Although primitive, computers were clearly the wave of the future. So in 1957, during his junior year, McGovern answered a bulletin board notice advertising an opening for a part-time editor at Computers and Automation, the first computer magazine. As a writer for the Tech, McGovern was no stranger to journalism. (His “Beaver Predicts” column in the Tech predicted sports outcomes with 90 percent accuracy, mostly by forecasting losses for MIT.) And the magazine’s founder, Ed Berkeley, was impressed that McGovern had read his Giant Brains book. McGovern landed the job – and liked it so much, he signed on full time after graduation.
During a 1964 trip to New York to meet with hardware vendors, McGovern was struck by the fact that leading computer makers were investing in technology development with no clear understanding of market needs. On the train back to Boston, he sketched out his idea for a computer industry research service he called International Data Corporation – and collected 12 prepaid orders for his service within two weeks. Three years later, he pulled together the first issue of Computerworld in the 10 days before the Data Processing Management Association show opened in Boston.
McGovern’s entrepreneurial ventures would grow into International Data Group, which today publishes 300-plus magazines and is the world’s leading technology media, research, and event company, with annual revenues of $2.68 billion. Although McGovern’s career veered off the neuroscience track, he maintained a close relationship with MIT, becoming a member of the corporation in 1989 and a life member in 1998.
By the mid-1990s, McGovern felt that technologies like high-speed computing and functional magnetic resonance imaging could take neuroscience to the next level. He was also convinced that civilization badly needed such a breakthrough. As chairman of a company that does business in 85 countries, he had seen enough of the world to conclude that the need to understand how the brain works was pressing.
“Human nature seems so much alike in every culture and country. Yet there are such conflicts in the world,” McGovern observes. After visiting one country and finding its people warm, wonderful, and hospitable, he’d go to the next country and find the same thing. “But if I said, “I just visited those very nice neighbors of yours across the river,’ they’d say, “Oh no, they’re untrustworthy, they’re not as bright as we are. We think of them as people we want to avoid,’” McGovern recalls. “It seemed that for evolutionary survival, distrusting foreigners was helpful, because you never knew when someone had bad intent.”
But in a world with nuclear and chemical weapons, he says it’s critical to understand how our brains work – and that some perceptions are based on expectations, not reality. “Once you understand an optical illusion, you can see that your mind is making a flat surface look like two oscillating, three-dimensional objects, and you can say, Well, gee, my brain isn’t telling me the truth about this,” he explains. “So there could be other issues that lead to prejudice and conflict in the world that could be resolved if people become more cognizant of how the brain converts sensory information into perception.”