MIT’s Center for Civic Media plays a special role in connecting my department, Comparative Media Studies, with the Media Lab. Over the past decade, the center has become a hub for researchers from around the world who explore how different mediums are—and can be—used to enable communities to engage in civic life. It is a space of incredible passion and, perhaps more importantly, compassion.
Originally called the Center for Future Civic Media, the lab was led by artist and technologist Christopher Csikszentmihályi in collaboration with Mitchel Resnick, director of the Media Lab’s Lifelong Kindergarten lab, and Henry Jenkins, founder of Comparative Media Studies. Since 2011, Ethan Zuckerman has overseen the labs different projects.
The Center for Civic Media plays host to innumerable media developments. In my short time at MIT, I’ve learned about media tracking tools including MediaCloud, the collaborative project with Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, the Open Gender Tracker, and PageOneX. I’ve seen the development of live-stream platform Deepstream and open publishing platform FOLD, as well as learning about the incredible projects enabled by Code4Rights.
As part of my work as a research assistant I have helped organize a series of Discovering Technology events (DiscoTechs) with MIT’s Co-Design Studio on cooperatives and the cooperative economy. I’ve worked with the Boston Civic Media Consortium to map the thriving Greater Boston community work on the “wicked problem” of climate change.
The center is also an important innovator across disciplinary boundaries. I learned about the development of community-focused, web-based tools “ExtrAct” from the work of MIT History, Anthropology, and Science, Technology, Society, (HASTS) student, Sara Wylie PhD ’11, who is now assistant professor at Northeastern.
Wylie’s forthcoming book, Shale Gas: Corporate Bodies and Chemical Bonds, highlights her ethnographic work on the rise of hydraulic fracking in the US and includes the story of the development and implementation of ExtrAct at the Center for Future Civic Media. The civic media project facilitated community and expert resistance against the extractive industry and, specifically, the harmful effects of hydraulic fracking in the US.
What is particularly interesting about Wylie’s work, given my own research on how activist groups in the UK use alternative media strategies to decolonize the climate movement, is her honest recollection of showcasing her ExtrAct project at the Media Lab’s Members Week. Her work reminds us of the funding streams MIT receives from extractive industry and big oil. Her open and candid reflection on our role as students and as academics taught me that discomfort can be healthy, as it means we are thinking beyond the space that we currently occupy.
Whether it is climate change, environmental justice, or energy infrastructure, when problems seem overwhelming, the strength of hope becomes even more important. And that’s the key to the Center for Civic Media—the continued faith in our potential to make a difference. It reminds me that MIT is home to students and professors who continue to demand divestment, pursue equitable energy solutions, and push for climate justice. The center finds hope not only in the lab and at MIT, but beyond—in stories of struggle, they see strength, and in accounts of oppression, they see resistance.
Staying hopeful can be the hardest thing to do. The Center for Civic Media does just that.