Negroponte on the Media Lab’s 25th: A Salon des Refusés That Could Only Have Happened at MIT

10/13/10Follow @bbuderi

The MIT Media Laboratory, whose 1985 launch created a new intellectual center of gravity for studies of the future of computing while blazing trails in industry-university research partnerships, will mark its 25th anniversary this Friday. MIT is celebrating the occasion with a day of festivities that include an appearance from Google CEO Eric Schmidt and a music gala that night hosted by Rock Band and Guitar Hero creator Harmonix, a Media Lab spinoff. And, of course, on hand for it all will be the lab’s founder, Nicholas Negroponte.

I recently caught up with Negroponte, who is officially on leave from MIT, for an in-depth update on what captures the lion’s share of his attention these days: the One Laptop per Child Foundation he formed to bring computers and educational tools to children in the developing world. But we took a few minutes as well to reflect on the lab’s anniversary, which he said has a dual-nature feel to it—likening it both to a coming-of-age party and a quarter-century celebration marking a venerable institution’s long history. He also spoke about why Schmidt was the only completely outside speaker invited—and why he doesn’t think any other school could have spawned the lab.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Bar mitzvah vs. quarter-century: “You see, the 25th, it’s a very interesting celebration. That is, do you treat it like a bar mitzvah, that you’ve turned 25, or do you treat it like a quarter century? They’re two very different celebrations,” Negroponte says.

Eric Schmidt, he says, represents one aspect of this dual nature. “The reason I invited him is if I had to think over the past 15 years what company has affected lifestyle the most, it’s Google. So I think Eric’s talk is very much the quarter-century [view of the event], even though he’s not all of it, he’s part of it.”

Schmidt will speak Friday afternoon. The morning, though, will feature talks from the lab’s five newest faculty members, Negroponte told me. “That’s the bar mitzvah,” he says.

MIT as Swiss cheese: “The Media Lab could only happen at MIT, and there are a number of reasons for that, but one of the reasons is that MIT is like Swiss cheese. There really are lots of holes between the departments. It’s a very porous institution,” Negroponte says. He compared it to other schools where professors fit more clearly into free-standing departments that apparently watched over their domains more strictly, if I understood him correctly. That meant the new lab could more easily round up various people who didn’t fit so clearly into one bucket or another. “And so that helped the Media Lab, because when we put together the pieces, nobody first of all, nobody, claimed them,” he says. (The lab was ultimately spawned in MIT’s Architecture Machine Group, and is still housed in the School of Architecture and Planning.)

Salon des refusés: Negroponte expounded on that last point, describing the lab’s initial faculty as “a group of people who were at the edge of their disciplines, and in some cases over the edge—and when we put it all in one place, it worked.” He recalls discussing the idea for the lab with Walter Rosenblith, then MIT’s provost. “When I told him we were including Seymour Papert, he said, ‘Bless your heart.’ The people who were part of the original Media Lab were really outcasts. So it was a salon des refusés.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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