HARDWARE

E-mail With. . .Nicholas Negroponte

A multimedia expert discusses with 'Inc. Technology's editor how business and technology intersect.
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Nicholas Negroponte, 50, is the guru of multimedia technology and the driving force behind the Media Lab at MIT. His mission to spread word of the Media Lab leads to extensive travel. During our E-mail conversation, he was at his home on the Greek island of Patmos, where he was finishing his forthcoming book, Being Digital (Knopf). But we also received messages from Tokyo, Chicago, Scandinavia, France, San Francisco, and a taxicab in London. He is also a columnist for and an investor in Wired magazine.

* * *

Nicholas Negroponte, a professor of media technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology since 1968, and Jerome Wiesner, president emeritus of MIT, in 1985 capped off a seven-year fund-raising effort that had yielded $40 million in corporate donations to build and equip the Media Lab at MIT. Today the lab, with an annual research budget of $10.5 million, is one of the country's leading research facilities exploring new information technologies. It attracts not only people with technical backgrounds but also those with experience in the arts. The only stated prerequisite: "Computer literacy is required."

Knowing of Negroponte's self-professed "E-mail imperative," Jeffrey L. Seglin, an Inc. magazine editor, corresponded by E-mail with him for the better part of three months this past summer. Throughout, the challenge was to explore the intersection of business and technology.

* * *

From: Jeffrey L. Seglin jls@world.std.com

My goal throughout our conversation will be to get a sense of where you see the business of information technology heading, and of what opportunities there are on the horizon for Inc. readers.

From: Nicholas Negroponte nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

I am in Greece at the moment and swamped with a book I have committed to deliver by 9/1. But as a starter, don't hesitate to send E-mail questions.

jls@world.std.com

Can I ask you the focus of the book you're working on now? And where are you in Greece?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

You can ask me anything. I do not have any secrets. Try me.

I am on the Island of Patmos, which is where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation and which is where my wife and I have had a house for 25 years.

The book I am doing for Knopf is called Being Digital. About 40% of it is repurposed Wired stories; the rest is new and includes background and annotations galore. Since they (Knopf) will make a massive PR campaign, I do not have a clue as to what I should or should not be leaking to you. Anyway, saying too much is bad luck, because all too much of it is still between my ears.

Subject: Work and Play

jls@world.std.com

You know, sitting here typing this in Savin Hill, in Boston, on a rainy Friday morning, while I know you're basking in the sun while you compose on your notebook computer, just doesn't seem right.

How do you think people will spend their spare time in five years?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

The divide between work and play will shrink. More people are likely to find their work and their passion to be the same or, at least, closer. In that sense, people will spend more time on Greek islands and more hours per week doing what they love, called work.

To basking in the sun, add drinking Chablis and eating fresh sea urchins on the back of my boat.

jls@world.std.com

You say the divide between work and play will shrink. How much of that will come as a result of new technologies? Does being able to bring along your portable computer and dial up your E-mail make you more able to work on your book in Patmos than you would have been 5 or 10 years ago?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

I have been using laptops since 1978 and have had E-mail here in Patmos for over 10 years, so none of this is real new. But I do mean the technologies that free one of space and time. They will play a role in merging work and play.

jls@world.std.com

What's the effect of accelerated change on the way people work and play?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

The effect is plural. For some people it will be working at home; for others it will be the opportunity to move among Greece, France, Switzerland, and the U.S.; for others it will be some simple self-esteem. For all it probably means more work (i.e.: play with a larger social purpose).

jls@world.std.com

On a day-to-day basis, what's the one thing that's enriched your life more than any other?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

That's easy -- the E-mail/laptop combine. I wrote most of the Media Lab proposal on the Sony Typecorder, later the NEC 8201a. I have 10 Macintoshes, of all flavors, scattered around my life. I travel with 2 laptops -- I use a 180 and have a 170 as backup. Before that I used NEC 8201a's for about 10 years, and I have a graveyard of at least 10 of those. Before that it was the Sony Typecorder, of which I have a few, and I plan to sell them to the Museum of Modern Art, because they were wonderful designs (circa 1977). You'd be disappointed by what I have on them. It's mostly text preparation and communications software, some Excel to keep track of my wine cellar.

