Founder and Director, Media Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Nicholas Negroponte is a professor of media technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the founding director of the MIT Media Laboratory, an institution that he helped establish, he said, “to invent the future.” He gained fame with his best-selling book, Being Digital (1995), which stunned readers with wild predictions about a digital future in which technology becomes an intimate part of everyday life.
Negroponte was born in 1944 into a wealthy Greek shipping family, growing up in Switzerland, London, and New York. However, despite a privileged childhood, Negroponte and his three brothers were forced to pave their own way in the world as adults. “My father gave all of us infinite education and nothing after that,” he told The Boston Globe. “When I turned 30, he sent me $500 as a present, nothing since.”
Part of his “infinite education” took him to MIT in 1961, where he studied architecture. The discipline directed him toward the use of computers as a tool in architectural design. In 1966, the crisply dressed and persuasive 22-year-old Negroponte joined the MIT faculty, working as a visiting professor at Yale University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California at Berkeley at about the same time. In 1968, he founded the MIT Architecture Machine Group, an institution that performed some of the first human-computer interface research. Negroponte wrote a book in 1970, Architecture Machine: Toward a More Human Environment, detailing his work. In 1980, he was the founding chairman of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies’ Computers in Everyday Life program, founded in Amsterdam.
At the beginning of the 1980s, personal computers were just beginning to hint at the profound role that digital multimedia might play in everyday lives, and Negroponte conceived the MIT Media Lab in response. With the strong patronage of MIT president Jerome Wiesner, the lab launched in 1985 with a mandate to raise funds and to find creative ways to develop new digital-media technologies. It was a controversial move; the lab grew out of MIT’s School of Architecture rather than out of its School of Electrical Engineering, which housed the computer-science department. The lab’s plans had little to do with architecture, either, even if the building it was housed in was a state-of-the-art facility designed by I. M. Pei. In a Boston Globe article published at the time of the lab’s launch, Negroponte said its mission was “to couple people primarily interested in advanced new technology . . . with the ‘community of users’ who would apply it in a variety of fields, such as education, music, medicine and the graphic arts.”
With Negroponte serving as its tireless cheerleader and motivator, the lab’s successes were immediate. By 1987, it had an annual budget of $7 million and was engaged in developing speech recognition, advanced television, “movies of the future,” electronic publishing, and computer games, among other things. The lab attracted such high-tech luminaries as Alan Kay, Marvin Minsky, and Seymour Papert to conduct its research. It adopted an unusual “demo or die” credo, demanding that students and faculty not simply publish their technical research, but also demonstrate innovations to the lab’s corporate sponsors.
The Media Lab has never suffered for lack of publicity. A leading technology writer, Stewart Brand, took up a residency there and chronicled his experience in The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987)—a book that proved, if nothing else, that Brand was a Negroponte convert. But some in the journalism and research communities, notably MIT’s Computer Science Lab chairman Michael Dertouzos, were not as enamored of Negroponte and his corporation-courting research institute, complaining that he was great at generating new ideas, but not so great at following through. “The achievement—the accomplishment—is where he is weak,” Dertouzos appraised. “True progress happens when people combine vision with the can-do aspect and think through the social, political and technological implications.”
In many ways, that criticism has lingered, with critics pointing out that the Lab’s serious innovations seem to be limited to programmable LEGOs and electronic ink. But the lab has continued to attract large amounts of seed funding from some 160 corporations and non-profits ($32 million in 2000, according to The New York Times), and it has continued to expand its research mandate. In 1999, for instance, it launched the “Counter Intelligence” initiative aimed at making kitchens smarter by embedding processing chips in various devices.
In addition to his Media Lab work, Negroponte has funded a number of start-up businesses. One of the most successful was Wired magazine, to which Negroponte contributed $75,000 of his own money, giving him 10 percent ownership in what became one of the hottest new magazines in decades. In exchange for his money, Negroponte was given regular space to write an opinion column on the digital culture for each edition, heightening the professor’s profile. In 1995, he refashioned some of his columns to produce Being Digital, the book that made him a minor celebrity. The book received a massive initial printing of 100,000 copies, and has been reprinted many times and translated into more than 40 languages. Reportedly, Being Digital made Negroponte something of a superstar in China, where he and his wife once found themselves mobbed by his adoring fans. Elsewhere, the book was more calmly received, but it solidified his reputation as a kind of new-media preacher, spreading the gospel of a coming digital age.
Negroponte’s most enduring contribution to public discourse about high technology has been to draw a line separating an anticipated future, composed of digital bits, from an archaic analog world, comprising objects, or “atoms.” The world of atoms, which still exists but is under metamorphosis, is a world of newspapers, books, films, cars, and airplanes. These things largely will continue to exist, but bits, in the form of new media innovations, can be substituted for all of them. For Negroponte, bits—the basic units of information in the binary system of computing—are the new technology’s DNA, the underlying particles of a coming digital world.
In Negroponte’s eyes, bits promise a future right out of the cartoon TV show The Jetsons. He suggests that your computer—indeed, your entire networked home—will one day sense your mood and adjust the lighting, play appropriately calming or energizing music, even speak to you in soothing tones. Your wired household will decide whether it’s a good day for you to take phone calls, or whether your doorbell should be allowed to ring. (And if it does, it will automatically turn down your stereo so you don’t fail to hear it.) Your digital newspaper interface might take on Larry King’s personality, if you care for that—or perhaps it will adopt Dan Rather’s persona. Children will be able to surf the ’Net with Dr. Seuss as their kindly, colorful, rhyming guide. The Internet will be available everywhere, from your toaster to your wallet, and it will transform much more than your relationship to media. It will render even the nation-state obsolete.
In recent years, Negroponte’s role in the Media Lab has diminished somewhat. Although he continues to trot the globe raising money, the day-to-day operations of the lab have been handed over to Walter Bender, a founding member. Negroponte has also become an advocate for the 2B1 Foundation, which is premised on the idea that the future is in the hands of children, and which attempts to connect all the world’s children to the Internet.
Most in the digital community agree that Negroponte has been on target with his central insight—the notion that bits will transform video, text, audio, and photography into a single unified medium. Personalized Web interfaces such as My Yahoo! suggest that Negroponte may also be right about the creation of man-machine interfaces that are completely geared to the tastes, needs, and preferences of the individual user—that even the prosaic newspaper will one day become, in effect, the Daily Me for each member of its audience.
If Negroponte’s visions are plausible (if not inevitable), they remain simultaneously fantastic: “You’ll find that your left cuff link will be in communication with your right cuff link via satellite,” Negroponte told an audience in 1987. “With flat-panel technologies, every license plate, wine label or price tag will be a ‘display.’ . . . There will be many more MIPS (millions of instructions per second) in the nation’s appliances than in its computers.” Fourteen years later, while few of his most concrete predictions have come true, a number of them appear to be on the verge of realization.
Cyberculture; Cyborg; Human-Computer Interaction; Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Personalization; Responsive Environments; Robotics
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