Inventing the Future

By ABIGAIL JONES  |  May 13, 2009

If you're wondering what is so complicated about laser calligraphy, you're not getting the whole picture. First, Mazen creates a vector-path file and feeds it to the device. Then the laser cutter follows the path, allowing Mazen (who's part of a small community of people using fabrication devices to make 2D and 3D art) to create more detailed designs. To say the least, there's a steep learning curve.

Some quotes on the canvases are dramatic, others subtle, and Mazen, who is Muslim, finds meaning in each one. As a young American, his goal is to engage the Boston community by opening up conversations about diversity in the Muslim world. Recently, he produced laser-cut handouts and 3D art for the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center, which can be found at, along with the rest of his art.

In 2006, Alyssa Wright, then a Media Lab student studying mapping, tackled a similar goal: she created a walking memorial in Boston to commemorate civilian deaths in Iraq. Shocked at the "astronomical" discrepancy between the actual civilian death count (she estimates it was up to 250,000) and what Americans thought the death count was (around 9000, she says), Wright wanted to make an impact. So she hit the streets with an exploding backpack.

"We really don't have a sense of what it's like in someone else's shoes, but technology can bridge that gap," says Wright, who tracked media-reported deaths in Baghdad and overlaid them onto a map of Boston. When she wandered into an area of the city that corresponded with a Baghdad death, her backpack exploded with white confetti, each piece inscribed with the name of someone who'd died.

These days, Wright is channeling her tech-meets-art-meets-protest angle into Hero Reports, a Manhattan-based Web operation that tracks courageous moments among everyday people by collecting e-mails, phone calls, and letters, and then mapping positive news. It's a direct counterbalance to New York City's "See Something, Say Something" campaign, which encourages people to look at each other with suspicion.

Hero Reports is not just a Web site. The project, which she began at the Media Lab's Center for Future Civic Media, also uses an open-source mapping platform, which allows for greater customization. Most of all, it shows how technology can change social engagement and political decisions. Which is exactly what Wright wants.

VIDEO: The SNIF Tag explained

Future fido
While many Media Lab students operate in the technological global headquarters of nerd-world domination, some are out to make connections with other living, breathing, human entities. Scratch that: non-human entities, too.

In October, Noah Paessel, a 2005 Media Lab graduate, and a few friends from the Media Lab took their first steps into that universe when they launched a canine-tracking device from their Boston-based company, SNIF Labs. The small, chic SNIF Tag, which attaches to a dog's collar, monitors his activity level, tracks his social encounters with other dogs, and lets owners connect with each other via a constantly updated Web site ( Data can be viewed in real time, historically, and comparatively across breeds.

Think of it as Facebook meets online dating meets the dog world. And a bit creepy, too, since the SNIF Tag has myriad potential uses. One team member says his friend even puts the tag on his toddler to monitor his physical activities.

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