critique and repair in the lab
Building an undivided house for mixing solutions and questions.
In summer 2020, I wrote some unsolicited advice to the folks at the MIT Media Lab about the new director hire that was then underway, following the Epstein debacle that caused so much havoc. Since then, Dava Newman has stepped into the role—seems like a terrific choice. But I wanted to reprise my same thoughts as the Lab takes its next steps, because it’s a high-stakes civic era for all of us, including those of us working in technology. The Media Lab wants to include more robust social and cultural matters in its future research priorities—a value that’s easy to name and harder to enact. How do you build a laboratory environment that can make room for prototyping technologies in two modes: critique and repair?
[image of the MIT Media Lab via B. Stern.]
I should say that I’m an invested outsider at the Lab, so my view is limited. I’ve given a handful of talks there over the last several years; I’ve sat on two thesis committees; I attend conferences and maintain relationships with students and researchers there. Most relevant, perhaps, is that every year I write recommendations for former engineering students of mine who want to go there for graduate work. I did so again in late 2019, approached by two extremely talented women who decided to throw their hats in the ring, hoping for the best despite the fresh stink of the news.
And the thing is: I get it. I actually understood why they went ahead and applied. The Media Lab provides an exploratory and ambitious research latitude that, at its best, is hard to find elsewhere. So—with that good will in mind, I’ll offer some thoughts about shaping the Lab’s future. Specifically, I want to offer some thoughts on how to sharpen up the vague affirmation of “equity, inclusion, and collaboration” that appeared in the director’s job listing. That vagueness is everywhere these days—organizations that understand the need to do better, structurally and culturally, but can’t find the language to talk about how that works beyond recruitment/HR matters. So, in no particular order:
— Build an undivided house for critique and repair, and generate a shared vocabulary for recognizing and honoring each.
The Media Lab professes to be working in an anti-disciplinary way; it aspires to mix the autonomous experimentation of the arts with a paradigmatic mandate to launch not just new technologies, but new fields of technological research. Judging from the informal surveys that I take when I speak there, the students who actually get in have very little or no training in the arts or humanities. I’ve learned to recognize the mostly straightforward and narrow claim for doing “art” that’s common at the Lab and among tech folks generally: They mean to indicate the non-useful, beautiful, or elegant results from their technical work, and they want to encourage some wacky or whimsical side projects on the path to technical feasibility.
But critique and repair are ideas that really do mix the languages of artworks with engineering. Each could be quite robust at the lab, and getting clearer about them would assist the Lab’s community in articulating its commitments to socio-political concerns. How?
Let’s call “repair” mode, in the technical sense, the best-case version of new technologies (or technical research fields) that come into the world for the net benefit of humankind in the form of solutions. This alone is a whole universe of debate, of course, but let’s say that the repair horizon is more or less the status quo of much engineering education—possible solutions for challenging problems. There’s an abundance of need for this work, and when it goes well, the world gets important technologies.
“Critique,” in the technical sense, has been a matter of concern at the Lab, but from where I stand, not nearly enough defined or robustly supported. Leah Buechley, Sputniko!, Ethan Zuckerman, and others ran groups doing technological repair work. They each also supported parallel lines of study in the mode of critique: They made political inequities plain and visible to the public. They utilized technologies to dignify marginalized modes of craft. They allowed questions to be posed in artifacts, and they let them live as questions, without resolve. This is critique! Technological critique is the articulation of urgent socio-political questions made real in things. Things-to-think-with, which is not just for the gallery viewer. They’re public technologies and boundary objects, with open-ended narratives attached.
It would be easy to find this a “sides” matter—as though you’re either someone who’s optimistic about technology for its own sake (repair), or you’re someone who’s on the right side of history, thinking and acting in the pursuit of justice (critique). But the possibility is eminently available to build an undivided house–one where critique and repair are seen as complementary (if sometimes contentious) modes of research, and where the opportunity to mix and build a big body of work that contains both is convivially welcome. An undivided house requires a deeply pragmatic commitment to the values of each mode—and a willingness to generously suspend early judgment while research is in its early stages. Each needs to be explicitly named, used as a vocabulary from students’ first days, and richly informed in its nuances. Moreover: mitigating the division between critique and repair and building strong literacy would require most of all that the Lab’s leadership take up an explicitly relational theory of change, which I’ll get into further below.
