Sarah W. Newman answers her front door in a beanie, a vest, and legwarmers. She tells us to keep our coats on as she leads us to her basement studio. As we descend the precariously narrow staircase, the air becomes cold and still. There’s no heating, and insulation peeks out from the space where the ceiling meets the walls. Newman is unphased. She spends hours at a time here working on projects; her current undertaking stretches about sixteen feet across the basement floor. Only part of it is visible –– the rest is folded up in various boxes.
“Do you trust the calculator on your phone?”
“Would you rather be a bug or a baby?”
“Is a tree moral?”
Parts of these phrases peek out from beneath the giant, laser-cut stencils, splashed with blue and yellow spray chalk, spread across the floor which form the basis of her project, “Moral Labyrinth.” The spray chalk is a remnant of the project’s last iteration, when Newman carried the stencils to a Somerville bike path and sprayed the questions onto the concrete for passersby to ponder.
“Moral Labyrinth” is Newman’s take on labyrinths traditionally used for meditation. In Newman’s version, words written on the ground replace the usual lines, and as the viewer walks, they are encouraged to think critically about the ethical questions posed.
“[Moral Labyrinth] is just unpacking what it even means to be moral,” Newman says. “The questions are meandering through the whole space of morality.”
The labyrinth’s goal is to create an intellectually provocative experience for each viewer. It attempts to explore philosophical and artistic ideas in a way that is accessible to the everyday observer. This focus on viewer experience and participation is typical of metaLAB (at) Harvard, where Newman is an artist-researcher.
MetaLAB is an organization within the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society that describes itself as an “idea foundry.” A foundry, technically, is a workshop for casting metal, and while many of metaLAB’s projects are more concerned with artificial intelligence than iron forging, a material focus drives much of their work.
“The digital is not immaterial, it’s not some realm alternate to the realm we inhabit as human beings. We think of it as very palpable and material,” says metaLAB founder Professor Jeffrey T. Schnapp. “What we’re interested in is our forms of ideation that translate into our forms of practice.”
MetaLAB’s “forms of practice” range from encouraging strangers to spill their darkest secrets before a wooden box to making beer and bread out of invasive plant species. They strive to combine the technological with the traditional, the digital with the sensory — and no matter what they do, it’s always unexpected.
To find metaLAB, visitors must climb five flights of stairs in a building that suspiciously resembles a house but is actually office space at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. Schnapp’s office can be found at the end of the upward climb. The office looks largely standard — a mess of coffee cups and papers are scattered across Schnapp’s desk, which sits in the middle of the open floor plan of the attic space.
A few unconventional features of the office stand out: an “inflatable workspace,” reminiscent of a large aluminum tarp, is rolled up on the floor; extremely tall artist’s stools are the room’s primary seating; and several drawings on yellowed paper, including one of a wolf, decorate the wall.
Before coming to metaLAB, we assumed the organization fit squarely into the “digital humanities” scene, a constantly evolving field that applies technology, data, and computer science to humanities work. But when we ask Schnapp about his perception of the digital humanities, he corrects us.
“MetaLab was founded with the intention of creating; [it is] less of a digital humanities center and more of an experimental platform,” he explains.
Associate Director Matthew R. Battles has a more straightforward take. He perceives digital humanities as a field squarely situated within academia. MetaLAB, on the other hand, exists “outside of the structure of departments and disciplines,” Battles says. “We’re interested in doing work and expressing ourselves creatively.”
MetaLAB is the descendant of the Stanford Humanities Lab, which Schnapp ran for 10 years while a professor at Stanford. He founded metaLAB in 2011 when he came to Harvard and now works jointly as a comparative literature professor and the faculty director of metaLAB.
“We’re very interested in knowledge infrastructures,” Schnapp says. A great deal of metaLAB’s work focuses on the “creative and critical uses of data,” as he describes it, and that necessitates building software and interacting with museums, libraries, and archives. “But most of all,” he continues, “we’re interested in creating stuff, in making stuff, and it goes out into the world.”
