Skip to content ↓

Profile: David Thorburn

Professor of literature and director of the MIT Communications Forum on the past and future of communications.
David Thorburn, Professor of Literature
David Thorburn, Professor of Literature
Photo: Jon Sachs

Television was not yet considered a subject for scholarship when Professor David Thorburn arrived at MIT in 1976. In some places, just introducing a few clips from "The Honeymooners" into a course on English literature was enough to ruffle feathers.

Open to the future

But MIT is a receptive place for scholars with cutting-edge interests. "MIT is friendlier to perspectives that might seem disruptive to the standard discourse," says Thorburn, professor of literature and director of the MIT Communications Forum. "The place is so deeply embedded in the future — so quick in its embrace of new technologies — that you're made more conscious of them." Thorburn is a pioneer of television studies and the founder of the Film and Media Studies Program, a precursor to MIT's Comparative Media Studies program. He continues to teach classes in both literature and film, and enjoys the process of engaging MIT students with the cultural and historical perspectives that help them to succeed, and to understand how technology changes the world.

Edison and the movie camera

"You can't grasp what's going on with contemporary technology without historical reference points," says Thorburn, who was named a MacVicar Faculty Fellow in 2002 for his exceptional teaching of undergraduates. He often reminds his classes that while Thomas Edison invented the movie camera, Edison himself did not foresee the Hollywood industry and world culture juggernaut his technology would generate. "This is a wonderful lesson for MIT people," says Thorburn.

Culture influences technology

Edison expected the camera to be a consumer product, used for making home movies. But no sooner than profits started to roll in from the first crude films, the quest for wealth drew major investors into the movie industry, which took off like a rocket. "In 1938, 67 percent of Americans went to the movies every week," Thorburn says.

"All technologies have latent possibilities," he continues, "only some of which will be developed; often what is actually developed is influenced by what is profitable, not what is most valuable from a social or ethical perspective."

The movie industry, for example, was "not an inevitable consequence of cinema technology per se, but of the economic and historical forces that shaped how people used the technology." Since culture can and does direct the path technology takes, he says, MIT's future inventors and technology professionals can be more astute and successful by having knowledge in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, with the cultural and historical perspectives gained in those disciplines. In addition, Thorburn says, "Our digital future will be far richer if we understand the complexity of older forms of communication and art."

In his essay, "Web of Paradox" (published in The American Prospect), Thorburn writes, "The new grows out of the old, repeats the old, embraces, reimagines, and extends the old. To understand our emerging digital culture, we need a continuity, not discontinuity, principle."

Technology influences culture

Technology also has profound effects on culture, of course, as Thorburn relates in story from the early 1970s. He was teaching literature, and was trying to identify a common narrative touchstone — some book or story that everyone in his class had read. The students appeared to have no such common reference, until Thorburn thought to ask them about a then-popular television program, "All in the Family." Everyone had watched the show.

"The implications of that radically changed my understanding of literary study," Thorburn says. "The experience of network television was the dominant collective experience of an era."

Thorburn's interest in television ultimately led him to move from Yale University to MIT, where he could not only continue work as a scholar of high modernism (he is the author of Conrad's Romanticism and the editor of a collection of essays on John Updike, among other works), but could also delve deeply into new media. In 1982, he founded the cross-disciplinary undergraduate Film and Media Studies Program, and in 1996 became director of the Communications Forum, which contributed to the founding of MIT's Comparative Media Studies program.

MIT Communications Forum

Under Thorburn's leadership, the Communications Forum moved from the School of Engineering to the School of Humanities and Social Science (as it was then known). "The transition was more than a change of address," Thorburn says. "Though it retained its commitment to rigor and clarity about scientific and technological matters, the Forum began to focus more systematically on the social and cultural significance of communications media."

Media in Transition

The move also helped catalyze the founding of a media-focused graduate program. Together with former MIT professor Henry Jenkins, Thorburn won funding to launch the "Media in Transition" project — a four-year series of lectures, panel discussions, and conferences that compared earlier periods of technological and social change with the contemporary experience of media transformation and convergence. By the time that series came to a close, in 2000, two books had emerged from the project — Rethinking Media Change and Democracy and New Media — and Comparative Media Studies, MIT's first graduate program in the humanities, had been born.

Contemporary media, as a subject for serious scholarship, had arrived.

Related Links

Related Topics

More MIT News