jls@world.std.com

What's your workday like while you're writing your book? How does it compare with your workday when you're at the Media Lab?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

My workday has no pattern, at MIT or working on my book in Patmos, in France, or here in a hotel room outside Chicago. I would like to spend all my time focused on the book, but I always do E-mail first. Rightly or wrongly, I have an E-mail imperative. Sometimes it will take me three hours before I can get to work. But since I wake up anywhere between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m., there is no real pattern. I do my E-mail first thing, work on the book afterward, then answer things like this E-mail.

Subject: Technological Alienation

jls@world.std.com

What do you make of the alienation that's resulted from some advanced technology? For example, car buffs can appreciate the effect of a car's advanced technology on performance but can no longer get under the hood and fix the car. There's an old piece of wisdom that goes something like, "Never own anything you can't fix." As we get further and further from that, is more alienation likely?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Do you have a pet? You can't fix it when it breaks. You have a hard time even understanding what's wrong when it is sick, yet you communicate, in many ways, much more successfully with a pet than with a computer. The axiom of "Never own anything you can't fix" is a classic example of what was true in the industrial era but not in the information age. The difference between a buggy computer program and a faulty steam engine is that the engine likely will not work. By contrast, the program will exhibit some sort of behavior, and that behavior will allow you to debug it.

jls@world.std.com

We're heading into a holiday weekend here, and I'll be in Montreal for the jazz festival for the next couple of days. I'm bringing the laptop, but if you don't hear from me until Tuesday or so, you'll know the hotel had no jack for me to plug it into.

What does the market for 500 broadcast channels say about the technologies of intelligence and the creation of information agents? Do people want information agents -- what you define as computer programs with an expertise matched against your personal plans, needs, and idiosyncrasies -- making choices for them about things such as answering the telephone, routing mail, planning trips, looking for shopping bargains, or finding books to read and movies to see? Or does the ideal system still allow for serendipitous discoveries?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

E-mail is truly a question of plugs, not electronic standards.

The answer is not what people want or don't want, since we currently have no choice in the matter. Remember that those 500 channels are advertiser supported and that the economic model of agents is pay per view.

For information agents, chauffeur, gardener, and cook metaphors work well, because each of those people has an expertise and each needs to use that skill in accordance with your desires. Having one does not mean you don't like to drive, garden, or cook. You just do it when it amuses you, not because you have to.

Also, agents do not lower serendipity but allow you to modulate it. Frankly, as I may have said earlier, serendipity plays a very minor role in my life at 7 a.m. Monday morning. By contrast, on a Sunday afternoon I am more inclined to read without focus and engage in the joys of chance, even read advertising (or answer your E-mail). Magazines, your business, tend to latch onto the more serendipitous end of the spectrum of information and entertainment, hitting the extreme in my dentist's office.

jls@world.std.com

What about the whole notion of shared experiences? If personalized information is the next big thing, then why are shared experiences so popular? Take, for example, the popularity of shows like "Oprah" and "Donahue." And I don't know how much coverage the O.J. Simpson trial is getting over there, but there's another example of attraction to the shared experience -- 95 million viewers watched as Simpson drove his white Ford Bronco along the California interstate system to elude arrest. Doesn't personalized information suggest less linking with others? Is such a community-oriented crowd likely to allow personalized information to take hold?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Shared experiences are vital. One is not trading them away. Most of them are headline news. I was actually logged onto MCImail while O.J. Simpson was driving down the Los Angeles freeway and knew about it while it was happening. I even downloaded the story at the time, versus waiting three days for it to hit the stale Herald Tribune we get here. The issue is less about trashing shared experiences than about having them asynchronously. Future generations will look back at our times with some amazement that millions of people looked at "Oprah" and "Donahue" all at the same time. They might understand sports, but nothing else need be presented in such lockstep fashion except to suit the advertisers.

jls@world.std.com

We saw it happen with the fax and with internal E-mail, but before those became accepted widely, a critical mass of users was necessary. In this picture you paint, when is it likely that we'll achieve that critical mass? (Or is it even necessary?)

