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Rahul Bhargava (S.B. 2002) is this month's featured inventor at the MIT Museum and the creator of "Drums of War," an ambient display device that translates newswire stories into social commentary. He'll demonstrate and discuss his creation at the museum on Dec. 11 and 18 from 3-5 p.m.
Conceived in collaboration with longtime friend and New York artist Mira Friedlaender, "Drums of War" invites onlookers to test various spots on a map for a real-time reading of "war likelihood." By connecting small, amplified drums to a kind of vertical switchboard and dialing back in recent history with the twist of a knob, people can literally hear the difference between perceived conflict levels in separate global regions or within one region over time.
The exhibit works by collecting up-to-date newswire reports of war or tumult and translating them into the sound of a drum beating quickly or slowly, depending on the popular media's coverage. It measures where the media directs its attention as well as the intensity of conflict in those places.
Allison Kornet of the Office of the Arts talked to Bhargava about his project.
Q. What motivated you to create "Drums of War"?
A. As I've found myself swamped with more sources of news, I've been wanting a more concrete way of acknowledging the biases inherent in them. Specifically, I think I was on the Metro in D.C., reading the opinion page of The Washington Post, and the idea just jumped into my head. Obviously it didn't appear out of nowhere, and there are a few threads that come together. One is that I'm a drummer. Also, I grew up in Langley, Va., about five minutes away from the CIA headquarters, a center for information and misinformation. Visiting now--and driving by the insidiously funny "George Bush Center for Intelligence" sign--leaves me with a certain appreciation for satirical commentaries on the state of our media, particularly as the U.S. propaganda machine kicked into high gear and an Iraq invasion became inevitable.
Q. Is there a specific comment you hope to make with the exhibit?
A. Mainly I want it to spark people to ask questions, which is something I've always liked about good art projects: they make you think about something in a new way, or reveal something in a new light. People consume so much information each day, much of it generated by sources that we never give a second thought. And it's strange, because if some disheveled bum on the street tells us we should read more Eastern philosophy to have a better understanding of how we move through life, we ignore him; but if some New York Times best-selling author says it, we tend to listen. And we think anything the TV or newspaper says is true. Maybe I'm making a comment on that.
Q. How exactly does the exhibit work?
A. I have an algorithm that does a few things, but it's mainly a process of data collection. Each day at 9 a.m. and 7 p.m., a program fetches the top 20 stories from each region of the world from the AP newswire. The stories are then fed into another program which counts key words to produce a number representing how much the stories are about war or conflict. The program has some intelligence, including taking the length of the story into account and giving more weight to words in the title and in photo captions. The individual story ratings are then averaged into an overall rating for the day and then normalized over the course of a few months' worth of data to get an appropriate representation. So when someone dials in a date, the device looks up the ratings in a big table and then sends signals to any motors attached. The higher the rating, the faster the motor signal.
Q. Any other plans for the new version?
A. I'm hoping to add a button that will print out the actual headlines of the day you select. People would get a simple grocery-store-like receipt to remember the news of a date or find out why some drum was beating fast.
Q. What's unique in the exhibit in terms of its technology or its particular blend of media?
A. The whole piece is based around a small, commercially available, embedded computer platform called the Rabbit. It's not a technology used a lot by hobbyists or artists yet, but it has a nice price-to-performance ratio: it costs $50 but packs about half the power of a typical cheap Palm PDA. It's so much cheaper than using a full computer, which is rather overpowered for this project. Plus it's small, which allows more flexibility in the physical design.
On the multimedia side, the interactivity makes it a rather unique piece for a gallery setting. It's an exhibit I'd like people to play with. The best way to investigate large bodies of information is through a flexible, natural interface, which we've tried to capture with the switchboard metaphor of plugging drums in and turning a dial.
In addition, the whole thing is constructed with an eye towards being able to discuss how it works. One of my goals is to make the pieces transparent and explainable: the front latch pops off to reveal a view of the electronics, the components are separated by capability to easily point at something and say what it does, and the data collection algorithm is understandable--really I'm just counting words.
Q. What sort of reactions has "Drums of War" provoked in other audiences?
A. People have responded in great ways. At the ArtBots show that I built it for, lots of people played with it. The kids seemed to enjoy looking at history in a new way--not by having to read the newspaper every morning for some assignment, but by actively wondering, for instance, why the Africa drum never beat quickly (except for when Bush visited). It really served as a nice conversation starter about recent events, and, for example, about how the AP has almost no coverage of the violence in various failing African states. Many of the adults commented on how they were going to pay more attention to biases in their news sources, which left me feeling good about the impact it was having.
Q. What have you been up to since graduation from MIT, and what did you think of the place?
A. Well, I had a great time in my graduate degree program, because I was surrounded by exceptionally interesting people that were looking at technology in a fresh way. I don't call myself an artist, because I'm really more of a recovering computer scientist. But having ideas sparked by that community has led me to think about and make things that try to put a new face on technology.
As for myself, I've been doing freelance work in computer hardware and software design. My clients have mainly been museums, but my main one now is a small startup run by another Media Lab grad. So you can tell I like MIT people. I also spend lots of time building small gadgets for around the house--little robots and small display devices.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on December 10, 2003.