Monday, December 10, 2012

IG Detroit by Shaka Senghor

When we started planning a visit and project in Detroit earlier this year, we had only a few rough ideas of what to expect—and we ended up with every expectation challenged. We went to help, and ended up learning more than teaching. We want to keep working with our new friends and collaborators there, and we are continuing to discuss how and when to do this.

One of the people we met through the Innovators Guild Detroit project was Shaka Senghor. I won't go into his bio here, but if you Google him you'll see that his story is an amazing and inspiring one. He's also an awesome writer, and has written up some of his thoughts and impressions about the IG Detroit event. We wanted to share them with you so you could get a sense of what a non-Media Lab participant felt about the project. I look forward to your comments. —Joi

We looked more like a rock band than a band of innovators as we hustled into the large shiny black SUV. White, black, Asian, short, tall, casually dressed, it was all there–the only things missing were guitars, amps, a bass, and a dope lead vocalist. But we were no band–in fact we had yet to band together around the task at hand–and in essence this first ride through the gritty streets of Detroit would be our feeling-out period. We were getting to know each other against the backdrop of a city that had been labeled the rust belt capital or murder capital of the world depending on who was telling the story.

I felt a great deal of responsibility as an ambassador of Detroit. I knew that I had to show the complexities of Detroit if we were to succeed in our efforts as innovators. I didn’t want anyone to come away from IG Detroit with an unrealistic, romanticized idea of the challenges we face. As we made our way down Grand River Avenue, the stark contrast of poverty-entrenched communities that were only a few blocks away from wealthy enclaves was evident. By highlighting these contradictions I felt that the team members would be better equipped to understand how to approach the design challenges.

We drove block after burned out block and I watched the varied expressions of my passengers through the rear-view mirror. They ranged from disbelief and sadness, to intrigue and hopefulness. In my own eyes I saw a tinge of embarrassment for our city, for the people who call Detroit home, including myself. For the first time in a long time I looked at Detroit objectively, and it was painful to digest what was happening to my beloved city. However the pain was soothed by thoughts of what was underway.

As we traveled around Detroit, I felt compelled to give a voice to the societal fractures all around us, but where was I to begin? How could I sum up the tearing asunder of a city that at one time was a place of pride and joy? There was no easy answer and the gravity of it bore down on me. So instead, I simply said there is so much hope and potential here, and it was these simple words that set the tone for what I hoped IG Detroit would mean for that weekend. Though we had yet to sit down in our work space, I could see the wheels of innovation starting to spin.

Personally, this was one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences I have had. Being able to work with such humble, giving, thoughtful, and highly motivated people turned out to be the highlight of my weekend. The synergy of urban dwellers, tech geeks, authors, clothing designers, and design innovators proved my long-held belief that you see the best of humanity when artificial barriers are replaced by real-life experiences. The creative energy and inspiring spirits were contagious and brought our projects full circle. Over the course of what turned out to be a four-day weekend we tackled the following challenges:

  • DIY Lighting: Solutions that help citizens create outdoor lighting
  • Digital Community: Online infrastructure for connecting—offline and in-person
  • Air Monitoring: Citizen-powered systems for monitoring and reporting air quality
  • DIY Soil Safety: Creating ways for ordinary citizens to better understand their soil
  • Compost Rotation: Developing solutions for scalable urban agriculture

We worked in small groups dispersed throughout OmniCorp, located in the heart of Detroit’s Eastern Market. Each group had its own space to iterate on ideas that were shared at the inception of IG Detroit, but we all checked in on each other from time to time. We genuinely enjoyed each other’s company and had a blast each night when we wound down from our work day.

Digital Community team: Fame Brown, Erhardt Graeff, Haiyan Zhang, Shaka Senghor, Christina Xu, Tara Brown

When it was time to conclude our weekend and share our projects I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was very excited to see what innovations the other teams came up with, but on the other hand, I was a bit saddened that our weekend was coming to an end. I had made friends with people who I believe will be a part of my life for years to come. I had laughed and joked with designer Christopher Bevans and shared soul food with Haiyan Zhang and Erhardt Graeff. In addition to innovating we were creating a human experience that will have a lasting impact for years to come.

After we presented in front of the other groups and people from different areas of Detroit, I took time to talk to those in attendance to get a feel for what they thought. From what I gathered from talking with people who showed up on the final day, there is a great deal of hope and optimism about the future of IG Detroit. I could even sense from those who were cynical in the beginning that they were impressed by what we were able to accomplish in a relatively short amount of time. They were excited by our work and showed interest in working with us moving forward. It was a good sign that we are on the right path and I am looking forward to the next phase of IG Detroit.

Shaka Senghor is a community activist and writer based in Detroit, Michigan. He is the recipient of the Knight Foundation's BME Leadership Award. Follow him on Twitter: @ShakaSenghor

IG Detroit was supported by a grant from Knight Foundation.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Encouraging Innovation in Sierra Leone

Kelvin Doe (left) and David Sengeh at the Media Lab. Learn more about Kelvin. (Photo: Paula Aguilera)

At the Media Lab, PhD candidate David Sengeh is helping to change the world by developing next-generation smart prostheses. But this self-professed technology geek is also making an impact halfway around the world in his native Sierra Leone, where he’s launched Innovate Salone, a national high-school innovation challenge. Innovate Salone is funded by Global Minimum Inc.. “The idea,” says David, “is to encourage the country’s students to use their own ingenuity to solve some of their country’s most challenging problems–to lay the bedrock for national development.” The focus is on issues related to health, energy, education, agriculture, transportation, telecommunications, civic media, and engineering.

Read what David says about the project on CNN. [Update: here's another article, with a great video of David and Kelvin working at the Media Lab.] Interested in becoming a sponsors or donor? Send email to

Friday, November 16, 2012

Making Connections @ MozFest 2012

Is it even possible to describe the beautiful maelstrom of joy and creativity we experienced at the Mozilla Festival last weekend?  Three days of learning, design, and making across nine floors at Ravensbourne University left me feeling like I had fallen into a ball pit overflowing with magic beans from Jack and the Giant Beanstalk. Creative ideas were growing fast in all directions.

At the same time, the festival offered fascinating insights into how Mozilla facilitates their amazing community energy around transformational change towards an open Internet of makers.

Our Part in the Mozilla Festival

At the festival, the Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten group offered a variety of sessions on creative learning:

The Mozilla Festival also brings together a community of bloggers, journalists, and documentary film-makers to share idea and collaborate.

During the festival, I enjoyed liveblogging with the Mozilla team, finding out what young people made during the festival, and documenting Joi's keynote on Sunday. The high point for me was an amazing team effort with Matt, Rebecca, Paul and others to photograph and document every project during the festival's closing Demo Party. Inspiring!

I want to especially thank Gunner and Michelle Thorne for running a truly wonderful event, and for offering ongoing, supportive advice on how to facilitate great sessions.

Organizations as Networks
Mozilla is one of the organizations I point to when I talk about what it means to be a network and a platform rather than just an institution. To illustrate what I mean, consider the story of PopcornMaker, a video editor for the open web.

