Tim Blackmore talks MIT

Media, Information and Technoculture, which would become the flagship undergraduate program for the new Faculty of Information and Media Studies, began as many innovative programs do. There was a general concept borne of people’s ideas, interests and vision that needed to be hammered out into a blueprint for a comprehensive degree program that would offer students something of unique value.

In 1997, with the public use of the internet in its infancy and the widespread digitization of information underway, the founders of the MIT program were in a position to create a program that would equip students with the ability to examine critically and deconstruct the information and media they were exposed to daily in order to better understand its economic underpinnings, as well as its symbiotic relationship with society and culture.

In 2016 there can be no mistaking how important these skills have become and the foresight of the program’s creators has proved impressive. In 1997 there were hints of what may come. The original founders of the MIT program created a program with core, fundamental, liberal arts-based principles that continue to serve the students regardless of how fast information technology changes.

For more on the beginnings of the MIT program, please enjoy this interview with Professor Tim Blackmore, one of its original architects and a current faculty member (additional background provided in italics).

Q: How did MIT become a program?

Tim: The brains of the operation were really Catherine Ross, Gloria Leckie, and Gill Mitchell, who was in Library and Information Science. Carole Farber, who had come from Part-Time Continuing Education, was also there. Carole was a huge influence on a lot of the things that we did right. And David Spencer, because it was the joining of the journalism program with the library and information science program, which then came together to create this new undergrad degree. So basically it was key players who were from journalism and from LIS, and when the university folded up Continuing Education, Carole also came to us. Which was a huge, enormous benefit for us. So it was really the brain child of these individuals, all of whom were deeply invested early on, in basically seeing their way through to what this thing would look like.

Additional info: Two professional schools with long-standing traditions at Western – The School of Library and Information Science (SLIS) and Western Journalism - came together with the Faculty of Part-Time and Continuing Education to form the Faculty of Communication and Open Learning, later the Faculty of Information and Media Studies. The idea was that the disciplinary expertise available in Journalism and in Library and Information Science could merge and strengthen each other. The MIT program was launched from within this multi-disciplinary perspective.


Additional Info: Jacquie Burkell, Lynne McKechnie and Grant Campbell were among the first professors to teach in MIT who brought with them expertise in Library and Information Science. David Spencer and Michael Nolan came with their vast knowledge in journalism. Ian Kerr (cross-appointed with Law), Nick Dyer-Witheford, Tim Blackmore and Carole Farber added their own unique backgrounds in critical theory, political economy and various aspects of media and information.

Q: What did the initial development of the curriculum look like?

Tim: We started having meetings at night. So it was Gloria Leckie (the Undergraduate Chair), Nick and me and Jacquie and Ian. And we began to sit down and Gloria said, ‘What do you think this program should look like?’ And that is when we drew up the early, first drafts of what people should have, what they should graduate with, what kind of courses we should be teaching, what we could deliver, and what we wanted to deliver.

Q: How did the MIT program evolve from there?

Tim: I think a lot of the way it evolved, and why, was dependent on who we hired and what their areas of expertise were. We desperately needed people who could cross over to visual arts. So Daniela Sneppova was eventually one of our hires. Before she came along we had interim hires who just weren’t precisely the people we were looking for. And they were more visual arts people rather than sort of understanding, the way that Daniela does, the synthesis between visual arts and information technologies, which is what we were looking for.

So we went on hiring and the way that we hired, I think, directed largely the way that the faculty was going to turn. And so for quite a while, in the early part of the 21st century, we had hired largely into cultural studies, and so the faculty turned towards cultural studies. And then we began hiring political economists, and we sort of carried on with that so that we built up quite a density of people who were focused on and interested in the way the political economy of information operates and the way that labour works.

So all of those things turn the faculty in different directions. Neither good nor bad, particularly, but as each person was added we would have new strengths and new areas of specialty that we could say, ‘Well we can also do this.’


Q: What kind of skills and knowledge do you hope MIT students leave university with?

Tim: I hope what they get a sense of first is how much choice we do and don’t have in our daily lives about what kinds of information we are piped, and how that information is manipulated. That’s an issue. I think it’s also important to understand the politics of technology, and the politics of our environment, basically, and the world we work and live in.

Many of the students that I’m still in touch with, who may have graduated over 10 years ago, are very much invested in social justice projects of one kind or another. I mean, half of them are in the public sector of one kind or another doing NGO work. And, you know, they just make me so proud, because they’re doing work in ecology NGOs, or they’re doing work in education, or they’re doing work in literacy, or various different kinds of things that we don’t recognize as being MIT-related which are about teaching people and working in the world to make the world a clearer place for everybody. For me that’s what I hope for. That people will come away with those three core strands together. Understanding that while information may be pure at some point, it never comes to us in a pure way. That it’s always mediated by something. And that technology is one of those mediators.

Q: Did faculty teaching in MIT in the early years have any sense of how information technology would begin to change?

Tim: I think we all had a sense that these had been the great days. I had been online at that point for about 10 years. And I think I understood that as amazing as the web was, it was also not going to last very long in the form that it was in.

There were some of us who were more optimistic and some of us who were more pessimistic and I think some of that was disciplinary. I think that Nick (Dyer-Witheford) understood very early on that the internet was going to be colonized by corporate structures as quickly as they possibly could. And Ian (Kerr), I think completely understood, very early on, the way that information was being used against people, without them understanding it. I think what Ian and Nick and Jacquie (Burkell) understood, probably way ahead of me for sure, was that the person was going to stop being a person, and was going to become a collection of data. And that if we began to perceive people as walking packages of data that could be scraped, or basically vacuumed up, that was going to become the next bad thing that we were going to need to guard against.

Q: Where would you like to see MIT go from here?

Tim: I think that the things that we have been doing, we need to go on doing, in the sense that we need the political economy stuff. People need to get a sense of where their information is coming from and how unclean it is. I think we need to do more education regarding different technologies.

What I think we need more of is focusing on where the human being meets the technological wall. Lots of people are doing that kind of work in the faculty. Probably everybody, in one way or another. We need more focus on it. Which means more work from people like Anabel Quan-Haase, and Jacquie, who are both working on SMS and microblogging and social media. We’re going to go beyond that. In the next 10 years I think social media will vastly change in shape and direction. People need to understand much more that their information, their data, is now the most valuable thing they have. And I don’t think people quite get that yet.


Additional Info: Professor Tim Blackmore is currently teaching MIT 3215F/B – Killer Culture.

By FIMS Communications