|Nicholas Negroponte: Digital
pioneer from MIT, visionary of the digital revolution, and
widely acclaimed writer reveals deep insight into humans and
NEGROPONTE is a computer pioneer, visionary of the
digital revolution, and widely acclaimed writer. He is a
founder and the director of the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology's (MIT) Media Laboratory, author of the
best-selling book, "Being Digital," and co-founder and
columnist for Wired magazine. His interest in all things
digital extends to education, where he sees unique
opportunities for computers to transform the way we learn,
think, work, play and carry out the daily business of being
By Dan Page - October 2001
Art and science were his favorite
subjects in school. Not surprisingly, he blended these
interests at MIT in his study of architecture, and then went
on to specialize in the then-new field of computer-aided
design as a graduate student. He joined the MIT faculty in
1966, and has held visiting professorships at Yale, the
University of Michigan and the University of California,
The MIT Media Laboratory is a unique
research center where study and experimentation with a variety
of media, art forms and intellectual tools are helping shape
the future of education and human communication. Holograms,
robots, futuristic music instruments and computing
capabilities at the edge of imagination are all parts of the
Media Lab. The models for this facility were a creative
combination of the high-tech research centers, such as Bell
Labs, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and the Bauhaus, where
artists, architects, scientists and intellectuals changed
forever the nature of design and looking at the world.
In 1980, Negroponte served as founding chairman of the
International Federation of Information Processing Societies'
Computers in Everyday Life program. Two years later, he
accepted the French government's invitation to become the
first executive director of the Paris-based World Center for
Personal Computation and Human Development. This experimental
project was originally designed to explore the potential for
computer technology's enhancing primary education in
In his answers to the
following questions, Negroponte reveals a deep insight into
humans and our technology. His shifting metaphors for
computers -- as simulation machines, as vehicles for
transporting us, as windows, and as places to play, work and
learn -- emphasize the overarching power of emerging
technology. It is no one thing that results in localized
changes or incremental shifts; rather, computers are tools
that transform our whole way of viewing the world. They
radically shift our point of view and affect each of us at
levels we have only begun to recognize. Best of all, we're
just getting started.
Q: How do you see
technology affecting how we think about and deliver education?
Is it a catalyst for transforming traditional teaching or more
of a strategy to do what we've always done, only a little
Learning is not taught.
biggest impact will be to change the point of view that
education is something we can and should deliver. Education
comes from learning, not teaching. The world's best teachers
are not repositories of knowledge, but skilled navigators who
lead young minds to discovery and understanding. Learning is
about reinventing the wheel, and may all children have the
opportunity to do so.
From ages 0 to 5, we all learned
by playing. We interacted with the world around us and
acquired skills like walking and talking, as well as many
levels of deduction and inference- making. Then, at about age
6, we are told to stop learning by doing and to start learning
by "being told" for the next 12 years or more.
effect of technology will be a more seamless education, with
more means for children to explore, manipulate and design the
world around them. Technology empowers children in several
ways. One is to put them in the driver's seat of an
experience. A second is to allow them to vicariously visit
places that are too small, too big, too far or too dangerous
for real travel. A third is to allow for "what ifs" and
simulation, to see the result of making a mistake, even a big
Q: Some thinkers have raised concerns
about technology harming civic or collective life -- comparing
the computer screen to the television screen and blaming TV
for America's decline in various areas. How do you see
technology affecting our sense of identity as members of a
Computers are not television.
Television is not a communications medium, it is a
storytelling medium. It is about messages, not conversations.
It is not one-to-one, but one-to-many. As such, television is
a medium of control, implicitly or explicitly. Sufficient
stories about violence can create violence. Fictitious
characters can become role models for both better and worse.
Computers are more like telephones. The killer app is
chat and e-mail, as well as access to multiple points of view.
The attitude is so different than TV. It is empowering and
personalized. I matter. That is so different and powerful.