During the Sunday morning plenary, Brett Gaylor told the story of Popcorn.js, which started as a college student project. It has now been used in high-profile productions such as NFB’s One Millionth Tower, PBS and NPR’s 2012 election coverage, and more. In 2011, the creators of Popcorn.js brought it to the very first Mozilla Festival. A year later, they came to London to premiere One Millionth Tower. Now in 2012, PopcornMaker opens up open video creation to anyone on the web. Here's their story:

This year, I'm taking away three big lessons from Mozilla and PopcornMaker:

  • Networked organizations facilitate moments for innovation to arrive from the edges to meet the inspiration and connections to succeed. At #MozFest 2011, the popcorn.js developers found film-making partners to develop projects like One Millionth Tower.
  • Networked organizations offer innovators the structure they need to build and ship good products. In addition to connections, Mozilla supported Popcorn through bug tracking, a release schedule, and publicity to turn a great idea into a solid technology.
  • Platforms turn great hacks into visionary, transformational paradigms. Popcorn.js was a library for software developers. By creating PopcornMaker, Mozilla is extending its vision for an open, writeable web to video online for anyone.
As a grad student at the Media Lab, where Joi is re-imagining the Lab as a network, I'm excited to share inspiration and collaboration with such an amazing community. In all the creative unpredictability of the #MozFest's bag of magic beans, I think we're going to see some very tall trees grow.

Further Links:

J. Nathan Matias is a graduate student researching media consumption, creative learning, and community co-design at the Center for Civic Media.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Hurricane Hackers @ Media Lab

This post by Media Lab Director Joi Ito originally ran on LinkedIn's Thought Leaders blog.

What do you get when you have a massive storm approaching, a bunch of MIT Media Lab hackers with the next day off stuck in their rooms waiting for the power to go out? You get #hurricanehackers of course.

We learned a lot about this during the Safecast launch after the 3/11 earthquake in Japan, and are seeing it now with #hurricanehackers.

One of the most important principles of what we do at the Media Lab is "practice over theory" or "just build it". It's a very effective principle in rapid response to natural disasters and other things where the ability to "pull" from the network and collaborate quickly and effectively are essential. One of the key elements is to make sure that you use all of the effective tools for collaboration and communication so that you don't duplicate efforts and you quickly aggregate and pull people together. Most of the obvious ideas get started by everyone and trying to find unique ideas while pulling together parallel projects is key.

One thing we quickly learned is that tools like Google docs and etherpad with their limit on the total number of participants were inadequate for the scale of collaboration we need. We ended up on Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the pre-Web text chat protocol that survives today as one of the primary modes of communication among hackers.

We'll be hosting one of the number of CrisisCamps this weekend at the Media Lab. Please tune in or participate if you have time.

#hurricanehackers in Wired, Boing Boing, BostonInno

Monday, October 8, 2012

IG: Detroit Update

After a few days here in Detroit, the groups have made amazing progress on their challenges. The challenges were:


  • DIY Lighting: Solutions that help citizens create outdoor lighting
  • Digital Community: Online infrastructure for connecting—offline and in-person
  • Air Monitoring: Citizen-powered systems for monitoring and reporting air quality
  • DIY Soil Safety: Creating ways for ordinary citizens to better understand their soil
  • Compost Rotation: Developing solutions for scalable urban agriculture

We'll roll out more details about each team's work over the next few weeks, but here's a preview.

Air Monitoring Talking about air monitoring

Within a few hours of beginning our challenges, the air testing team (above) strapped a particulate sensor to a laptop and took it out to grab samples and talk to local residents about air monitoring. Their conversations revealed that there's a wide spectrum of perceptions about air and air quality. Their ultimate goal is to provide citizens with ways to regain agency over their air. Inspired by Detroit's vibrant graffiti culture, they have identified opportunities for both data collection and creative expression that make the invisible visible, via tools both to collect data and "tag" pollution.

1980-01-01 00.00.09-2 photo(15)

The lighting team, (De)Constructing Light, (above) discovered through talking to residents that light and community are closely related. Without communication, a neighborhood is just a neighborhood; light is a pure form of communication that helps us form community and make connections. Offering people ways to reshape and personalize the things they care about and use every day makes them care about those things more. Educating residents about what's possible was an important first step, and more important than actually building a perfect light.

In a workshop on Sunday at the Mt. Elliott Makerspace, the team showed a group of kids that finished objects are not always finished—we can take things apart and reuse them in different, and sometimes more useful, ways. They led the workshop through a project that involved taking apart and re-imagining a flashlight, teaching participants that disassembling an object can be a metaphor for empowerment.

Compost team Team Compost Joe and Nadya David Mellis

The compost team, Black Gold, (above) is educating and enabling people about home worm composting. They're also making available a community-wide composting system. The team decided use worms for a few reasons: they create usable compost as much as six times faster than aerobic composting, and they generate higher-quality compost; in addition, using worms for composting eliminates the need to flip compost, one of the more labor-intensive and difficult aspects of aerobic composting. Finally, the worms self-perpetuate, so they can be shared with friends and neighbors indefinitely.

Community team Detroit Digital Board

The community team (above) is creating a network of billboards and interactive in-store displays in community hubs around Detroit, the Detroit Digital Board or D-board. The D-board will allow for richer information sharing within and across communities, by showcasing local events, community resources, and positive messages in public spaces. This project will allow Detroiters to inform themselves, changing the urban environment by conveying positive, community-focused information.

Soil samples CitySoil:Detroit

The soil team (above) has created CitySoil: Detroit, a three-part plan to engage, educate, and share information about how to test soil and improve soil performance. They're working on ways to educate residents about what questions to ask about their soil; how to test the soil and what to look for in the results; and how to share this information with neighbors and other residents through tools like interactive maps and data visualizations.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Detroit Pre-Trip Report

This summer we started talking about forming a group for innovators, and decided to begin the initiative with a hands-on project in Detroit. We knew that things would grow and change, and that we'd need to be agile and flexible (two qualities important to fostering innovation). Members of the Media Lab team have made a few trips to Detroit, and a group of Detroiters came here to the Lab to see what we're about on our home turf.

This event has changed from what we'd originally envisioned, and we're glad of that—we think that now it more accurately reflects the kind of work already being done in Detroit, as well as plays to the strengths of the Lab and our member company and event co-producer IDEO.


This work builds upon Knight Foundation's already existing commitment to foster information sharing and engagement in Detroit communities. Together, the Media Lab, IDEO, and Knight are excited to work on a series of design challenges with a mix of the Lab’s own special alchemical blend of uniqueness, impact, and magic.

So what's next? We're heading back to Detroit October 5-8 for our first meeting, and to get things started we brainstormed with and listened to our new Detroit friends to come up with a few starting-off points that fit with the needs and concerns in their communities. We framed some challenges that will, we hope, empower all of us and create community.


  • DIY Lighting: Solutions that help citizens create outdoor lighting
  • Digital Community: Online infrastructure for connecting—offline and in-person
  • Air Monitoring: Citizen-powered systems for monitoring and reporting air quality
  • DIY Soil Safety: Creating ways for ordinary citizens to better understand their soil
  • Compost Rotation: Developing solutions for scalable urban agriculture

We'll have one team per challenge, with each team made up of Detroiters + Media Labbers + IDEO designers + expert friends + industry innovators. We envision the challenges as jumping-off points for the teams. Some might end up with a totally different result than the challenge, but the important thing is to look, listen, and learn from our surroundings and collaborators.

We'll all be blogging, tweeting, and posting while we're in Detroit and after we get home, so that others can see what we're working on, meet our Detroit collaborators, and join the conversation. Our hashtag will be #IGDetroit.

We’ll check back in again with a blog post before we head to Detroit, to share more details about some of the team members.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Media Lab through Your Lens: Enter Our Photo Contest and Meet Joi Ito!

