Negroponte: Why Bits Matter

By Julian Matthews

Nicholas NegroponteWhen Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Laboratory founder and digital economy advocate Nicholas Negroponte makes a prediction about the future you can’t help but sit up and listen. But his vision - however close to the truth it may appear - can be frightening. At a talk in Kuala Lumpur earlier this year, his candid responses seemed threatening even.

Taking questions from the floor, Negroponte tells a Xerox employee to “exercise his options soonest”. A newspaper owner asking about the future of his industry, is told, wryly: “The unfortunate thing about newspapers is the word paper.” Middle management is belittled as relics of the past; in fact middle anything, says Negroponte will vanish without a trace. Asked how governments should respond to the coming digital economy, Negroponte says their only logical response is to step aside.

Nicholas Negroponte’s audacity stems from the fact he has more often been right than wrong.

When he first spoke of the convergence of computing, communications and entertainment 20 years ago, he was considered a borderline nut-case. A proposal he submitted to government in 1975 on “multimedia computing” was accepted on the condition that the first word be dropped because it sounded frivolous. Today, corporations are betting billions on the multimedia age.

The 12-year-old MIT Media Lab is proof of this. It is sponsored by 160 corporations the world over, including the likes of IBM, Sony and Warner Brothers. Negroponte is the guiding force behind the 30 faculty staff and 300 student-employees of this respected hotbed for interdisciplinary research on media innovation. He is also the lab’s No. 1 salesman, jetting the world to raise funds and speaking at high-level conferences.

Yet for all its high-tech promise, none of the Media Lab’s research appears to have any short-term commercial value. Sponsors also cannot specifically cite how their support has paid off. The research projects themselves are intentionally far out. Sample this: a system that reads massive amounts of news at night and delivers a personalised newspaper for you in the morning that caters to your tastes and interests for the day. Or how about a smart refrigerator that monitors its contents and orders directly when its running out of say, milk. Or perhaps a telephone that screens your calls and decides whether or not to interrupt when you are in the midst of dinner or a domestic crisis.

Read more

Malaysia to Open Up to Knowledge Workers

By Julian Matthews

Malaysia will allow the unrestricted import of knowledge workers for the next ten years and complete foreign ownership of companies that locate operations within the country’s proposed Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC).

“Knowledge workers can come and go freely. Ownership of companies in the MSC will not be subject to local participation unless they want to,” said Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

He said the incentives were among several commitments to be incorporated into a “Multimedia Bill of Guarantees” specifically tailored for the success of enterprises investing in the MSC. The bill is expected to be tabled in Parliament by the end of the year.

Dr Mahathir was speaking at the Multimedia Asia ‘96 conference in Kuala Lumpur during which he outlined a blueprint for the ambitious MSC project. The MSC is a 15km by 50 km area stretching between the capital city of Kuala Lumpur and the new international airport currently under construction at Sepang in the south.

(More: Business & Market feature section)

Published in Nikkei Electronics Asia, Oct 01, 1996

by Julian Matthews, Malaysian correspondent