Jones Post: Looking Through the Lens of a Lab

It felt like this week’s readings was a sprawling set of promises, each exciting and full of possibilities. Some of the promises had been long fulfilled, and others we’re still waiting for in a more current sense. The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T seemed to present an almost idealized version of the collaborations between academic and industry. Not only that, but Brand’s perspective seemed to give the Media Lab a position of privilege, as if they were looking out beyond the ivory tower to instill their prophetic vision onto corporations and the scholars would be justly rewarded for their vision from those willing to invest. While Brand used the term “Demo or Die”, it seemed to be a more privileged and invigorated sense of invention and bestowal of theories. Brand did mention that M.I.T has a had an unusual relationship to corporations, but even still, Brand’s exploration seemed to primarily focus on the promises of the Media Lab.

This focus allows one to read the possibilities for academic departments, one that is of course laboriously conjoined to corporate sponsorship, but it seemed to promise a type of authority. This authority seems to exist as a perspective that is filtered through the lens of the scholars in the lab. It seemed that the scholars were providing insight into the future, and in the case of Negroponte’s “teething rings”and the convergence of media and technology, there is a strong basis to their vision (pg 9-10). However, this also seems to be hopeful persistence in the power of these relationships because I could see from a current perspective because I could see how many of the inventions fell through or are no longer in use. I thought it was interested that Brand did not fully predict the difficulties that the printing industry have encountered, instead only mentioning how publishers were “riveted” by the possibilities of digital publishing (22). This exploration of the lab seems to focus more on the positives of possibilities as solutions or “cures”, and not the negative or disruptive effects that technology can inflict on markets (22). Even as Brand acknowledges that if an invention is not implemented quickly enough that it might be discarded or replaced by another, it seems to always be in a positivist matter. This then led me to wonder about the gaps in Brand’s analysis. Where are the horrific failures, or the displaced workers? Where are the oppressive hegemonic systems instilled by industry onto academia or from academia onto it’s own scholars? Where are the cracks in this seemingly utopia of development and innovation? Why aren’t we using the computer secretary (51-55)? Of course there’s Siri and Kortana, but those did not operate in the same manner as the computer emulation described that could estimate when to interrupt and when to take calls or when to take messages.

There are inherently some limitations in trying to predict future technologies, or trying to establish trends as stable predictive models. Yet there is something compelling or intriguing about placing academia as the scope for finding new developments or understanding how to think about new developments. I see how often universities are still leading many developments in science and technology, but it also seems that today academia is sometimes placed below industry developments. The hope for placing academia as the lens for viewing technology is that hopefully academia can also provide the moral compass for corporate decisions. Yet even with the Media Lab, it was clear that there was a need for appeasement and funding, so is there really ever a space free from the influence of capitalism or money? Not only that, but where are the critiques of those failed attempts? Is persistent optimism the only way to marry the collaborations of scholars and corporations? How then can failures be addressed or the problematic of capitalist productions? How are problems addressed through the lens that Brand has introduced? Can some of the promise and optimism be used alongside various critiques to explore how labs operate, what their limitations should be and what the limitations are beyond “Demo or Die”? Is optimism already a powerful tool of DH labs used along with the persistent attempts to define and critique the work being done?

It’s always fascinating to take a look back and see what was believe to be possible. It’s also helpful to use an exploration like Brand’s to revisit old goals and to reincorporate those goals if they have been discarded along the way. Yet there appear to be noticeable gaps even of the technologies being explained that were current, so I would be curious to see how the Media Lab scholars would have approached thinking about the gaps where technologies fell through or were incompatible with the practices or hardware of the time.


Brand, Stewart. “Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M.I.T.” New York: Penguin Books, 1987. Print.


On a completely unrelated note, did any one notice how Negroponte’s picture looked like a younger Bill Paxton?



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