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

That critical mass varies by business type and by personal characteristics, rather than there being some overall formula. Some CEOs are already very wired. I am willing to guess that your readers are more wired than Fortune's readers.

jls@world.std.com

If 1979 marked the beginning of the PC industry, when will it become commonplace to walk into the average office and see the Internet totally integrated into that workplace (where it's used not only for E-mail transfer but also for joining in on forums or accessing on-line information)? Where is that point? How far out? Ten years? Twenty? What will it look like? How far have we come? Where are we today? How far do we have to go?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

The answer to that question is a book. The distance we have come can be measured by Gordon Moore's law, which says we double complexity on a chip every 18 months. He has been right for over 20 years and is likely to continue being right. His partner at Intel, Andy Grove, is fond of pointing out that 50% of the world's computing power was manufactured in the last 2 years. What Andy fails to mention is that, rightly or wrongly, a lot of the new computers are turned off most of the time.

I prefer to look at the question in terms of the human interface, which was sensory deprived in 1979. Today it is much richer. Curiously, it is asymmetrically richer in that the output side of the equation is filled with sound, color, animation, video, etc. By contrast, the input side is sterile. It is a mouse! That will need to change soon, and it will.

jls@world.std.com

You talk to a lot of CEOs and see a lot of companies. What's your opinion of MIS departments?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

MIS departments are usually out-of-date organizations that spend most of their time justifying themselves. They are about as relevant as audiovisual departments. With so much on the desktop, there is less need for centralized MIS.

Subject: The Personal and the Professional

jls@world.std.com

You mentioned that your notebook is the single invention that's had a positive effect on you in the past several years. Is there some gadget or piece of technology that has had a similar impact on your personal life? Something you think of now and wonder how you functioned effectively without it before?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

My notebook IS my personal life. The act of being digital has many features, but one of the most important is the better blend of the personal and the professional. There is no better luxury. What would have been your answer?

jls@world.std.com

Voice mail and fax machines are the two things that have had the biggest impact on my personal and professional life, probably for some of the same reasons your notebook counts among your favorites.

You mentioned in your last message "the better blend of the personal and the professional." Can you say more about how you've reached that balance over the past several years? How has technology played into your ability to reach that balance?

Where are you in France? Business or pleasure? I mentioned to my wife that I thought you might be taking a holiday break from work, and she said: "Let me get this straight, he's taking a vacation to get away from Patmos?" I told her it must be business.

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

I am in the Loire for a few more hours and go to London tomorrow morning. Assure your wife that one can need a vacation from Patmos. I am afraid it was filled with tragedy this year, involving not me or my family, but close friends, the details of which I will not bother you with. But when work and play are so deeply commingled, sometimes it is indeed necessary to get out of paradise.

It used to be the case that only tycoons like Rupert Murdoch and the like could close deals on their yachts. But we more normal folk can now emulate those work styles in a small way, as long as you are not a brain surgeon, for example, who needs to be near the operating theater. Journalists, like you, can mix and match. Look, you are interviewing me on Sunday (across the Atlantic). I hear (from my wife) that the weather is foul there; it is just fine here.

It is not just the technology that has allowed this to happen. I have been on the Internet for a quarter of a century. Before laptops there were terminals. What makes the difference is the lifestyle of your circle of acquaintances, not just your own equipment and connectedness. It happens that most of the people with whom I do business are on-line. Now I even make it a condition! One to which you have agreed -- in fact, one you suggested!

jls@world.std.com

I'm very sorry to hear about the misfortune that hit your friends in Patmos. I'm glad you're able to get away from work and the book (I assume) to enjoy France and England.

