Helping Bridge the World Wide Divide
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Had Randal Pinkett stayed on track to complete a Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, it’s doubtful he would have gotten the time and support to base his graduate studies around “digital divide” issues.
It’s also unlikely he would have paired with one of the college’s urban planning graduate students to secure $200,000 in major foundation funding to build a special computerized database for a public housing project in Boston’s mostly-Black Roxbury community.
But as a Ph.D. candidate in MIT’s prestigious Media Laboratory, Pinkett, who is African American, has melded his extensive engineering and technology expertise with his passionate interest in community development.
“We’re trying to come up with new thinking about the role technology can play in building a community,” Pinkett explains.
But Pinkett’s is just one of several assignments the lab’s pioneering scientists have embarked upon that adds a rarely exploited and often overlooked multicultural dimension to the multitude of high-tech research being conducted today.
With cutting-edge projects, a crucial social consciousness and a growing cadre of top-tier scientists of color, MIT’s Media Lab is redefining academe’s role in bridging the growing chasm between the society’s tech-savvy elite and its digital underclass.
The Funding Controversy
Last month, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation tentatively agreed to fund Pinkett’s dissertation project to create an asset-based community development database on the Internet. In addition, the $200,000 grant will enable residents at a 100-unit housing project to get personal computers, training and wiring for low-cost Internet access to use the database as an empowerment tool.
Pinkett, a former Rhodes scholar, credits the Media Lab for having the faculty and resources to allow him to pursue his interests.
“I never thought I could do a Ph.D. in the community and combine that with engineering,” he says.
The work that Pinkett and his advisers pursue in the media lab’s Epistemology and Learning Group have given the renowned department something of a socially-conscious profile among high tech academic research centers. But that profile is just one of many for the multifaceted research lab.
Since the early 1980s, the lab has occupied a unique place in American higher education. While its interdisciplinary research environment has fostered significant breakthroughs in multimedia and computer technology, the basis of its funding and scholarship has been a source of controversy.
Ninety-five percent of its $30 million operating budget in 1999 came from corporate sponsorship, according to Media Lab officials.
“The chief accomplishment of the media lab is its own existence, which was against all odds and not in keeping with traditional academic funding or scholarship,” says current director and co-founder Nicholas Negroponte.
“Many innovations have resulted, leading to more usable and less expensive computers and network access. Current research is very broad, with interests ranging from health to opera, from cars to toys, from biotech to media,” he adds.
Negroponte, who is an architect by training, is world famous as an expert on, or some say, a prophet of digital technology’s capacity to transform society. His leadership of the lab has made it an attractive place for individuals such as Pinkett to pursue digital divide research.
The media lab, however, has not been as successful with attracting women and underrepresented minorities as faculty members. The lab hired its first full-time African American faculty member in 1997, more than a decade after its founding. Eight women are on a faculty and research staff of 47.
A Scientific Core
Explaining what the media lab provides its students and produces in research is not a simple task. Graduate students who complete degree programs at the media lab can either obtain a master’s or a Ph.D. in media arts and sciences. The degree’s title relates to the interdisciplinary nature of the course offerings and the research practices.
Officials here describe the field as “the study, invention and creative use of enabling technologies for understanding and expression by people and machines.”
At the scientific core of the field are the engineering disciplines, computer and human sciences. And from that scientific base, Media Lab faculty has explored highly creative pursuits in areas such as the arts, film, video, music and childhood education.
A sampling of the lab’s research pursuits include interactive cinema, aesthetics and computation, the future of learning and multilingual computing.
Negroponte says that even though the lab has been controversial since its early days it was conceived at an institution not known for the arts, music or education.
“We started the Media Lab at MIT, where none of the following existed: a school of education, a graduate program in music, an art program, a film school or human-computer interface research. This made building the media lab more or less frictionless — we were a salon des refuses and nobody else wanted us. What more could you ask for?” Negroponte explains.
What has proved more controversial for the Media Lab than its interdisciplinary research emphasis is its relationships with well-heeled multinational corporations. Dozens of industry’s giants are involved in the lab’s creative output — among them Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, LEGO, Motorola, Disney and Nokia.
Although companies cannot dictate specifically what the Media Lab researches, corporate sponsors — with access to lab facilities — are positioned to challenge researchers to solve their particular scientific and engineering problems. This close tie to corporations and their research interests have led critics to question the quality of the scholarship and research coming out of the lab.
Negroponte dismisses such criticism.
“The Media Lab has always been controversial, perhaps more so in its early days than now. But even now there are people who will say it is ‘all icing and no cake.’ My reaction has always been: You’re not doing anything interesting unless it is controversial,” he says.
Known to be on the road more than 300 days a year, Negroponte travels ceaselessly, meeting with corporate executives and speaking at conferences about the future of digital technology. Stints as a columnist for Wired magazine and publication of his bestselling book, Being Digital, brought widespread attention to Negroponte during the 1990s. The high profile of the Media Lab and Negroponte’s fame have reinforced each other.
