The MIT Media Lab: An idea worth growing

by Jim Gray

Jan. 30, 2020

Author's note: Since the early days of my graduate training and professional life, I have had contact with the people and ideas of the MIT Media Lab, on the periphery as a cross-registered student from Harvard, at a distance during several phases of my career, and currently from the inside as a research scientist. The ideas expressed here draw from these varied experiences, and the many talented faculty, students, and staff at the Media Lab (I don’t cite sources for every phrase and idea presented). I offer this piece, not as a representative of the Lab, but as one person’s collection of impressions, opinions, and some synthesis of ideas, in hopes that they contribute to the further growth of what is fundamentally right at the MIT Media Lab. 

A Healthy Core   

The MIT Media Lab is many things to many people: an interdisciplinary research lab working to invent the future; a “federation” of individuals collaborating across diverse specialities; membership in a research consortium and access to intellectual property; the intersection of people and machines for social good; the birthplace of a new academic discipline; a multidisciplinary tapestry; a creative cycle of art, science, engineering, and design; a conjoining of atoms and bits, digital and biological, demos and deployment, academics and business; a diverse and supportive community of students, faculty and staff; an institution committed to excellence and ethics, engaged in reflection and re-building, and more.

What about unhealthy elements at the Media Lab? Since the fall of 2019, the Lab community has come together in a host of new ways to reflect, address issues, and attempt to re-build a stronger Lab. There is a new ad hoc executive committee composed of three senior faculty members and two senior MIT leaders, five working groups organized around specific topics (Culture, Funding, Governance, Research, Student-Advisor Relations), regular meetings among stakeholder groups, including faculty, students, and staff. All this is taking place within the broader context of formal inquiries, working groups, and policy considerations, both at MIT and other universities. This work is in progress, but I believe the level of effort, time, and resources committed to it represent a sincere effort to learn from mistakes and grow in positive directions.  

What is uniquely valuable at the Media Lab? What is worth preserving and growing? One theme that stands out across many perspectives is a kind of hopeful synergy—a unique approach to creating commonality from diversity with the goal of building a better world. It’s the theme of interdisciplinary work reflected in the founding vision for the Lab, in the expanding diversity of domains represented at the Lab today from the physical, biological, social, and computational realms, and a fundamental need in the wider world. It’s also reflected in the social diversity of our community across the many aspects of ourselves, and interest in improving equity and inclusion along these dimensions.

More than ever, if humans are to survive and thrive into the future, we need to recognize our symbiotic relationship with each other, our machines, and the natural world. We need to invent new ways to creatively and constructively bridge differences toward common goals, and manage rapid technological change. More than anything, what the world needs is the kind of creative symbiosis at the heart of the Media Lab.

What does our interdisciplinary core look like? In 2004, a study of “well regarded interdisciplinary research institutions,” including the MIT Media Lab, described how experts assess their own research, and proposed a new way to assess several features (“epistemic dimensions”) of high-quality interdisciplinary work. The study’s co-author, Howard Gardner, now serves on the advisory council of the Media Lab and recently published an analysis of how university-based organizations—specifically Harvard’s Project Zero and the MIT Media Lab—survive and thrive in the face of challenges. 

To extend the earlier study of interdisciplinary research, I recently conducted informal interviews with several faculty to find out how they promote this approach. I discovered that many focus on accepting students from a diverse set of specialties to intentionally build a multi-disciplinary team, and some rely on their own deep expertise across disciplines. Others emphasize recruiting students with good collaborative skills that facilitate productive work across whatever differences might arise—disciplinary or otherwise. 

Collaboration across groups varies in frequency and format. Faculty and their groups—students and staff, postdocs and researchers—necessarily focus on their chosen home themes, while many connect often across boundaries as well. They may build joint technologies, and collaborate on shared projects. Varied architectural spaces in the Media Lab buildings support interactions ranging from focused conversations on comfortable couches to serendipitous chats sparked by multi-story sight lines in open public areas. Faculty and students connect across groups through course projects and thesis committee advising. At its best, collaboration is spawned from faculty trust and students’ synergies larger than anyone’s single thesis project. 

Spreading Locally and Globally

Further expanding our interdisciplinary strength could take many forms. We could intentionally support students in their cross-group projects by highlighting the stories of what’s been done in the past. Faculty could develop projects, courses, or symposia that emphasize intergroup and interdisciplinary themes. We could create new positions like atelierista in the Italian Reggio Emilia schools who facilitate and document creative work of the students with the goal of enhancing the educational process. New kinds of activities and collaborations can strengthen our internal community, and help spread our interdisciplinary approach beyond the Media Lab where it can also make significant contributions. 