Are there instances when you've found technology actually gets in the way of blending the personal and the professional? That it becomes an obstacle?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

That happens more often to me in Boston when the phone rings as we are sitting down to dinner and some jerk is selling something (my language turns embarrassingly foul). It happens less in Patmos or the Loire, because the technology is enabled when I feel like it. You did not interrupt me today, on Sunday, with your E-mail. I am waiting for somebody who is about to come over, and I said to myself, "Might as well log in." I am sure that a doctor on call finds his or her beeper much more invasive.

Hope your weather is as good as mine.

jls@world.std.com

What is the biggest obstacle to achieving such a balance between the personal and the professional? And what is the one thing you consistently find to be a frustrating drain on your energy, something that fulfills neither personal nor professional goals?

The weather here is muggy, 90+ and overcast. But Friday night at Fenway I got to see an unassisted triple play, which made up for the lousy atmospheric conditions. Do they have much baseball in Greece or France?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Good question. The biggest obstacle is obstinate people who insist on being unwired and feel that endless face-to-face happenstance is more important than thinking. Also, some people think that the work-and-life divide is healthy and that you should do something you hate so that you can later do something you love. Funny idea. Some people may have to do that, but to want to do that is loony.

When you're signing a contract, meetings about intellectual property and lawyers worrying about the same are a big drain. I have spent more wasted hours arguing about patents and property rights and have yet to see this mean anything in the long run. I suppose that if I invented a machine that could turn lead into gold tomorrow, I would feel different.

No, no baseball in either place. But who am I to say? I barely know how many bases there are.

Subject: The Haves and the Have-Nots

jls@world.std.com

I wonder if the developments we've touched on -- information agents, notebook computers, remote E-mail, and so on -- are available mostly to those who have the resources to pay for them and whether that might result in an even larger chasm between the haves and the have-nots in society. Sure, you and I marvel at this stuff and put it to incredibly effective use, but what of the guy working two shifts on the line, who as a result has no personal life to speak of and is just squeaking by? Even more out of the opportunity picture are the homeless, who don't have phones, let alone computers.

There are encouraging signs. I've heard of voice-mail accounts being set up for homeless people seeking jobs. It allows them to interview for jobs and to give a phone number where they can be reached. They can dial their voice mail from a pay phone and retrieve any messages. So there do seem to be ways to include the less fortunate population in the opportunities that technological advances afford.

Do you see the technological advances we've been discussing as widening the chasm between the haves and the have-nots?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Technology does shrink the gap between the haves and the have-nots. We see almost no gender differences in personal-computer usage. Thirty percent of all black American teenagers have a home computer. The split remains economic but is dropping radically. Even 12% of American homes with less than $20,000 income per year have home computers.

But there are three ways to answer your question:

First, there are many people whose work is so unpleasant that play and work are almost as opposite as life and death. One has to hope that machines will do those jobs in the future and that people will engage in rich(er) experiences.

Second, there is evidence that on a global scale the gap between the haves and the have-nots will shrink, especially in telecommunications, where Third World countries are able to leapfrog the First World because they do not carry the baggage of history. The places with the most widespread use of cellular telecommunications are in Thailand and Hong Kong. Mexico and other emerging nations will soon end up with better bit-transportation systems than the "developed" world has.

Third, the chasm, perhaps widening, is generational. The young -- the rich and the poor, the black and the white, the short and the tall, the Christian and the Jew -- will swim in these new media, and many people of our generation won't know where to find a life jacket. A lot of people will have to start learning from their children and grand-children.

jls@world.std.com

Have you seen any evidence of broader social uses for this technology, such as the voice-mail example I mentioned or inner-city educational programs?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

That would be best answered in your visit to the Media Lab and with an additional visit to the Hennigan School. The Hennigan School is an inner-city school in Jamaica Plain, Mass., where we have had a program for seven-plus years. Our work with LEGO and Nintendo has been very encouraging (to say the least). There is tons of evidence, largely anecdotal, that computers are a formidable agent of change. Truancy at the school dropped to almost zero, and attendance at PTA meetings rose to almost 100%, for example. But that is kids' stuff. The real change is that computers are creating a love for learning.

