I’m a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab. I guess I’m old now. I started writing this post three months ago and in the blink of an eye an entire semester whizzed past my head. Or perhaps into my head would be more accurate; it’s just that kind of place.

I want to share a little bit about how the Lab works from a student’s perspective, along with some first impressions from my first semester. It should be worthwhile for anyone interested in media labs. For everyone else I’ll be sure to touch on where civic and community media fit into the operation.

The Lab: A Newcomer’s Guide

If you don’t know much about the Lab, here is my go-to description: imagine Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Replace some of the Oompa Loompas with grad students (the rest are robots), and most of the candy wonders with technological ones. This isn’t as far off as you might think; we even have a glass elevator.

Now that you have the big picture, I’ll explain some of the inner workings.

Research Groups

The lab is organized into entities called research groups, which accept students. Each group has its own focus, and is led by a faculty member. Group sizes vary, but as of this writing there are about 24 groups and 139 students in the Lab, so you can do the math.

The groups’ focuses fall across a wide spectrum. For example, New Media Medicine aims to improve the way healthcare is practiced around the world, while Opera of the Future is redefining music for the modern age. My group, Information Ecology, hopes to incorporate interactions with digital information more naturally into our day-to-day lives.

Sponsors

All of this research is funded by a consortium of sponsors. These companies help foot the bill and in return they get VIP treatment and licenses to any IP generated during the time of their sponsorship. Hey Washington Post, where are you? Or other major news organizations, for that matter.

Every year there are two huge celebrations called sponsor weeks in which all of the students and most of the faculty hustle bustle without sleep to prepare all of their demos and show off everything that the Lab has been working on since the last get-together. There is no cramming involved at all, I swear…

Classes

In addition to being researchers, everyone is still a student. Masters students take five classes over two years. The courses can be from anywhere in MIT, although many first year students start with ones from Media Lab. The same faculty members that lead the research groups lead Media Lab courses.

The best courses are often lottery-based. For instance, How to Make Almost Anything is in incredibly high demand because after taking it you know how to make almost anything.

The Center for Future Civic Media

About five years ago, the Knight Foundation gave a sizable grant to the Media Lab. The grant funded a “center” — namely, the Center for Future Civic Media, a safe haven for anyone interested in pursuing projects related to information and physical community.

Centers are different from research groups because they don’t accept new students; instead they sneakily lure current students into their clutches. There are a few centers besides C4FCM, such as the Center for Future Storytelling and the now defunct Center for Future Banking. They all provide direct support for research that fits into their theme.

The C4FCM leverages the Media Lab in a way that research groups can’t because it has potential access to everyone. It can attack a problem from dozens of angles at once. There is also a new research group that starts fresh next year called Civic Media, so really they have it all going for them.

For obvious reasons I have a second home in the Center.

So, is it any good?

Earlier this semester I found myself in trouble. I was working on my composites project for How to Make Almost Anything — I was making a fabricated pet rock. A silly project, maybe, but I had to make something out of composite and I wasn’t prepared to make an airplane. That isn’t the point. The point is that I needed googley eyes, and it was 3:00 in the morning.

I sent an email to msgs, the Lab-wide mailing list, with few expectations. Within five minutes I had half a dozen replies from people who were still awake, still working, and had access to a stash of eyes that I could use. What a place!

The plethora of available eyes at 3:00 a.m. reflects one of the most important characteristics of the Media Lab: An almost universal appreciation for fun. This spirit makes the Lab one of a kind, and without it people would have a much harder time breaking away and trying new things. They definitely wouldn’t work as hard to attempt the impossible — you need to have fun if you’re going to do something as stupid as that.

Before I started my time here I was warned by several students not to fall into the all-too-common trap of putting too much energy into projects that are just silly, goofy, and don’t have real impact on the world. So far I have been too busy learning to sink much time into projects at all, but I understand the temptation.

There are many merits to this place — it has more thought diversity, skill sets, and resources than you can shake a stick at — but what sets it apart is the need for that warning. It is the fine line that everyone here walks. To do the best work you have to think like a kid living in a crazy person’s body, but you can’t forget your calling.

Oh, and the other thing that separates it from other institutions is Food Cam.