Defining “media” as the intersections of technical knowledge, humanistic investments, social relations, economic models, political stakes, and aesthetic expression that people use to understand and shape their lives, MASTS is an interdisciplinary community of knowledge and action that aims to rigorously and playfully build better media infrastructures, strengthen public life, and advance social justice.
MASTS is a cross-campus initiative at the University of Southern California supported by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism
-- CONTEXT --
We live amidst simultaneous, unprecedented, intersecting societal challenges with an urgent need to understand and change our worlds in new ways.
While the pandemic unevenly wreaks havoc across longstanding racial, economic, and geographic inequalities, a crisis of democratic self-governance shows how urgently public institutions need to work across differences. Powerful technology companies deploy complex computational systems that defy human comprehension, while we struggle to understand, regulate, and hold them accountable. A worsening climate crisis is unfolding across seasons and geographies, demanding urgent collective action while harming the most vulnerable. And just when we need journalism to hold power accountable and build the rich conversations that fuel public life, the press struggles for financial stability and our ideas and practices around free speech are in flux.
Some of the fundamental things we need for strong public life—health, equality, accountability, truth, diversity, expertise—are most fragile exactly when we need them to meet urgent and complex social challenges.
-- OPPORTUNITY --
This fragility offers an opportunity. Knowing that people understand and shape their worlds through media, we can address these societal challenges by seeing and building media as sociotechnical infrastructures -- as convenings of technical knowledge, humanistic investments, social relations, economic models, political stakes, and aesthetic expressions that create public life.
This requires connecting people, knowledge, and action across traditional disciplinary and institutional boundaries, simultaneously valuing playful experimentation, intellectual inquiry, reflective practice, and inclusive community.
We stand a far better chance of building strong public life if media systems connect across crises, controversies, and theories of change.
-- HISTORY --
Starting with an informal 2017 workshop on algorithm ethics and building into a 2018 course on platforms and infrastructures, MASTS was formed at the University of Southern California as a collective of approximately 40+ undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty from 7 USC schools (Communication; Journalism; Letters, Arts & Sciences; Engineering; Cinematic Arts; Public Policy; Law) to study, critique, prototype, and deploy media infrastructures.
-- ACTIVITIES --
We investigate how media infrastructures are made, where they come from, what assumptions and investments drive them, what power they have to shape public life and how that power is distributed, how they might be regulated -- and how we might make new media infrastructures to provoke and enable public life.
Working through the theme of "mobilizing controversy," past and ongoing projects focus on:
regulation of facial recognition and contact tracing systems;
the role of language, time, and intimacy in online pandemic life;
how science fiction, patents, and news collide to create images of technological futures;
how social media regulation defines "public";
what defines an algorithmic error;
how fact-checking infrastructures emerge from institutional collaborations;
and which images of the future journalists see in sociotechnical infrastructures.
New projects on the theme of “changing infrastructures” are forming now.
-- JOIN US --
If you're a member of the USC community, please join the group!
Through a mix of weekly meetings, project salons, skills sharing, guest lectures, reading groups, and social events we convene people, knowledge, and action across USC and beyond to build short-term interventions and long-term initiatives.
Our investigations can take the form of academic studies, journalistic storytelling, futures narratives, policy recommendations, public campaigns, guerilla art, system prototypes, public events, learning spaces – and any other modes of engagement that create insight and impact.
Driven by the observation that the hardest problems and greatest opportunities exist at intersections, MASTS is a community for interdisciplinary inquiry, action, and camaraderie.