The Media Lab’s reach spans the entire globe thanks to our professors, students, alumni, and spin-off companies. We’re always excited to see our researchers developing technologies that promise to fundamentally transform our most basic notions of human capabilities. To celebrate the many projects that come out of the Media Lab, we present The Media Lab through Your Lens photo contest.

We’re looking for examples of the Media Lab in the world–through your pictures. All you have to do is snap a photo of anything that relates back to the Media Lab–for example, a Media Lab professor giving a presentation at an event, a mobile app developed at the Media Lab, or a technology or product developed by Lab researchers. We’ll leave it to you to be as literal or creative as you wish. The picture just has to tie back to the Media Lab. Here are the rules:

  • Who can enter? Anyone who is not connected to the Media Lab (past or present).
  • What’s the timing? The contest begins today, and will end on September 10 17, 2012. [We're giving you an extra week! We've received some terrific entries so far and can't wait to see what else we get!]
  • How do I enter? Send your photo(s) to contest [at] and you’ll be entered, pending your photo’s adherence to the rules. We encourage you to send as many pictures as you like, but your name will only be entered once. Make sure to include your full name and email address, and how you would like the photo to be credited.
  • What does the winner receive? If you submission meets the contest rules, you will automatically be entered into a drawing for a chance to win a tour of the Media Lab and lunch or dinner with Media Lab Director Joi Ito. (Note: you will need to provide your own transportation to Cambridge, MA.)

So what are you waiting for? Grab your camera, smartphone, or tablet and start sending us photos! You can check out our Facebook and Pinterest pages periodically throughout the contest to see a collection of the photos submitted.

We can’t wait to see the Media Lab through your eyes!

*All photos submitted for the contest become property of the Media Lab and as such can be distributed via Media Lab web pages and social channels. The MIT Media Lab has the right to disqualify any entrants submitting pictures that do not meet the guidelines or are stolen property.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Technology and the Track

South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius just made history as the first double amputee to participate in the Olympic games, and the first amputee to take part in track events. Born without fibulae, Pistorius had his legs amputated below the knee before he was a year old.

Hugh Herr is an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab. An avid mountain climber, as a teenager he was caught in a blizzard while climbing in New Hampshire. After spending three nights outside in below-zero temperatures, he suffered severe frostbite and had to have both legs amputated below the knees. Not only did he walk again, he began climbing again using self-designed prostheses. [At left, Herr on the climbing wall at the Lab's h20 event. Photo: Webb Chappell]

Herr was an expert witness in the court case that resulted in the reversal of the ban preventing Oscar Pistorius from competing in the Olympics. We asked him a few questions about the science behind how Oscar runs.

What kinds of challenges does Oscar Pistorius have to overcome when racing with prosthetic legs?

Hugh Herr (HH): Oscar faces three dominant problems when racing with the Cheetah prosthesis. First, the Cheetah springs are passive, and therefore do not change stiffness during a running step. Consequently, Oscar's vertical ground forces are compromised, negatively impacting his running speed—that is, he can't push off the ground as hard, which reduces how fast he can run.

Second, Oscar's passive prostheses only return the energy that Oscar puts into them, actually less energy due to hysteresis. In contrast, the human ankle-foot complex is muscle powered and thus can propel a runner forward out of the running blocks during the acceleration phase of a race. Although the acceleration phase of the race has never been studied, it's likely that Oscar suffers from a lack of ankle power during this period of the race.

Finally, Oscar's prostheses are attached to his residual limb using a prosthetic socket that can often be uncomfortable and unstable. When Oscar sweats, his biological leg would become attached less securely to the artificial leg, possibly causing a degradation of performance.

How are ‘Cheetah blades’ different from other types of prosthetics? How do they work?

HH: The Cheetah prosthesis is designed specifically for running, and not for other activities such as walking. The Cheetah is shaped like a 'C' and is made from carbon composite, a highly elastic material for storing and releasing spring energy.

Do you think we’ll see other athletes like Oscar competing in the Olympic Games moving forward?

HH: Other persons with leg amputations may qualify for the Olympic games in the future, but it may be a very long time before another athlete is capable of qualifying. Oscar is a gifted and tenacious athlete.

Oscar Pistorius
Oscar Pistorius runs in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Photo: Paul Williams | CC BY-ND 2.0

What other kinds of prosthetics are being developed at the Media Lab?

HH: The Media Lab's Biomechatronics group designs computer-controlled bionic limbs for walking and running. A recent invention is a powered ankle-foot bionic limb that has been shown to normalize the biomechanics and energetics of walking. [At left, Herr with a variety of prototyped prosthetics. Photo: Webb Chappell]

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Learning Through Connecting

Much of the discussion about educational technology these days focuses on new ways to deliver instruction, through online videos and online courses. In our Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the Media Lab, we have a very different approach to education and learning, developing technologies not to deliver instruction but to open opportunities for people to create, collaborate, experiment, and express themselves. With our Scratch programming software, for example, young people can create their own interactive stories, games, animations, and simulations, then share their creations with one another online. In the process, young people learn to think creatively, reason systematically, and work collaboratively – essential skills in today’s society.

Last week, we had an opportunity to see how this learning approach is taking root in different parts of the world, as we hosted our third Scratch@MIT conference. More than 400 educators, researchers, and developers from 31 countries came to the Media Lab for four days to share stories, plans, and visions about Scratch.

One unifying theme at the conference was the use of Scratch to encourage and support many different types of connections:

  • Connecting with ideas. In one of the keynote sessions, five educators and five third-grade students from a school district in New York demonstrated how they are using Scratch as part of a “computational thinking” curriculum unit, highlighting how programming activities can provide opportunities for students to engage with important math, science, and engineering ideas. Students weren’t just learning Scratch; they were learning with Scratch.

  • Connecting with interests. In session after session, it was clear that the best Scratch learning experiences happen when people have an opportunity to build on their own interests. There were examples of young people using Scratch to create simulations of environmental issues affecting their communities, games featuring characters from their favorite books, and animated stories with original soundtracks.

  • Connecting with the physical world. Increasingly, Scratch projects are stretching off the computer screen, connecting to sensors, motors, and other devices in the physical world. A researcher from Ireland demonstrated a way to use Microsoft Kinect to control Scratch projects with body gestures, while researchers from Japan introduced a low-cost sensor board for controlling Scratch projects.

  • Connecting with people. Many sessions at the conference highlighted the social nature of learning. Some presentations described how young people in different countries are collaborating on projects through the Scratch online community. Other presentations showed how educators are creating Scratch sub-communities within their countries.

Although the Scratch@MIT conference happens only once every two years, our research group is always working to nurture, sustain, and extend all of these connections. The ScratchEd website enables educators around the world to share stories, exchange resources, and connect with one another. And later this year, our group will launch a new generation of Scratch, called Scratch 2.0, that will enable people to create projects directly in the web browser, opening new opportunities for creativity and collaboration with Scratch.

Mitch Resnick is Professor of Learning Research and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at the MIT Media Lab.

Karen Brennan, a PhD student in the Lifelong Kindergarten group, chaired the organizing committee for the Scratch@MIT conference.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Compasses Over Maps

At the Media Lab, I’ve been working on principles that define our DNA and our world view. One of these is Compasses Over Maps. The idea is that in a world of massive complexity, speed, and diversity, the cost of mapping and planning details often exceeds the cost of just doing something–and the maps are often wrong.

We experienced this firsthand during our trip to Detroit over the weekend.

