I’m professor of comparative media studies [CMS] at MIT, in a program that continues to define the frontiers of media study. And I’m professor of comparative media history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands in a department with uncanny resemblances to CMS. I’m about to move to move to Berlin (The American Academy in Berlin … thanks to the Berlin Prize) where I’ll complete a book on interactive and participatory documentary and the increasing role of algorithms in their formulation. I’m also knee-deep in a book project on computer games and history that considers various modes of ‘playing’ history and explores the coincidence of these games with the rise of post-structuralist historiography.
Comparativity … it’s a pretty central word in my world, and these and a number of other visiting professorships that I’ve held in Berlin, Marburg and Stockholm have given me access to a comparativist’s dream. I’m interested in comparing the development and uses of pretty much all forms of media and am particularly interested in moments of instability, uncertainty and disruption. These tend to be revealing moments, moments that show forgotten potentials or recurrent longings, moments with implications for how we represent and structure the world, and how we remember. I’m a media historian, and spend a lot of time exploring the deep history of the telephone, television, photography and film. But although centered in 18th and 19th Century sources and 20th century deployments, in fact the relevance of this work tends to be at the frontiers of contemporary media development. So in fact, the telephonoscope is as central to my work as the latest developments in YouTube and IPTV.
I’m constantly struck by the very different starting points and assumptions of these technologies across different cultural spaces, and do quite a bit of comparison among North American, European, and increasingly Asian developments. And I’m particularly intrigued by how these technologies are deployed to help articulate (and sometimes reposition) identity — the topic of my last two books.
I’m also quite interested in the role played by algorithms in applications such as Wikipedia, Photosynth, Facebook and Narrative Science and their implications both for collaboration and the modern subject, and how we need to rethink some of our basic theories of media and mediation in their wake. This work has pulled me back to developments in the 15th Century (arguably, the site of the modern subject’s formation) and the notion of the algorismic, helping to articulate the distinctiveness of the algorithmic in contemporary culture. Like I said, I’m a historian….
Among other things, I’m principle investigator of a wonderful research-driven games initiative — the MIT Game Lab. And I’m PI of the Open Documentary Lab, which draws on MIT’s long legacy in the documentary field (Leacock’s Direct Cinema, Davenport’s interactive cinema, and the Institute’s many ‘open’ initiatives from software to courseware) to advance the new arts of documentary and civic engagement. Our focus is on new technologies and techniques for documentary makers in participatory and interactive domains.