Post 6 Kirtz: Bills, Bills, Bills The MIT Money Lab

Minimum wage in 1987 in Massachusetts was $3.65 (“State Minimum Wages, 1983-2014”); the M.I.T. Media lab paid students $5.50 (Brand 59), almost exactly 150% more than the minimum wage at the time. However, in comparison to the work students were doing, specifically with the significant amount of corporate funding being donated, this too tells an all too familiar tale of universities using undergraduate researchers for higher level work while simultaneously underpaying them. How many hours a week were these students typically paid for? This question is not answered in Brand’s book. While professors may value the intelligence and initiative of these students as Brand indicates, the actual financial representation of this is not made explicitly clear.

The major themes of the Media Lab involve “communication, empowers the individual, employs computers, and makes a flashy demonstration” (4). The themes of empowerment and flashy demonstration are key as they denote the factors in which secure the funding for the Media Lab as well as its press and outreach programs. These themes are key to Negroponte’s ideology, which has followed him beyond the M.I.T. Media Lab and influenced (I would argue) interdisciplinary and STEM education. Brand lauds Negroponte for wanting to humanize mass media and enabling “everyone” to become a critic or editor (7); however, hasn’t this already happened via virtue of the Internet and its applications and tools (part of mass new media)? Secondly, I find that Negroponte often conflates access with ability, as while these technologies theoretically could be accessible to everyone, not everyone will have the ability to use them due to education, socio-economic status and corporate intervention. This is the main reason that Negroponte’s One Laptop for Every Child failed miserably. Without the proper infrastructure to support technology (teachers to educate, education for the teachers, etc) AND the dialogue to consistently question its use and application via those interacting with it initiatives such as those Negroponte point too often only work in the M.I.T. Media Lab. I wonder how this problem might be addressed through new types of labs? One suggestion might be through the introduction of problems from grassroot campaigns rather than corporations.

Within the first four pages of the book specific numbers for sponsorship is already mentioned ($200,000 and above is preferred) (4). “Professors are not only permitted but encouraged to devote up to 20 percent of their time— “a day a week,” as they say— to outside consulting and other profitable business interests such as starting companies” (6). As Brand illustrates, the M.I.T. Lab is as much of a place of innovation as it is a hub of neoliberal incubation that spawns technological based companies, thus perpetuating and supporting capitalist ideologies. Brand describes a presentation that Minsky gives to Apple corporation vice presidents about a program, the Vivarium, for young students to learn cognitive thinking skills (101). In this presentation Minsky makes a troubling comment: “You’d hate to be away from your Vivarium because you might miss something,” describing an essential element of modern marketing (Brand 101). Brand hints at this through mentioning the language which the Vivarium will be built will run on constraints rather than opportunities, thus illuminating the intrusion of corporate interventions (101). This is also present in the very day-to-day functions of the lab as “I could always tell when a sponsor visit was scheduled. Implicated researchers were in ties and slacks instead of the customary native garb of running shoes and jeans” (57).

The relationship between corporations and the M.I.T. Media Lab is explained in the following quote: “The corporate sponsors have to figure out how to capitalize on its inventions. For their money they get a five-year key to the lab. None of the work is proprietary. Sponsors can wander around and ask questions about the different projects” (Brand 156). While most of the questions Brand asks focus on competition and exclusivity, there is one issue briefly addressed that has roots in a large debate today, namely open source/access to software and technology. For example, regarding the hologram work, “all the work done is public, but GM gets the license to use the technology developed under the grant” (Brand 158). If Negroponte is truly advocating for advance and accessibility then shouldn’t software be made open access? What happens to technological innovation through accessibility i.e. open source if it is already tied to corporate accounts? What about the projects without corporate sponsors, do they get equal amounts of attention?

Small aside on Otherness:

Was anyone else bothered by the portrayal of Otherness in this book? Particularly the sections when Japanese investors were mentioned? Brand uses a very stereotypical portrayal of Japanese culture and businessmen to configure the dichotomy between research interests and funding sources as “in Japan, expectably, the topic is of intense popular interest, sometimes reported under headlines with a thrilling futuristic word in compressed English: “ newmedia. ” Japanese prosperity thrives on it, and it brings Japanese sponsors to the Media Lab by the dozen” (19). The exoticization or need to illustrate how Japanese configure the word for this type of research within our own Anglophone, Western hegemonic view seems purposeful to me, as if to illustrate the superiority of M.I.T.’s innovation and reinforce traditional, colonial, Western dominance.

Small aside on pictures:

g1_u35435_Nicholas_negroponteDid anyone else notice there were very little pictures of the lab and always pictures of people? Perhaps this was to emphasis individuality over mass but I think this also illustrates the (white) male hegemonic dominance, which to a major extent is still an issue in this area. First, I wonder why the author made this choice to only take these very stoic pictures of these professors? Secondly, where are these undergraduates that are supposedly the ones changing technology? Why aren’t their pictures taken? Lastly, why is there no pictures of the actual lab space until the middle of the book (page 162 in my edition)?

Works Cited

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

“State Minimum Wages, 1983-2014.” Tax Policy Center. Urban Institute and Brooklyn Institute. 2014. Web. 11 Oct 2015.


4 thoughts on “Post 6 Kirtz: Bills, Bills, Bills The MIT Money Lab

  1. “Was anyone else bothered by the portrayal of Otherness in this book?” *Waves hand*
    Right here! Everything you’re talking about I’m right there with you. Maybe not as eloquently, but I’m there. This blog post is everything.


  2. Also when Negroponte is all like “oh those silly Japanese” I was horrified.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jaime, thanks again for this post! I was particularly struck by your question concerning the limited (top-down) dissemination of knowledge: “I wonder how this problem might be addressed through new types of labs? One suggestion might be through the introduction of problems from grassroot campaigns rather than corporations.” Your call for grassroot campaigns, while notably missing in large-scale academia, has recently been taken up by the Communications Department at CU. Check out their conference schedule, which focuses on community engagement, flexible infrastructure, and what they’re calling “Deep Think Tank” sessions. You’ll note of course that despite calls for bottom-up knowledge construction, the conference ironically features only academic speakers. I’m left wondering whether or not this can ever be effective; where is the so-called community voice in this space?


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