In early July, we announced a new initiative: The Innovators Guild. Our idea was to bring the best and brightest chief innovation officers on a field trip to work together with our students, faculty, and local innovators in a community and do an impactful hackathon. The plan was to do a one-time thing in a bunch of cities around different themes. Detroit was the first on our list.

The general idea—the compass heading—was right, but the details were wrong in many ways.

We knew we had to go in to listen, be humble, and not try to be top down and prescriptive, but we were surprised nonetheless.

We met incredible people—smart, practical, passionate, driven, focused—doing amazing things. These people were tired of privileged “do gooders” coming in like tourists doing unsustainable superficial stuff and then just taking off or convening meetings and doing a lot of blah blah blah. “Are you here to blow smoke up our ass like everyone else?” There was a lot of baggage and they were skeptical, and rightly so. Detroit is “exciting” in many wrong ways to people who want to “help.”

But before we innovated on anything, we needed to listen and build trust. We realized immediately that to do that we had to think long term and in a sustainable way, while working closely with the people on the ground. This wouldn’t be just a three-day hackathon, but rather a long-term project connecting us to a network of networks in Detroit.

Urban Farm
Brother Nature Farm in Detroit | Joi Ito Photo | CC BY 2.0

We were amazed and humbled by the complexity of Detroit’s various networks, as well as their tensions and cohesion. Once we started making individual connections, we found that beneath the skepticism was a passion and cautious excitement. We discovered that there were definitely connections that could be cultivated into real relationships where we would learn, share, build, and grow together.

Greg of Brother Nature Farm | Joi Ito Photo | CC BY 2.0

One of these relationships is with Jeff Sturges, our guide on the ground in Detroit. Jeff runs the Mt. Elliott Makerspace in the basement of Church of the Messiah, and is just the first of many like-minded, creative individuals we anticipate inviting to the Media Lab as part of an ongoing collaboration.

We are super excited about the future of the Innovators Guild and our engagement in Detroit. And while our map was wrong, we listened and pivoted to this new plan, which I think is even more exciting. We returned to Boston completely energized and inspired, and can’t wait to go back to Detroit with more of our team to see what kind of work we can do with our new friends.

Joi Ito is director of the Media Lab.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Understanding the Global Rise of Citizen Media: Nairobi Trip Report

Witnessing the passionate enthusiasm of others is one of my great pleasures. The Center for Civic Media trip to Nairobi for the Global Voices Summit offered this delight in abundance. It has also given me a sober and urgent picture of the crucial importance of citizen media in society.

The summit was an amazing five-day gathering of bloggers, translators, and academics who care about blogs and citizen media around the world. For the first few days, as Global Voices working groups developed ideas for the future of their community, an academic conference organized by Zeynep Tufekci discussed the Internet and social change. After a day of rest and safari, we reconvened for a remarkable two-day conference, a public celebration and reflection on the promise and challenges of citizen media around the world.

Matt Stempeck and I were privileged to blog many of the public conversations:
Do also check out the Global Voices podcast on the summit by Jamillah Knowles.
IMG_0205 Academic Workshop #GV2012 "Elephant Plaza" at #GV2012 Global Voices Group Photo #GV2012 Untitled Coffe Break #GV2012
(Photos by the Global Voices community)

The trip to Nairobi has challenged me to rethink what it means to be a maker and an academic among journalists and activists. Before joining the Media Lab, I could rapidly jump into projects and causes with impunity. As a grad student, I move more slowly, seeking broader questions than the needs of the moment. This also happens with making as I filter my hunches for the ones that have broad relevance.

That's a good thing. One of the most amazing moments in the summit occurred during a joint gathering of the academics with the Global Voices community. After introducing ourselves, we asked the bloggers, activists, and translators to tell us what questions they think we should research. As I listened to their questions, I was moved by their passion and urgency. We academics can easily become distracted by the inside game of measuring our work by citation, remarking with a resigned sigh that the outside world is uninterested. The Global Voices community was telling us that they care deeply about the work that we do, and that we should focus on issues that matter to our world.

Making technology does open up special opportunities. Ethan sometimes jokes that Media Lab students communicate via the medium of the demo. At the Global Voices Summit, I did just that. I have been studying who gets quoted and whose voices are amplified most by the media. To learn from the Global Voices community, I developed a datavisualisation of social quotation on Global Voices and demoed it during the summit's Dataviz panel. Using the quantitative data as a starting point for conversation, I'm having fascinating discussions with the community.

In-between the conference, Ethan, Matt, and I also researched an open hardware idea we're playing with: a technology for energy-scarce settings that enables people to sell power to their neighbors. Ethan has written an extended, thought-provoking blog post about the experience.

We owe special thanks to iHub Research, who helped us find test devices and advised us on who to meet. Our friends at Pawa 254 helped us interview people in Baba Dogo, one of Nairobi's slum areas. Parallel to our work, Civic Media grad student Molly Sauter was also in Nairobi, interviewing people for our upcoming project on youth digital activism.

Like many of the Lab's students, I'm traveling this summer. Matt Stempeck is probably in a Matatu somewhere between Mombasa and the ancient Swahili city of Lamu. For now, I'm in London to work on my MS thesis. I'm also preparing to welcome our amazing crew of incoming students. Travel is fun, but there's no place like home. See you soon, Boston!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Zin-Side Out

As part of the Media Lab's visit to the Aspen Ideas Festival, we designed a wine tasting experiment to showcase our technology and explore an important element of human behavior: the desire to conform to popular opinion.
At the Festival's mid-week reception, on a glorious rooftop deck with Rocky Mountain vistas, we set up three tables inviting attendees to taste a pair of red wines. Participants received a sheet describing wines A and B, tasted the wines sequentially (served from masked bottles), and then chose their favorite of the two, circling either A or B on the sheet.
Coco and Ben running the wine experiment
Coco Krumme and alum Ben Waber running the wine experiment.
Eric Rosenbaum photo, CC BY 2.0
A participant samples one of the wines as Ben Waber and Coco Krumme look on.
Micah Eckhardt photo, CC BY 2.0
Our experiment was designed to test whether the perception that one wine was "preferred" or "special" would have an impact on an individual's preference. In addition to the (real) descriptive review of the wine, we added a fake "Robert Parker score" to each of the wines. For half of the participants, wine A had a score of 91 and B of 83; for the other half, this was reversed. In addition, the person pouring the wine emphasized the "specialness" of the wine with the higher score.
At two of the tables, we additionally tested the effect on electrodermal response of priming with the points information, using two sensors placed on the fingers to capture skin conductance. Through a software interface, we recorded response as well as "events" when a person sipped each wine.
Dan explains the wine experiment
Dan McDuff explains the experiment to several interested AIF attendees.
Eric Rosenbaum photo, CC BY 2.0
At the non-sensor table, participants were about evenly split between the two settings (A is promoted as higher ranked, versus B promoted). Using a chi-squared test, we found that people preferred A when it was emphasized at a statistically significant level (p ~ 0.01). However, when B was promoted as having the higher ranking, we didn't find any effect. This suggests that the belief that a wine is special may have an effect on people's preferences: but it also depends on the wine itself.
At the tables with sensors, we observed peaks in response when each wine was tasted, although there was no clear difference between tasting the promoted versus non-promoted wine.
In addition, we found curious scrawlings on several of the surveys, including cryptic arrows, heart shapes drawn around the preferred wine, equal signs indicating the (mistaken) belief that the two wines were the same. A couple of participants tried to argue with us that they had "figured out" the experiment: one person was adamant that we'd switched the descriptions for the wines.
In fact, each description correctly described the tasted wine, for both A and B throughout the experiment. Most people, after they'd tasted the wines, were curious about one thing: what were the wines? We can finally reveal the varietals and wineries: wine A was a Terrazas Reserva Malbec, and wine B a Ravenswood Old Vine Zinfandel.

