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To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab

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To the occupant(s) of E15-351
Re: About the window.

Hi. My name is Ethan Zuckerman. From 2011-2020, I enjoyed working in this office. I led a research group at the Media Lab called the Center for Civic Media, and I taught here and in Comparative Media Studies and Writing. I resigned in the summer of 2019, but stayed at the lab to help my students graduate and find jobs and to wind down our grants. When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, I left campus and came back on August 14 to clean out my office and to leave you this note.


photo by Lorrie LeJeune

I’m leaving the note because the previous occupant left me a note of sorts. I was working here late one night. I looked up above my desk and saw a visegrip pliers attached to part of the HVAC system. I climbed up to investigate and found a brief note telling the MIT facilities department that the air conditioning had been disabled (using the vice grips, I presume) as part of a research project and that one should contact him with any questions.

That helped explain one of the peculiarities of the office. When I moved in, attached to the window was a contraption that swallowed the window handle and could be operated with red or green buttons attached to a small circuitboard. Press the green button and the window would open very, very slowly. Red would close it equally slowly. I wondered whether the mysterious researcher might be able to remove it and reattach the window handle. So I emailed him.

He was very happy to hear from the current resident of our office, and explained that it should be no problem to get the window up and running. I’d need to set up a dedicated Linux box and download some Python to control the climate logic, but it shouldn’t be that hard to debug. He was willing to help.

I wrote back and explained that I was looking for something much simpler. Since he was in Cambridge, I wanted him to come to our office, remove the apparatus and the vice grips and return the window to normal functioning. He wrote back, somewhat annoyed, and explained that the aircon in that office had never worked, and that his rersearch at the Media Lab had focused on regulating the temperature in our office. In his vision, building A/C systems would adjust to the personal preferences of the individual, adjusting windows and cooling systems to optimal settings to maximize everyone’s comfort. He seemed quite put out that I’d want to toss his work out the proverbial window and return to a simple hand crank.

So I read a few of his papers and contacted his advisor in the hopes that he’d have some advice on how to proceed. His advisor emailed me back and noted that the former student in question was “very passionate”. Thus advised, I emailed the researcher again and asked if he wouldn’t mind coming by my office and removing his system.

Ultimately he agreed to do so, but only between the hours of 2 and 5 in the morning, and he requested I leave him a key. I did so. The next day, I came to the office and found no visible changes: the vice grips were still attached to the plumbing, the pushbuttons still attached to the window. He left a note explaining that the system was disabled, but since he didn’t know where the window crank was, he left the very slow pushbutton system in place so I’d have a way to open and close the window.

After that, I tried going through official channels. When the very nice and very competent new facilities manager came on board a few years ago, she set up a meeting with me to discuss my office needs. I asked for a window crank. She tried to find me one, tried to order me one, and gave up after a few months. This is an Architecturally Significant I. M. Pei building, after all. It couldn’t be any old window crank to open our window.

I realized at this point that there was an appropriate Media Lab solution to this problem. I should borrow my next-door neighbor’s window knob, scan it, built it in a 3D modeling program and cut out a replica using one of our fine water jet metal cutters. I even scheduled time to work on the problem: the summer of 2020, where I would use my last few months at the Media Lab to do all the projects with the cool tools in the shop that I’d meant to do over the past nine years.

And then, Covid. No shop for me.

So here is your window knob. I cut it from a block of Vermont maple – some call it “rock maple” because of its hardness – that I had lying around my shop out here in western MA. It’s stained, but not varnished – it would probably benefit from a coat of polyurethane, if you had a moment. It’s somewhat misshapen because I made it in a hurry the night before moving out of the office. I like it. It looks a little like a homemade biscuit.

I’m installing the knob on my last day at the Media Lab, which means I’ll never get the chance to use it. But it was important for me to make it for you because I wanted to leave the Media Lab better than when I found it, if only in this one small way. And now, with some distance from the Lab, I understand that the researcher who previously worked here wanted the same thing: to make something broken work slightly better, in an unorthodox and creative way.

Sitting in this office, I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things. I watched two brilliant students organize two massive hackathons to improve the breast pump, challenging assumptions about who gets to invent the future and what problems are worth solving. Another student launched a remarkably successful movement against facial recognition technologies by demonstrating that they often embed significant racial biases. Five students and one staff member left this lab and became professors at terrific universities. (One teaches at MIT.)

And late one night, I saw a young woman walk past my door wearing a massive pair of delicate, filigreed copper angel wings. When I stopped her to inquire, she explained that the wings were attached to a Peltier junction, which rested between her shoulders. As she radiated heat, the Peltier junction cooled her off and generated electric power in the process. The copper wings served as a heat sink. It was one of the most beautiful projects I’ve ever seen. Only tonight, writing this note to you, did I realize that she’d solved the same problem our roommate was obsessed with, albeit more poetically.

The young woman left the Media Lab after two years here to pursue a startup. But she also left because a man in her lab began working on the same problem she was fascinated by. He ran his own lab here for a while, gained a lot of attention, then got thrown out for research fraud. I’ve lost track of her. There’s so many beautiful and brilliant people who pass through here – and so many frustrated and broken people too – that it gets hard to keep tabs on everyone.

So, this is just to say: sorry about the window. If you don’t like my solution, build your own. But please try to leave the Media Lab a little better than you found it, if only in a small way. And let me know if there’s anything I can do to help: [email protected]

PS: About the geiger counter on the wall: that’s part of a project run by Safecast, an NGO Joi Ito helped found in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. We installed it here because I was the faculty member least likely to object to it. The pancake sensor is attached to the wall outside our window. The box under the whiteboard needs to be plugged into wifi and power. If it start beeping, either it’s malfunctioning and needs to be rebooted, or there’s a significant radiation leak on campus. When sleeping in this office, I found it helpful to cover the blue light on the box with a post-it note.

PPS: There’s amazing stuff stored in the subflooring. I recommend gently peeling off some carpet squares, removing some floating floor tiles and exploring. I left you a circuit board that Andy Lippman claims to have wired by hand. Watch out for mice.



Source: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2020/08/15/to-the-future-occupants-of-my-office-at-the-mit-media-lab/


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