The MIT Media Lab and the $100 Laptop
This week it was announced tha the MIT Media Lab has a new leader, Frank Moss. He will be replacing the visionary founder, Nicholas Negroponte. NN is relinquishing leadership of the Media Lab to focus full-time on his global initiative of the $100 laptop.
This news story, as much as anything else this week, provokes thinking about the last two decades and the coming decades. It needs to be looked at and discussed on several levels.
First, a disclosure: I think Nicholas Negroponte is one of the coolest visionary guys on the planet. I only met him once after a speech he gave, so this observation is based on viewing at a distance, and of course reading his seminal book “Being Digital”. During a time when technology, media and electronic innovation took off, he has been at the forefront in terms of vision and advocacy.
Creating and launching the Media Lab in 1985, Negroponte set a standard not seen since the Bell Labs days of the 50s, 60s and 70s. His innovation was to take the research out of the corporation and out of the university, but blend the two in a wonderful way, getting funding from corporations and housing the Media Lab at one of the greatest scientific universities in the world.
The fact that he started the Lab in 1985 and made the decision to leave active management of it in 2005 has a particular relevance to me. In speeches I give and in current essays I have coined the 20 year perios 1985-2005 as the “Threshold Era”. Threshold because it was a time between, a time after what was and before what will be, the place between the room of the past and the room of the future. So the way I see it is that Negroponte perfectly bridges this time. He creates a Lab to birth new ideas and products, acts as the midwife and then leaves with one of the offspring. That offspring is one of the most transformative of ideas: to provide underdeveloped countries, and childrend in particulare with a $100 laptop. So for me he is one of the people that embody the Threshold Era.
In the media, Frank Moss, the new director of the MIT Media Lab, has described his job as that of living 20 years in the future. Hear! Hear! That is what many more people of power and influence must do if we are to survive.
Let’s take a look back at 2006 from the vantage point of 2026 to get an idea how to manage our affairs today. Well, from the vantage point of 2026 it is clear that a large amount of global conflict that occurred between 2006 and 2016 was due to the instability of the petroleum market. The lines of ever increasing appetite for petroleum products and the declining supply crossed, which, due to a fundamental tenet of market economy, drove up prices. When the price for crude hit $125 a barrel the negative ripple effect through the world’s economies was significant. The altercations between nation states, the damage to the supply from terrorists all took a human toll that lasted as long as it did because the full throttle research for renewable energy sources really did not take off until oil had so increased in cost that alternative energy sources no longer seemed expensive. If only we had not waited to begin we could have had a much wider use of these alternative sources much earlier. It wasn’t until 2020 that oil became the second largest source of energy. If that had occurred even 5 years earlier, tens of thousands of lives could haves been saved, trillions of dollars in business losses and bankrupted nation states could have been avoided. Too bad those that had power in 2006 were not paying attention.
Speaking of nation states, it became clear early on in the new millenium that, in the face of the global economy and the electronic connectedness of the planet, they were clearly anachoronistic entitites that were solidified and had their zenith during the Industrial Age. Increasingly the heads of nation states became managers, not leaders. What they have now been relegated to is the management of the infrastructure, the safety of the citizenry, providing reliable services such as garbage pick up and disposal, and an intelligent melding of the economy with the global economy. If you had lived in the United States in 1795, the leaders of your government were the same people that wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. Leadership of ideas, of government philosophy resided in the same people who also managed the government. Compare that to today. Case closed.
There are no great leaders of national governements today, just people who have attained power. Increasingly heads of nation states look like heads of corporations: people who somehow have survived the climb to the top and now work at managing their enterprises. Why did we wait to creat the Global Government Council until 2016? Why did we suffer all the turmoil from the fact that humanity, lead by economics and communications had become global in its consciousness but the political leaders stayed behind?
The answer is the same as the energy question: we waited until there was no recourse. We-and by we I mean humanity – were reactive, we didn’t invest in solutions for the future, we accepted political and economic pay-offs from our leaders rather than demanding innovation from them.
If only “leaders” of government, heads of energy companies and manufacturers of all modes of transportation had decided to live “20 years in the future” like Frank Moss did after he took over the Media Lab, we would not have had to suffer so much pain during this critical time.
Too bad that in the first decade of this new millenium, governments around the world didn’t divert pork barrel money to the funding of a hundred Media Labs. Instead of investing in short term job growth they could have invested in long term innovation, which would have partially or completely prevented the economic upheavals (and ironically loss of jobs) that occurred in the second decade. Fund Media Lab centers for future-focused creativity and then let them create and innovate for the betterment of humanity.
Thank god for all the entrepreneurial, visionary leaders in the technology industry. It can clearly be said that if not for them and all the innovation they provided, provoked and disseminated, humanity would be in even greater danger than it now is in 2026. The connectedness they provided allowed humanity to move towards a global way of thinking that actually forced those holding on to power in the traditional Industrial Age sense to come around just in time.
Which now brings back to Nicholas Negroponte and 2006. He is one of the patron saints – Saint Nick? – of those that now provide innovation in the world of technology and communications. The Media Lab was a renaissance entity that helped midwife us into our future. The $100 laptop is the ultimate deomocratic and informational too, as it provides a true opportunity for transformative change in the underdeveloped world. It is the worthy offspring of the Media Lab to rear now that it has been births conceptually. Thank you NN and good luck!
The Media Lab has gathered some Moss, in a good way, but both the Media Lab and Nicholas Negroponte are busy being born, not busy dying. We can all be thankful.