Coco Krumme is a doctoral student at the MIT Media Lab in the Human Dynamics group.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Innovating Innovation

Detroit Riverfront

Since I joined the Media Lab a year ago, I’ve been constantly amazed and amused by the tribe of iconoclasts, risk-takers, and renegades here who look to the edges for new ideas. On a walk through the Lab buildings, you'll see–among other things–robotic ankles, smart wallpaper, an interactive ping-pong table, fuzzy robots, and a model of a folding electric car. We call ourselves antidisciplinary, and we’d like to extend this way of thinking and working into a program we've named the Innovators Guild, aimed at bringing together like-minded trailblazers.

One thing I've noticed is that the people in organizations who are the most responsible for innovation are frequently working alone–and they're lonely. When you're the person who walks the tightrope between risk and results day in and day out, you need colleagues to bounce ideas off and peers to give a simple reality check: to tell you whether an idea is awesome–or simply crazy.

I'm envisioning the Innovators Guild as a cohort for CIOs and other innovators, a cross-sector network that can work together to make a challenging job a little less lonely, and a lot more fun.

We talked about the idea this morning at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and we’re still developing the details. As a first step, the Lab has teamed up with Knight Foundation (who will be filming a documentary of this project), and IDEO for our first hands-on activity, an on-the-ground project in Detroit, where we'll work with local innovators to hack out a new possible solution for inner-city food production and think about how to create sustainable systems. In the process, we expect to find new inspiration, make new connections, and engage in hands-on experiences to speed innovation. John Seely Brown, the former head of Xerox PARC and John Gage, former Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems are the two first recruits for the guild who will be joining us on this trip.

We’ll be sharing more details about the Guild in the fall. Stay tuned!

[Interested in joining the Guild? Contact us at innovators-guild [at]]
Joi Ito is director of the Media Lab.

Image: "Detroit Riverfront" | Ian Freimuth | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Innovation, Rocky Mountain Style

A group of Media Lab students and Lab director Joi Ito are on their way to Aspen to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival 2012. We created a video here at the Lab as a preview of their work. Check it out! After the jump, you'll find more info on the group (bios and abstracts of their talks). Follow the festival on Twitter: @aifestival, #AspenIdeas, and follow all our Media Lab participants via this Twitter list.

Micah Eckhardt
PhD Student, Affective Computing group, MIT Media Lab

Micah Eckhardt has a diverse technological background in machine learning and vision, robotics, and interaction design. He is developing assistive and learning technologies for individuals diagnosed with autism; his current focus is on a social platform for interactive and customizable illustrated stories, with a goal of studying the effects of interactive and customizable stories to help children with minimal language and verbal ability acquire and express language. At the Media Lab, Micah has become increasingly involved in outreach programs, the Media Lab's India Initiative, and with Innovate Salone (a multi-university initiative to empower youth in Sierra Leone).

Micah will discuss autism and language learning. Specifically, he will explore the development of a social story platform for helping children diagnosed with autism acquire and express language.

Todd Farrell
PhD Student, Biomechatronics group, MIT Media Lab
Todd Farrell’s main research interest is in the control of robotic prosthetics using myoelectric signal processing and machine learning. He is also involved with the Pacific Social Architecting Corporation as CTO and advisor, and is an instructor for Developing World Prosthetics, a course taught at MIT. There, he develops projects around the various clinical, business, and social problems associated with disseminating prosthetics in the developing world. Previously, Todd has worked or done research at Medtronic, MIT’s Microsystems Technology Laboratory and Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, Mitsubishi Electric Research Labs, and the Media and Design Laboratory at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology.

Todd will discuss the science of biomechanics and biological movement control and the design of biomedical devices for the treatment of human physical disability, as well as what is coming in the future, and the challenges that lay ahead. The Biomechatronics group and Developing World Prostheses research program seek to advance technologies that promise to accelerate the merging of body and machine, including device architectures that resemble the body's musculoskeletal design, actuator technologies that behave like muscle, and control methodologies that exploit principles of biological movement.

Coco Krumme
PhD Student, Human Dynamics group, MIT Media Lab
Coco Krumme is studying behavioral economics and human habits through the lens of big data. She is a member of the American Association of Wine Economists. She received her BS from Yale University.

Coco examines how people change over time. She studies the daily routines of tens of thousands of individuals, and finds that 1) we are creatures of habit: we copy our past behavior, with slow "drift" over time; 2) an individual's rate of drift depends largely on his rate of trying new things; and 3) the effect of trying new things on drift rate has a saturation point–that is, we try some things just out of a "taste for novelty." This has implications at the individual level (how you can learn to like brussels sprouts) as well as the population level (whether you can predict the success of products in markets with social influence).

Daniel McDuff
PhD Student, Affective Computing group, MIT Media Lab
Daniel McDuff received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Cambridge University. Prior to joining the Media Lab, he worked for the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) in the United Kingdom. He is interested in using computer vision and machine learning to enable the automated recognition of affect. He is also interested in technology for remote measurement of physiology.

Dan will talk about how we can use the cloud and/or "in-the-wild" measurement of emotions using ubiquitous sensors (cameras, microphones) to evaluate media in online environments. This will enable large-scale evaluations of viewers’ emotional responses to content, and will impact the future of media and storytelling. Potentially, the creation of new content could be enhanced through quantitative analysis of the emotional responses induced.

Nadya Peek
PhD Student, Center for Bits and Atoms, MIT
Nadya Peek works on digital fabrication, networking protocols for machine control, digital materials, machines that make machines, and rapid prototyping. In her spare time she volunteers at fablabs, or fabrication laboratories, a global network of digital fabrication facilities where anyone can make almost anything.

Nadya will present a series of machines designed for multi-purpose fabrication, running on a virtual machine network. Digital fabrication machines enable quick design iteration, low-cost manufacturing without an economy of scale, high precision, and ease of use. The machines that make machines project allows users to rapidly prototype milling machines, 3D printers, plotters, and other tools.

Eric Rosenbaum
PhD Student, Lifelong Kindergarten group, MIT Media Lab
Eric Rosenbaum’s current research focuses on the intersection of music, improvisation, play, and learning. His master's thesis explored reflective learning in the Scratch programming environment for children. He has made software for finger painting with sound, painting with light, improvising with looping sounds, and creating interactive behaviors in 3D virtual worlds. He has also worked on augmented reality and molecular dynamics simulations for science education. Eric has degrees in psychology and in technology in education from Harvard.

The future of learning is improvisation. Eric willl show new tools for improvising musical instruments and for creating user interfaces made from everyday materials.

Ben Waber
CEO, Sociometric Solutions
Ben Waber is a senior researcher at Harvard Business School and a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab. He is also the president and CEO of Sociometric Solutions, a management consulting firm that uses social sensing technology to understand and improve organizations. He received his PhD from MIT for his work with Alex ‘Sandy’ Pentland in the Human Dynamics group at the Media Lab. Waber’s work has been featured in major media outlets such as Wired, The Economist, and NPR. He has consulted for industry leaders such as LG, McKinsey & Company, and Gartner on technology trends, social networks, and organizational design.

