Brrr! not just another frosty January in Cambridge, not just a new year, but 010101: the real dawn of the new millennium. But it feels like a digital winter in more ways than that. The Internet bubble deflated, leaving not only pissy investors and a chill on Wall Street but a generation of hackers frozen like mastodons in the Microsoft ice age, and a lot of decent people wondering: What good is this computer stuff anyway? Sufficiently advanced technology may be indistinguishable from magic, but is it really making life more worth living? Where’s the beef?
Even at the MIT Media Lab, which has been ground zero for blast after digital blast, teams are scrambling to pioneer a post-computer society, exploring implications for life in the numinous high- tech beyond, sometime after the Internet. A few years ago, to teethe on this, we launched an effort called Things That Think (TTT), our cute name for a research thrust to explore embedded intelligence very broadly. What might happen when commonplace objects, like shoes or underwear or furniture or toys, begin to contain more sensory and computer power than we can currently predict, and when innate, wireless nets fluidly link them to the rest of the planet’s infinitely scaling information systems? Surely, thinking machinery will infest heretofore inanimate things. What then? The implications are fantastic and profound.
TTT felt like a big bang when we launched it. We put on our sunglasses with embedded holodisplays, ready for a bright future. After all, we were blazing trails into a networked world that would stretch far beyond today’s Tinkertoy Internet. It was so obvious: The computer revolution hadn’t even begun yet. But after just a few years, folks (observers and researchers alike) became blas. Being digital was for old farts. As the giddiness faded, we tried being more outrageous: How about edible computing? Quantum machinery? A smart coffee cup? Teleportation? And visitors would say, “Oh.” It was as if every whizzy thing that could be dreamed could be built. Science fiction was just an implementation detail. What’s a poor inventor to do? Retire to a life of venture capital?
As the digital industries grow out of their adolescence, people are beginning to question where these technologies are really taking us. So when an old lab’s research themes fade and new ones emerge, folks pay attention. And at the Media Lab, the freshest aims involve domains such as art and human expression, creative societies in developing nations, expeditionary and ecological field efforts, and Media Labs in other countries as an ongoing way to explore creative technology in indigenous contexts-bold and humane efforts that take computing and communication and any other sort of imaginative technology utterly for granted, like paper or duct tape.
To me, some of the most interesting avenues involve the deployment of powerful technologies in communities that are furthest from being overtly ready, in the hands of people who are passionate and starving to put it to use. One of the world’s best examples is Cambodia.
The first time I visited, about five years ago, Cambodia was a nation of about 10 million people with perhaps 10,000 telephones. You could count the cars in Phnom Penh. Most taxis were scooters (for 50 cents, you could ride almost anywhere). Few roads were paved. Electricity was sporadic. The temples at Angkor had recently reopened, though few visitors made the pilgrimage. Pockets of Khmer Rouge troops were still at large in the Elephant Mountains to the north, as was Pol Pot, so the remote temples were off limits. I saw a horrifying number of amputees.