"I was deeply impressed by this book"--John le Carré
On Being Digital: Nicholas Negroponte and the MIT Media Lab
As 10.10 - the digital date for the 10th anniversary of the MIT Media Laboratory - approaches, Nicholas Negroponte is spinning through his usual hyperactive day. He is leading MIT fellowship sponsors from Sweden's Wallenberg Foundation through the Media Lab, chairing a symposium for Singaporeans who have invested US$2.25 million in the facility, answering his e-mail - which can take up to three hours a day - and scheduling meetings with everyone from Bill Gates to a group of publishers in São Paulo, Brazil. But suddenly Negroponte, his tortoise-shell spectacles perched on his nose, stops to play with a lunchbox.
This is not your normal lunchbox. It is a high-tech polished aluminum tube, a prototype of the lunchbox Negroponte hopes to give the 1,500 guests expected at the Media Lab's birthday party. His blue eyes focus intensely on the cylinder. His large, capable hands finger its parts. Negroponte spends 45 minutes discussing the project with its three designers. What fits into this compartment on top?
A commemorative booklet. What will be printed on the outside of the cylinder? A hologram with binary digits - the world's first universal language. How much will it cost? Forty-five dollars. A bemused Negroponte, who asked for an item costing $8, sends the designers back to work.
That Negroponte would spend almost an hour discussing the design specs on a lunchbox, while the National Computer Board of Singapore cools its heels, indicates how passionately he cares about the way things look, feel, and handle - which he considers an integral part of what they do. This is one reason why the Media Lab is like no other research facility on earth. Negroponte, originally trained as an architect, had two models in mind when he chased down the $50 million required to build and equip it. One model came from Bell Labs and Xerox PARC. But the second came from the Bauhaus - the great school of art and architecture founded in Weimar, Germany, in 1919 - which gave us the Modern style in everything from chairs to the paintings of Kandinsky.
Negroponte is so excited by the lunchbox demo that he jumps up to give me a tour of the Media Lab, which occupies a famous I. M. Pei building in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near the banks of the Charles River. Negroponte has already given me a tour, but that was the official tour, with his well-practiced commentary on how the laboratory, spending $25 million a year, is engineering the merger of newspapers, television, entertainment, learning, and computers.
On that tour, he was like Saint Nick introducing me to some of his 300 elves, and they in turn were happy to show me all the toys they were designing for the boys and girls of the world. We bounced over springy fioors filled with fiber-optic cable and poked our noses into rooms packed with high-end workstations, computerized Lego blocks, and Nike sneakers outfitted with 1-amp power plants that recharge themselves when walked on. We tossed a virtual ball to a virtual dog, created a personalized onscreen news service, and tickled the keys on a Bösendorfer piano converted into an electronic sound machine. By the end of our tour, I would have been hard-pressed to decide whether I wanted to invest in digital TV, holographic imaging, electronic publishing, or any of a hundred other nifty ideas.
But Negroponte has something else in mind for our second tour. He wants to take me backstage, to show me all the hidden tricks that make the building work. Although he didn't design it, the Media Lab is, after all, his greatest architectural feat. Master key in hand, we start unlocking doors, walking onto parapets, and examining crawl spaces into which the building's electronic guts have been stuffed.
At one point, we find ourselves precariously walking across a "ceiling" made of chicken-wire mesh. We look down two stories onto a performance space temporarily deployed as a computer storage room. Negroponte wants to show me the equipment he is throwing out. Stacked three-deep across the room are hundreds of high-end computers, last year's hot models. Looking down on the surplus, I momentarily fantasize about backing a U-Haul truck up to the door.
Our tour takes us past Penn & Teller's Spirit Chair and Yo-Yo Ma's electronic bow into a room filled with a shiny black cube 5 feet square. This is a $2 million Thinking Machines massively parallel computer.
A mere five years old, the computer has now been replaced by desktop models that are far more powerful.
Down in the basement, the lab's central computer room is chockablock with Telebit modems, routers, and Digital Equipment Corporation Alpha file servers named Bufferin, Aleve, and Anacin. It also holds the master distribution frame for 3 miles of fiber-optic cable - enough for a small city, says Negroponte.
