Tomorrow’s World

Inventing the Future at MIT
By Stewart Brand
Viking/Penguin, 285 pp.

When Nicolas Negroponte goes fundraising in the corporate jungle, he launches his pitch with a slideshow on the Communications Revolution. The first image shows that in 1978 the publishing industry, the broadcasting and film industries and the computer trade overlapped only slightly. By the year 2000 (next slide please), the three fields will have so interpenetrated as to be indistinguishable.

This is the sort of Venn-diagram reasoning that apparently impresses the chequebooks out of corporate vice-presidents. Negroponte heads the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – a $45 million (U.S.) research installation devoted to pioneering the future of computer-communications, and backed by the profit-hungry muscle of some of the most powerful multinationals.

Brand new and fabulously equipped, the Lab looks more like the headquarters for the Man From UNCLE than an academic department. Greek-American, 43, Negroponte looks more like Napoleon Solo than Northrop Frye.

No matter, then, that the unit’s driving rationale reduces a hugely complex set of political and economic realignments to a brutish technological determinism. No matter that the individual researchers seem oddly oblivious to the agenda of the organizations footing the bill. The whole enterprise is justified by the grandeur of its promise: that the world can be remade for the better via the intelligent design of liberating technologies.

As one might expect, the technologies are shiny and new. The promise, unfortunately, is older than your grandfather.

The Media Lab is Stewart Brand’s journalistic account of what the eggheads are up to. Computers that respond to commands by reading lips. Machines that edit visual images with the ease of a word processor. Animated theatrical-scale holograms.

As yet, of course, none of this stuff actually works, but the boffins are enthusiastic and that’s good enough for Brand. The result is a book that’s eminently lucid, always engaging and so slavishly uncritical it could have been commissioned by the organization it describes.

This is surprising, if only because Stewart Brand was the founder and publisher of The Whole Earth Catalogue, the counter-culture Yellow Pages. One would have thought a veteran of the American cultural struggle might be a tad skeptical about the allure of the Brave New Information Society.

Not for a nanosecond. Brand sees the revolution in communications technology as not only the key to economic renewal but an inherently emancipatory movement. Like General Electric, the Media Lab aims to bring good things to life.

It’s easy to see how the Lab’s technical virtuosity might mesmerize. The unit presents itself as the dream academic enadeavor: hugely collaborative, incessantly challenging and funded up to its eyeteeth.

To a man (no women in senior positions) the professors would appear to be brilliant, unorthodox, enthusiastic, infectious and impish in their philosophical bent. These are the guys who came up with the Aspen Movie Map – an interactive video disc that allows the viewer to drive around Aspen, Colorado, at will, to enter a number of buildings, even to read the menus at restaurants.

In 11 different sub-units, staff and students are hard at work engineering the next generation of smart media. Newspapers tailored in layout and content to the special interests of each individual subscriber. Computer-generated figures programmed to “know” how to walk, and able to animate themselves. In the atrium of the Media Lab they have a school of semi-intelligent blimps floating overhead, “teaching” themselves how to behave like fish.

Surely the future must be a wonderful place, because the folks who are wiring it together have such terrific jobs.

It’s a vision so seductive one has to slap oneself out of it. One has to remember that all over North America students foolhardy enough to pursue the humanities are forced to find seating in the stairwells of overflowing lecture theatres, while the technocrats at MIT are awash in money doing the front-line toady work for IBM, General Motors and the U.S. Defence Dept.

These are hardly philanthropic agencies. What’s worrying, however, is not that the military and industrial giants have designs on the future, or even that their preferred version of the future would be about as lifelike as a clockwork mannequin. What’s worrying is that the academics doing the design work are steeped in precisely the type of numbskull social theory favored by market strategists, futurologists and the Pentagon.

The rhetoric of the Media Lab, as a result, is bold and grandiose – a series of sweeping pronouncements on the coming Communications Revolution. As sloganeering, it’s catchy and impressive. As a genuine attempt to come to grips with the implications of this new technology, it’s vacuous.

Matters aren’t helped much by the dark undercurrent of philistinism that runs through much of the Lab’s thinking. One of the unit’s most senior figures seriously suggests that future generations will have forgotten Wittgenstein, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, “because they’re shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful.” Instead, science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov will be remembered as the great philosophers of the 20th century.

That just about sums it up. A guy who would willingly install the paperback diet of 15-year-olds as the pantheon of deep thinking. Apparently it will be easier to design artificial intelligence if we are all equipped with artificial intellects.

No doubt it’s this simple-minded techno-optimism that leads the Lab (and its chronicler) to believe the new research is on the verge of some fundamental philosophical breakthrough. “We are banging our heads in the playpen of another level of understanding,” opines Brand. “We’re not making a product,” says the head of Speech Research, “we’re making an idea.”

It’s a characteristically American combination: the smarts of Tom Swift and the sensibilities of an advertising copywriter. This is a book with a white-light hologram as its dust jacket illustration, all the better to glint on the bookstore shelf.

The problem, of course, is that we’ve heard it all before. In the late 19th century, the West harnessed a magnificent new power. Electricity would light the streets – and crime would be a thing of the past. Electricity would be cheap, clean and limitless, and would spell an end to the grime and regimentation of the industrial workplace. From the telegraph to the telephone and beyond, the new electric technologies would remake society and bring a new, superior knowledge into being.

What was promised was paradise. What we got was IBM and General Motors and the U.S. Defence Dept.

Those who do not know history are doomed to rewire

  • Montreal Gazette November 21, 1987