Negroponte says MIT as a whole has benefited from the Media Lab’s success.
“You could argue that the media lab serves MIT well in terms of global “buzz,” and a not too shabby record of working with industry worldwide,” he says.
The Thread of Social Responsibility
Despite its corporate ties, the lab is perhaps better known for the social conscious thread woven through many of its innovative projects’ high-tech stitches.
That thread has strung-in many faculty members committed to work in education and community development. They include researchers like Pinkett and Dr. Alan Shaw — another African American technologist who developed an urban-based computer network as a media lab student.
The work of celebrated education technology expert Drs. Seymour Papert and Mitchel Resnick have been key draws for such graduate students for several years.
Resnick, the lead inventor of programmable children’s play blocks, says that working in the realm of digital technology naturally carries an obligation for scientists and engineers.
“In my mind, everyone doing work in digital technology should keep in mind how technology should be accessible,” Resnick says. “Digital technology is at the basis of much of the changes taking place in society,” he notes.
In addition to developing programmable blocks, Resnick has spearheaded the concept of the “Computer Clubhouse,” a network of 15 facilities where inner-city youth try out new technologies and activities.
Pinkett says the Media Lab became highly attractive to him during the time he was earning masters’ degrees in business administration and electrical engineering at MIT. He appreciated the work Resnick was pursuing and decided that he too could broaden his engineering work to tackle community development issues.
In addition to getting the degrees at MIT, Pinkett had already gotten a master’s in computer science from England’s prominent Oxford University during his time as a Rhodes Scholar.
Pinkett’s current project is based on community development theories and practices pioneered over the past two decades by Northwestern University researchers. The concept of asset-based community development involves community residents and organizations pooling their skills and expertise to build and maintain their neighborhoods. Pinkett’s project will give residents Internet access to a community database that catalogs the skills and expertise of the residents, businesses and non-profit groups.
“Our approach uses technology to enhance the concept of asset-based community development,” he explains.
Aside from the digital divide work, Resnick, Pinkett and other graduate students pursue, MIT researchers in general have made limited forays into wrestling with issues related to information technology access.
In 1996, MIT Press published High Technology and Low Income Communities, a collaboration among Drs. Donald Schon and William Mitchell of MIT’s School of Architecture and Planning, and Dr. Bish Sanyal, chair of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. The book proposes initiatives for using computers and electronic communications to benefit low-income communities.
Advocates of information technology access say that kind of work is an important early piece in the public dialogue about the digital divide.
One Media Lab graduate student who researches digital music production spoke of the possibility of using music to draw children in disadvantaged communities into computing.
“Technology access is moving toward community-based sharing of equipment that is needed only intermittently by any individual,” observes Eric Scheirer, a Ph.D. student in the Media Lab’s Machine Listening Group.
Scheirer is enthusiastic about the opportunities digital music presents for pulling young people into computing. There’s no upper limit to the learning curve with digitized music, observes Scheirer.
Besides giving the Internet user a chance to listen to music and forward it instantaneously around the world, digital music lets them get more involved. They can learn more about the composition process, dubbing and distributing digital recordings themselves, he adds.
Dr. Percy Pierre, a professor of engineering at Michigan State University and a former president of Texas’ Prairie View A&M University, says he believes that computers and applications such as digital music have the potential to draw kids into computing. But he cautions that enticing kids to use computers doesn’t mean that they will begin taking science and math more seriously.
“It’s a two-edged sword. [An interest in computers] may get someone in front of a [computer] keyboard. But learning to play on the computer does not teach you math,” Pierre says.
Resnick is confident that costs of computers and Internet access will become cheap enough so that unequal access disappears as a problem. He argues that we should worry more about a “fluency gap,” which occurs when one group of people uses information technology in meaningful ways to enrich their lives while another group lacks the skills and understanding to value the technology.
Negroponte says that it’s inevitable that advances in computing and networking technology will ensure affordable access to information.
“I grew up in a very privileged setting, having one of the very first color TVs. The price dropped so fast, that having access to color television signals is just not a sign of affluence, almost anywhere in the world. Computers will follow,” he says.
The World Wide Arena
As a department, the Media Lab is making an aggressive commitment to tackling digital divide issues in the international arena.
“The Media Lab is devoting as much as a third of its energy to developing nations, with particular emphasis on learning and devices, particularly for young children,” Negroponte explains. “One project at the lab is to build a PC for less than one dollar. Other projects include programs in the remotest regions of Thailand and throughout all of Costa Rica. New projects are starting in Brazil and Mexico.”
Dr. Thomas A. Nwodoh, a research associate in the lab’s Spatial Imaging Laboratory, says that he thinks the media lab has done impressive work in the developing world. A native of Nigeria, Nwodoh points out that he is the only Black person at the Spatial Imaging Laboratory. His work in digital video processing is aimed at producing systems to render holograms — 3-D images — as fluid and fast as regular two-dimensional video.
“MIT’s commitment to wireless technology has put vital information in the hands of everyday people at the grassroots level of developing societies,” Nwodoh says.
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