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January 21, 2005

Reality Distortion Fields

Charisma, they may call it. Jealously being their reaction, while their disdain becomes a weapon of their retribution. Such are the slings and arrows of being both successful and unconventional within academia.

Some people (and institutions) are naturally media hounds. They thrive on the attention and, in turn, the attention drives them toward generating more of the same. For people, we call this "drama" and them "drama queens", but for institutions, we don't for some reason. But you have to admire places like the MIT Media Lab, which consistently pursues a radical vision of the future, despite disdain from the more traditional (provincial?) halls of the academy. Unfortunately, this is no surprise considering America's long tradition of love-hate for the people that the famous Chiat/Day advertising campaign for Apple Computer hailed when it said "the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who usually do." The tech boom of the 1990s seemed to suggest a cultural d├ętente between the forces of tradition and the forces of freakdom, but in the increasingly conservative environment of today, we seem less accommodating.

I have been here for a week now, soaking up the cultural vibe that splilleth over so copiously. Surrounded by passionate people, clashing colored facades, ubiquitously snaking computer cables and omnipresent flashing monitors, the Media Lab feels like a perpetual start-up company that never has to go public or grow into a curmudgeonly hierarchy. As I sit now in a third floor office attached to the Borg Lab (a.k.a. the wearable computing lab) , I think I have a sense of what makes this place special, what makes this place tick and why it both deserves and preserves the professional envy it receives. I remember that when I asked one of my professors at my alma mater about the Media Lab, which I was considering for graduate school, he demurred by saying that they were very creative people who often do pretty outlandish research.

Perhaps he didn't realize how accurate he was being - creative and outlandish are exactly what make the Media Lab unique, and exactly what attracts smart students and faculty bent on changing the world. Although they certainly do research, the pretty strange topics they explore could be more accurately described as "creative engineering".

With an emphasis on demo-able projects that can be shown-off to the corporate sponsors who keep the Lab flush with money, it's natural that there is both a degree of competition as to who can have the most flashy demo, and a natural drive toward creating the applications of technology that will define the future. Truly, the Media Lab is an outsourced research and development center, primed with the passions and ambitions of smart people in love with the possibility of changing the world through technology.

posted January 21, 2005 02:00 AM in Simply Academic | permalink