July 17, 2002




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by annalee newitz

Geek zoo

I SPENT SEVERAL days last week looking for a place to live in the Boston area. The back story on my surrealistic real estate adventure is that somehow I managed to finagle a science journalism fellowship out of the magnanimous folks at MIT, and I'll be spending the next year there stuffing my brain with all the stuff I never learned when I was a humanities snob in graduate school. It's exciting, awe inspiring ... and frankly, it's a little bit freaky.

Cambridge is a university city whose landscape consists largely of places that break down to Harvard/Not Harvard and MIT/Not MIT. Like Berkeley, where I spent a decade not studying science, Cambridge is a company town. Students swarm everywhere, and the city is built around their needs and those of the faculty. At my favorite café there (with free wireless Internet!), half the customers at any given time have a dozen windows open on their laptops, where they're tackling engineering or computational problems.

At first glance, MIT is a geek's paradise. It's the ultimate magnet school for people like me, who want to spend all day obsessing over the differences between open source and free software, the true meaning of artificial intelligence, and the ethics of biotech. The place is crawling with eccentric geniuses, tech outlaws, and mad scientists. And yet the campus is surrounded by a thick forest of buildings devoted to corporate office space. A newly developed area northwest of the campus called Technology Square@MIT occupies an odd geographical and institutional middle ground between academia and industry.

Of course, when it comes to science, there's always been a bizarre love triangle between universities, companies, and the federal government – and if you wander through MIT and its environs, you can see that this tempestuous relationship has been literally cast in stone, built into the physical space that is Cambridge. Companies such as Forrester Research own huge buildings that flank the eastern entrance to MIT, and being a newbie, it was unclear to me where the industrial park ended and the campus began. I suspect that my confusion is shared by many other people at MIT, especially because so much of what gets done there is developed with the marketplace in mind.

Back in the bad old days when I was a full-time academic, I had no perspective on university life: I couldn't imagine anything else, and therefore the peculiarities of the culture seemed normal while everything in the "real world" was unimaginable. These days I'm not so sure I have an objective view of academia either. But having lived in the real world for several years, I found myself asking questions about MIT that I never asked when I was buried under a pile of books at Berkeley.

For example, Is it a good idea to create institutions that attract huge numbers of insanely smart people and then keep them in one little city for years and years on end? Although I felt no small amount of joy on seeing all the MIT nerds with their science-joke T-shirts and was amused to discover that a free computer in a café where I was working ran the latest version of Red Hat Linux, there was also something oddly zoolike about the experience. I felt like I was wandering around in a big cage with a sign out front that read, "GEEKS IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT." Except, like a zoo, it wasn't natural at all. It was utterly constructed, utterly contained.

I kept wondering if MIT keeps the real world out so that its denizens can focus collaboratively on their studies, or if it keeps the geeks in so that what they know about the world doesn't alarm the masses. Obviously, it's a bit of both. The high density of brainiacs at MIT makes it a good place to "learn how to think" (a phrase you often hear in discussions of MIT's educational philosophy), but it also cuts these thinkers off from the world.

Would we learn less if the population of Cambridge were scattered across the land? I think that's what we geeks fear, that if we lost daily touch with one another, we would somehow get stupider. Without our labs to bring us together, we would be lost. But as someone who has lived in the real world and managed to continue lusting after knowledge, I find myself wanting to steal the keys and let the zoo geeks go free.

Another part of me wants to hang out there a while – just to see what the animals do when they get together. Annalee Newitz (zoogeek@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who will be bringing you weekly updates from the geek habitat.