Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Dec. 1, 1995
Published on: 21C Magazine
17 min read
Net Prophet

In his immaculate Italian suit, Nicholas Negroponte looks more like an international financier than one of the leading thinkers of the information age. His new book, being digital, may have propelled the head of MIT’s Media Lab into the spotlight but is he a true visionary or just a well-connected hype merchant? 

by Wilson da Silva

NICHOLAS Negroponte is dyslexic. Rather ironic for someone who lives and breathes media, and spends most days reading and replying to the torrent of information finding its way into his office from the four corners of cyberspace.

Until recently Negroponte had been a back-room corporate schmoozer. Now, through his column in Wired magazine and his new book, Being Digital, the founder and director of the Media Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has grown into an info-prophet; revered by cyberpunks and the darling of a largely unquestioning media. He makes bold predictions about the digital revolution and brooks no criticism. He’s confident and audacious, and if challenged, is fond of saying: “If I’m wrong, wait 10 minutes.”

In 1989 he predicted that by the mid-1990s, the primary interface between people and computers would be speech. Well, it’s not here yet, and it’s not 10 minutes away either. But that doesn’t faze Negroponte.

The corporate cognoscenti also appears to adore Negroponte. There are more than 75 corporate sponsors of the Media Lab, including Sony, IBM, British Telecom, Intel, Reuters, Hughes Aircraft, News Corporation and The New York Times Company. Of the US$20 million the centre costs to run annually, only $1 million comes from MIT, to pay for the teaching of media arts and sciences, for which the lab offers graduate degrees. It also has a $30 million endowment. In comparison, other MIT faculties receive between 6 and 10 per cent of their funding from outside sources.

“I know basically every media mogul on a first name basis,” Negroponte boasts. Less wealthy faculties at MIT regard the Media Lab as a captive of big business, but Negroponte dismisses this: “Obviously, you can sign a lousy agreement and be the servant of anybody, industry or government. But industry can be your best source of support, if they understand the concept of out-sourcing basic research.”

It can get tricky, as Media Lab researcher Henry Lieberman admits: “It’s a trade-off. This gives us a bit of immunity from political whims, but on the other hand, it takes a lot of work to maintain relationships with the huge number of sponsors who come.”

Negroponte is the epitome of the info-Utopianist. The digital revolution will eventually sweep away all of humanity’s troubles, he says. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but eventually. Just wait another 10 minutes. There’ll be no “information poor” in the future, either; today’s children are technophiles and will be tomorrow’s plugged-in adults, and only their parents will be the digital homeless. What do you do if you’re growing up sans computer, in a New York ghetto or a So Paulo slum? ask his critics. Don’t get pedantic, says the man. It’s only a matter of time.

Negroponte is a puzzle; a tenured professor with no Ph.D., he doesn’t even have a degree in anything relating to cybernetics. Negroponte’s background is in architecture.

He came to MIT in 1961 and after graduating in architecture, joined the faculty specializing in the then nascent field of computer-aided design. After a series of visiting professorships, Negroponte founded the influential Architecture Machine Group at MIT, a combined lab and thinktank that he oversaw from 1968 to 1982, which was responsible for radical new approaches to human-machine interfacing. He wrote influential books on the subject, including The Architecture Machine and Computer Aids to Design and Architecture.

Negroponte went from computer-aided design in the 1960s to computer graphics in the 1970s, and was feted by governments eager to hear his message of a digital future. Even critics admit he was ahead of the pack when it came to the implications of the digital age and the resulting convergence of media. “He was talking about this in the 1970s, when everyone else thought it was silly,” says Michael Dertouzos, head of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science. “For that he gets full credit.”

But that’s as congratulatory as Dertouzos gets. “Vision is the thing he’s excited about,” he adds. “The achievement, the accomplishment, is where he is weak. True progress occurs when people combine vision with the ‘can do’ aspect, and think through the social, political and technological implications.”

Negroponte as the slick corporate operator seems to get up the nose of a lot of the die-hard computer engineers at MIT, most from faculties not quite as generously funded as the Media Lab. Negroponte peddling the digital gospel without a degree in computing is a particular irritant.

