June 30, 2014
Suck, squeeze, bang, blow – and so goes a simple explanation on how jet engines work. In a new series of videos created by General Electric, comedian and technologist Baratunde Thurston takes us behind the scenes of what goes on at GE’s Global Research facility. Currently a set of six videos, GE’s Masterclass series goes into explaining how things like locomotives, turbines, and jet engines actually function.
Baratunde Thurston, who formerly served as the direct of digital at The Onion and authored How to Be Black, talked with me a little about his involvement with GE Masterclass and how his mother had such a huge influence in his interest in technology. Here are some excerpts from that interview:
Could you tell me a little more about GE Masterclass? What are its goals or problems it’s trying to solve?
“Well, the goal is to explain all the science in two-and-a-half minutes or less – to really help GE tell the story of the science innovation research that happens in its Global Research in upstate New York.”
Who’s the primary audience for this?
“The primary target, really, is other people in GE – it’s a big company and not everybody’s aware of what’s going on in other parts, but everyone’s generally proud of what they’re doing there and are genuinely interested in the research taking place. The main point is that the target wasn’t a jet engine specialist or a locomotive engineer, but more of a general audience that’s somehow connected to GE – whether they’re fans of the science or the engineering, just love GE, or whatever – this is for them…
[The videos] give a point of access to the actual science behind GE – it’s not about selling these technologies to the general audience, since not everyone is like me and can afford to drop millions on a turbojet.”
Wait, so you mean not everyone owns one of these? I totally already have one.
“Well, you and I are the lucky few, Ronald.”
Did GE specifically approach you to do this, or was this more of an organically developed collaboration? What was it that ultimately led you to decide: “okay, yes, I’m totally up for it”?
“Oh, you know, I just bumped into GE in New York while I was on the Subway. The whole company. On the L.
Actually, it was a mutual collaboration. A few years ago I was featured in Fast Co alongside Beth Comstock. When I first heard that I was doing this photoshoot with the head of marketing at GE, I really wasn’t expecting someone interesting; but, I was totally wrong: she showed up with this leather jacket on, we ended up joking around the entire time, and she ended up being much more fun and cool than I imagined. This made me step back from the preconceived notions I had about what it was like to work for such a big company like GE. So, it was through her that I got connected to GE…
Then, in January of this year, I had meetings with the company, and they had something high on their list about doing some kind of video series for highlighting science at their innovation research facility.”
Which of these videos is your personal favorite? “Suck, squeeze, bang, blow” is definitely a good sexual play on science processes, but which one did you have a lot of fun filming?
“You know how parents say that they can’t be forced to choose their favorite child? Well, that’s because they’re complete liars.
I liked all of these for different reasons, but the locomotion one is definitely my favorite – the settings we were in were so insane, with rooms connected to other rooms and one machine going into another machine. And the man I was interviewing – Dr. Wole Akinyemi – was just so incredible. He was a very stoic and dignified subject, but then he would pop out with the most direct and completely unexpected response to things…We don’t show it in the videos, but every time, unprompted, the people around us would say ‘that’s the best and smartest person I’ve ever worked with in my life.’ Definitely an honor to have met him and it was the best experience shooting.”
So, you went to Harvard and got a degree in philosophy. Congratulations on that – I did philosophy, as well, for undergrad, so we’re basically twins.
“Congrats! That means you’re really smart. Yeah, philosophy…”
Haha – that’s debatable. But, anyway, philosophy. Obviously, that’s not a hard science. What is it about science that fascinates you? Specifically, what is it about tech that’s so alluring?
“I like the future and I want to be a part of it.
Growing up, I was always exposed heavily to the hard sciences, especially computing and math…I had a computer at a really early age – one of the first in my neighborhood, really.
My mother was an early computer programmer, which is really rare especially for someone without a college degree, is a Black woman, and was raising her kids all by herself. She saw the early power of STEM early on[…]Especially when it came to computing, she really recognized how engaging with computers was going to change our relationship and access to opportunity…So, I internalized a lot of that, and my mom was a really big influence.
So, I initially wanted to do computer science, but it was just a little too specific in terms of punctuation placement – if I screwed up somewhere, then an entire program wouldn’t work. Philosophy was a little more lenient with the punctuation – I could put a comma there or a semicolon here and it wouldn’t matter because I could just BS something together and it would still sound smart.”
There’s a series of three GE Masterclasses online, with 3 extra credit features – are there plans for more, or is this it?
“I’m not completely sure…I’m assuming that [GE] may want to make more and turn it into a longer series, but I haven’t heard any updates. Guess you’ll just have to stay tuned.”
Thurston is the CEO of Cultivated Wit, a company that mixes comedy, design, and tech to help brands form and portray interesting stories. According to Thurston: “Technology is changing the rules on how we interact with each other, how we build our cities, and how we interact with our tools. There’s a high degree of leverage in science and technology – to utilize them as tools. We don’t need to all be PhD-level scientists in order to use tech to affect possibility.”
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