The Media Laboratories
The solution, to be implemented by the time the lab takes over its new building, is to divide the facility into three distinct and largely independent “centers,” each of which will be a Media Lab in its own right; the endeavor as a whole will pluralize its name to become the MIT Media Laboratories. One center, under the direction of Mitchel Resnick and already funded with a $27 million grant from Sega Enterprises chairman Isao Okawa, will be dedicated to education and Third-World development. A second, run by Gershenfeld, will focus on what the lab cloyingly calls “bits and atoms”-meaning how physical objects can be imbued with electronic intelligence. The theme of the third will be performance and the arts, to be “conducted” by Machover.
These choices have not been without controversy at the lab, especially among senior faculty. Bender, for example, argues for a simpler twofold structure based on the themes “Things that think” and “How do people use things that think?” Pentland and others lean toward adding a fourth center, though there’s no agreement as to what its focus should be. The real problem is that many faculty members-among them mainstays like Lippman and Bender-don’t see their work fitting comfortably into any of the three centers, even though the centers themselves are multidisciplinary. Apparently, some are even concerned that being shoehorned into one could mean being placed under a layer of management that won’t necessarily view their work as a high priority. (As this article was going to press, the lab was preparing for a summer retreat at which such issues were to be addressed.)
Gershenfeld somehow manages to sound both empathetic and cold-blooded about the queasiness with the tri-lab structure. “There’s a great deal of concern over the issue of people who feel they don’t fit in,” he says. “In some sense, it’s correct-they don’t, not anymore. There’s a certain amount of legacy here.”
Even some faculty members who aren’t fretting about fitting into a center say they’re worried about how the new structure will affect the lab’s unusually collaborative culture. Resnick, though he will be running one of the centers, shares that fear. “There’s a clear advantage to having clusters with intellectual coherence,” he says. “At the same time, doing anything that jeopardizes the cross-connections would be crazy. Finding that balance will be a problem.” So far, the only solutions proposed for keeping those connections alive are to maintain some common areas and to hold occasional shared events. Both Lippman and Bender say they fear that even if the centers succeed individually, they will leave the overall lab weakened.
Negroponte has by all accounts proven masterful at maintaining a sense of unity and mission among his charges-not to mention the lab’s sterling reputation among corporate leaders and the public worldwide. Although only 56, he plans to pull back from his management role, even as his brainchild enters what some feel is the most vulnerable period since its founding. Negroponte downplays the effect his reduced commitment will have, claiming he has long since faded from the front lines. “The lab is often identified as Nick’s Lab,” he says, “but these days I often sit in the back of the room. I’m more like a foreign minister, tooting the ML’s horn.” And it’s true that in an interview, he looks like a visitor in his own large, mostly bare corner office, which is routinely used as a faculty meeting room.