MetaLAB’s research is focused on projects that break down barriers between disciplines. For instance, Newman’s ‘Moral Labyrinth’ uses art to ask hard questions about ethics and the future of artificial intelligence. MetaLAB’s seminar Library Test Kitchen, offered for Graduate School of Design and Faculty of Arts and Sciences students, focuses on creating new technological and design-centered innovations for libraries, such as WiFi-proof booths and study carrels for napping.
“We don’t use the word humanities to describe metaLAB, because a lot of the projects we work on, are they humanities? Well, yeah… but do they stop in the humanities? No,” Schnapp says. MetaLAB’s work extends into countless other disciplines, and this interdisciplinary focus is Schnapp’s hope for the university’s future.
”Some of these [disciplinary] partitions that we inherited from the 19th century don’t really make much sense anymore,” says Schnapp. “I don’t think they made a lot of sense in the 20th century, and I think they make even less sense in the 21st.”
So if metaLAB does not fall under the umbrella of digital humanities, the question remains: what is metaLAB?
“One of the things about metaLAB is because we’re so small, to some extent the projects that we’re working on in any given moment are shaped by the interests of folks who are there.”
Jessica L. Yurkofsky speaks from experience. She currently serves as metaLAB’s principal creative technologist, though she has been involved with the lab ever since she completed her Master’s degree in urban planning at the Graduate School of Design. She took the course Library Test Kitchen and has been interested in libraries ever since. Yurkofsky’s unconventional title and multidisciplinary academic background are largely representative of the fluidly defined, post-disciplinary nature of metaLAB’s projects.
According to Schnapp, metaLab’s projects can be loosely divided into three pillars: art and technology; academic collections, like museums and libraries; and technology and the natural world.
The projects currently in progress largely fluctuate between the pillars of art and technology and academic collections. Yurkofsky’s most recent project fits somewhere in the collections category, though trying to definitively categorize metaLAB’s projects is almost as difficult as trying to define metaLAB itself.
Yurkofsky’s project, which was done in collaboration with Harvard's Library Innovation Lab, is called “Alterspace,” and it is currently housed in a small, glass-walled room near the check-in desk of the Cambridge Public Library. Alterspace is a massive pod constructed from plywood and white tarps –– inside, the plywood is lined with color-changing light strips, and several pairs of headphones hang from the rafters near the four chairs inside. A rolling cart and an iPad attest to the pod’s purpose: users can have a seat, pick a premade light and sound combination depending on what they want to accomplish inside the pod (such as meditating, reading, or creating), and change the settings to fit their needs.
“I don’t know if you’ve read ‘Harry Potter,’ but it was kind of inspired by the Room of Requirement,” Yurkofsky says. “We think of libraries as this space that is designed to give you what you need, so what would a Room of Requirement in a library look like?”
Inside the colorful glowing room, the links between art and technology are undeniable. Yurkofsky drew upon her knowledge of design, technology, and color science in order to bring her vision to life.
Unique implementations of technology and a focus on human interaction are at the center of many metaLAB projects, regardless of which pillar they fall under. Newman, the artist who created “Moral Labyrinth,” generally makes projects under the “arts and technology” pillar, though she has also utilized spaces in museums and libraries. Ultimately, her artistic questions focus on human engagement with technology, particularly with regard to artificial intelligence.
“Moral Labyrinth” asked general ethical questions of its viewers, but another one of her projects,“The Future of Secrets,” got more personal. This project was shown at Houghton Library among other locations. “Secrets” asked viewers to write down their secrets on pieces of paper and slip them into an old wooden box. When someone put their secret in the box, a mechanism was triggered, and the box surprised them by reading another person’s secret aloud in a mechanical, Siri-esque voice. The unnerving project aimed to explore the relationship between privacy, surveillance, and artificial intelligence.