jls@world.std.com

Do you think this love of learning you comment on comes from the novelty of the technology for these kids or from the fact that their ability to create, essentially to teach themselves, is far more effective than having someone standing in front of them telling them what to do?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

I don't think novelty plays any role in the assertion that computers allow for greater learning by doing and by active exploration, because most kids just don't find them novel. I don't think that many of us understand how fast things have changed and how natural the digital world is to kids. We say we do, but we don't really.

jls@world.std.com

What does the success of programs like that at the Hennigan School suggest about training employees (skilled and unskilled) in new technology in a variety of work settings?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

The success of the Hennigan School does not map directly onto the much harder problem of retraining employees, where the biggest task is to unlearn things. That may be one of the biggest problems facing the world today, as automation chews more and more into jobs and we have fewer and fewer places for people to go.

jls@world.std.com

Since public money is being used to fund some of the Media Lab's research, are concerns about how the outcome of the research might affect the public legitimate?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Concerns about how the outcome of the research might affect the public are legitimate, with or without public money. It is hard to imagine doing any research without that being the purpose. What can happen is that we try to evaluate something we do not understand or we do so in a context that is just inappropriate. For that reason, a place like the Media Lab will let ideas grow even if they seem foolhardy at the beginning. We don't uproot little plants. Even if we bring only one out of 20 new ideas to fruition, that is just fine (in fact, a good ratio). Industry is just not equipped to take that kind of risk or to accept that kind of yield; somebody has to. When people in my world cry foul about public scrutiny, it is usually based on the argument that it is premature, not that it is not "legitimate."

jls@world.std.com

What's your reaction to the policy implications of things that have happened under the Clinton administration that make it clear that money for nonapplied research, particularly in a university setting, is obviously becoming scarcer?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

I am not a Washington animal, and my experiences in that arena are limited. What I can say is that Al Gore and to a lesser degree Bill Clinton have raised public attention to a new level. Whether or not you agree with the idea of the information highway in name or in tone, it has become part of everyday parlance and is in every American's awareness. You need not be right or wrong. This high level of attention is very new and very helpful.

As for the specifics of funding, sure, there are contradictions. Since the Media Lab is 73% funded by companies (50% U.S., 25% European, 25% Far East), we are less sensitive to the ups and downs of Washington's funding.

Subject: Intersection of Business and Technology

jls@world.std.com

You suggest that if there is a "next" it will likely be the technologies of intelligence. For the businessperson trying to translate that phrase into viable business opportunities, what does it mean?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

The business opportunities are real simple: the personalization business. That can range from being in the information-about-information business, digital-butler services, mail filtering, personalized magazines, etc. Knowing what is in a body of information can have as much value as the body itself.

jls@world.std.com

Is the assumption true that if you wait for technologies to be widely accepted, it will be too late to take advantage of them?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

While one wants to avoid the bleeding edge of technology adoption, you don't want to go to the other extreme and keep waiting for prices to go down. I've mentioned Andy Grove's remark about 50% of all computing being manufactured in the last two years. That means that if you wait two years you will enjoy twice the value. That is true. But the cost of the wait to your company may be much higher.

jls@world.std.com

There's a lot of misinformation and hype about technology. How can average businesspeople teach themselves to become as skeptical about the information they read about nascent or developing technology as they are about everything else they do in running their businesses? How can they make smart, informed "business" decisions about technology?

Just so you know, we're facing a major-league baseball strike here in the States. So soon we'll be just like Greece and have no baseball either.

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

I continue to have a problem with your use of the word "technology," because it is so wide. It could mean a new nonstick hamburger grill. If we narrow that to computing, the best way to teach yourself is to ask your 13-year-old son or daughter. If your children are grown up, then tune into one of the CEO computer camps. There is a real need to put some of this stuff in your bloodstream, for you to experience it directly, versus going only for a broad reengineering approach.

