My badass (former) boss Nicholas Negroponte

excerpts via Wired


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: 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: 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: 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.

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