what's new at the mit media lab?: technologies for the young and the restless

Thursday, March 31, 2005
5:00 - 7:00 p.m.

Bartos Theater


In this forum, two Media Lab professors discuss their efforts to develop technologies to empower children and those outside traditional power structures. The session will include examples of projects that are moving out of the lab and into the world.


Chris Csikszentmihlyi is the Muriel Cooper Assistant Professor of Media Arts and Sciences and directs the Computing Culture Group at the MIT Media Lab. Interested in cultural narratives, his work typically aims to create a new technology to embody a particular social agenda. "Afghan Explorer," for example, was a technology designed to defend the First Amendment by creating a tele-operated robot reporter that bypasses American military censorship. It recently won an International Association of Art Critics award for Best Web Art. His "Natural Language Processor," was commissioned by the KIASMA Museum in Helsinki, Finland.

Mitchel Resnick, associate professor at the MIT Media Laboratory, explores how new technologies can help people learn new things in new ways. Resnick's research group developed the ideas and technologies underlying the LEGO Mindstorms robotics construction kit, used by millions of kids around the world. He co-founded the Computer Clubhouse project, a worldwide network of after-school centers, and is author Turtles, Termites, and Traffic Jams (1994) and co-author of Adventures in Modeling (2001).


Today, Chris and I hope to explore the connections between our work. For instance, we both study how new technology serves those on the margins of society and how it can better serve these people.

CSIKSZENTMIHLYI: We do both work with people from the margins of society. However, Mitch works with young children, while I wonder if the youth I work with have been arrested recently. So, today, we will examine the traditional power structures around technology and the results of turning these structures upside down.

RESNICK: We will look at the margins in different ways. We realized that there were kids who would sneak into museums after-hours in order to continue working on a project they had seen there. We want to reach out to these children, so we ask ourselves, “how will this help the kids pass standardized tests?” So, in this case, our own questions are on the margins of the educational community.


With the exception of the science/engineering aspect, production is a cycle. The product travels from the marketers to the product designers, then to the engineers and sales. From sales, the product finds its way back to the marketers. The result is that the products look exactly like those before them. This is also partly the result of scale. Production needs to be large-scale. How can we break out of this cycle? There has been analysis of products which asks, “what can we expect from our products?” This analysis concluded that big products have much the same kinds of problems as big Hollywood films. The product always promises a simpler life for the user. Instead of simplifying life, analysts suggested that users develop more complicated relationships to products. A phrase associated with this idea is “design noir.” My group is working on developing a product that encourages a more complex relationship with the user.

An interesting question arises from the idea that productivity is the language of business. What is the language of unproductivity? Our current project involves answering this question.

Chris Csikszentmihlyi

Projects entirely funded by the military can be a concern because military funding tends to stipulate what and how information can be shared. I became interested in unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, while researching the Afghan Explorer. I learned of at least two cases of weddings being bombed by UAVs, based on the images the controller saw. Anyone who has taken a basic photography or media studies class realizes that our reaction to images is based on our beliefs and biases, as well as by who presents the photos. It is risky to make life or death decisions based on grainy video.

The idea of using planes or balloon has existed since at least World War I. At that time, engineers and scientists working for the Department of Ordinance in the U.S. Army covered up new technology because they felt weapons should only be used against the military, not civilians. By suppressing this information, they prevented knowledge of the technology from proceeding to higher powers. When the knowledge finally did reach military leaders the technology was mass-produced, but was not put to use before the armistice. This shows that humans and ethics can have control over technology.

Because humans control technology, my group is trying to stage an intervention in a specific use of UAVs. America’s Border Patrol and a militia group called the Minutemen Project are using UAVs to find immigrants crossing the U.S. – Mexican border. Once found, these immigrants are rounded up and held in the sun with rifles and attack dogs. We are developing our own UAV. It is harmless, but will capture documentation of these illegal activities. We are planning this in coordination with the Southern Poverty Center and the American Civil Liberties Union.

One of my students was concerned that the government can find out more about us than we can find out about them and was especially worried about new laws, such as the Homeland Security Act and the U.S. Patriot Act. Admiral Poindexter, of Iran Contra fame, runs an information database, called “Total Information Awareness.” This database includes information on everyone in the world, and somehow calculates each person’s terrorist index. This is an invasion of privacy.