Last stop on our tour is the air-conditioned closet holding "HQ," the computer dedicated to handling Negroponte's Internet connection. It is a veritable dinosaur of a machine, still humming after 10 years of service. Negroponte has no office at the Media Lab. Why waste one on a man who travels 300,000 miles a year? This closet is Negroponte's office, and everyone knows the best way to reach him, even when he's in the building, is through the Net.
Negroponte's reachability is legendary. Someone at the lab recounts a rare story of Negroponte getting angry: A new employee was telling callers that her boss, visiting his summer home in Greece, was "on vacation." But Negroponte doesn't go on vacation. He goes remote.
Born the son of a ship owner on New York's Upper East Side in 1943, Negroponte is a hybrid. The product of an élite European and American education, he is a patrician who cares about mass culture, an academic who hangs out with the world's major CEOs, a professor whose wardrobe is tracked by W magazine. As Stewart Brand reported in his book, The Media Lab, Negroponte also ranks as one of the world's great salesmen. His MIT colleagues sometimes dismiss him as the
P. T. Barnum of science, someone who puts on a fiashy show without much substance. "This is the red-light district of academia," jokes a young scientist at the lab.
But 10 years after Negroponte began selling multimedia as rich terrain for scientific prospecting, he has been proved right. The human-computer interface that began as Negroponte's promotional pitch is now the linchpin of an industry whose sales are pushing a trillion dollars a year.
As the Media Lab celebrates being double digital with a series of books, CD-ROMs, digital art competitions, and participatory events on the Net, Negroponte has his own reason to celebrate. In addition to being an investor in and columnist for Wired, he is the author of a bestselling book, Being Digital, which, at last count, was being translated into 19 languages.
Wired: Fifteen years ago, when you started raising money for the Media Lab, you showed people a Venn diagram of three interconnected rings. These "teething rings," as your friends jokingly called them, depicted the lab's overlapping interests in computers, broadcasting, and publishing.
Negroponte: We called them the interactive world, the entertainment world, and the information world.
Wired: After you got started, the "teething ring" for publishing either was renamed or disappeared entirely. Does this mean you've written off the publishing world as hopelessly unWired?
Negroponte: The original idea for the Media Lab was very simple. You would pull the audiovisual richness out of the broadcast-entertainment ring. You would pull the depth of knowledge and information out of the publishing ring. And you would take the intrinsic interactivity of computers and put these three things together to get the sensory, rich, deep, interactive systems that today we call multimedia. That idea made sense 20 years ago when the three rings were our marketing symbol, and even today it's a good way of summarizing what we do.
Wired: But what happened to the publishers?
Negroponte: MIT has a "no poaching" rule. To endow professorships at the Media Lab and build the building you're sitting in, we weren't allowed to go to the old friends of MIT - the IBMs and AT&Ts of corporate America - because they were already endowing the university. It would have been embarrassing to find myself in the lobby of the Ford Foundation sitting next to the president of MIT, both of us looking for an endowment. At first the no-poaching rule seemed like a handicap, but it later turned out to be an asset. It forced us to make new friends, who turned out to be publishers. Time Inc., Warner Communications - and other companies that made movies, books, and television programs - were the original sponsors of the Media Laboratory.
Wired: Then what happened?
Negroponte: MIT is governed by a second, even higher rule: the inalienable right of academic freedom. Once we opened our doors for business, nothing could stop us from going to AT&T for funds. It was open season on every company that had been embargoed. If you look at our first five years of existence, the companies that funded us were precisely those that had previously been off-limits, like IBM and DEC.
I'm not proud of this, but we left our original sponsors - the publishers - in the dust. They received no value or service, while all the technological companies became our constituency. It has been only since 1990 that this pendulum has swung back. Now there is roughly a 50-50 split in our sponsors between the media companies, who funded the building, and the technological companies, who funded the original research. It took us 10 years to settle into a healthy balance between those who make newspapers and those who make satellites.
Wired: Your original proposal for the Media Lab made no mention of the Internet. Did its popularity catch you by surprise?
Negroponte: The Internet for us was like air. It was there all the time - you wouldn't notice it existed unless it was missing. But the Internet as a major social phenomenon didn't enter our radar until the advent of the World Wide Web, which was developed in Europe at CERN, beginning in 1989, by a team of physicists that included an alumnus of the Media Lab. That was what provoked the big change in the Internet.
Wired: Has the popularization of the Net surprised you?
