Signal and Noise / MIT Media Lab Berlin Workshop: thoughts and reflections

The 'church of hacking' - S. Elisabeth, Mitte, Berlin

The 'church of hacking' - S. Elisabeth, Mitte, Berlin

Last week I had the privilege of attending a week-long event in Berlin with the MIT Media Lab, as one of about 50 participants drawn from around the world. This event was a 5-day residential hackathon, and also an immersion in Berlin's vibrant arts and tech scene. It really highlighted for me the power of bringing diverse groups of people and ideas together to create extraordinary new things, which is pretty much the reason I became a designer in the first place.


The Project

I was part of the team working on ‘Technologies for communication with the Deaf’. This track - one of five in the workshop - was led by Harper Reed and Christine Sun Kim, which was, I gotta say, awesome in itself. The team was also chock-full of expertise covering design thinking, machine learning and computer science, cognitive science, sign language and Deaf culture, and the science and art of scent. Such diversity led to rich and deeply engaging discussions throughout the week, both over post-its and over beers.

One revelation for me was learning about and engaging with Deaf culture for the first time. I learned, for example, that Deaf people were systematically oppressed for the best part of a century, thanks in large part to campaigning by Alexander Graham Bell (who turns out to have been a eugenicist as well as an inventor). Throughout the week we were accompanied by three interpreters whose job was to translate between hearing and Deaf members of our team. When not interpreting, it was also interesting hearing their own experiences and perspective of Deaf culture. I was struck by how many themes and ideas you hear about in colonialism and class oppression are also relevant to discussions about disability.

Our project followed a classic 'design thinking' kind of process: problem-framing, selection/synthesis of a single brief (the 'how might we...' question), ideation, prototyping and presentation. We started talking through the points and possibilities of the project on Tuesday, and after at least twelve square meters' worth of post-it notes, more discussion and a bit of frantic coding and presentation-building, we had a working (!) app and a relatively polished presentation by 1pm on Friday.

The concept was to create a digital commons for sign languages and Deaf culture. My teammate Zoë and I presented the project to a 150-strong audience at the end of the week. I’ll cover the project in more depth in a future post - suffice to say that it's very exciting.


The Inspiration

Any good hackathon includes a bit of inspiration up front to push participants slightly beyond their comfort zone. (It's hard to imagine an event in Berlin that could fail to do this.)

First up, we went to visit Tomás Saraceno and his team in a repurposed industrial complex in the south of Berlin. The studio, which creates installation art and sculpture, often brings together a range of scientific disciplines in its delivery. I’m not able to post any pictures of what I saw there. We spoke to biotremologists, arachnologists and aerospace engineers, as well as Tomás himself. I can say that there is some interesting cross-disciplinary stuff happening there.

After ramen by the river in Kreutzberg, we went to see Mark Verbos, a musician, engineer and entrepreneur who makes “analog synthesizer modules of the highest order”. With two deaf people in our group, it was fascinating to see/hear Mark’s explanations of how the physics of music affects the hearing experience (eg. the difference between pitch and tone) using a lot of visual and vibrational similes. The synths themselves were truly the work of a craftsman, and I enjoyed his reasoning for the placement of the dials, buttons, sliders and connectors that modulate the signal as it passes through the synth (the music flows from bottom left to top right).

Verbos Electronics

Verbos Electronics

Finally, after a refreshingly direct talk from none other Mitch Altman, the 'Jonny Appleseed of hackerspaces', we rounded off the day with an informal visit to one of Berlin's - and indeed the world's - earliest established hackerspaces: C-Base. This place is practically sacred ground for the Maker movement. Founded in 1995, only six years after the wall came down, C-Base is one of the most important hackerspaces in the world (not just because the space looks like a cross between a Borg ship and the Millennium Falcon – though that is pretty distinctive). For the past two decades C-Base has been a focus and a catalyst for open-source thinking and technological development, with worldwide impact. The Chaos Computer Club is also closely connected to the space, and the German Pirate Party was founded there in 2006 (whose one sitting MEP, Julia Reda, joined us for a talk on Friday evening!). We ended the day chatting over beers and Club Mate from C-Base’s extremely reasonably priced bar, while the evening light faded over the river Spree.

This was an exceptional day by any standards. I was incredibly glad to have taken my notebook with me and made sketches and notes throughout - I can see myself going back to them often in the coming months. Other trips and talks organised throughout the week were also noteworthy - dinner at the famous Due Forni pizza restaurant, a panel discussion with Joi Ito, Jörg Dräger and Julia Reda MEP, an experimental dance performance - but it was astonishing how much we covered on this one day.


The cohort

Alongside ‘the Deaf track’ we also had teams working on Music technology; Blockchain applications; Playful AI; and Virtual Reality storytelling. You could almost feel the passion and curiosity crackle in the air all week, as people from vastly different backgrounds got to know each other and created sparks of inspiration. This reminded me a little bit of the collegiate system from my undergraduate degree, where people studying different academic disciplines live together in little village-like communities. The main difference was the greater leaning towards technology and its social and human implications; and also the more ‘rarefied’ concentration of people who had a demonstrable passion for their topic. I made new friendships and renewed existing ones. I learned a ton about AI and blockchain. I also learned a bit about the week's sponsors, Lego and BCG Digital Ventures, which are both doing interesting and important stuff with creative and socially-aware application of technology.


The 'ideas-nexus': Reflections

Having heard about the MIT Media Lab time and again while at the RCA, I was intrigued to have some first-hand experience with the organisation. I can safely say that it was one of the best (and best organised) technology-related events I have ever attended. I left knowing much more about the Media Lab, what it is and how it works, and I am full of respect for what it does.

To draw similarities between the Media Lab and something like C-Base might seem absurd: the Media Lab is bigger, more academic- and commercially-minded, and also much better-funded (and marketed). Superficially the similarity seems ends at ‘technology and geeks’. But beyond this, I think there’s something important they share, which I have difficulty articulating. It has something to do with the power to convene and catalyse conversations across very different disciplines. They represent a kind of connective tissue in our global culture - a channel or a forum for ideas to come together in a discipline-agnostic and respectful yet dynamic way - in between the sciences, engineering, art and design, and everything else.

2018-08-15 17.27.42-1.jpg

It’s not just about making new technology – it’s about taking responsibility for technology and using its potential it to build a better world for everybody.

This is totally my jam.


Thanks #MLBerlin!