Since I am in Norway, coming from Denmark, heading to Sweden and then back to France, I see baseball nowhere and would not know how to miss it anyway.

jls@world.std.com

Can you define the difference between applied research performed by, say, a corporate R&D department and purer (speculative) research like what's done at the Media Lab?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

The difference is a combination of time and risk. If either the risk or the time is too high or too long, a company cannot afford it. By contrast, since a place like the Media Lab is considered "precompetitive research," we are a place in which to pool risk and time. That meshes perfectly with our academic mission and the requirement that Ph.D. students do novel work in uncharted territories.

In addition, in the case of the Media Lab we do work on both technology and new content. So about 50% of our admissions are people with backgrounds in film, photography, anthropology, journalism -- namely, fields that are not necessarily embraced by the traditional computer-science lab in industry.

jls@world.std.com

If you had to start one business today that was in a totally different field from the one you are in, what would it be and why?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

If it is really outside technology, then it would be a restaurant, as I love to cook and would be happy to do that for the rest of my life.

jls@world.std.com

Finally we have a beautiful day here in Boston. The temperature dropped to about 55 or 60 last night, and today is just glorious. I hope that it's similar there, wherever "there" is.

As a general partner in a venture-capital firm, what do you look for in companies when you're deciding whether to invest?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

I bring "technological intuition" to the table. But what I have learned, which may be dreadfully obvious to others, is that a great idea and a good business plan are necessary but not sufficient. The people -- their character, mind-set, drive, and resilience -- determine more of the outcome than anything. A great idea "and they will come" is what we might think in graduate school, but it rarely works that way.

It is stinky hot here and not at all the weather it is supposed to be or what we have seen for the three years we have had this home in France. Even the dog does not like it.

Subject: Managing Creative People

jls@world.std.com

Can you talk about the whole issue of managing creative people? At some point in the whole process, you or someone at the Media Lab has to face the task of determining whose work is worth pursuing and whose isn't. What are the criteria for that selection process?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Managing creative people is an oxymoron. You don't manage them at all. Instead you provide an environment in which they can be simultaneously stimulated and protected, challenged and encouraged, exposed and private. In truth, there is far more external natural selection than some kind of internal artificial review process. People are expected to achieve world status and global recognition for their work. The only time that is truly tested is in the tenure-review process, which can be wrenching. But day-to-day, month-to-month "management" can be measured in its quality by its perceived absence.

jls@world.std.com

It sounds as if knowing which projects to fund and how to review the creative people are left to a self-selection process. Can the Media Lab really operate that way? Does the future of each project get determined then by the researchers' ability to find funding?

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Having been to Tokyo, Singapore, and Paris in the space of 48 hours, I am a bit behind. Also, my book due date of 9/1 is coming fast, and the book seems to require total rewriting in places. I thought it was going to be a cut-and-paste job of Wired stories, but it is a very different affair. So excuse me for being late and brief.

Let me see if I can explain. No research is determined by the researchers' ability to raise funds. In fact, I am criticized for protecting Media Lab faculty from fund-raising, as I do most of it myself. But as I tell the researchers, they are real easy to fund. (They really are good, and why should they spend weeks doing something I can usually do in hours?) Some faculty, however, find peer review important and thus submit to the National Science Foundation (against my advice). Others find it important to go on the road to test their ideas against the so-called real world. To each his own.

What is important to remember is, there is much more money in this world than there are good ideas.

jls@world.std.com

I am about to sit down over the next couple of weeks and edit the E-mail correspondence for the piece in Inc. So I'll be silent for a bit and leave you to the creation of your book. If you don't mind, I may come back to you with a question or two once I've edited the material, should there be any gaps.

nicholas@hq.media.mit.edu

Come back with questions when you wish. I may even miss your nagging (not really) questions, as a respite from the rest of my keyboard-intensive days. Good luck. Hope you will have an easier time than I am having.

Last updated: Jun 15, 1994




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