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Two talks, same institution, different processes, what goals?

March 12, 2010

Last Wed, I decided to take a train to a station two stops away from where I live now to visit this so-very-famous institution that lives in most people’s imagination (thanks to the publicity it gets in different ways, including through the most popular form, films and television), including that of those who have never been there. After all, what a better excuse to procrastinate on my actual work than to travel out under the pretext of ‘seeking inspiration’. That’s what you get for going to a big city with too many things going on ‘to work.’

I got to see MIT, not too different is it from many other American universities that I’d seen, though it does have a weird but quirky matrix of a humanities program (which purports to support the ‘humane’ side of the 21st century Renaissance model), though, from what I heard, is done in a way that seems more as an administrative organizational expectation to ‘balance-out’ the hardcore technological bent of the place (and of its usual suspects) than a staunch desire for replicating the quadrivium style education of its most immediate neighbor, Harvard. Anyway, as far as high-tech equipment and paraphernalia goes, they break down when you most need them (don’t we wonder why). I was expecting to see half-crazed geniuses of grad students wandering about campus but they don’t look any different from the ones I’ve seen across other American campuses, including my own (which has its own cache of half-crazed geniuses).

Anyway I decided to attend two talks. The first one was a job talk held at the new and ‘improved’ MIT Media Lab (building); believe it or not, this new extension is designed by a Japanese architectural firm (go check their website if you want to know who). It is stationed right next to the old one building with strange-looking tiles that seems to be a misguided imitation of Mondrian. No wonder there’s something familiar in that new extension’s design. No, there is nothing particularly ‘Japanese’ about the place. It just has a sort of architectural design I’ve seen myself staring a lot at during my years employed in the design world, the sort you see a lot in the ‘more developed’ Asian countries (or cities, at the very least). Now this job-talk is of a PhD candidate in an engineering dept in MIT looking for a position at the media lab by selling his creative ability that went beyond the ‘square’ world of technical construction. He prefaces his talk by introducing himself; he’s not unlike a lot of the kind you’re find in the √©lite institutions here, polymathic with multiple talents that would fulfill all the requirements of Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligence. Looks like I’ll have very little to sell myself with when it comes to my own future (imagined) job-talk. He has an M Eng project that was funded by a toy company and it seems that he continue to receive funding from that said company as he continues to engage in research that will make the kind of products that will be more entertaining and interesting to an already satiated American audience. He interspersed his talk on the different modalities of toy design (he teaches a course in that to mostly freshmen in MIT, many of whom went on to become engineers, not surprising since that’s what most of them went to MIT for) with the psychology of creativity cultivated from the perspective of an engineer/builder/innovator with an interest in psychology (though at times, it seems to veer dangerously towards blithe pop psychology, though I have to say he’s extremely creative even in that regard). The spiel is this; how can one generate more ideas, his interest in designing tools and ‘technology’ that will help people generate more ideas and rediscovering the child in them (hey, kids are great at this sort of thing; I was way more creative and resourceful as a kid than as an adult that has been reigned in by my ‘superego.’ Of course, the other thing is to try to create products that emphasize the ‘sexiness’ factor (these are my words) to maintain the increasingly short attention span of today’s generation. This guy is also a master in self-branding (he makes great sense when he talks about making things completely irrelevant to each other greatly relevant; I’ve been practising that for eons but apparently with less success than this guy since I’m still a grad student struggling in finding suitable funding for my projects while he’s on his way to ‘stardom’ with the longterm sponsorship of this toy company, support from the institution he’s working/dissertating in, and seemed able to get some people excited about his work. But of course, attending his talk has given me some ideas on how I could/should shape my course syllabus without veering too much into the ‘popular’ at the cost of rigor. At the same time, I don’t find anything particularly new about what he’s doing as I’ve attended similar talks and workshops from the time when I was a college student to the time I became a corporate ‘creative’ in the design world. Also, I’ve seen the same kind of self-branding by branding prodigies during my time. Moreover, for a while, I was a member of an organization that was particularly interested in this sort of ‘creativeness.’

The second talk was by a professor from media lab, and the head of the physical media research group (and director of the center for bits and atoms), talking about his involvement in the work of pre-fabrication, stemming from his initial interest in setting up a high-tech ‘shop class’ in MIT well his grad students will be able to learn precision skills to use in their masters or doctoral projects. However, apparently it generated so much interest from those external to the immediate MIT community, the project went further and now has apparently ‘fab-labs‘ around the world. He has even written a book on this. MIT is very secretive about their labs, so it’s not like a members of a public can come sign up for a tour kind of place. Can’t blame them either as it’s hard to work when you get interrupted every single hour and day. There was indeed a large turnout in this guy’s talk, and questions from the audience addressed their concern with the ‘mistake committed in the Renaissance model’ of separating utilitarian skills from intellectual work. Their concerns indeed mirror the pioneer history of the people, where skills with one’s hands used to be valued above that of the intellect (unless you’re ‘a man of the cloth’) since survival was more important. So the most valued intelligence is the ‘task-oriented’ (think doctors, surgeons, dentists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, blacksmiths, plumber, carpenter, artisans etc) than the person who ‘reads and writes’ for a living. My take is that, to each his/her own, but I will not engage in a dialectical conversation on this for this entry. I’ll summarize by saying that this guy feels that ‘fabrication technology’ allows one to customized products according to the needs of each individual’s preference or needs without the cost that usually comes with it. The other argument he made is that of being able to ship prefabricated parts or even prefabricated tools to parts of the worlds that need them rather than burden them with ‘made in American’ things unsuitable to their climate (or throwing ‘discarded’ and ‘second hand’ items at the developing/third worlds). Oh, they even have a fablab in Afghanistan.

So is the second guy less corporate-minded than the first? The second guy even said that any courses in ‘innovation’ is bound to fail because packaging ‘innovation’ is equivalent to ‘killing it’ (yeah, bring back the old tinkering about one your own days).

I’ll end by saying that MIT is itself very quintessentially American in spirit (notwithstanding its use of a Japanese architectural firm), and whatever changes it undergoes is reflective of the dialecticism, movement and epistemic privileging of the American culture. I know there have been attempts to do so but it is impossible to replicate MIT anywhere down to its core essence, try as one may.

Another journey out tomorrow to a different world. Goodnight.

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