My student Ryan created the “Government Information Awareness” database. It allowed users to find information about people in government, a sort of Citizens Intelligence Agency, if you will. He included automated closed-captioning on CSPAN1 and CSPAN2 and digitized faces. Then he linked the database to open public information sites. The site launched on July 4, 2003 and immediately crashed. We have since added more servers.

The media was interested in Ryan’s project and he appeared on some news stations. He explained that GIA is a system that allows citizens to add information. When asked about violating the privacy of government officials, he replied that if secretly selling information about citizens is legal, openly sharing information must be legal. The database is not intended for citizens to use to tattle on politicians. However, this site is important to maintaining a democracy, he said, since technology is currently being used to create an uneven balance of power.


I often ask people which of these three things is not like the others? A TV, a computer, or a paintbrush. People often immediately point to the paintbrush, because both televisions and computers are information distribution technologies invented in the twentieth century. However, we are not going to get the most out of computers until we learn to see computers more like paintbrushes and less like TVs. And while some people do use television actively, they have the perception of them as one-way information distributors. People also need to shift their view of computers, which they see in much the same way as television.

I work with the Lifelong Kindergarten Group. Shifting this view of computers is especially important in education, where computers are primarily used for the distribution of information. This may be because people tend to think of education as the passing of information from one person to another. So, we want to rethink how we think about technology and education in order to get more out of them. Education and technology should involve a learning process of creation and self-expression. A good model of this is kindergarten. Kindergartners use blocks to design and create structures, and collaborate with others. Most people seem to think that kindergarten works pretty well, so why doesn’t the rest of the educational system work so well? Today, new technologies can fill this gap. The Media Lab has adopted some of these technologies and we want to spread this approach to others.

One of my projects brings children together with programmable Lego bricks. This takes something from the culture of childhood and extends its capabilities with new technology. Children learn how to build robotic devices and learn a great deal in the process. When we brought this to Singapore, it seemed to be a success with both students and teachers. However, when we asked a teacher how the technology would be incorporated into the classroom, she said that this sort of project would be reserved for an after-school activity. It would not be part of the classroom. This was interesting because earlier in our visit we spoke with the Ministry of Education, who said that kids were scoring very high on math and science exams, yet were not prepared for the real world. These students were not used to thinking creatively and coming up with new solutions. So, how can creativity be supported inside and outside schools?

Another project is our invention workshop for girls. The girls created projects that were personally meaningful to them. One student created a gerbil trap, something that piqued her interest because she made it for her gerbil. Another student, an avid rollerblader, created an odometer for rollerblades. Another student, a fifth-grader, created a marble machine for a science fair. When asked to describe past projects, she could not remember many and did not seem animated by them. However, she was engaged while describing the “slopes and loops” of her marble machine. At first, her teacher said that her project didn’t fit the traditional scientific model, since it lacked a hypothesis, data gathering, and a model. But of course her project did involve several trials, data collection on these trials, and investigation.

Mitchel ResnickWe started the Computer Clubhouses, a network of after-school clubs for kids from low-income communities. At the first clubhouse we started, there was a boy named Mike. He was a 16-year old dropout who had never used a computer. He liked drawing and used the computer to help him do this; at first he only used it to help him color his drawings. Then he began to add layering and text to his pictures, something he could not have done without the computer. Other kids began to notice his work and asked him for advice on their projects. It is important to realize that no one had ever asked Mike for advice before. He took this responsibility seriously, and when he noticed his drawings were a model for others, he removed the gang and violence imagery from his work. Mike went on to get his high school equivalency and took a job in graphic design. In the words of John Dewey, “education should be about learning how to make not just a living, but also a life.” Not only did Mike find a job, but he also changed in how he thought about himself. And, thanks to Intel, there are now over 90 clubhouses around the world.

There are still some difficult problems to solve in these clubhouses. Students rarely program, even when introduced to it. So, the next effort is to have kids make important conceptual connections with programming. SCRATCH is our latest project that deals with this issue. Students can make an object, such as a cat, move or turn, by giving it commands.

