THE DISRUPTIVE MEDIA HISTORIAN
He thrives on instability, uncertainty and disruption, which makes William Uricchio perfectly suited to this moment in time.
A media historian by training, Uricchio investigates and documents the development and use of pretty much all forms of media – from studying the implications of everyone’s favourite ‘social media’ to exploring the deep history of the telephone, television, photography and film.
But that’s just the tip of the media iceberg – everything from gaming to YouTube, interactive documentaries and our increasing dependence on algorithms feature on his agenda.
As professor and director of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and professor of comparative media history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, ‘comparativity’ is one of Uricchio’s favourite words. It also forms the basis for much of his work as he contextualises new development in media – such as the massive but unstructured movement towards interactive documentary filmmaking – against the rise of now mainstream media such as television. “When you study the first 10 years of cinema, 1895 – 1905, for example, you see that there are literally hundreds of different directions the medium could have gone. 10 years later it had boiled down to more or less three directions: telling stories theatrically, documentary and animation. That’s three things out of virtually endless possibilities,” he points out.
That’s where MIT and Uricchio come in. When an emerging medium with strong possibilities catches their eye, as the interactive documentary space has done, they help it along its path: the Open Documentary Lab at MIT, of which he is Principal Investigator, is bringing together different players – technologists, funders, festivals, storytellers, academics, critics – to help propel the genre. “The future of documentary picks up where cinema verite left off,” he says. “New technologies (HD video-equipped smartphones; networked computing, etc.), new forms of data (location or time stamps, in addition to sound and image), new subjects (crowdsourced imagery as people record their own lives), and a new medium (the internet, rather than film and TV) have enabled documentary makers to radically reconfigure the genre. Rather than fixed linear forms, documentarians are learning from game designers how to build interactive environments that in turn enable users to follow their own interests and make their own stories.” Already, 25% of the National Film Board’s budget in Canada supports it, and interactive projects such as Highrise have won Emmys. “Although this all seems very ‘new’, in fact most of the concepts that are now in play such as remix, interactivity, participation, data visualisation and so on have very deep histories,” he points out.
It’s not just the visible, obvious shifts in media that interest him – it’s the backroom workings, the behavioural implications, the effects they have on culture, and the ways in which we are being shaped by media movements without understanding it that fascinate him.
“Algorithms are essentially formulas into which different values can be inserted, and they penetrate just about every aspect of our lives,” he says. In insidious ways, algorithms have replaced and will replace individual decision-makers and play a critical role in our culture. “Consider Wikipedia or Photosynth (which permit millions of people to combine their ideas into coherent written or photographic texts), or narrative generators like Narrative Science (whose algorithms write a growing percentage of Wall Street Journal articles!), or Epagogix (whose algorithms ‘read’ scripts and predict how much they will produce at the box office), or our finance markets (which rise and fall too quickly for human intervention), or ‘facial recognition’ software (which enables cameras to both record and recognise what they ‘see’).
Uricchio is investigating what an increasingly algorithmic future means – who authors these algorithms, and with what consequences. He’s also fascinated by the world of gaming and is Principal Investigator of a research-driven games initiative, The MIT Game Lab, formerly GAMBIT with labs at MIT and in Singapore.
As is evident in a media landscape that is so fluid, his different interests intersect frequently – and their relevance has made him one of the most credible media commentators and researchers of our time.
He has also held visiting professorships at Stockholm University, the Freie Universität Berlin, the University of Science and Technology of China, Philips Universität Marburg and Georg-August Universität Göttingen, and was national professor in Denmark.
Guggenheim, Fulbright and Humboldt fellowships have supported his research, and he has just been awarded the Berlin Prize. His most recent books include Media Cultures, on responses to media in post 9/11 Germany and the US, and We Europeans? Media, Representations, Identity; and his recent projects include Moments of Innovation http://momentsofinnovation.mit.edu and DocuBase, an interactive, curated database of interactive documentaries to be launched in November. He is currently completing a manuscript on the concept of the televisual from the 17th century to the present and a manuscript on the cultural work of algorithms.