Last Thursday, I arrived about a half hour early for a writers’ retreat at MIT’s Stata Center, so I spent some time scribbling in my notebook as a warmup to the day’s writing. It’s funny how the experience of being on a new-to-me campus–the simple novelty of trying to find the right room in the right building–brings back all kinds of school-day insecurities: am I doing the wrong thing, wearing the wrong outfit, or otherwise standing out as a clueless, uncool newbie who just doesn’t belong here?
Outside, as I walked around photographing the Stata Center–itself an architectural oddity–I kept expecting some sort of authorities–the Campus Coolness Police, perhaps–to approach me, automatically pegging me as an outsider: a fake or fraud. Clearly I don’t belong here: clearly I’m not smart enough, not cool enough, not cosmopolitan enough, and nowhere near hip enough to belong at MIT, home to some of the smartest and most cutting-edge scientists in the world. Clearly I’m just a bumpkin from Ohio who just doesn’t belong, but somehow pretends to.
As I tried oh-so-sneakily to casually take pictures inside the Stata Center (as if taking pictures didn’t immediately identify me as an outsider, an intellectual tourist just here to sight-see), the irony hit me. Am I really enough of a geek that I think I can’t hang out with (and even pass among) other geeks? If there is anywhere that a photo-snapping freak–someone quirky enough to take picture pictures inside an architectural anomaly, as if regular people naturally did such a thing–could fit in, wouldn’t it be at MIT, famed (or infamous) for its freaks, geeks, and creatives?
There’s something oddly intoxicating–infectious, even–about being on a campus that is renowned for innovation: it’s as if you can sense the buzz of new ideas reverberating in the air. After spending my subway ride reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s engrossing biography of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies, I did a double-take to see a young man walking ahead of me suddenly enter an MIT building devoted to cancer research. Could it be I’d shared a sidewalk with a student who will one day cure cancer, or do something equally awe-inspiring? Stranger things have happened, and many of them have happened on campuses like this, where freaks and geeks are allowed and encouraged to shine, slump, or settle into their own comfortable quirkiness.
A few weekends ago, J and I ventured into the computer science building at Harvard, looking for restrooms while out for a walk around Cambridge. While there, we looked at a curious specimen preserved and arranged for display: the Mark I computer, a giant apparatus that was one of the world’s first computers. A wall of switches connected with an elaborate circulatory system of cords, the Mark I was controlled by a re-purposed typewriter, an ordinary device of the kind any writer alive back then would have used. Is the mind so elastic as to see no boundary between art and science, the tools of writing and the tools of science being one in the same?
There was something inspiring in the way the Mark I was preserved and put on display–an outdated relic that nevertheless ushered in its own revolution, its own New World. Today we have no patience for wires, cables, and switches: why twiddle with a manual typewriter when you can text with your thumbs? But every Big Idea has to germinate and gestate somewhere: the seeds of even the biggest innovation start small and unpromising, just a speck of speculation.
Who among the nameless souls sharing the streets and sidewalks of Cambridge with me last Thursday will be the next innovator? Who among the other writers who spent the day writing in a nondescript, windowless room will be the next creative person to change the world?
This is a lightly edited version of the journal entry I wrote last week, before a Writers’ Retreat organized by the Boston Rhetoric and Writing Network. Additional photos from the Stata Center are posted here: enjoy!