Ben investigates—using cutting-edge, wearable sensing technology—how people communicate with each other in the real and virtual worlds, and how their communication patterns impact happiness, individual performance, and organizational success. Despite the fact that communication and information flow are among the most crucial aspects of any business, until recently there hasn't been any objective, scalable way to capture that information.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Openness at the MIT Media Lab

In education, we see a trend toward putting more and more courses online. Students learn new material, do exercises, and watch lectures outside the classroom. They spend their time in class interacting with the professor and each other, using this valuable time for mentoring and collaboration. This is called the "flipped classroom." It has a double benefit: It provides courseware that the entire world can access freely, but also creates a much richer experience on campus, focusing time together on close interactions and building relationships.

Media Lab membership is going through a similar transformation. Increasingly, what goes on at the Media Lab is available online. This does not diminish the value of our work; rather it amplifies it. It encourages collaboration, funding, and feedback, and will put our work in the context of a global conversation around the grand challenges facing the world community.

This new openness gives us the opportunity to focus more of our valuable time with Lab members on important, personal interactions. The Lab’s greatest asset will always be the people generating the ideas. Our “flipped classroom” gives us a greater ability to grow a stronger network of Lab researchers and member companies–a network where we convene, build, and amplify ideas; address complex global issues; and develop new initiatives. It also encourages members to interact and collaborate peer-to-peer.

It's the shift in focus from content to context–from nouns to verbs–from consumers to participants. The Media Lab is creating a network–a tribe–of members.

Joi Ito is director of the Media Lab.

Monday, June 11, 2012

MIT Media Lab @ The Aspen Institute Ideas Festival: “Seeding Innovation”

Every now and then you get an opportunity where your gut takes over and says, “Yes. I am doing this.” That was the feeling I had when I learned that a few of us from the MIT Media Lab might be able to attend the Aspen Institute Ideas Festival later this month. The Aspen Ideas Festival is a week-long conference for sharing thoughts about the future with some of the world’s most important thinkers, innovators, and business leaders. The Media Lab was asked to bring a few examples of the disruptive work we do here.

At the Media Lab, our antidisciplinary model of undirected research encourages exploration at the periphery—the undiscovered edges where disruptive innovations grow. Our delegation will focus on "Seeding Innovation”—exploring unexpected approaches to innovation that offer small, yet critical changes with the potential to trigger human-scale improvements for global impact—including solutions to problems that don't even exist yet.

This event will give Media Lab participants an opportunity to hear about the problems faced by many of the largest organizations in the world. Our hope is to find a good a match between our collection of solutions and the problems they face daily. Our participants come from groups across the Media Lab:

Each group offers a unique perspective on some of the major issues of the day, such as unemployment, the future of manufacturing, robotics, medical devices, and education. We look forward to reporting back on what we learn, and starting a broad-based discussion on how these new ideas can both impact our research here at the Lab and help those around the world.

Join the conversation on Twitter:
Aspen Ideas: @aifestival, #AspenIdeas
Media Lab: @medialab

M. Todd Farrell is a PhD student in the Biomechatronics group at the MIT Media Lab.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Media Lab Spring 2012: Join us via webcast!

Media Lab member week is here!

Our invited guests spent today in workshops and unconferences. Starting tomorrow, you can join us via webcast to learn about what's new the Media Lab.

The meeting will be hosted by award-winning journalist John Hockenberry. Tuesday's agenda will provide a look at what's going on at the Lab broadly through presentations and discussions. There will be three breaks during the program when attendees at the Lab will participate in "Lab Explorations." These open houses will not be webcast. Wednesday's program, which will be a day-long exploration on embedding nature's design in tomorrow's technology, will feature both Lab faculty and invited speakers, including Reid Hoffman, Craig Venter, John Maeda, and Paola Antonelli.

We just wanted get some useful information all in one place.

We hope you'll catch at least some of the two-day webcast, which should include lots of great content!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Inside Out

I am often referred to as a bionic man because I have two "smart" lower-leg prostheses that perform like biological legs–and in certain instances, outperform biological legs. As my "natural" body ages, my legs don't; I'm always ready for an upgrade.

But the technology that has given me these legs represents just the tip of the iceberg of what may be possible in an era where design promises to elegantly merge nature with technology. Imagine a world where we finally know as much about our natural selves as the synthetic materials we create–a world devoid of instruction manuals, where nature and technology are so seamlessly intertwined that we cannot tell where one ends and the other begins.

Next Wednesday, April 25, the Media Lab will be bringing together an incredible group of innovative thinkers, including Craig Venter, Reid Hoffman, Marvin Minsky, John Maeda, and Paola Antonelli for a day-long exploration that just might forever change your thinking about what is natural and what is not. And what the future has in store for us.

A live video stream of this event will be at
Twitter hashtag: #MediaLabIO

Hugh Herr is associate professor of media arts and sciences at the MIT Media Lab, where he leads the Biomechatronics research group.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

A Preview of Coming Attractions

The energy level here at the Media Lab is growing as we make the final push to get everything ready for next week's event–both for our invited guests and our virtual attendees.

We thought that you might like to hear a little from one of our invited speakers, LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman. When Reid was here recently as a part of our Media Lab Conversations series, we asked him for his thoughts on a question posed by next week's emcee, John Hockenberry, about networks and connections and what they can tell us about big ideas.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You Asked, We Answered

We took some of your questions from Twitter about the relationship between nature and technology and matched them up with some Media Lab researchers. Here's what they have to say:

@clintbeharry YOU ASKED
Is 3D tech a new frontier of immersion, or a minor update we will quickly attune to in the arms race for attention? #MediaLabIO

"There's more to immersion than 3D, including peripheral vision, sound, etc. Most viewers report that our Infinity-by-Nine system (which appears to be an "infinitely" wide TV screen) is more immersive than a standard 3D TV viewing experience."
Mike Bove, head of the Object-Based Media group

@metadesigners YOU ASKED
Language shapes our intellectual grasp of Nature, but is over-coloured by Technological metaphors. How to re-language language?

"Language is practically nothing but metaphor. See Lakoff's "Metaphors We Live By." Worried that technology metaphors will somehow corrupt language? Don't be. In every era, the same concerns, and you know what? In time, people are always good at putting things into their proper perspective."
Henry Lieberman, head of the Software Agents group

@MoralesFrancesc YOU ASKED
Is the technology changing our nature, leading us to an another evolution step?

"Until Darwin, evolution had no plan. No intelligent Designer. (Except for some breeders of plants and animals.) Now we have crossed a threshold of knowledge–and can begin to design genetic modifications. So now, all the rules of the game can be changed!"
Marvin Minsky, professor emeritus and author of Society of Mind

"Going through tech driven 'evolutionary step'—more about systems and networks—less about singularity IMHO."
Joi Ito, Media Lab director

@thousecambridge YOU ASKED
What about human behavior inclines us surrender privacy to technology?

"I think human behavior around privacy will change once we feel more pain."
Joi Ito, Media Lab director

Learn more about the relationship between nature and technology via webcast next week at our spring event.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Your chance to win some MIT Media Lab swag!

As we gear up for the Media Lab’s spring event on the intersection of nature and technology, we’ve put together a little contest for our followers! All of the details on the contest, which starts tomorrow, can be found below. There are four chances to win some cool Media Lab swag–good luck! And if you haven’t already done so, be sure to ‘like’ our Facebook page so you’ll see the contest once it begins!

Over the next two weeks leading up to the MIT Media Lab Spring 2012 Event, we’ll be releasing pairs of photos of projects that are related in some way. Four pairs in total will be released over the next two weeks via our Facebook page, giving you plenty of chances to win. They’ll be released on the Tuesday and Thursday of each week.