However, in 1976, when everyone else in computing science was struggling with establishing systems or network protocols, Negroponte was proposing a random-access multimedia system that would allow a user to converse with long dead artists, what today might be called CD-ROM.

This idea led indirectly to the Media Lab. He applied to the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts with just such a proposal. The then president of MIT, the late Dr Jerome Wiesner, a former science advisor to President John F. Kennedy, was intrigued by “this cuckoo proposal,” as Negroponte now calls it.

Negroponte knew it would cost big money, and although confident of the technology, felt he was out of his depth in the area of natural language processing. The two eventually developed the idea of a thinktank and experimentation centre, and in 1979 it was approved by MIT. Funding was sought, construction began, and the Media Lab was born in 1984, with Negroponte as its founding director, a job he still holds.

The Media Lab brought together top thinkers to solve the problem of human-machine interface. Among them was Marvin Minsky, widely credited as one of the fathers of robotics. “Marvin is the smartest man I know,” Negroponte says. “His humour defies description, and he is arguably the most important computer scientist alive.”

The Lab’s work in artificial intelligence, computers in education, image manipulation, eye-tracking technology and communications systems has been considered the leading edge for some time. But in those early years, the Media Lab consisted of two small laboratories, six offices and a closet on the MIT campus. Just over a decade later, it is housed in a gleaming white $50 million building and employs 300 people, working on everything from holographic video and computerized musical instruments to robot design and computer games as learning tools. Its rise to success became a pet project of Wiesner, who ensured its early funding at a time when most other faculties were being squeezed.

Nicholas Negrοponte with John Perry Barlow, essayist and cyber-libertarian political activist who was once a lyricist for the band, The Grateful Dead

This has generated some angst on campus. “He runs a closed shop,” complains Edward Roberts, professor of management technology at MIT. “You can’t get access to the Media Lab. It is open to paying customers with big bucks.”

Negroponte denies this, but agrees that he’s not exactly the total academic team player: “I am not part of any MIT committees and refuse to indulge in academic politics. This may make me look like an isolationist.”

Negroponte’s inability to play ball is compounded by his zeal, which some find more than a little arrogant or obnoxious. “His manner has been misread by a lot of people,” says Victor McElheny, director of MIT’s Knight Fellowship program. “He has a snippy tone: “wise up, wake up, you need a kick in the pants.” It doesn’t always play well.”

Negroponte has had to wear more than a few barbs in the past. The most often repeated being that the Media Lab is all light and smoke, all icing and no cake. “I couldn’t have cared less. I knew we were right,” he says, adding that the Lab’s scholarly publication rate is comparable to other faculties.

The Media Lab has been the home of some innovative advances. It was here that text, audio and visuals merged to become ‘multimedia’, a now burgeoning field that includes digital film effects, audio editing and interactive CD-ROMs. Now the lab is exploring the future of music, digital education, news delivery, three-dimensional computer workstations, transparent fonts, and programs that create their own films. Since 1989, 26 patents have been registered by the Lab.

“Computing is not about computers, it’s about life,” says Negroponte, “We’re discussing a fundamental cultural change. Being digital is not about being a geek or an Internet surfer or a mathematically savvy child, it’s actually a way of living and is going to impact absolutely everything.”

As far as Negroponte’s concerned, television as we know it is a dead, antiquated, top-down serial software conduit that is being eaten by the voracious cancer of the digital revolution. Anyone in the industry not preparing for the change will be roadkill within years. Dead is the age of the TV programmers pumping out a serial product that everyone sees in exactly the same way and, importantly, at the same time.

“Today’s TV sets let you control brightness, volume and channel. Tomorrow’s will allow the viewer to vary sex, violence and political leaning,” Negroponte says. “Look at what makes television today: mass audience, synchronized viewing for the convenience of advertisers, and little choice. Compare that to books. Over 50,000 trade books a year are published in the USA alone. It is a medium of choice. Think of TV like books, delivered over the Internet. That may be the most constructive reply. There will be hits, bestsellers and something for everybody, author and reader alike.”

