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

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: ethanz@gmail.com

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.

30 thoughts on “To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab”

  1. LoL.
    Ethan, this is hilarious. It made me miss MIT, its quirks, and all of the people with whom we were fortunate enough to share slices of time. Thank you for sharing this.🙏🏽

  2. Very nice, Ethan. I followed your work through that time period, and it’s wonderful and humanizing (word?) to see it through your eyes. I also followed what Joi was working on and always felt a little incredulous at the magic of the Media Lab. His “Practice of Change” thesis is really a good doorknob to the threshold of what the Media Lab tries to do, in my opinion.
    I’m sitting on a hill in Maine with an old friend, reflecting on how life passes. Time spent in offices or working with tools, and eventually you see that simple window crank as elegant and unique. I came to your office once to see if you had kept the cheesy award we gave you, but really just so I could see where it all happened. This letter is a nice glimpse behind the curtain.
    Dan Whittet

  3. Pingback: Ethan Zuckerman: To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab | Hacker News

  4. Ethan. Fantastic post. We met in the Netherlands — Constructive (Solutions) Journalism conference. I’ve admired your work and wish you the best in your new endeavor. If it doesn’t work out, come write!
    All my best,

    Doug Wilks
    Editor, Deseret News

  5. Use the vise grips to turn on the AC. Then remove the vise grips from the HVAC and attach them to the window crank to use as a knob. Bam, two birds with one stone.

  6. you’re the embodiment of the maxim ” a man who stands on principle … often stands alone”… when MIT President Reif threw Aaron Swartz under the bus, unlike most faculty who either hid in their offices pretending not to see what was going on, or issued obsequious platitudes, you’re one of the rare voices of dissent…

    when Ito’s fundraising shenanigans hid the proverbial fan; everyone at the Media Lab was indignant and shocked that “gambling was going on at Casablanca”; but only you had the courage to resign

    Men like you, Stallman and Chomsky define what it means to be diverse and deserving of life time tenure… sadly, for everyone like you there are 100 MIT faculty who sheepishly hid in their labs toeing the official party line. No wonder you have all left.

  7. I’m just a lowly software engineer who went to high school in Chestnut Hill and did a my senior project in 1996 at the Media Lab. We programmed a robotic arm with a camera to accept commands from anyone on the web (it would need to be a cooperative effort). Anyways, it was such a magical environment to be in, and this letter really reminded me of the special dust floating in the air. Anyways, I ended up going to college somewhere else, and on a visit home from college, I brought some friends to see the Media Lab and found the building razed to the ground. A d it made me sad, the buildings were old and industrial, but had some character (if those walls could talk…). I feel like I can hear, and maybe even seeing the walls talk in your office. I’m glad there’s so much character in these newer buildings.

    Thanks for reminding me of my fun times a couple decades ago…

  8. A window knob is just the beginning — or the ending — of ways you’ve made the Media Lab a better place, Ethan. Blessings on you in your new post, blessings on your successors, blessings on the Lab and especially on the many who join the Lab to make the world beyond a little better.

    (Posted here, not Twitter (as I almost did) since blogs are a different part of ‘better’.)

  9. I loved your post Ethan, I especially laughed about the Linux box.

    I’m glad hacker news brought me to your blog.

  10. Thanks, Ethan, for this joyful reflection on some of our delightful quirks. We will miss finding you sleeping in your office, and know you’ll enjoy your new hours-less commute! We will also miss having you as a colorful, critical, valuable, and gracious part of our lab. Remember you’ll always still be a part of us, even if you think you fixed the window. Godspeed, Roz

  11. I shared E15-351 with two other students, one of them the researcher who conducted the HVAC modifications, and the other responsible for some of the amazing things you might have found in the subfloor. I tucked away under my desk one of the few floor tile pullers so I could explore, reboot a server, or say hello to the mice.

    As far as notes to future occupants, I left tacked to the wall all the business cards of the people I’d met during my years at the Lab, though I imagine the cards weren’t as long-lived as my officemate’s HVAC note.

    It sounds like you enjoyed the office as much as I did. I’m glad to have the chance, even retroactively, to leave a note to who had been the future occupant of my office.

  12. Hi Ethan, Great story! I think you know I left in 2019 after 16 years there and while I didn’t teach, I saw SO MANY of those quirky “solutions” all over campus. When working on the new AV system for the Bartos Theater, I found all kinds of stuff in the walls of that place. Some interesting, some downright dangerous and yes, we cleared out all of the scary stuff. Wasn’t shocking to see what had been done, but per usual, it was bananas, even for the Lab.

    Your story reminded me of the hundreds of things I came across while working there and for the first time since I left, I sort of miss it all. Sort of. I left a few easter eggs behind and that makes me feel good.

    I certainly enjoyed working with you and if you ever need anything, feel free to reach out.


  13. Thank you for this reminisce and for all you’ve done and said. I hope our paths continue to cross.

  14. Pingback: To the future occupants of my office at the MIT Media Lab | toppertrick

  15. I think the parent comment is relevant since the blog post (and subsequent comments here) praises the hacker anti-institutionalist mentality of the Media Lab. Yet when Schwartz practiced altruistic, civil disobedience in line with that sentiment, MIT s response was to sue him until he killed himself. They ve done a lot of cool things that I m into, but let s not whitewash history.

  16. Ethan, you write like an angel, even if you don’t have wings. Oh, wait. You do. ❤️

  17. Pingback: Friday links: four (!) more #pruittdata papers, remembering Ben Nolting, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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