Each of the pairs will include two photos of two different research projects or research topics at the Media Lab. All you have to do is comment on the picture with your best guess on how they’re related. Responses on all four pairs will be accepted through Friday, April 20 at 2pm ET. The first person to guess correctly will be given a prize. If no one guesses the correct answer, the Media Lab staff will award the best guess with a prize. If people seem to be stumped, we’ll throw a few hints into the mix.The winners will be announced during the Media Lab event, and on the MIT Media Lab Facebook page and Twitter handle.

A surefire way to make your friends jealous–all winners will get something cool from the MIT Media Lab!

Friday, April 6, 2012

LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman: Conversation Archive

If you missed Wednesday's Media Lab Conversation between Joi Ito and LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman, never fear! It's available to watch as an archived webcast. In addition, graduate student Matt Stempeck has provided a detailed transcript of the talk.

The schedule of upcoming Conversations includes Tim O'Reilly (4/18), Howard Rheingold (5/10), and more TBA.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Pushing Limits with a Fearless Bionic Man

Hugh Herr: "I'm just in love with–enamored with–the design of the human body; its elegance. We steal from the cookie jar of nature and we apply that, and we build synthetic constructs that emulate that functionality."

Here's a preview of one of the topics of our April event, Inside Out, via Sanjay Gupta's interview with Media Lab professor Hugh Herr. Hugh discusses his group's work on "bionic" prosthetics in this CNN video (click the image for the video and full article on CNN).

Monday, March 19, 2012

We Heart Hockenberry

John Hockenberry is a longtime friend of the Media Lab, and whenever he heads to Cambridge to take the helm at our events it's a indication that an event will be extra special. He just plain gets us, and it shows when he emcees events here—he asks compelling questions and can keep a conversation going like nobody's business (which you know from hearing him on his public radio show, The Takeaway).

The Media Lab has hundreds of people coming up with an idea a minute. This April, with John's assistance, we'll focus on exploring the intersections of nature and technology. Whether you're an invited guest here at the Lab or a virtual guest joining us via webcast, tune in April 24 and 25 to explore the ongoing work at the Media Lab.

Here's a video of John from our 25th anniversary celebration in October 2010 in discussion with Google's Eric Schmidt and a group of Media Lab faculty members.

Follow John Hockenberry on Twitter: @jhockenberry

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Inside Out: Embedding Nature’s Design in Tomorrow’s Technology

Inside Out: Embedding Nature’s Design in Tomorrow’s Technology
April 23-25, 2012

The Media Lab’s annual events always have a theme day that revolves around a specific topic; this year’s theme is “Inside Out: Embedding Nature’s Design in Tomorrow’s Technology.”

Three Lab faculty members are taking the lead: Hugh Herr, Ed Boyden, and Roz Picard. Each is doing cutting-edge work relating to breaking the boundaries between what is natural and what is synthetic, and what is human and what is not. Award-winning journalist John Hockenberry will come to the Lab to serve as host, and a number of outside speakers will join Lab presenters in exploring how tomorrow’s technologies will go beyond assistive devices to integrate seamlessly with humans as symbiotic, collaborative systems.

  • Hugh Herr’s work on robotic prostheses has changed the lives of many amputees. Himself a double below-the-knee amputee as the result of a climbing accident in his late teens, Herr refused to acquiesce to the limitations of conventional prosthetics. He envisions a time when prosthetics will be more than extrabody appendages–they will work integrally with our bodies, not only replacing missing limbs, but providing even greater strength, stamina, and functionality than we would with a strictly biological limb.
  • Ed Boyden’s work on brain circuits goes about as far “inside” the body as possible, tracing paths in the brain in order to understand and improve brain function. Boyden and his collaborative team have invented tools for activating neurons with light, and for characterizing brain cells using robotics and nanotechnology. They use these tools to reveal how neural circuits generate behavior, and to yield new therapeutic strategies for brain disorders.
  • Roz Picard’s pioneering research in affective computing (a field which she created and defined) goes from autism to consumer research and back again. The same research that helps us to read facial affect in individuals with autism also provides highly accurate readings of people’s reactions to consumer products, giving far more accurate feedback than questionnaires or focus groups–testers may say they like something while their faces tell a different story!omething while their faces tell a different story!

Physical attendance at the event is by invite only, but the webcast will be open to everyone. We hope many of you will tune in and join the conversation via Twitter (#MediaLabIO).

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Archived Webcast: Wadah Khanfar, "One Year After Mubarak"

In case you missed Friday's talk and panel discussion, here's the archived webcast:

In addition, graduate student Nathan Matias of the Center for Civic Media contributed a summary of the event to the Center's blog.

Our thanks to Wadah Khanfar and Mohamed Nanabhay, all who attended (both in person and via webcast), and of course our co-hosts:

  • Center for Civic Media
  • The Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University
  • Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University
  • Edward R. Murrow Center for Public Diplomacy at Tufts University

Friday, February 24, 2012

A New Window on Media Lab Research

I am excited to tell everyone about a change we’re making for our spring 2012 event in April. For the first time, the Media Lab will make publicly available our Lab research updates. These snapshots of Media Lab research are one of the best ways–if not the best way–to get a bird’s eye overview of what I’ve begun to call the Media Lab Network.

This Network has lots of nodes—people, projects, events. There’s a lot going on here and it’s often difficult to navigate, especially in a big-picture way, but it’s all interrelated, via collaboration, co-location, similar philosophies, or the shared excitement of the researchers—it's the Media Lab Network.

Since I came on board as Lab director last September, I’ve been focusing on casting our gaze outward. We’ve been pulling up the blinds so we can see out—and of equal (if not more) importance—so others can see in. We will continue iterating and extending this openness with each new project and event, and as we ramp up to the spring event, we’ll be posting more items here as a preview to what will be going on over those three days. While the physical meeting itself is by invite only, all the talks and panels will be webcast for everyone to watch. I hope you’ll watch some or all of them, and share your thoughts and comments with us on Twitter and Facebook, or as comments here.

Inside Out: Embedding Nature’s Design in Tomorrow’s Technology
Monday, April 23 to Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Twitter: @medialab
Twitter hashtag for the spring event: #MediaLabIO

Joi Ito is director of the MIT Media Lab.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lawrence Lessig Needs Your Help Awakening a Sleeping Giant

[Ed. note: The webcast of Professor Lessig's talk has been archived.]

Lawrence Lessig sees the American people as a sleeping giant. It's OK to sleep—in general, we'd all rather focus on things other than politics. But, Lessig argues, there are times when our political system is so broken, we must awaken and flex the powers granted to us by our Constitution—now is one of those times.

Republic, LostThe first event in the spring Media Lab Conversations series featured a conversation between Media Lab director Joi Ito and lawyer, professor, author, and reformer Lawrence Lessig. Joi and Larry met in Japan in 2002, and their paths crossed a number of times over the following years as each took on campaigns for creative culture and against state corruption.

Lessig most recently shifted to focus entirely on fighting corruption, despite his fame in intellectual property law. He begins his talk with an apology for distracting us from our research. But he's here to recruit us, to distract us from our machines for a moment, because it's critical that people like us pay attention and contribute to the solution of an extraordinary problem. Every 100 years or so, society finds itself at a point where even the geniuses are forced to confront the messy world of politics—such as when the physicists working on atomic power and other wonders had to stop their work and confront fascism. Lessig says we're at a similar place now, where scientists must look up from pure research and take action.

