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.

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The world according to Negroponte


MIT professor Nicholas Negroponte insists he is, by nature, an optimistic person.

Jetlagged, he looked more tired than wired while presenting his paper at a recent conference organised by the Malaysian Institute of Management.

After spending a day listening to his version on how the world is going to evolve, you’ll want to believe in it happening too.

He reflects hope and underneath his suave and cool persona, Negroponte does very little to reveal the other side. If he was upset (which he was during the press interview), he hid it well and replied in loaded sentences.

Ask a pessimistic question and his retort is “why are we constantly looking at some intrinsic badness, why not otherwise.”

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