“I have always been fascinated with technology and communications throughout history,” says Assistant Professor Finn Brunton, whose undergraduate major was in interdisciplinary studies and minor was in “spending a ton of time online.”
He thrived in Berkeley hacker culture and the Stanford/Palo Alto tech powerhouses as he worked on his undergraduate degree there. “It was an inspiration for everything that’s come so far,” he says. But he knew he needed to take a break before returning to a career in academia. So he traveled to Tokyo for a couple of years, teaching English, working on an assortment of projects, and interacting with a community of artists and musicians. Brunton still writes science fiction, though not under his own name, and sees connections between that work and his day job. “It provides a different way, a more playful sandbox, for seeing how technology affects society,” he says.
After Tokyo, he took a job on a documentary film in southern France, which led to work in Hollywood, assisting with set dressing on films including Transformers and The Number 23. “I got to hang out in the prop tent with people making giant robot arms,” he says now, laughing. His master’s in communications theory came from The European Graduate School in Saas-Fee, Switzerland; his PhD from a new program on science and technology studies at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland; and his post-doctoral work in media, culture and communications from New York University.
It was during his PhD work that his interest in the history of science and technology grew, and he’s been applying that interest to his research ever since, including work with so-called “dead” media and what it can tell us about how technology and how people absorb information may change in the future. Even when predicting the future of technological change – as he will in UMSI Monthly’s next issue, when he writes about the future of spam – Brunton reaches into the technological past.
“You have no idea how exciting it was to come here,” says Brunton, who joined UMSI in 2011. His work now focuses on technology adoption and adaptation, and community, privacy and anonymity online. Just last month, he presented an enthusiastically received panel at South by Southwest Interactive on “Creativity & Mayhem: Anonymous Communities At Work,” with Gabriella Coleman, the go-to authority on Anonymous for TEDGlobal, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, Fast Company and NPR; and Quinn Norton, Wired’s Anonymous correspondent.
Brunton’s book Spam: A Shadow History of the Internet is being published by MIT Press in April.