As the lights dim in the auditorium, small red LED bulbs taped to batteries on cord stems glow softly from hundreds of seats filled with alumni, faculty, and old friends gathered this morning to celebrate her legacy as the founder of a graduate program for the “recently possible.” Our eyes adjust, the bokeh of the LEDs giving way to focused words from a slate of speakers at the podium, all sharing stories about the many ways that the incorrigible Red Burns designed and maintained a space over three decades for people to play with tools and techniques to solve communication problems.
Referred to now by the acronym ITP, the Interactive Telecommunications Program was named in 1979, a moment when tele- (far, at a distance) was closely attached to mechanical devices we routed conversations through. What ITP did, and still does, is bring curious people into proximate exploration for a few years in a terminal degree program. Of particular interest is the type of student who finds her way here, disenchanted with a career path or simply seeking out something beyond her current purview, she joins a weird laboratory of technology cobblers. At semester ends, the industrial loft that houses the department becomes a goggled postmodern guild of makers evenly balanced in gender and equally disparate in background exhorting code and extruded material to compile at all hours of the night. Unholy things happen in the microwave on the studio floor, the temperamental object a reminder that the new must co-exist with the old.
When I was thinking about graduate school a decade ago, ITP looked intriguing, if slightly technical for my taste. Better to be with literature nerds I thought, and off I went to pull in a few years and degrees as an Americanist specializing in the 19th through 21st Centuries. To pay the rent, I taught myself how to create web sites for friends of friends, took research assistant positions on humanities computing projects, tutored newer practitioners in basic online proficiencies. Buying a url replaced wine bottles as an impulse spending habit. Weekend mornings, the boyfriend and I would tend the server farm, partition the drive on a new recruit, make breakfast and shower together before grading the latest batches of papers from our undergrads. I chose an online identity based on a powerful kernel in open source software. I had lunch with a department alumna who worked in digital broadcasting. I left academia.
Now I teach as an adjunct at ITP some semesters - turns out applying network theory and how interlocking texts work across platforms in big media companies is viable as a class curriculum in the very program I once considered too technical to apply to. Like Red, I have wandered through many fields in my search for the work I am meant to do. We only know what we have learned so far.
Red liked the idea for a course designing online community environments when I proposed it four years ago. We never really talked, but I heard she liked my style, and if she really hadn’t, I would have heard about that too. Certainly the class plays at the margins she liked best, the ones where there are multiple answers at once, where systems secrete value over time, and where the misfits that haunt these halls can sort out how the technology can best to connect us each other. People at the center, as she would say. People at the center, I think, as I put down the little red LED stem to join in the applause for her life and work.
A few more days
A final Hi meeting
The local neighborhood bar has a quiet time between six and nine. It is a place that specializes in coffee, beer and seasonal menus. There is just enough of each for a satisfying snack and effective buzz. After the time when the laptop lids close and before the social gatherings start -- there is a sort of twilight*. Often this time is a fugitive ground rife with creative inspiration and meditative work -- of the kind that results in personal reward.*twilight may refer to civil, nautical or astronomical variety depending on your social or terrestrial condition
A man positions his mouse on the edge of his browser window. He clicks, holds and drags the viewport first left then right. The content of a video game promo micro site responds and adapts to the available space. To the man, this is more delightful than the game itself.
A man laboriously moves his piano down three levels onto the subway platform. Classic vocals and strided chords -- he played so well I swore he was blind. Oblivious to the heat on that August stage, he was most in touch with his audience -- whom he elevated with his music.
A woman should do exactly as she pleases no matter what a man may think.
As the Dalai Lama once said, "It is a time when there is much in the window, but nothing in the room."
"No one understands me," she said. Her grandmother was silent for a minute. It seemed she was searching for an answer in the star speckled sky. "But no one understands anyone in this world, darling. We are all unique. It is what gives us a sense of wonder."