Lessig leads with this Thoreau quote that inspired the name of his Rootstrikers campaign:
"There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root."

Even further back in time, at the Constitutional Convention, Congress created a clause (Article 1, Section 9) outlawing gifts to officials, which stemmed from a fear of potential dependency between the officials and gift-givers.

Yet in July of last year, Rasmussen reported that 46% of Americans believe that most in Congress are corrupt. But Lessig disagrees with this—the institution isn't filled with Rod Blagojeviches. He believes that it's filled with people who came to Washington for a public purpose. The framers of the Constitution gave us a republic, by which they meant a representative democracy, with a branch of government dependent upon the people alone. The model described in the Constitution places the people as puppeteer and Congress as marionette, with the people pulling the strings. But actually, it's campaign funders pulling the strings. Members of Congress spend between 30-70% of their time raising money to get back into Congress, or to get their party back in power.

The Funders Are Not the People
0.26% of Americans donate to political campaigns
0.05% max out their FEC limit
0.0000063% of Americans gave 80% of the upcoming election SuperPAC money

This is corruption. It's not the corruption of cash in brown paper bags, or of Rod Blagojevich selling access. It's corruption of dependence, and a corruption of the framers' intent that the Congress be dependent on the people.

Political scientists have trouble estimating the effect of money on policy. People such as former FEC Commissioner Brad Smith spin to suggest that there is no evidence of corruption. Lessig argues that a lack of evidence does not suggest an absence of evidence.

Ask the public. Across party lines, Americans believe that money buys results in Congress (71-81%). A recent ABC survey found that only 9% of Americans approve of Congress. More Americans supported the British Crown at the time of the American Revolution.

Rock the Vote has found that youth voting rates in 2010 were deflated by the expectation that a vote isn't enough to make a difference in a corrupt system. The same reason is given by voters of all age groups. Regardless of the issue, from healthcare to global warming to financial reform, reform is essential. The system of government where the funders control Congress will systematically block change as long as it's in place.

Lessig beseeches us—his rational MIT audience—to realize that our current political system will block reason within the halls of Congress, no matter the issue. We are the 1% of people whose very occupation is the pursuit of reason.

So what do we do?

If the problem is systemic, and not just a matter of some corrupt people, then the solution is to give Congress a way to fund their campaigns without Faust. They need a way to behave that doesn't involve selling the country's future each financial quarter.

Citizen Funded Campaigns
Should citizens fund our campaigns? Or should foreign nationals and corporations fund our campaigns? The Constitution is pretty clear on this.

As of now, a miniscule percentage of Americans privately funds our campaigns. While the framers of our Constitution worked extremely hard to make all voters equal on Election Day, our current system allows the tiniest slice of the wealthiest among us to gain the most influence.

One alternative is government-funded elections, where the government dispenses funds. But people complain that their money is used to subsidize speech they don't believe in. And, as in other government funding systems, it becomes bloated.

Lessig proposes a mix between private and government funding. It's a mix we see in some states, where small donations are amplified by public matching funds. Arizona, Maine, and Connecticut have such systems in place.

In 2010, the House came close to passing the Fair Elections Now Act. Lessig proposes what he calls the Grant & Franklin plan. It's based on the fact that each of us contributes at least $50 (the bill featuring Ulysses S. Grant) to the federal treasury. If we rebated that $50 in form of a democracy voucher, candidates could run entirely on these funds. We could match democracy vouchers with another $50 (making it $100, featuring Benjamin Franklin).

This would amount to a campaign funding system with $7 billion, multiple times the $1.8 billion spent in private donations in 2010. Such a plan would remove a source of incessant cynicism.

Would that be enough, given the SuperPACs out there?
No. We've entered the age of the SuperPAC, with the Tony Soprano model of influence. Evan Bayh, retired senator from Indiana, described the impact of the Citizens United case:

Every incumbent is now terrified that, 30 days before their election, some Super PAC will come in and drop millions of dollars in advertising against them.

Candidates feel that they need some form of Super PAC insurance, so that when a (money) bomb is dropped on one side, another (money) bomb gets dropped to neutralize it. You get insurance by paying premiums in advance. Super PACs have succeeded in aligning votes with mere promises of insurance—they actually call members of Congress with scripts saying things like "We need you to support us 80% of the time for us to support you."

A plan like Lessig's wouldn't ban independent political expenditures, but it would limit them within 90 days of an election. If we had these two features, Lessig contends that it'd make trust in our institutions possible again.

But is all of this possible? It's easy to see a problem, and not so difficult to see a solution, but can be quite difficult to enact a solution.

Congressman Jim Cooper, of Tennessee, described Capitol Hill as "a farm league for K Street." Many in Congress are focused on their lives after government, as lobbyists. Fifty percent of the Senate and forty-two percent of the House left to become lobbyists and cash in on their contacts and experience.

Insiders vs. Outsiders
One Way Forward, by Lawrence LessigLessig just published One Way Forward to chart the course ahead. He sees the primary divide in American politics as not between left and right, but between inside and outside. Outsiders have become so disgusted with how things are, they've put aside their lives for a moment to try and find an answer. The year 1998 saw Americans rally behind In 2009, the Tea Party took the spotlight, followed by Occupy in 2011.

These waves are building over time. The challenge, Lessig argues, is for these waves to have some awareness of their combined potential, of their latent power. Right now, they're extremely passionate, but also polarized. We should look at each of these waves and see the cross-partisan potential they have to move and act together, even if right now there's very low recognition of that potential. That's what we need to change.

This giant—the people—is sleeping most of the time. It must be awakened. We must stand on common ground, not because we have a common end, but to recognize the common enemy of corruption.

Lessig doesn't try to predict the complete arc of this movement. But we do need to engage more ordinary citizens in the practice of teaching. is recruiting citizens who will teach fellow citizens about the connection between the things they care about and the root of it, corruption. If Thoreau's math found that there are 1,000 striking at the branches for every 1 hitting the root, we'll need 311,000 teachers for all 3.11 million Americans. That's their goal.

There's corruption happening around the world, and around the world, people are rising up in fury against it. Starting this week, Lessig's asking people to pledge to end corruption, and to specify how they'll do so. The branding resembles the various Creative Commons licenses.

We Are All Enablers
Exxon Valdez Captain Joseph HazelwoodLessig plays the audio from the Exxon Valdez's return transmission alerting the dispatcher of the collision and ensuing oil leak. The captain escaped conviction, but there's little doubt to many observers that he was drunk.

There was no doubt, however, that he had a history of problems with alcohol; there are records of his driver's license being revoked for DUIs. At the time he crashed a supertanker, he was not allowed to drive a VW Beetle on the highway. But consider everyone else around him—all the people who did nothing while a drunk was driving a supertanker. We are those people.

We have many problems today. And yet our institutions are distracted, too busy to focus. And so are we, too busy doing the real work that produces value and contributes to the world, too busy to focus on this critical problem and give it the serious attention it needs. So who's to blame?

It's too easy to point to the evil people. They have their share of responsibility. It's the good people, the decent people, the most privileged, who have the obligation to fix this. Corruption is permitted by the passivity of the privileged.

A republic depends on the people alone. We have lost our republic, and it's time for all of us to act to get it back.

A summary of the question and answer period is available on the Center for Civic Media's blog.

Matt Stempeck is a research assistant at the Center for Civic Media at MIT, and former new media director at Americans for Campaign Reform, where he worked in a broad coalition with Rootstrikers.