“The shift to user-defined media will happen all over the place,” Negroponte claims. “Including newspapers, which until now have done all the deciding as to what is and what is not newsworthy. And advertising will thrive, because it too can be personalized and thus become ‘news.’ A certain kind of ad, call it the Marlboro ad, will die off and exist only on billboards. The Net will thrive on so-called ‘considered purchases’ and advertiser-supported delivery, even of e-mail.”

Here’s a precis of the vision Negroponte has been preaching for the past 15 years. For most of human history, trade has involved exchanging atoms: wheat, iron, cars and computers. Bits of information have until now also been transported in this laborious way: music on CD, movies on film, programs on disk, text and pictures on paper. But the infobahn is changing all that: once an intellectual product can be digitized, it can be shipped across distances at the speed of light.

“Early in the next millennium, your right and left cufflinks or earrings may communicate with each other by low-orbiting satellites and have more computer power than your present PC,” Negroponte says in his latest book, Being Digital. “Your telephone won’t ring indiscriminately; it will receive, sort, and perhaps respond to your incoming calls like a well-trained butler. Schools will change and become museums and playgrounds for children to assemble ideas and socialize with other children all over the world.

“We will socialize in digital neighbourhoods in which physical space will be irrelevant ... Twenty years from now, when you look out a window, what you see may be 5,000 miles and six time zones away.”

From atoms to bits: early prototypes of touchscreens for education

According to Negroponte, the repercussions of this revolution will be massive. Not just in the consumer world, but in the political, social and economic spheres. “My intuition is that this is a big one, much bigger than the Industrial Revolution. But it’s like a storm, when you are in it you really cannot compare it so easily with other storms. My guess is that the implications of this revolution, because of its global nature, will force major changes in nationalism, education and economics.”

Some social theorists argue that the digital revolution and its breakdown of the mass media as a common experience between people, and therefore an agent of social cohesion, would fragment cultures and nation-states.

“The line of argument that we all get a social prop from the common denominator of popular programs is true, but no more true than a good book, restaurant or movie,” Negroponte says. “First of all, headlines don’t disappear. An on-demand newspaper does not fail to tell you about poison gas in the Japanese subway, even if you have expressed no interest in Japan, subways or toxic fumes.”

We are, however, still at that phase, that calm before the storm, when the old world and the new co-exist. Even Negroponte is tied to this shadow world: although he now hardly ever receives or sends paper mail or talks on the telephone (he finds it more productive to work on-line), he still has to travel 300,000 miles a year to attend speaking engagements, visit corporations and laboratories, and drum up corporate sponsorship. His ‘real’ office is housed in a Macintosh PowerBook which he takes around the world. Its physical value, or its value as a bunch of atoms, is around $2,000. But the bits it carries are worth considerably more: at a pinch, Negroponte estimates they are worth between $1 and $2 million.

It is because we are in this transitory stage of the Digital Revolution that Negroponte has abandoned his usual medium to publish 100,000 copies of Being Digital. A reworked collection of his Wired magazine columns, it is a road map to the infobahn, guiding the reader through the world to come.

As for Negroponte himself, he usually replies to questions about his personal life with the briefest of answers. “What is in the book is already far more than I want to discuss publicly. My wife and I lead a very private life,” he says.

Getting to Negroponte the man is like extracting teeth, but the details start to form a picture. He is 51 and has four brothers, one of whom is U.S. ambassador to the Philippines. He and his wife Elaine and their bulldog Clara Bow live in a townhouse in the swank suburb of Beacon Hill in Boston. His family has a home in Switzerland, he owns a house in Greece and rents a holiday cottage in France where he retreats to indulge in his favourite pastime: cooking. His father is 79, and they still ski together in Switzerland. His septuagenarian father is no slouch: he was a member of the 1936 Greek Olympic ski team.

Negroponte revealed to The Boston Globe in March, that he grew up in Switzerland, London and New York in a wealthy shipping family. “Lots of travel, private schools (three years in Switzerland) and country homes,” he said. “People assume I am independently wealthy. Well, my father gave us all infinite education and nothing after that. When I turned 30, he sent me $500 as a present, and nothing since.”

Aside from a dislike of long e-mail, and a taste for Montrachet, he reveals little else about himself in our last exchange over cyberspace. Indeed, there is only the digital Negroponte, whose words glow from the screen. Maybe sent 10 minutes ago.