How We Make Media Theory at MIT…

In getting ready to teach our graduate prosem on Media Theory and Methods, I have been rereading some passages from Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. This term, I am trying something different with the class, beginning with an extended examination of the role of theory and media production in the history of MIT as a way of helping our entering CMS students think about the place of our program within this institutional history. Turner’s book is an ideal introduction to this topic in part because he has so much to say specifically about MIT but also because he speaks to the roles of both formal institutions and informal networks in shaping the production and dispersion of media theory.

Turner’s book is a study of the ways what he calls “network forums” have shaped our current interpretation of digital technologies. In particular, he is interested in how Stewart Brand, his primary subject, “began to migrate from one intellectual community to another and, in the process, to knit together formerly separate intellectual and social networks.” Turner continues, “

Drawing on the systems rhetoric of cybernetics and on models of entrepreneurship borrowed from both the research and the counter-cultural worlds, Brand established a series of meetings, publications, and digital networks within which members of multiple communities could meet and collaborate and imagine themselves as members of a single community. These forums in turn generated new social networks, new cultural categories, and new turns of phrase.”

Turner is interested in documenting the various “contact zones” where different subcultures of researchers were brought together and the kinds of “border languages” that were created to enable their ideas to flow from one discipline to another. Turner focuses less on Brand as a person than on the various social networks within which he participated — The Whole Earth Catalog, the Well, and Wired, chief among them.

The book opens with some insightful analysis of what happened when MIT Professor and administrator Vannevar Bush convinced FDR to fund the National Defense Research Committee during World War II: this brought about a different set of relationships between corporate, government, and academic research. According to Turner, Bush, Norbert Wiener, and others of his generation created a context for multidisciplinary research at MIT. Writing about the “RadLab”, Turner explains, “

It brought together scientists and mathematicians from MIT and elsewhere, engineers and designers from industry, and many different military and government planners. Among these various professionals, and particularly among the engineers and designers, entrepreneurship and collaboration were the norm, and independence of mind was strongly encouraged. Formerly specialized scientists were urged to become generalists in their research, able not only to theorize but also to design and build new technologies. At the same time, scientists and engineers had to become entrepreneurs, assembling networks of technologists, funders, and administrators to see their projects through. Neither scientists nor administrators could stay walled off from one another in their offices and laboratories; throughout the Rad Lab, and even after hours, in the restaurants and living rooms of Cambridge, the pressures to produce new technologies to fight the war drove formerly specialized scientists and engineers to cross professional boundaries, to routinely mix work with pleasure, and to form new, interdisciplinary networks within which to work and live.”

Studying Turner’s book has given me some core insights into the institution where I have worked and thrived for the past sixteen plus years. One of the first things I observed when I came here was the difference between the ways that MIT students engaged with theory from the ways it is often discussed in the Big Ten institutes where I did my graduate work. In a liberal arts classroom, students tend to circle a theory like a pack of raptors and rip it to shreds in the course of a discussion, leaving only the tattered bits on the table, or they choose sides, some embracing, others critiquing the theory, and butt heads together like charging rams, to see which one can withstand the pressure. At MIT, the tendency is to tinker, to take the theory apart, reduce it to component elements, and then reassemble it again in a better form. It is a brainstorming and problem solving culture: a theory is only valuable if it allows us to do something we want to do and the test of a theory is its applications in the real world.

The Comparative Media Studies program’s emphasis on “applied humanities” reflects these habits of mind: we are interested in figuring out what the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences might have to contribute to helping our society adjust to a profound and prolonged period of media change and our goals are to embrace and promote the emergence of a more participatory culture. To achieve these goals, we have tried to create a “lab culture” for the humanities at MIT. In the MIT tradition, we have created centers and labs which emphasize experimentation and research, organized conferences which bring together researchers from many different disciplinary backgrounds, and participate in larger national networks and projects which bridge between different spheres of activity. Perhaps most of all, we place an emphasis on the public communication of our ideas so that they can make a difference in the world and in the process, we try to strip our language of specialized terms or concepts that might impede its ability to circulate within these larger social networks. I have struggled a lot through the years with the question of what it means to be a humanist at MIT. Every so often, I get a glimpse of how well, in fact, our program fits within the MIT culture and how much I have absorbed of the institutional values and practices of this place.

Turner’s book has also helped me to better understand MacArthur’s current initiative on Youth and Digital Learning. The Foundation speaks openly about trying to construct a new field focused on understanding how young people incorporate new media technologies into their everyday lives, giving rise to new forms of civic engagement, cultural participation, and informal learning. Our Project nml is simply one node in this much larger network of researchers, drawn from universities and centers around the country, built up from people working in very different disciplines. Collectively, this network is doing field work and ethnography on young people’s existing practices, developing curricular materials to support new media literacies, rethinking the place of the library within an information culture, forming after school programs and experimental schools, designing and distributing computer and video games designed to foster computational and design skills, editing and publishing books to guide parents and policy makers, creating and maintaining a blog to insure the circulation of these ideas to the larger public, and much more. The Foundation has done an extraordinary job in enabling intellectually meaningful connections between these various projects, bringing various mixes of researchers together for in person meetings and telephone conferences, creating shared projects that build upon our individual endeavors, insuring that we each have stakes in the success of the initiative as a whole. And they have done a good job of publicizing their efforts so that they have started to capture the public imagination. Increasingly, as I travel around the country, I am asked about what MacArthur is trying to do and my role in the larger process. Above all, MacArthur has instilled in us a sense that what we are doing can make a difference in the world.

Over the next few weeks, my students and I will be taking a look at: the development of cybernetic theory, the experimentation with strobe photography and its impact on our understanding of photography as a medium, the role of MIT as a center for video art and cinema verite documentary, several generations of thinking about the political impact of news and information, and several major traditions for thinking about the value of new media for education and self discovery. My hope is that these case studies will not only introduce our students to some core debates in media theory but also give them insights into how these theories originated, the institutional contexts within which they circulated, the discursive practices that shaped how they got picked up by the outside world, and the particular relationship which MIT has developed between theory and practice.

Part of the process of putting this class together has been to reconnect with researchers from these various traditions who are still actively part of the MIT community. For the most part, my students will be getting first hand reports on how these theories emerged at MIT and the contexts which shaped them. I hope to share some of what we learn through the blog in the weeks to come.

MIT is a particularly rich site for exploring the evolution of media theory because of the ways that social and cultural theories take shape here through interplay with technologists and designers, scientists and engineers, industry leaders and public policy makers, rather than in a self-contained academic discipline. I am going to be interested in exploring the kinds of “network forums,” “contact zones,” and “border languages” which support and sustain the production of theory here at MIT. From there, I hope to maintain at least some focus on the institutional contexts within which theory originated — from Eisenstein’s blurring of film theory and practice through to the Frankfort and Birmingham Schools and to contemporary digital theory (including the work of modern media makers/theorists, such as Scott McCloud or a growing number of folks in games studies.) I’d be curious to hear how other academics are getting students to focus on their own institutions and their historical evolution.