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MIT's Communication Forum conducts a conversation for scholars — and citizens

Has explored media and change for more than 30 years
David Thorburn, professor of literature, director of the MIT Communication Forum.
David Thorburn, professor of literature, director of the MIT Communication Forum.
Photo: Jon Sachs

For more than 30 years, the MIT Communications Forum has played a unique role at the Institute and beyond as a locus for sustained exploration of the cultural, political, economic and technological impact of communications, with special emphasis on emerging technologies.

Translating specialized or technical perspectives into a discourse accessible to non-specialists has been a hallmark of the forum; the scholars, engineers, journalists, media producers, scientists, political figures and executives who participate in the forum all accept a responsibility to speak in language that can be understood by literate citizens and professionals in many fields.

Exploring how emerging media changes our lives

How do new technologies transform public discourse? Are traditional news outlets still influential in framing the news we get online? What are the legal dangers for publishing secrets in the crowd-sourced era? These are just a few of the questions recently addressed by the MIT Communications Forum.

Founded in 1978 — well before the advent of the Internet — by the pioneering media scholar Ithiel de Sola Pool of MIT’s Department of Political Science, MIT's Communication Forum engages leading scholars, journalists, media producers and others from around the globe in cutting-edge discussions on how emerging media are changing our world.

A rigorous, accessible conversation

“The forum aims to sustain an ongoing conversation about the cultural and political impact of all forms of communication, with special emphasis on new technologies,” says Forum Director David Thorburn, who is also a professor in MIT’s Literature Section. “Our ideal is a discourse that is rigorous as scholarship and accessible to all serious individuals; we aim to have a conversation for citizens.”

Panelists at discussions and conferences range widely across intellectual disciplines, professions and media. Recent speakers have included TV commentator Juan Williams; former poet laureate Robert Pinsky; Professor Peter Donaldson, director of the Shakespeare Electronic Archive; Professor Mitchel Resnick of the MIT Media Lab; and Science, Technology and Society Professor Sherry Turkle, who discussed her views on of our increasingly wired lives.

A catalyst for ideas and research

The forum also plays a role in inspiring and disseminating media research among scholars in many disciplines. “The forum is one of MIT’s success stories,” Thorburn says, for nourishing discussion and research about the impact of emerging technologies, and for its role in the formation of Comparative Media Studies (CMS), now one of the more popular undergraduate majors at the Institute.

Taking a broad view

“We wanted to stimulate a discussion around the country and internationally that took a broad historical and theoretical perspective on mass communications,” Thorburn explains. “Earlier periods of turmoil and change caused by new media can tell us a lot about our current experience of instability and transition.”

For example, while the Digital Age seems to pose new concerns and conundrums, a study of the social history of communications reveals that technology — including the printing press, radio and the movie camera — has changed the course of civic discourse many times over the generations. According to Thorburn, these transitions are typically less disruptive than they seem to contemporaries, suggesting that it’s best to find a middle ground between the “euphoria and the panic surrounding new media.”

Going global

The Media in Transition series led to two books, Rethinking Media Change: The Aesthetics of Transition and Democracy and New Media, and helped to demonstrate the depth and breadth of comparative media studies as an academic subject. The "Media in Transition" conferences are now held every two years, jointly sponsored by the forum, CMS and other partners. A significant feature of these conferences has been their increasingly international character. The conference held in May 2011, for example, included presenters from 25 foreign countries.

“These international voices have nourished our conversations, of course, and they’ve also carried CMS principles beyond the U.S., into their own institutions and professional cultures,” Thorburn says. “The forum is now known nationally and internationally.”


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