MEME 1.07

MEME 1.07

The week of October 9th, 1995, the MIT Media Lab celebrated its tenth
anniversary. I spent that week interviewing professors, students and alumni
at the Lab for an article on the "digital revolution," as seen from the
perspective of the one institution most commonly associated with it. The
story ran in the November 13th issue of New York magazine. I'm waiting to
get a plain-text version which will eventually be archived at

Intent on interviewing the Lab's founder and director, Nicholas Negroponte,
I managed to secure a face-to-face interview. Negroponte rarely gives out in
person interviews, preferring to conduct them by email. We met for
approximately 45 minutes on Thursday, October 11th, in a disused corner
office at the Media Lab which seems to serve as Negroponte's whenever he is
in Cambridge, Massachusetts. What follows is a transcript of our

This is a new tack for MEME to take -- providing transcripts of important
conversations. These often run a lot longer than the prose issues of MEME,
so I won't do them that often. I would, however, appreciate your feedback on
whether this kind of thing interests you. The next interview I'm thinking of
sharing with you is a conversation I had with James Gosling. Gosling
invented Hot Java, and, in a rare interview, shared his thoughts with me on
the invention of Hot Java and the impact he thinks it will have on the Net
and the world.

The week I met with Negroponte, the Media Lab announced a new research
consortium called Things That Think. TTT hopes to embed "intelligence"
into everyday objects, like clothes, appliances, etc. to make them more useful
and helpful to people. It is part of Negroponte's lifelong work on what he
called the "man-machine symbiosis" in 1968. So, without further delay, here
is Negroponte.

David Bennahum: Thank you for making the time to speak with me. I want
to talk about the digital revolution, and the idea that somehow the work
done here is going to lead to a better world.

Nicholas Negroponte: I think so. But then you have to discount my
optimism because I am generally optimistic.

DB: Well, what I would like to explore with you is this new direction the
Media Lab is taking, towards what you call "things that think." There does
seem to be an important shift here, which is the linking of digital machines
with organic or non-organic atoms.

NN: It is the bits and atoms story. As a lab you could argue that we have
been in the business of turning bits into atoms and atoms back into bits in
order to give sound and light and color and sensory richness to data. But we
have never thought of the atoms as having personality as such. Before when
we created a sound it was for a very specific purpose: to make the bits human
readable. People talk about making things computer readable, but what we
did is make human expression human readable. But the shift is really now to
give those atoms sort of personality as computing becomes pervasive, as it
goes underground. I love to quote Joel Birnbaum of Hewlett Packard who
describes it as the stage where you notice it only when it is missing. Which is
a very