April 01, 1996

Article at Sunday Age

NEWS | The cyberspace prophet who is seldom at a loss

Nicholas Negroponte, head of the MIT's famed Media Lab

Nicholas Negroponte foresaw the digital age before anyone else. Which explains why he is at the forefront of the information revolution. Wilson da Silva reports.

WHEN Nicholas Negroponte says, “I know basically every media mogul on a first-name basis,” it is not an idle boast. The prophet of the digital age, he is extremely well connected - in more ways than one.

He has the ear of media barons like Rupert Murdoch. He has the respect of cyberpunks. He has a column in Wired magazine, the American Internet bible. He is the head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s famed Media Lab. He is the leader of the information revolution.

Until recently he was a back-room operator. Now, through his Wired column and his new book, Being Digital (Hodder and Stoughton, $29.95), he has acquired the status of an info-prophet. He’s audacious, and if challenged, is fond of saying, “If I’m wrong, wait 10 minutes”. 

But is he a true visionary, or just a well-connected hype merchant? He is certainly a favorite of the corporate world.

There are more than 75 corporate sponsors of the Media Lab, including Sony, IBM, British Telecom, Intel, Reuters, Hughes Aircraft, News Corp and The New York Times Co. The centre costs $26 million annually, but only needs $1.3 million from MIT. It also has a $40 million endowment. In comparison, other MIT faculties receive between six and 10 per cent of their funding from outside sources.

The Lab is at the forefront of technology. 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 explores the future of music, digital education, news delivery, three-dimensional computer workstations, transparent fonts, and programs that create their own films. In the past seven years, The Lab has been awarded 26 patents for emerging technologies.

Soon, the optical fibre cables that have already changed our lives will bring to us banking, airline and hotel reservations, video-on-demand, faxes, electronic mail, news, bills. Television stations will be delivering programs on request. Viewers will be able to choose camera angles at sporting events. There will be no more rushing home in time for Seinfeld or Melrose Place. As far as Negroponte is concerned, television as we know it is already dying.

This digital revolution is already here, he says, and having a profound effect on trade. Anything that can be digitised can now be shipped across vast distances at the speed of light.

His vision is often audacious. In ‘Being Digital’, he writes, “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. 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 socialise with other children all over the world.”

Although the revolution is here, it will take a while to work its way through society; for a time, the old world and the new will co-exist. Even Negroponte is tied to this world: although he now hardly ever receives or sends paper mail or talks on the telephone (which he regards unproductive) he still has to travel 480,000 kilometres a year to give speeches, visit companies and laboratories, and drum up corporate sponsorship.

His “real” office is a Macintosh PowerBook which follows him around the world. Its physical value is around $2600, but as Negroponte points out, the information it contains is worth between $1 million and $3 million.

Negroponte the man is something of a puzzle. He travels the world reading speeches and juggling a torrent of electronic mail daily . . . yet he is dyslexic. He is a tenured professor, but has no doctorate. He’s a computer prophet, but doesn’t even have a degree in computing - he’s actually an architect.

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 told The Boston Globe last year. “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.”

Negroponte came to MIT in 1961 and joined the architecture faculty. There, he specialised in the then-emerging field of computer-aided design. In the ‘70s, he moved into computer graphics. By then, he had enough standing to be feted by governments eager to hear his message of the 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 Laboratory for Computer Science. “For that he gets full credit.”

But he has his critics, Dertouzos among them. “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.

“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 the Media Lab is a captive of big business: “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.”

But he concedes that he is 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 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.”

The most often repeated barb is that the Media Lab is all light and smoke, all icing and no cake. Negroponte dismisses this. “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.

Negroponte has also done his time on the research side and earned his credentials. In 1976, when everyone else in computing science was struggling with establishing “operating systems” or “network protocols”, he was proposing a random access multimedia system that would allow a user to converse with long-dead artists. It is what today we know as CD-ROMs.

His ability to back a winner is no accident. He gained considerable “street cred” through his patronage of Wired. When his media baron friends (including Rupert Murdoch, CNN’s Ted Turner and Walt Disney’s Michael Eisner) knocked back funding for the struggling new magazine, Negroponte put in $100,000 of his own money. The investment was returned, several-fold. Wired broke even in four issues, and US publishers Conde Nast recently paid $4.6 million for just a 15 per cent stake.

Aside from a dislike of long-mail, and a taste for Monrachet champagne, Negroponte reveals little else about himself in our last exchange over cyberspace. There is only the digital Negroponte, his words glowing from the screen. Sent maybe 10 minutes ago.