Reading The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987) was like walking through Charlie’s Chocolate Factory, revealing a new dream-turned-reality at every turn of the page. Televisions that summarize the news for you when you get home? Typing in a Shakespeare play “and hav[ing] the computer act it out […] automatically” (112)? When scientists dream, they dream big. And I was amused by the accuracy of Brand’s predictions: he anticipates TiVo and its market adversaries, relating the concept of “narrowcasting” and its individualized, decommercialized viewing experience. He also argues that the future creation of DVDs (“high-definition feature-length film on a compact disk”) will lead to the “exit of the film-rental business” (80). Ding ding ding. Cue the rise of Netflix and the fall of Blockbuster.
But I’ve found myself unable to get past Brand’s disintegrating notion of “place.” In his discussions with Negroponte, Brand asks,
“When you’re on the road, who runs the Lab?” Three hours later I logged into the MIT system and found his reply: “The fact that I’m replying to you from Japan two hours after your question from California somewhat begs the question. The Lab doesn’t know I’m gone.” I later confirmed the fact when I worked there. Administratively, he isn’t gone when he travels, any more than most of the Lab people are gone when they log in from home at odd hours. E-mail evaporates the tyranny of place, and to a considerable degree, of time.” (24)
Boom! Our ability to communicate technologically has “evaporate[d] the tyranny of place [and] time,” allowing us to occupy numerous spaces and roles at once. But simultaneously, doesn’t this remove the necessity of a designated work site?
Melissa also brought up this issue in class last week. How do we justify digital humanities labs as necessary to our work? How do we justify the material when “power [is] shifting from the material to the immaterial world” (42)? At first, I resisted this idea due to the implication of DH’s relative “unworthiness” to science disciplines. Why should a media lab, as opposed to a physics or biochem lab, have to prove that our lab space is useful, productive, and foundational to our work? But as the week went by, I became more and more convinced that Melissa is right. I think I speak for everyone when I say that the MAL tour was incredibly fun and informative, but how do we translate that magic into the language of a grant proposal? The MAL could certainly make an argument for its value as an archival space, a museum of retrograde electronics–but does an interactive museum qualify as a work space? Several of us commented on the lack of actual work tables available in the lab (a necessary side-effect of its wide-ranging collection). So my question, echoing Melissa’s, is this: if we’re capable of completing DH projects at home on our laptops, how can we claim that the laboratory is a site of necessary work rather than superfluous play?
My answer to this question is that play itself is valuable and foundational to what we do–that play and work are weaved together in a process of inseparable creative production. When I walked into the MAL, I experienced a sensation similar to what Brand experienced when he visited the Hennigan School: “I found the place so gleeful to be around that I went back a couple of more times later just for the pleasure of it” (121). This gleefulness is not only engaging on a personal and academic level, but leads to new discoveries in the materials and processes themselves. After struggling to play Pac-Man on an Atari, I complained to Erin that the controls were inverted. “Damn, I can’t play with inverted controls. I wish I could just go into Options and change it, like on an Xbox.” Erin silently reached over, picked up the joystick, and rotated it 180 degrees. Perhaps this is what Brand means when he says that laboratories are like “playpens of another level of understanding” (113).
In the spirit of play, I’ve attached a link to MIT’s Game Lab: http://gamelab.mit.edu/. This lab focuses on play as a productive methodology, arguing that gameplay “is the most positive response of the human spirit to a universe of uncertainty.” Check out their free Beta game, “A Slower Speed of Light,” which allows players to interact with the laws of special relativity in a three-dimensional arena: http://gamelab.mit.edu/games/a-slower-speed-of-light/. As someone who has tried (and largely failed) to study relativity and spacetime, I couldn’t imagine a more creative way to make this abstract field hands-on.
Here’s a trailer for those of you who don’t have the time or inclination to download a video game: