MIT celebrates 20 years

Nearly 20 years after its development, is the Media, Information and Technoculture program as relevant now as it was in 1997?

It’s been approximately a month since the resolution of the most recent American election campaign. Throughout that long campaign, information was delivered to people’s pockets 24/7 on a myriad of platforms, from social media like Facebook and Twitter, to memes, blogs and online streaming, via a host of mobile technologies using high speed, wireless internet.

Questions now abound about the impact of these technologies, the types of information that flowed freely, who was looking, when and why. What role did traditional media such as cable television and print media play? Is there a problem with fake news spreading virally across the Internet? Are we living in digital echo chambers that make it increasingly difficult to hear and integrate differing viewpoints into our own understanding of things?

In March 1997, when the Faculty of Information and Media Studies was still known as the Faculty of Communication and Open Learning (the name switch would happen the following year), Acting Dean Catherine Ross was asked about why it was important to establish a program like Media, Information and Technoculture. She responded:

“If you open the Globe and Mail or any other paper, you’ll see that these things are having an impact on business, the way we communicate, the way we teach, the way we read. On the one side you get a lot of hype; on the other side you get a lot of doomsaying. In our program, we will critique a number of the claims that are being made about the impact of technologies on their lives.”

While the number of information sources people are now “opening” has expanded far beyond traditional newspapers, this type of critique of the impact of media in all its forums, modes and inter-relationships with money, society and culture, is more vitally important now than ever before.

Despite the importance of the field of study that MIT encompasses, it can still be difficult to describe it adequately to people who are unfamiliar with the curriculum and faculty research.

Photo of Susan Knabe, Associate Dean Undergraduate“It’s a bit of a challenge for me, although I think recent political events have made it much more salient to talk about why what we study here is really relevant,” explains Susan Knabe, current Associate Dean Undergraduate.
“The way that we think about media is not just as representation, but as media as industry, the political economy of media, who controls what, who owns what, how we get the news we get, who produces the stories we get. All of that is really important. And we can see that in looking at who is getting blame or credit for what happened in the American election. All of a sudden people are posing questions about what does it mean to live in an online bubble that is actually structured by algorithms?”

Trying to shed light on important questions like these has been the business of MIT since the beginning.

MIT was not a program that was slow to catch on. Expansion happened rapidly. In 1998, 11 students graduated with an area of concentration in MIT. By 2002, enrolment sat in the neighbourhood of 700 undergraduates. In 2016, the undergraduate population for MIT and the Media and the Public Interest program (introduced in 2004), is steady at approximately 1,100 students.

It’s unlikely that anyone would dispute that technology has changed radically since 1997, and that the pace of change itself has accelerated. In the MIT program, understanding and accounting for that change has been part of its core mission from the outset. Its fundamental goal since its earliest years has been exploring critical, interdisciplinary analysis of the institutions, practices, and cultural meanings associated with media, information and communication technologies.

Current students continue to work from within that core mission.
“The one thing that we promise our students, and that our alum tell us that we’ve actually delivered on, is imbuing our students with critical thinking skills. First of all making it invaluable, allowing them to understand that approaching all sorts of media, information and technology from a critical perspective, through a critical lens, is important. And then also giving them the skills to define what it actually means for them. What does it actually mean to take a critical stance on media? I think our students, by the time they’re finished their four years, certainly get that,” says Knabe.

(Interested to see what kinds of courses are available to MIT students in 2016? Visit our undergraduate courses page)

MIT has a strong focus on critical theory and analysis, but right from its earliest days the program also made room for a production component. With its roots in both the professional schools of Library and Information Science and Journalism, production was an additional method through which one could examine media. This production component is expected to continue in coming years.

“As FIMS and the MIT program look to the future – one which includes moving into a brand new facility with expanded production capabilities in December 2016 – work is ongoing to determine how to make use of the new space in a way that continues to provide a stellar educational experience for undergraduate students. Added production opportunities may be a part of that,” says Knabe.

“Students have a desire to create. Anything that we can do to inflect our programs in a way that provides the students with a creative and critical approach is only going to be an advantage for us.”

She notes that they are also looking for new ways to establish connections between undergraduate studies and graduate-level education. FIMS is home to both thesis-based PhD and MA Media Studies programs as well as the professional Master of Media in Journalism and Communication program, which descended from the Master of Arts in Journalism program.

Reflecting on the history of the program, Knabe believes that MIT was a game-changer at the time it was developed. And while others have tried to roll out similar programs, no one has quite yet matched the combination of approaches or expertise that FIMS has at its fingertips.

“I think the thing is that a lot of media programs are either a media industries program or a media representation program. Our program does a whole lot of everything. It’s in the MI and T coming together. It’s not just a media studies program, and it still has that connection to the other elements. It may be artificial to separate them out, to sort of distill them out. I think that media studies programs that don’t actually reflect on the relationship with technology and with information are probably not as rich a learning experience for the students.”

As societies continue to grapple with the modern media landscape, and all its implications, whether it’s observed through an election, a revolution, celebrity culture, the fight for human rights and equality, or the more mundane activities of daily life, MIT will be here to help students learn to analyze what they see and hear, so they can take personal agency and awareness with them into the future.

Also see: "A program whose time has come", from 1997 (Western News)

By FIMS Communications