Our goal is to identify rich learning processes and to develop the creative thinking skills that kids need in order to succeed in careers and lead interesting and satisfying lives. Also, we hope this generation will have more opportunities to think creatively and constantly design as part of their careers. We want this technology and a creative approach to reach both the mainstream and those on the margins.


DAVID SINGER, MIT: Mitch, I love your faith in the kids, because they are the future. I find it humorous to hear about what seem to be polar opposites: political change and kindergarten. I can think of students who struggle, here at MIT or at any elementary school, and it is often a challenge to motivate them to learn. Where does fact-learning fit into the educational process? Before critical thinking, after it, or during the process of learning how to think critically?

CSIKSZENTMIHLYI: If we allow students to engage in critical thinking, we allow them to determine what the facts are. They can come up with new ideas. For example, if we had asked students what they could create, they would have named things that already exist. When they actually go through the process of designing and building, they can come up with new inventions or ideas.

RESNICK: The girl who made an odometer for her rollerblades was motivated to learn multiplication because it was meaningful to her. We are opening up alternate ways to learning.

QUESTION: How could an adult explore these new technologies in the Boston area?

RESNICK: There are adults needed to mentor at Computer Clubhouses. These mentors do not just have to teach, but can also gain experience with new technology.

QUESTION: Is the “Government Information Awareness” site active?

CSIKSZENTMIHLYI: It is not active right now because the student graduated.

QUESTION: I am also skeptical of corporation funding. How is your research and interest shaped by the corporation’s ethical ideas and agenda? Are you worried about the uses they may make of your technology?

CSIKSZENTMIHLYI: We can sometimes match our research to a sponsor’s needs. Often, though, it is not clear how research would be useful to a corporation. Nicholas Negroponte said that ideas in the lab need to be developed in a pre-competitive form. Since many companies look at our research, it has to be useful to more than one particular company. They also tell us that they want technologies that won’t have an application until father in the future. We have been grateful that our funding does not come with tight strings attached.

QUESTION: I love the stuff you are working on, but it is not directed. Students can pick a project and do it, but it is hard to add a topic on to it. How will you put this approach into a classroom, taking into account time efficiency? How does it meet the goals of what school seems to require?

CSIKSZENTMIHLYI: Time efficiency is a problem. Our approaches often won’t fit into a classroom schedule. I visited a Detroit charter school that spent several months exploring the concept of bouncing. This is great because it studies many of the deeper aspects of a topic, but most schools cannot do this. It is also a difficult challenge to make concept connection at the right time with projects, but the connection is more effective once it is made.

QUESTION: If we can think of the first wave of technology as created by mad scientists in their basement and the second wave by research and development teams in corporations, do you think the third wave of technology will be created by individuals from all walks of life? Also, do you think future technology will be more street-smart than theoretical, to reflect the individuals who made them?

RESNICK: I hope to promote this approach, but not exclusively. We aim to open up a new pathway to invention, experimentation.

QUESTION: I am responsible for coordinating classes for teaching robotics and we are still forced to the basic older tools of robotics. When will you choose to distribute what you are developing to educators and education catalogs, not just museums?

RESNICK: We love to find ways to reach out to schools and kids, but there is a concern about spreading our resources too thinly. Thus far, we have been working with prototypes not robust enough to become mainstream. However, this fall, the Playful Inventions Company is coming out with the technology we talked about today. Hopefully, you are educators like yourself will help us to develop more support materials. We hope this will allow us to reach out more broadly.

QUESTION: I am trying to sponsor a competition for MIT Earth Day, challenging people to make the most useful renewable energy device from recycled models and cans. I talked to product designers and labs about this idea and they seemed interested. However, when I started to talk about using simple solar energy, they no longer would listen to what I was wanted. Why is it that though I am giving them financial backing for the simplest of technologies, they will not listen to what I am aiming for?

CSIKSZENTMIHLYI: This reminds me of that episode of the Simpsons, where the renewable energy booth at an exhibition is heckled and finally replaced by a nuclear energy booth. You need to figure out what interests the product designers and find out what they find so uninteresting about your plan. It is important to match skills and interests.

RESNICK: I have noticed in educational technology that designers spend their time trying to make the machine smarter, for example, by responding to the user. I do not think that this is most valuable to education in the short term, but what is more valuable is just not as interesting to the designers.

--compiled by Marie Y. Thibault


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