- Media in Transition 7:Unstable Platforms: The Promise and Peril of Transition, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, May 13-15, 2011
In Cinema and Media Studies, we examine the apparatus and the art, the hardware and the software, the industry and the text. Every moment technological and industrial changes propel the media we study in new directions, forcing our examinations—even those focused on contemporary analysis—into histories of the present. The biennial Media in Transition conference takes as its point of focus anxious moments of shift and change, attempting to better understand how media in transition alter our understanding of objects, content, preservation, access, industry, and aesthetics. The conference, which takes place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, brings together journalists, curators, archivists, technologists, social scientists, and scholars for an engaging debate on the state of contemporary media. While this was the MIT Communications Forum's seventeenth conference, it was the seventh conference under the name Media in Transition. Over the course of three days, the conference hosted 175 presenters, as well as approximately 50 nonpresenting attendees.1 The conference crosses scholarly and professional fields as varied as film, television, video game studies, library sciences, literature and publishing, new media scholarship, comparative media studies, museum studies, and journalism.
The conference's patriarchs—David Thorburn and William Uricchio—themselves embody the type of Media Studies scholarship that is encouraged at the conference. Thorburn and Uricchio played integral roles at the public forums, the reception, and the lunches, and they also attended panels and engaged in conversation throughout the weekend, pushing speakers to dig deeper and setting the bar high for [End Page 137] the level of intellectual rigor expected of participants. Their passion for the conference's role in furthering the work of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Department and the MIT Communications Forum is impressive and commendable. Multidisciplinarity is welcomed not just through the inclusion of a variety of intellectual voices, but also through taking great care in the formation of panels so that panelists are engaged in compelling conversations that transcend boundaries of discipline, nation, or method. That said, the panels are not haphazard: interesting points of connection were made between papers at virtually every panel. The conference does not demand or expect of its participants interdisciplinarity; rather, the differences between disciplinary approaches provide a compelling intellectual nexus for conversation, debate, and discussion.
With attendees and panelists coming from such varied points of entry to the conversation, the conference structure itself assists participants in finding intersection and maintaining focus on larger thematic concerns. Every day included a themed public forum session. This structure allowed for a conference-wide conversation to continue among attendees throughout the weekend, even as smaller panel discussions took place throughout the rest of the day. This year the public forum topics were unstable platforms, archives and cultural memory, power and empowerment, and, finally, looking ahead. In the forum on unstable platforms, Kathleen Fitzpatrick from Pomona College theorized that while the dispersal of narrative across platforms is cutting out the middleman or gatekeeper, content itself has not changed as dramatically as one might assume. Storytelling is still a central concern, whether that story is told by professional media makers, by journalists, or by citizens, whom Joshua Benton from the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard University described as "committing acts of journalism."
The conversation that started in the first public forum continued into the second, on archives and cultural memory. Building on the first forum, which had defined the civic-minded gathering, organizing, and communicating of information as the central tenet of journalism, the second forum explored how scholarship, publishing, and curatorship are involved in similar work and goals. Panelists—archivists and archival scholars—highlighted ways in which their professions are in crisis and examined how new business plans are attempting to find methods for this cultural labor to profit, or simply stay afloat. Julia Noordegraaf from the University of Amsterdam discussed the difficult choices archivists must make when trying to emulate the original iteration of a mediated object. How does one decide what information is necessary for potential viewers to understand about the original medium or technology a text was created on...