Across societies, growing in the direction of greater social symbiosis is arguably the single most important response to divisions in politics, race, gender, ethnicity, and the myriad other ways that we human beings sub-divide ourselves. Current challenges of climate change, economic disparities, AI and automation, and biotechnology highlight our shared fate in a vastly interconnected world. Addressing our common causes from the perspectives of our different positions is the issue of our time. Tolerance and understanding only go so far; we need to create synergies that take advantage of differences. We need to embark on projects in which we are more than the sum of our parts—perhaps drawing on anti-stereotyping “contact and acquaintance” research, and “jigsaw curricula” in classrooms. 

The MIT Media Lab has the capacity to spread its approach to interdisciplinary work, along with the content of its IP. Clearly, it has an effect on students who graduate to conduct research and development in other institutions. Member organizations inevitably internalize aspects of the Media Lab’s approach. 

In my own career, I first became aware of the Media Lab while teaching interactive media design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, in a small innovative group (AVI, the American Video Institute) modeled directly after MIT’s Media Lab. Our director, John Ciampa, knew leaders here, and pursued parallel work (e.g., an aerial version of the Aspen Project, an interactive video simulation for legal case study education). Later, as a postdoc at SRI International and the Center for Innovative Learning Technologies, I worked with Roy Pea who joined the Stanford faculty and started mediaX, with a similar consortium model, but with faculty remaining more separate in their individual departments. Similarly, The Berkeley Center for New Media brings together faculty, staff, and students from 35 departments across their University.  Other organizations like Harvard Project Zero have origins unconnected to the Media Lab other than being in Cambridge and committed to creativity and the arts (with some technology projects), but nonetheless conduct complementary interdisciplinary work.  

Learning and Growth

If the Media Lab’s interdisciplinary work is a quilt, what are the threads that connect each disciplinary patch? This is a key question for understanding how interdisciplinary work functions at the Media Lab, for improving and expanding its use, and spreading related approaches outside the Lab. This topic is beyond the scope of this piece, but a few key points stand out: 1) epistemology (the study of knowledge) is central to interdisciplinary work: how we know what we know, the structure of that knowledge, what counts as data, and how we provide evidence for a claim (e.g., that a particular intervention has an effect on users); 2) credibility of our research depends on matching the category and stage of a project to the appropriate epistemology and methods. Research projects range from early proof-of-concept prototypes and demos, to basic research (e.g., on machine learning), to real-world deployment projects and randomized controlled trials; 3) history: epistemology is in our intellectual DNA at the Media Lab, as a topic central to Seymour Papert’s work (with Piaget, his Learning and Epistemology group, and colleagues), and current interest in the nature of intelligence across humans and machines includes studying what we know and how we know it, which can then be extended or replaced by machine learning and AI.  

How do Media Lab students learn? Education at the Media Lab has always centered on an apprenticeship model of learning-by-making in collaboration with others. It also includes classes taught internally, at MIT, and Harvard. Faculty have significant freedom to pursue their own research and approach to guiding students. Among students, self-directed learning and choosing courses they most value is the norm.

The philosophy of education at the Media Lab began with founding faculty member Seymour Papert, who built on what he learned working with the famous cognitive developmentalist Jean Piaget to articulate an approach he called constructionism. The core idea is learning by constructing one’s own knowledge in an environment that supports making something shareable, which in turn affords conversation, reflection, and learning. This learner-centered approach has been further refined and expanded by Mitch Resnick who promotes learning through projects, passion, peers, and play, especially in constructionist environments like Scratch. These approaches are foundational at the Media Lab across faculty and groups. 

The MIT Media Lab model of interdisciplinary work is a model for the kind of lifelong lifewide holistic learning that is most needed moving forward. Some reports predict nearly 40% of workers’ time in the near future will involve intentional job-related learning (World Economic Forum article). As AI and automation take over more repetitive tasks, being flexibly adaptive and creativity are predicted to be increasingly important. The project-based approach of the Media Lab is a strong example of this pedagogical approach. Its interdisciplinary structure adds domain-specific understanding with the element of symbiosis that is essential across so many circumstances. When it’s working well, learning takes place in a playful process of creating something of value to the community, with agency for the students under guidance from others.  

Next Phase

Whatever comes next will emerge from the whole Media Lab community. Just as the content of our work has evolved to encompass design across the physical, living, social, and cyber worlds (atoms, genes, memes, and bits), we are intentionally crafting our own environment at the Media Lab by incorporating diverse perspectives from students, staff, faculty, consortium members, and institute leadership. 

Working across differences is one of the hardest things that people do, and in many ways, the Media Lab is a microcosm of the wider world. Are we participatory designers iterating the next phase of our lives, gardeners gently guiding our collective evolution, or the chorus in a playful opera of our own creation. Perhaps we are all of these  and more, one world, one lab with many voices, e pluribus unum, gladly embracing the great human challenge of building a better future.