It still happens to me. After meeting a colleague from somewhere at MIT for the first time and exchanging the usual data points, I’m asked if Comparative Media Studies is the same as the Media Lab. I say no, make clear the differences (and sites of overlap), only to hear “I didn’t know that we had media at MIT…”
In fact, MIT’s tradition of innovation in thinking about and working with media is nothing short of exceptional. A look at “What is CMS” on our website reveals a few of the Institute’s many luminaries and situates CMS squarely within the trajectory they have provided. And courses such as Media in Transition and Media Theory and Methods probe some of these developments more deeply. This semester, I’m teaching a course that focuses on this rich tradition: Media in Cultural Context: Media@MIT (21L.715 / CMS 871).
The course blurb sketches the terrain: MIT’s researchers have made countless inter-ventions into media theory, technology and application. From Claude Shannon’s Information Theory to Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, from Vannevar Bush’s Memex to Russel/Kotok/Graetz’s Spacewar!, from the work of the Center for Advanced Visual Studies (CAVS)to the Media Lab, from Ithiel de Sola Pool’s Technologies of Freedom to Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen, from Nicholas Negroponte’s Being Digital to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, these and many more achievements attest to the formative work carried out at the Institute. Add to this the work of Tim Berners-Lee (the World Wide Web), Harold ‘Doc’ Edgerton (stroboscopic photography), Richard Leacock (direct cinema and modified 8mm cinematography), Amar Bose (psychoacoustics and the sound reduction headphones that bear his name), and alumni such as Robert Metcalfe (Ethernet), and the remarkable scale of MIT’s intervention into the world of media becomes clear.
These people, inventions and labs have triggered new lines of inquiry, altered the way we see, and had profound impact on our thinking about and use of media. It would not be an exaggeration to characterize this work as foundational—a term that suggests one dimension of coherence in an otherwise topically diverse set of endeavors. A distinctive cultural modality also underlies this work, and while it perhaps lacks the neat descriptive focus of ‘the Columbia school’ or ‘the Toronto school’ or ‘the Chicago school’ (see Katz et al, Canonic Media Texts), it derives from conditions that are distinctive to MIT. Here I refer to the Institute’s relatively ‘flat’ structure and the manner in which trans-disciplinary collaborations are both administratively facilitated and actively stimulated. The work of these luminaries—like the work that goes on within CMS—thrives in border areas, on the edges of established disciplines where frequent contact with other paradigms generates precisely the sorts of insights that can be transformative. But in an academic world still organized around disciplines, the very trans-disciplinary dynamics that have driven MIT’s tradition of innovation also help to account for its low profile.
Media@MIT is a research-focused course, and concerned with the narratives that have been constructed around these figures and with the dominant readings that have been deployed in making sense of them. By remapping these many activities and grouping them together in new ways, we will trace lines of shared interest and new patterns of coherence. These patterns will appear on multiple levels, from the macro level of an institutionally specific research field (‘the MIT school’ anyone?), to the micro level that binds together the work of Edgerton, Leacock, and Bose through their concern with using media technologies to enhance encounters with the real, both challenging and sharpening our perceptual apparatus in the process. The course asks whether a new set of interpretive strategies can render visible the until-now invisible. Consistent with the border areas it seeks to investigate, the course will reflect upon and draw from the representational tactics of literature, history, STS, cultural studies, and the mother disciplines of MIT’s various media researchers in an attempt to “connect the dots,” linking our current research and curricular endeavors in CMS to this much deeper tradition. Media at MIT? The answer goes beyond ‘yes’ to a fundamental repositioning of the term ‘media’ from the familiar domain of media texts to a larger order that includes systems, technologies, and implications.
For more information on the project, visit http://student.mit.edu/catalog/search.cgi?search=21L.715.