Media Lab: What’s in the name?

MIT Media Lab/Margaret Evans

Why is it called the Media Lab?

That's one of the most common questions we’re asked. Mainly people want to know: What does the word "media" have to do with the Lab? It turns out there's no straightforward response. So, as the new school year gets underway, 32 years after the creation of the Media Lab, we decided to trace the meaning of its name. 

To start, here’s a small sampling of Lab researchers' interpretations:

  • Cameron Taylor: "To me,  'media' comes from the word 'medium,' where computers are the medium through which we interface with technology."
  • Matt Weber: "Media is just stuff, and we're the lab of stuff—cool stuff, crazy stuff, tech stuff. There's always different stuff going on in here."
  • Shriya Srinivasan: "Media are the many means through which we can think about new ideas and solutions."
  • Alexandra Rieger: "It's a versatile word. Not only does it refer to broadcasting and other forms of communication, but it also relates to the different materials that we use and all the different fields that we work within. It captures the Lab's antidisciplinary spirit really well."
  • Thomas Sanchez Lengeling: "It means, 'How can we communicate science and all disciplines using objects and ideas?'"
  • May Alhazzani: "I have two interpretations that I see as linked: Media means ways to communicate, and the Media Lab is about communication among disciplines. This merging is what makes projects a reality outside the academic world."
  • Sohan Dsouza: "To me, media is all about communication and interaction. It's how people get along with each other, how they learn from and teach each other. And increasingly, as machines become more intelligent, it’ll be about communication with machines. 'Media' has come to mean anything that's an interface between entities." 

Public perceptions

In his response, Dsouza also acknowledged that the general public could perceive the word "media" as representing broadcast, print, and social media. Indeed, that's how the Lab first incorporated the word, says its co-founder Nicholas Negroponte: "The evolution was not about the meaning of the word, but how you parsed the phrase. It started as a Lab about/for media, with 'media' defined however you wished. Then it became MediaLab, one word—not literally, but semantically: a place to create trends and do the impossible."

Negroponte headed MIT's Architecture Machine Group in the School of Architecture + Planning (SA+P) which became the home of the Media Lab when it opened in 1985.  Back then, the Lab's origins and name stemmed from the broadcast and journalism sense of the word "media." 

According to the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, SA+P’s newsletter—called Plan—included a November 1980 item in which Negroponte discussed proposals for the facility based on the idea of a "Laboratory for Media Arts and encourage the most advanced media research."  Today,  perhaps rooted in that early thinking, the Media Lab's academic program is called Media Arts and Sciences.

The very ambiguity of the word allowed us to expand its definition.

In July 1983, John de Monchaux, who was then dean of SA+P, wrote about the proposal in a memo to MIT’s Academic Council: "The Laboratory will have two roles: a research agenda for inventing and using creatively new media; and an academic function that is in itself twofold, to host the current Master of Science in Visual Studies program and to engage the larger educational functions that would lead to a broader and more robust academic program, meriting departmental status." 

It was de Monchaux who recommended that one of the titles proposed for the facility—Media Technology Lab—be simplified to Media Lab. And, while the co-founders saw journalism, television, radio, print, and music as integral in the Lab's founding days, they chose not to incorporate the word "communications" into the name. Negroponte says that's "because so many people, departments, and labs at MIT were in the fields of computers or communications. Nobody claimed or wanted 'media.'"

How the word evolved

In the decades since the Media Lab launched, the meaning of its name has evolved, explains Andy Lippman, an associate director of the Lab who heads its Viral Communications research group. Lippman’s history at MIT predates the foundation of the Lab, and he has worked here since its inception. "We chose the name Media Lab because at the time many of us were engaged in digitizing and computational rendering of all forms of media—from sound to graphics to text to movies to pictures, and so forth." He adds that they also felt the word "media" allowed them to add layers of meaning over the ensuing years. "Some people would interpret 'media' to mean journalism; others would interpret it to mean magnetic tape or storage media. We always meant it more generally than that." 

For example, Lippman says, "it's always been true that a significant amount of the energy in the Lab has been related to learning. So gradually the word, in the Media Lab context, evolved to encapsulate technologies of expression for creativity and learning in the arts and sciences."

These days, those “technologies of expression” have expanded the scope of “media” in the Lab’s name from its original definition. There are now more than two dozen research groups, exploring diverse projects and inventions—from learning platforms to prosthetic limbs to gene editing; from artificial intelligence to data visualization to biological engineering; from brain research to urban planning to personal robots; from social networks to wearable devices to civic media, and much more. As Negroponte says, “The very ambiguity of the word, ‘media,’ allowed us to expand its definition." 

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