Negroponte: The speed has surprised everybody. Nobody predicted it, not even the founders of the Internet.
Wired: Is the Net the agent of change that's going to guarantee a digital world?
Negroponte: The Net and other online systems - not to mention the growing presence of personal computers. Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, is fond of pointing out that every two years more computing is manufactured than existed on the planet previously. By 2000, Grove estimates, the PC industry will be shipping 100 million Pentium-style microprocessors a year. I think he's wrong: he'll be shipping 500 million.
Wired: What about all the people in the world who don't get their kicks from typing?
Negroponte: I've spent my whole life worrying about the human-computer interface, so I don't want to suggest that what we have today is even close to acceptable. But instead of typing, you can do a lot of clicking and mousing these days. And anybody under the age of 15 doesn't care anyway.
Wired: What comes after the Net?
Negroponte: I don't have the answer because there's something wrong with the question. I could say it's going to be biologically composed computers or some other technical breakthrough likely to happen in the next 20 years. But I think you're asking a different question: In the process of scaling, is there a cusp, a threshold at which the Net will break down and have to be rebuilt? I think the Net is scaling very well. Because of the way it was designed, I don't think it will come to its knees and crash. I see it as very organic in the way it's capable of living and reproducing itself.
Wired: Is it an overreaction to fear a loss of privacy on the Net?
Negroponte: Not at all. As far as I'm concerned, this is the dark side of the Net, which we need to watch most closely. Privacy may be more attainable in the world of bits than in the world of atoms. But we can also lose it faster if we don't pay attention.
Wired: Some people say the next century will not be digital, but biological.
Negroponte: They are probably right. Being digital is trivial in comparison to the information capacities in biology.
Wired: You're on record as questioning the viability of government in a Wired world. How do you see a stateless world working?
Negroponte: The state will shrink and expand at the same time. It will get smaller in order to be more local, with proximity and place playing a strong role. It will get larger in the sense of being global. I don't have a recipe for managing such a world, but its laws will have to be more global. Cyberlaw is global law.
Wired: Stewart Brand says "fundamentally, élites drive civilization." Do you agree?
Negroponte: This is true after the fact, not before the fact. The existing élites are often those who have the least impact on civilization. But once you do have an impact, you become part of a new élite.
Wired: What have you changed your mind about in the last five years?
Negroponte: Open-architecture television. Five years ago, I thought TVs would be the home information appliance. I was wrong.
Wired: Why do you think computers are going to replace TVs?
Negroponte: For the past five years, people who build TV sets have been putting more and more computation into their TVs, and people who build personal computers have been putting more and more video into their personal computers. When these two industrial trends converge, there will be no distinction between the two. Don't worry about the difference between the TV set and the PC. That's not fundamental, because basically a TV set is a personal computer you look at from the sofa. Focus on the broadcasting side of it. In the future, we won't be pushing bits at people like we're doing today. It doesn't matter whether you call the receiver a TV or a PC. What's going to change is how those bits are delivered.
Wired: And how will they be delivered?
Negroponte: They don't have to be in real time. They can trickle in. They can come in bursts. They can come on demand. They can be pulled in by your machine because it looked at the headers and decided which programs it wanted. Gone will be the days of lock-step obedience when everyone stops eating at 8 o'clock to huddle around the screen and be there on time for the bits. People are going to look back on those days as truly ridiculous.
Wired: How do you know the couch potatoes won't win out over the Net surfers?
Negroponte: Not even the couch potatoes, which includes all of us at some time or another, like being controlled by the medium. The change will happen, as I said, because people will overtly ask for it, or the system will adapt itself to this new reality. Unlike television - at least as it currently exists - the Internet is a medium of choice.
Wired: Is it true that most of the information being pumped around the world today is about money? Are the world financial institutions our biggest Net hogs?
Negroponte: I'm not sure that counting the bits would show that most of them concern financial data or transactions, but it is true that the financial community is global. This is a community with absolutely no sense of nationalism. It is exempt from encryption-export laws. Global finance, more than any other industry, is being fueled by the free fiow of information, and information about money is probably worth more than the money. What separates winners from losers in this community is nothing more than the milliseconds it takes to get access to this precious information.
Wired: What's your opinion of Congress's Digital Telephony bill - the "wiretapping" bill - and other examples of the "bit police" trying to control the Net?
