Brand, Stewart. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T. New York: Viking Penguin Inc, 1987. Print.

MIT Media Lab. “Missions and Principles.” . https://www.media.mit.edu/about/mission-history. Accessed 11 October 2015.

Wired. “Resiliency, Risk, and a Good Compass: Tools for Surviving the Coming Chaos (an interview with Joi Ito)” http://www.wired.com/2012/06/resiliency-risk-and-a-good-compass-how-to-survive-the-coming-chaos/. 06 November 2012.

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