“Secrets” was exhibited multiple times in multiple different forms, from the Museum of Fine Arts to the MIT Media Lab. It was part of the MFA’s #mfaNOW Overnight program three years ago, when the museum stayed open for 24 hours. Rather than a wooden box, “Secrets” at the MFA consisted of a room with a computer, a printer, and digital script on the wall that read, “DO YOU HAVE A SECRET?” When patrons entered their own secret, the machine printed out someone else’s.
A different metaLAB project turns the tables. Instead of the computer asking users a question, the users ask the computer to perform a seemingly simple, but actually impossible task. The project, which is not yet available to the public, is called “Distinction Machine” and is currently being developed by Kim S. Albrecht, a Data Visualization Designer based in Berlin. Distinction Machine asks the computer to display two colored rectangles in the same position, but the computer does not know which color to make visible. The result is a rectangle that flashes erratically between the two colors, and Albrecht uses this technique to create dizzying patterns of flashing shapes and colors as the webpage progresses.
Typical to metaLAB staff, Albrecht’s academic and career interests have strayed off the beaten path. Albrecht has a master’s degree in interface design –– a subject he describes as a mixture of computer science and design –– but is now getting his Ph.D. in philosophy and media theory.
When asked what he considers his professional title to be, he pauses. “I don’t know. I've always struggled with what to call myself,” he says.“I think on my website it says ‘aesthetic researcher’ but that's a bit pretentious. I don't know that I want to be put into a box...I don't know that we need to boil it down to this one thing, or this one sentence, or this one word that's supposed to represent yourself.”
Albrecht is one of the many researchers who have worked on Curricle, a project that reimagines the Harvard course search using a database of all the classes taught since the 1930s. A beta version of the website was released during shopping week this past fall. Curricle was created with the mission of exploration in mind, encouraging students to engage differently with the course website and explore the history of Harvard’s classes.
Curricle might have more practical applications than some other metaLAB projects, but it is driven by similar questions: how do we engage with technology, and what can we learn about ourselves through that process?
MetaLAB itself, however, is consistently focused on making physical things, and this attention to the tactile world informed Curricle’s design. “Back in the day they used to have these handheld course catalogs, and people really liked it because you could leaf through them and stumble upon a class pretty randomly,” says Maia L. Suazo-Maler ’19, who worked on Curricle as a student intern the summer after her sophomore year. “There was an element of surprise and randomization that people felt was lost when they put [the catalog] onto my.harvard and searched just by a keyword… I think they wanted to reinject that sense of exploration into the course system.”
Exploration and experimentation are linchpins of metaLAB — the lab may be undefinable in many ways, but curiosity is a driving force.
“Everyone’s meandered their way through these different fields and disciplines and has essentially found an environment where they can create their job based on their interests and skills,” Newman says. “It’s a bunch of quirky, creative people with a lot of ideas and interests who are making work to better the world.”
It’s safe to say that metaLAB doesn’t easily fit into a common definition in academia –– in an institution like Harvard, which metaLAB’s employees describe as focused on disciplinary boundaries, the lab is a rarity. Its goal is to exist outside of traditional structures. Some, like Schnapp, hope that ignoring these “partitions,” might mean that these boundaries eventually don’t hold so much weight.
Newman’s basement is a testament to the interdisciplinary tangle that metaLAB has created. After showing us the stencils, she unrolls a large paper panel, one of five from an earlier, hanging version of “Moral Labyrinth.” She weighs it down with a pile of books about artificial intelligence and the ethics of superpowered technology.
She describes the questions that make up the labyrinth, which are designed to be Socratic. “You’re not supposed to answer,” she says. “They don’t have a right or wrong answer, but they’re meant to be suggestive and getting you to think, and maybe lead you down a path.
On the panel, one question stands out: “Are there some things we just cannot know?”
Clarification: March 18, 2019
A previous version of this article attributed the "Alterspace" project to metaLAB. To clarify, Harvard's Library Innovation Lab collaborated with metaLAB to create the project.
— Magazine writer Anna Kate E. Cannon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ae_cannon.
— Magazine writer Maya H. McDougall can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @MayaMcDougall12.