Negroponte: Most of the current legislation or proposed legislation is terrible. But it's difficult to argue against, unless you want to sound like a pornographer. If there are going to be filters on the Net, they have to come from you and your family, not the government. Even if one believes they should come from the government, that would be impossible. No one can look at a bit stream and tell if it's pornographic. There might even be two bit streams, neither of which is pornographic until they meet on your screen.
Wired: Or one could use a remailer in Timbuktu.
Negroponte: I think it's healthy to have remailers all over the place - anonymity plays an important role on the Net. The question of the bit police is a big one, and we know it's big, because we're watching the legal system fiop around like a half-dead fish on the dock. They don't know how to handle the new technology. Take the following example. Last January, a Muslim cleric asked the United States government to extradite Michael Jackson and Madonna to stand trial in Tehran for obscenity. You laugh. But at roughly the same time, a court in Memphis, Tennessee, was convicting Robert and Carleen Thomas, who operate a commercial bulletin board system in Milpitas, California, for violating the community standards in Memphis. The case is being appealed, but the Thomases were sentenced to about three years apiece in federal prison.
Wired: When did you first start using e-mail?
Negroponte: Twenty-three years ago. I became a user on the Arpanet in 1972. Back then, the community one spoke to was very small; but it included my wife and son, who had an account, though he was only 2 years old at the time. Now, of course, it's just exploded.
Wired: Since you have no office at the Media Lab, where do you hang your hat when you come to work in the morning?
Negroponte: I haven't had an office at the lab for over a year, and I'm thrilled not to have one.
Wired: Where do you file your pieces of paper?
Negroponte: I don't have any. I'm trying to get paper out of my life.
Wired: How about books?
Negroponte: I have very few books.
Wired: But I just gave you two of mine.
Negroponte: And you'll notice they're the only books in this room. I'll mail them to our home in Greece, where we have a wall covered with books. That's really where I do most of my reading.
Wired: How did you first get involved with Wired?
Negroponte: Louis Rossetto interviewed me in a bar in Amsterdam for the magazine he had started, Electric Word. When I got back to Cambridge, I asked my colleague Marvin Minsky if he had ever heard of Electric Word, and he said, "Oh, yes, I read it faithfully."
Wired: After Louis and Jane Metcalfe came up with the idea for the magazine, they sent me a funding proposal. Soon after reading their proposal, I went out to TED3, where
Negroponte: I saw Louis and met Jane for the first time. It was there that I asked them, "How much money do you need?" They gave me a number, and I said, "Fine." It was a handshake.
Wired: How did you decide to do the column?
Negroponte: I said early in the negotiation that I wanted to protect my investment, so to speak, by helping. If the magazine turned out to be a failure, I'd have only myself, in part, to blame.
Wired: How do you feel about making people angry with your columns?
Negroponte: It's unclear to me whether the back page of Wired, or the book that developed out of it, are in the best interest of the Media Lab. I've become a little bit too public.
I'm always going to be getting somebody pissed off, and among those somebodies will be sponsors of the lab, which now include 105 companies. On several occasions, sponsors have told me they didn't like what I wrote. Nobody has withdrawn funding yet, but it's getting to the point where there is some tension. I don't know what I can do about it - probably nothing - but there is a certain inconsistency in my roles: running a research laboratory with corporate sponsors and writing a snappy back page.
Wired: Which of your articles has provoked the most controversy?
Negroponte: I got the most angry e-mail about "Learning by Doing" [Wired 2.07] - a piece about the use of computers in schools. A lot of teachers wrote to say they knew more about the subject than I did, because they were down in the trenches teaching. The column I expected to be the most controversial, "Why Europe Is So Unwired" [Wired 2.09], generated some angry e-mail from young people in Europe who said I was talking mainly about France, but, they insisted, France is not Europe.
Wired: Why is France so behind the digital times?
Negroponte: If you think about it, being digital is Italian. It's underground, provocative, interactive. It has humor, discourse, and debate. It has a kind of liveliness to it.
You get the fanciest, richest Italian businessman, and at dinner this guy is suddenly somebody else. He starts telling jokes. He comes unbuttoned. It is very different in France and Germany, where the pomp and ceremony don't go away at dinner. Those countries don't have an underground. They aren't built out of small companies and entrepreneurial energy. Right now, being digital is an American phenomenon, and I think different cultures resonate with it in different ways.