— Remix the metrics of impact.
As I understand it, the Lab’s standard for the kind of impact that warrants the launch of a research group is roughly that its queries and outputs have the potential to affect a billion people. (That’s b-for-billion.) Numerical scale, at the Lab and everywhere else in tech, is king: the sole way to understand its importance and the sole lever it would point to that changes the world for the better.
But an expanded view of impact, articulated alongside critique and repair as a vocabulary, would make the Lab’s work much more dimensional in its wishes to uphold equity and inclusion. There’s Howard Gardner’s idea of “fruitful asynchrony” in creativity research, for example: the Lab could explicitly recruit and train the kind of researchers and projects that look for and amplify tensions in disciplinary training, cultivating insider-outsider approaches to standard tech domains. There’s David Edgerton’s “technology in use” metric, which seeks to identify the more modest technologies that, measured over time, make significant impact in people’s lives. There’s Ezio Manzini’s idea of “diffuse design”—networked practices for making things that achieve what he calls “cosmopolitan localism.” Yes, of course, the work of some Lab groups takes up these and adjacent metrics. But the way you build an ideals-led community is to identify the value in each way of looking at technology’s work and importance in the world—including the limits of what technology itself can do. An open, capacious definition for “impact” makes a richer house for practice.
— Reconfigure the Director’s Fellows program as Humanists in Residence.
I think there were seeds of a good idea in the Director’s Fellows program, started by Ito in 2013. Plenty of interesting people there. But I can imagine a stronger version of this model that forms a (paid!) cohort of thinkers-in-residence. These would be humanists, ethicists, artists and others working intellectually adjacent to tech. I’d say half should be permanent hires, and half a rotating set of two-year fellowships. But the key thing would be this: You’d have to take a radical people-over-projects approach, because the most important traits you’d be looking for, by far, are personal ones. Instead of hiring folks based on their CVs or purely professional status, you’d have to actively seek out the folks who are known for and easily demonstrate a kind of translational, pragmatic, meliorist approach to thinking about technology, with a strong commitment to mentoring young people.
And no, it wouldn’t be either 1) scholars hurling critical theory terms like weapons or 2) paying thinkers to act as yes-men to technical pursuits. There would be vigorous debate! But the humanists who would thrive at the lab would need to first and foremost be community-builders. You’d probably need to pay them to 1) pursue their own independent writing and projects, and 2) convene internal and external events, coach teams, and generally be “available in response” to the community in ways that aren’t covered by Student Life staff. They’d be in-house intellectuals with a relational model of change, namely the below:
— Adopt an explicitly relational model of change.
Look, I’m a realist, too. I’ve spent enough time among tech researchers at prestigious institutions to know that healthy relationality is—how to put it?—rare, to say the least. But if you actually want a transformative community, with hard questions addressed early in their arrival—if you want to train students to thrive in ways that really do launch entire new paradigms of research—you need a community that actively builds trust, intellectual and interpersonal. And you get that when you staff it with people who model a commitment to relationships: to building the good will and genuine connection that are among the best defenses against the rot of secrecy and compromised ethics.
A relational model of change is one powerful, essential way that you enact, in living color, a structural model of change in your own locality. The research shows you can’t rely on the abstractions of bias training, and it won’t be enough to rely on the old informal cultural norms where various people step in to do the nurturing and community-building work, by choice or by obligation. Structural equality, of course, is a many-layered thing; it has to be addressed in admissions, in evaluations, and so much more. But the relational model is so often assumed, and so little built. A relational model of change is worth articulating as a model—a vision, a policy, an agreement, a formative series of behaviors for your community.
I want my students to have a Media Lab worth going to, so I’m going to keep talking in the most optimistic tones I can muster. I’d love to hear from you, in comments or by reply, if you’re pondering them in different ways.
In this sabbatical year I’ve got a halftime fellowship back at New America, where I’m a fellow in Education Policy. I’m researching and writing longform journalism about the future of work, broadly conceived, for adults with cognitive and developmental disabilities. Please get in touch if you know of creative and compelling things happening in this space, around the world—social enterprise, day center programming, hybrid college programs, and much more.
And the discussion continues over at New_Public about the smaller-scale social networks in our lives, including the rising popularity of Discord communities. If you’re following ideas for human-sized digital gathering spaces, you might be interested in New_Public’s whole enterprise.
Till next time—
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