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Neglected Public Property: The Study of Media Infrastructures

Lisa Parks

To Professor Lisa Parks, the air itself has become a medium controlled by drone warfare.

The concept of drone warfare frequently conjures images of video game-like interfaces, where desensitized soldiers sit at a desk moving a joystick, searching for their target from a far away place. But from Lisa Parks’ perspective, the video game metaphor is a limited view of everything at work with remote warfare.

“It’s not just a video game war,” Parks, a professor in Comparative Media Studies/Writing, says. “There are also very physical, material things happening affecting the people living in these different parts of the world. The drone war has changed people’s relationship to the sky.”

To Parks, the air itself has become a medium controlled by this kind of warfare.

While much of the field talks about the impacts and implications of the media we consume in the form of TV, movies, or social media, Parks takes a different approach—she prefers to study the infrastructures that make this media possible and how an infrastructure itself affects the people around it.

“A lot of people in our field know narrative structure and how to read images and sounds and glean information from those media formats,” she says. “But the electromagnetic spectrum is not unlike a national forest or ocean space, because it’s publicly owned by the American people. It’s up to us as citizens to understand not just the content, but the whole physical system and how it’s organized.”

Parks first became interested in media infrastructures when she was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison studying satellites and their relationship with television. She continued work on the subject at the University of California, Santa Barbara where she joined the Department of Film and Media Studies in 1998.

The editor of many collections — most recently Life in the Age of Drone Warfare — Parks also wants to make sure that her work is also accessible to more general audiences. She enjoys collaborating with artists. She recently created a multimedia installation piece, called Spectral Configuration, designed to have visitors walk through the landscapes of drone war with artists from Lebanon and Slovenia.

She also has contributed to the development of an app that allows people to anonymously engage in verified group communication, a tool that she hopes will be useful for people like journalists working in countries controlled by authoritarian governments. This was done in collaboration with the U.S. State Department through the Flownet Research Project, which conducted research in Mongolia, Turkey, and Zambia.

In CMS/W she has been cultivating her new lab, the Global Media Technologies and Cultures Lab, or GMTaC, which studies at media technologies in different international contexts and seeks to help underserved and vulnerable communities through its research.

“I think of media systems as public utilities like sewers or waterways,” she says. “They’re just as important, so I think it’s really significant for people to understand where they are, what they’re made of, who owns them, how they’re regulated, and how they matter.”

Elise Chen
Written by
Elise Chen

Elise Chen is a communications intern for MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing.

Elise Chen Written by Elise Chen