Wired: What does it mean to be digital?
Negroponte: Being digital in its literal sense refers to computer-readable ones and zeroes, but at the more global level, it has to do with where you find your information and entertainment. It has to do with the computer presence in your life. Being digital is about lifestyle and attitude and usage of this computer presence moment to moment. Being digital is an egalitarian phenomenon. It makes people more accessible and allows the small, lonely voice to be heard in this otherwise large, empty space. It fiattens organizations.
Wired: But what about reading? Reading long articles on computer screens is slow and tiring compared with leafing through books or magazines.
Negroponte: I don't read long articles period. I don't like to read. I am dyslexic and I find it hard. When people send me long messages, I ignore them. The only print medium I read every day is the front page of The Wall Street Journal, which I scan for news of the companies I'm interested in. All the rest of my reading is on screens, and often not very good screens, because I travel so much.
Wired: Printed books have been around for 500 years. Obviously, they're an enduring medium.
Negroponte: The thing that's been around for thousands of years and is so powerful is the word. The power of the word is extraordinary, and if the word is embodied as text, that, too, is powerful, regardless of whether the text lives as ink on pulp or signal on fiat-panel display. Words aren't going away, and I think the book/no-book argument is dumb once you realize that all we're talking about are variations in display technology. I'm not anti-book or anti-print; it's just that soon we're going to be doing our "printing" in a different medium.
Wired: How do you feel about being more famous as a Wired columnist than as director of the Media Lab?
Negroponte: I'm amused by it. We all joke about the fact that now when I give public speeches, which I do too often, I'm introduced as the senior columnist from Wired. Maybe they'll mention MIT, and less frequently they'll mention the Media Lab. Of course, when you look at what I've done at Wired, it's a fiash in the pan compared with my life's work at MIT.
Wired: Being Digital must have increased the already-elevated hype factor.
Negroponte: And each translation produces another little episode. In Italy the book has provoked a huge controversy. "Technology is dangerous and you shouldn't be so optimistic about the future," they say. I have to admit, I tend to be an optimistic person.
Wired: I thought you addressed these questions in the epilog, where you describe the dangers in the new technology.
Negroponte: People say that was an afterthought, just a few throwaway remarks, and it's true these issues weren't uppermost in my mind. I've probably spent more time thinking about them since the book was published. Everything else in the book, up to the epilog, was written like a memoir, and people can't be too nasty about that part because it's authentic. When I talk about the development of computer graphics in the mid '60s or knowing Steve Jobs when he was a kid just getting started, it's because I was there. People can't criticize me for reporting on what happened. So the epilog provides one of the few places in the book where people can say, "You're wrong."
Wired: Are you planning to write Being Digital, Part II?
Negroponte: A lot of people have asked me to do the next one, and the answer is no. I went into the project with a certain naïveté.
It was like building your first house.
Husbands and wives sometimes get divorced before the house is finished because they didn't realize how traumatic it can be. It will be a long time before I write another book, even if I have Wired stories coming out of my ears.
Wired: You're in the rare position of being an author who gets instantaneous feedback on his work.
Negroponte: I also get instantaneous feedback from a subculture that's very Wired into my theme. When I recently wrote an Op-Ed piece for The New York Times, it generated only six or seven pieces of e-mail, because the average reader of the Times is not online. In fact, the article was about the average reader of The New York Times, whom I referred to as "the digital homeless." Clearly, the digital homeless were not about to start sending me e-mail.
Wired: What do Wired readers tell you about your column?
Negroponte: I get up to 30 messages a day from readers, and they tend to be binary. They are either very fiattering or very nasty. If anyone had an ego deficit, the fiattering ones would make it disappear. People tell me they've changed jobs or redirected their lives because of things I wrote. But while the good ones are very heartwarming, the bad ones can be quite abusive: "Hey, you jerk, why didn't you think of this or that?" On a couple of occasions they've been right. I really did make a mistake.
Wired: How do you respond to being flamed?
Negroponte: I always send back a nice reply thanking them for their remarks, however harsh. Then, what invariably happens is that the person turns into a mellow tiger and starts falling all over him- or herself with apologies. E-mail is funny. If people fiame at you and you reply gently, it catches them off guard.
