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A Bold Experiment Runs Its Course

Founded in 1985 by former MIT president Jerome Wiesner and then-architecture professor Negroponte, the Media Lab’s mission was ostensibly to explore the convergence of various media, a bold concept at the time. But that justification was, in a sense, a cover story: From the beginning, the lab was itself an experiment in a new way to run a university-based research organization. The key to understanding this approach, points out lab academic head Alex “Sandy” Pentland, is to recognize the tradition on which Negroponte and Wiesner were drawing-namely, that of the architect guild rather than that of a science department. Instead of learning primarily from lectures and books, students would learn more from doing; instead of paying or having to teach classes, students would be paid for producing original work; and as for faculty, instead of being judged for the papers they published, they would be valued according to the public impact of their groups’ projects. What’s more, the approach would be decidedly multidisciplinary. “Universities have iron walls around disciplines,” says Pentland. “In the guild, it was what you produced that mattered, not what went into it.”

The other part of the experiment was the Media Lab’s sponsorship model-really more a form of patronage. Negroponte made corporations this offer: Give his operation a chunk of money and gain access not merely to one research project, but to all research within its confines. Sponsors would be welcome to rub shoulders with faculty and students, ask questions, make suggestions and absorb the creative energy brimming inside. The downside was that sponsors wouldn’t get to specify or influence any of the research or obtain any unique rights to it, as they typically might in funding university research.

This might seem a pretty skimpy payback from the corporate point of view. But Negroponte proved remarkably adept at selling the proposition, bolstered by the growing perception that something magical was happening-the result of brilliant public relations and a flattering popular book by Stewart Brand called The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT. “You could say we engineered the good press,” says Negroponte. “But the simple fact is that the media likes to write about the media.” In any case, money has not been a problem; the effort now counts some 175 sponsors who provide $33 million of the lab’s roughly $35 million annual budget (the rest comes from MIT and a few government projects). Individual sponsors typically ante up $200,000 a year, but some chip in more. Mastercard, Motorola and Lego, for example, have given $5 million each to the lab in exchange for closer-than-the-usual collaboration with certain research groups.

Of course, the lab has long been the subject of grumbling from rivals inside and outside of MIT. These critics charge that the place gets an awful lot of attention just for churning out cute, flashy toys that-unlike the outputs of, say, MIT’s esteemed but less glamorous Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and Laboratory for Computer Science-almost never break technological ground, prove significant scientific theories or end up as important products. “We all recognize and envy the high profile the Media Lab has,” says John Anderson, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. “We also recognize that some of the work is kind of questionable.”

But though Negroponte’s creation tends to be perceived as a practitioner of research as an extreme sport, it is neither the exotic, future-inventing wonderland that is packaged to the public nor the tired repository of third-rate science-cum-eye-candy pilloried by its detractors. In fact, hype and resentment aside, the lab has carved out a fertile, if not as of yet terribly impactful, research niche for itself at the interface of computer technology, soft science and the arts-and the results could have at least an indirect influence on generations of products to come. “Computer science departments have people who are strong at figuring out how to make things, but you don’t see people looking at what these things mean and how you apply them,” says Ken Perlin, director of New York University’s Media Research Laboratory. “The Media Lab has broadened the definition of science to put together the science of things with the science of what people want, and that’s gutsier.”

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