The lab isn’t discussing what it might do to replace Negroponte-nor would anyone indicate when any replacement might be made. But Gershenfeld says an executive board of “heavy hitters” will likely be formed to share decision-making powers with whoever becomes director. One person cited as a board candidate is John Seely Brown, just-retired director of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center. Brown won’t say whether he’d consider such an offer-but he sounds upbeat on the topic, noting that extensive conversations with key players have convinced him great things are afoot. “I’ve become an extremely strong supporter of this style of research,” he says. “I had lots of questions before, but now I’m more and more impressed with the direction of the lab.” Another heavyweight already in the lab’s camp is 3Com co-founder and TR board member Robert Metcalfe, who recently joined the Irish venture’s board.
However things are run, management will almost certainly face a rethinking of the venerable sponsorship model, which has been a source of the lab’s strengths as well as of many problems it now faces. Sponsorships have in effect served as collective MacArthur grants that have allowed research groups to follow their intellectual fancy. Because faculty members generally don’t have to impress peer-review grant panels, there is reduced pressure to publish in academic journals, though many do. (Tenure, says Negroponte, is awarded on the basis of “becoming famous in your field”-which can be less daunting than it sounds, since lab faculty members typically operate in tiny fields they founded themselves.)
In return for such unconditional support, faculty give backers personal attention-usually via students, who average two or three meetings a week with sponsors and ultimately become polished demo-givers. But because sponsors can only ask questions, and not pressure researchers to follow up on them, rarely does anything tangible seem to come out of the interchanges. Staffers claim that products do sometimes emerge from their efforts, but everyone offers the same two examples-an NEC airbag system that prevents deployment if the body-position sensors pioneered in the lab detect the presence of small children, and the Lego Mindstorm programmable “brick,” a direct offshoot of the computerized toys developed by Resnick’s group. Indeed, most faculty members make it clear that they don’t want to be working on projects that will directly lead to products. Says Picard forthrightly: “If we’re turning out products, we’re not innovating.”
The result of all this freedom from orthodoxy is that the lab tends to turn out work that, by the faculty’s own admission, doesn’t follow either conventional scholarly or commercial standards. Members stress that their mission is to do work that is keenly original. But as a recent immigrant from a hard-science lab, Manalis can’t help noticing that there can be a fine line between the original and the goofy. “In a traditional lab you have to dig really deep, but that’s not always encouraged here,” he says. “It’s easy to ride high and stay on the surface, and the work becomes faddish.” Agrees Judith Donath, who runs the sociable media group, “Some of the work is too flaky.” Another criticism that regularly pops up-typically from observers at other universities who speak only on condition of anonymity-is that the cozy relationship between the Media Lab and its sponsors gives faculty such freedom from normal pressures and oversight that it breeds a certain amount of arrogance.