Wired: Why did you decide to study architecture?
Negroponte: I was always interested in the arts. I was also reasonably good at mathematics. I thought if I was good at these two things, maybe architecture was the natural way to combine them.
Wired: What does your being an architect have to do with being digital?
Negroponte: Nothing. It was only after I finished my architecture degree and started graduate school that I fell in love with computers.
I had learned about computer programming as an undergraduate, but it just didn't catch my fancy until graduate school, where my thesis advisor was a professor of mechanical engineering named Steve Coons. Steve Coons is to some degree the father of computer graphics. He worked out the mathematics that made it possible.
Wired: Why were you interested in computer-aided design?
Negroponte: Megalomania. I believed that if you designed the design tool you'd have a bigger infiuence than if you merely designed an object or a building, no matter how great it might be.
Wired: Are you prone to megalomania?
Negroponte: Not really. But I want to do things on a large scale in order to have impact. That's one of the reasons why the Media Lab is the way it is. My megalomania is not egocentric. It's more about trying to do things big, because if it's not big, it's not worth your time.
Wired: Has CAD changed the way buildings look?
Negroponte: Probably not as much as I might have thought in my heyday, but it's become very sophisticated - to the point where the tools themselves are knowledgeable about the systems they're designing, whether it's heat exchangers or elevators. In fact, the first business I helped launch, and which marked the start of my entrepreneurial life, was a computer-aided-design company called Computervision. The company was approaching a billion dollars a year in sales when it underwent a hostile takeover five years ago and I was thrown off the board of directors.
Wired: Did you have a stake in the company?
Negroponte: I certainly did. In fact, my wife and I bought our first house with Computervision stock. I stupidly sold it, or today I'd be a rich man, but at least it put the roof over our heads.
Wired: If you were going to design a digital house, what would it look like?
Negroponte: When people think about building a digital home they usually envision something from the Woody Allen movie Sleeper. It looks like a giant kidney with an Orgasmitron. The truth is that my house would probably just have a huge kitchen in which one would eat and live. I live in a very traditional building that was built in the early 19th century on Beacon Hill. It happens to have lots of fiber and wiring, but it's basically nondigital.
Wired: What was the idea behind The Architecture Machine, which was the name of your first book, written in 1968 (The MIT Press), as well as the name of your first laboratory at MIT?
Negroponte: It focused on the human-computer interface. The lab was built out of what were then called minicomputers. We struggled with mylar tape and punched holes. We thought it was terrific to get 8 Kbytes of memory, and when we got up to 16K, that was almost unbelievable. Then in 1972, we got some chips from Bob Noyce - an MIT alumnus and one of the founders of Intel - which allowed us to use 256 Kbytes of memory to drive a color TV display. This was considered outrageous. People thought it was computational arrogance to throw that kind of memory at a video monitor. Now, of course, this is the standard architecture used in all personal computers.
Wired: Much of your research at the Architecture Machine lab in the 1970s, right after the Vietnam War, was financed by the military - the Office of Naval Research and the Advanced Research Projects Agency. Did you have any reservations about working for the government?
Negroponte: Unlike the National Science Foundation, which has turned down every one of my grant requests for the past 10 years, ARPA and ONR were the best possible sponsors. They funded Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert, and a lot of other first-rate people. I was proud to be part of that stable.
Wired: But did you feel any conflict of interest?
Negroponte: I was the last of a generation that still emulated their parents. We thought it was cool to do things grown-ups did. For me and my peers, getting Department of Defense money to do research was a great honor. There were no secrets. You were encouraged to publish. After all, it was military funding that developed the Internet, personal computers, multimedia, and artificial intelligence.
Wired: Tell me about your membership in the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, of CEOs from the world's biggest companies.
Negroponte: I go not as a CEO but as part of the entertainment. I wear the monkey suit. My parents live in the neighboring town of Klosters, and the director of the forum is a childhood friend. When I started attending regularly, about 10 years ago, I found it was a wonderful way to network with European industries. See, Japan is easy. You go to Tokyo and meet a company for breakfast, a company in the morning, a company for lunch, a company in the afternoon, and a company for dinner. That's 25 companies in five days. Europe is much harder. In between fiying to Paris and Berlin and so on, you're lucky if you can see five companies in five days. So it's a great help to have them all collected in Davos. One quarter of our funding comes from European sponsors, all of whom, in one way or another, were contacted at the World Economic Forum.
Wired: How has living on airplanes - being in the clouds all day - changed your perspective on the world?
Negroponte: When you go around the world a half dozen times each year it reinforces the fact that this planet is one complex place, with many perspectives, the least attractive of which is a nationalistic one.
Wired: An unnamed colleague once referred to you in The New York Times as a charlatan. Now that the Media Lab is celebrating its 10th anniversary, have your critics been vanquished?
Negroponte: It is clear 10 years later that the multimedia industry, which adds up to a trillion dollars a year, is a major force in this country and around the world. Two simple ideas got the Media Lab launched: one being that the human-computer interface is a real problem, the other being that the relationship of content to technology is more than random. In other words, the computer and its content are not independent of each other. These two ideas have proved to be right.
Wired: What other criticism do you hear?
Negroponte: Most of the criticism about me I don't hear directly, which is why I have to read about it in The New York Times. While people may not consider us charlatans anymore, they probably think there is still too much show and tell and gloss. Just having sponsors from Hollywood makes you suspect. But we are financially sound at a time when universities around the country are in shaky positions. We have attracted enough new talent that as multimedia becomes old we have new problems to work on.
Wired: Tell me about your failed attempt in the early 1990s to build a Media Lab in Japan.
Negroponte: Our two governments worked out a long-range solution to promote American trade with Japan. It was focused not on tariffs or economic measures, but on education. They started a campaign to get American universities to build Japanese campuses. But MIT is not a franchise.
It's not something you can transplant. We said no to building a campus in Japan, although we said we would consider building a laboratory.
Wired: Then what happened?
Negroponte: Congressman Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri), who was spearheading the effort on the American side, called me down to Washington, DC, and gave me a lecture on the vital national interests involved in this project. We negotiated a $10 million endowment from a Japanese donor in return for a five-year agreement during which we would do two things. We would advise them on building a research laboratory in Japan and accept four or five researchers a year at the Media Lab.
Wired: By the time the deal collapsed, you were being attacked in the press for "selling out" to the Japanese. What went wrong?
Negroponte: There was a lot of bickering on the Japanese side, and the deal eventually unraveled. That our involvement in this project was characterized as "unpatriotic" is truly ironic, considering that Representative Gephardt launched the deal in the first place.
Wired: One of the things you seem most excited about at the moment is your new research program, Things That Think.
Negroponte: People in the lab have been working for two or three years on wearable computing, such as the BodyNet, which uses the body as a local-area network. The basic idea is to embed computing in objects that are not normally thought of as computers (see "Being Decimal," page 252). By interconnecting these Things That Think, you create a little society of machines whose collective behavior is far more intelligent than any one person can be at one time.
Wired: Who is sponsoring this new program?
Negroponte: Nike and Steelcase are already committed. These are new sorts of sponsors for us, a shoe company and a furniture maker. We've been supported in the past by aerospace, phone, computer, and newspaper companies - a heterogeneous lot - but what they all have in common is their interest in bits. We haven't been involved before with people who are interested in atoms.
Wired: I've never heard of running a research laboratory through sponsorship from companies like Nike and Steelcase.
Negroponte: This is classic at MIT, where all the laboratories are financially independent.
They run strictly through sponsorship. MIT doesn't pay a penny. The Media Lab also funds its students 100 percent. They get full tuition and full salary. Parents love us, because for anybody whose son or daughter attends MIT as a graduate student at the Media Lab, it's just a great financial deal.
Wired: Are you in danger of becoming donor-driven, with outside sponsors setting your agenda or dictating the nature of your research?
Negroponte: "Love is a better master than duty," said Einstein. Most sponsors see that it's best not to push too hard. As companies downsize and re-engineer themselves, one of the first things to go is basic research. A medium-sized sponsor spends $250,000 a year at the Media Lab. That's less than the cost of two full-time scientists at IBM or Hughes Corporation, once you include salary and overhead.
It doesn't take long for an executive to figure out which makes more sense: hiring 1.5 people, or depositing that money at the Media Lab, where he or she gets 100-to-1 leverage, because for $250,000 he or she buys access to $25 million worth of research. We have an intellectual property deal saying that if you fund anything at the lab, you have access to everything at the lab. So, if AT&T is funding research in speech, but suddenly needs holography, they can get it.
Wired: Can you give me examples of Media Lab inventions or ideas that have changed the way your sponsors operate?
Negroponte: There are so many that I'll give you classes of examples. One is shrink-wrapped products you can buy off the shelf. Lego/Logo is an example. These computer-programmable toys were developed here from start to finish; our graduate students even wrote the manual that's in the box.
At the other extreme is the kind of technology transfer for which the lab receives no credit. A good example is QuickTime, a way to represent video on Macintosh computers. The first QuickTime movies were developed here in cooperation with Apple. John Scully then took the idea back to California. Today there is not a single person at Apple who remembers that the Media Lab had anything to do with QuickTime. This is perfect, absolutely perfect, because it ensures that the idea gets developed and marketed with all the passion generated by people who believe it's their own.
Another example lies in between the shrink-wrapped product and the idea that disperses like air. IBM has always been a generous sponsor, even in the bad days when it was having trouble. At one point, we had a senior person fiying down to IBM's personal computer division in Boca Raton, Florida, once a week. When the PS/2 came out, he could open it up and point to all the circuits that came out of our laboratory.
Wired: Is it true you travel with two PowerBooks and a 10-pack of batteries?
Negroponte: Absolutely. You can take anything away from me - TV, refrigerator, automobile - but not my online connection. I have spent my whole life online. I depend on it enormously.
Wired: Aren't there occasions when you want to forget about powering up?
Negroponte: There is one paper thing in my life. The one inconsistency in everything I believe and do is an academic planner, a monthly calendar, into which things are written by hand. No one else has a physical copy of it and nobody makes appointments in it but me. I guess this is somehow territorial; it's the one nondigital side of my working life.
Wired: You must get barraged by people wanting you to try new products.
Negroponte: The Media Lab is a magnet for things like that. I give much of it to my son, Dmitri, and let him try it out. A 25-year-old son is a pretty good test base, and when he was younger he was even better.
Wired: The language in Being Digital is often "classist." You talk about computers functioning like English butlers, chauffeurs, and other well-trained household staff. Instead of slaves, what if the computers of the future become our masters?
Negroponte: We delegate things to people who are more intelligent than we are all the time, and it doesn't bother us. When I get on an airplane, I sure hope the pilot knows more about airplanes than I do. In the future, we are going to be delegating many tasks to computers that know a lot more than we do about certain subjects. My classist language, as you call it, is only meant to exemplify this kind of delegation.
Wired: When can we expect to see the emergence of self-reproducing computers and artificial life?
Negroponte: The sooner the better. I look forward to that day. One of the best ways to inject common sense into machines is to have them learn. You get a mind-body problem very quickly, and consciousness becomes a big question. Will we one day have robots running around who used to carry our groceries but are now hurling paving stones at us? I doubt it. I don't foresee a time when we are treated like pets by a culture of super computers that have us on invisible leashes while we are house training ourselves walking on the grass.
Hans Moravec thinks that once computers are smarter than humans, we'll retire, and computers will become even smarter. [See "Superhumanism," Wired 3.10, page 144.]
I think the issue has more to do with consciousness and volition than being smart. Machines will be smarter than people, but I don't believe in artificial consciousness.
Wired: If money were no object, what truly far-out ideas would you be pursuing?
Negroponte: Computers with common sense.
Wired: What subjects will we be talking about on the 20th anniversary of the Media Lab?
Negroponte: What a nice guy Negroponte was. Too bad he keeled over from a Type A heart attack five years ago.... On the 20th anniversary,
I hope we're talking about achievements in areas like Common Sense and Things That Think. This may not happen, but I sure hope so.
Wired: Compared with the world's other great research laboratories, like Bell Labs and Xerox PARC, how do you evaluate the Media Lab?
Negroponte: History will do a better job than I. You also have to realize how different we are from Bell Labs, Xerox PARC, or any other lab that's ever existed. We are as much like the Bauhaus as a research lab. No photographers, filmmakers, or typographers go to work at Bell Labs in the same way that they do at the Media Lab. We can attract real talent in those areas. So how do you measure our accomplishments? Is it the number of people we push through the system? In some sense, our primary product is people. We now have wonderful people scattered all over the world.