From this difference comes a collective life, both real and
virtual. Civil structure is achieved by both consensus and
respect for dissimilarities. Adults educated outside the
digital world have a very hard time with differences. We are
very suspicious of people who do not look like, think like, or
act like us. Children born today have a chance of being very
different, far more global and far more understanding.
Q: Some people would claim that America is
"surrendering" culture to technology. Are we? Is this a real
problem? Do we need philosophers now more than ever to mediate
the roles of technology and the arts?
plumbing was introduced to villages, namely, bringing water to
each home, some argued that the fabric of society was being
destroyed in that the village well or river bank would no
longer be the locus of communal washing. Women would stay
indoors and do their laundry.
Today we look upon that
as silly and are not about to trade in our bathrooms and
kitchens. Instead, society has found other means of community.
Culture has grown through different forms of socialization and
storytelling. In the face of the digital revolution, we have
to embrace still other means of collective thought and
expression because so much communication and entertainment can
now be done from the privacy of our homes.
What projects are you currently working on (in terms of
enhancing higher education learning processes)? What other
sort of innovative technologies in development do you see
enhancing higher learning?
As a lab, we have
not focused on higher learning, as such, but rather learning
itself. Most of our work is embodied in primary education,
because, if you mess that up, so much time is needed later to
undo the bad habits. In fact, when we look at the Media Lab's
environment and the behavior of its students and faculty, we
ask ourselves if this same playfulness and atelier style might
not be suitable to early years. When we work, we are driven by
our dreams, and guided by peer-to-peer collaboration across a
diverse cross-section of cultures, disciplines and ages. Key
to our work is the built-in passion that comes from a
bottoms-up organization, versus top-down discipline and
In contrast, I am constantly amazed at how
little passion children have for learning after they have been
in school for a while.
Q: There is
considerable talk in some venues about technology's capacity
to "transform" classroom education. How do you see interactive
multimedia tools affecting the educational
The biggest transformation is in
the "room" of "classroom." There is no front of the room. The
room itself may be a lab, a virtual place or botanical garden
(made of bits or atoms). In those cases where children have
one-on-one access to computers and the Net, technology
provides a window and a means to see and play with ideas.
Learning French and tennis are far more similar than we could
have ever imagined and equally fun. The educational experience
is far more tactile, personal and engaging. The key is
control. The learner can feel in control versus controlled.
Q: How do you respond to those who question
the validity of technology's effect on improving education?
What research would you cite to support your view?
In a field like education, I am of the opinion that if
you need to cite research to support an improvement, the
improvement is just not big enough to be meaningful. The
difference should be so obvious that it need not be measured.
Psychologists use a concept of "just noticeable
difference." I am far more devoted to the most noticeable
difference. When I watch 6-year-old kids in Cambodia learn
English by themselves to access the Net, when I see children
find a passion for the environment by being global, when I
watch 12-year-olds construct well-formed arguments for and
against child labor (yes, "for" as well), I am convinced those
are the results of big change and improvement.
Q: What are your most vivid memories of your
own education? Who was the most influential teacher you ever
had and how did he or she shape your thinking?
I was very fortunate and had the opportunity to travel
a great deal. As a result, I was never in one particular
school or on one side or the other of the Atlantic for more
than two years, until I went to MIT. Invariably, the most
influential teachers in my life were 1) the art teacher and 2)
the math or physics teacher. Being dyslexic, the rest of my
schooling was a bit of a sport. The game was to pretend I had
read something and to hope not to be asked to read something
Q: How can educators -- including
corporate-sector folks involved in education and training --
contribute to improving education?
educators have hobbies and passions and quite often fail to
look at their own behavior in those fields. Ask yourself how
and why you enjoy learning more about something, whether it is
cooking, politics or stamp collecting. Then ask yourself if it
is possible to bring some of that same behavior into the
environment you are making for others to learn. Very often,
some of the simplest forms of learning by doing prove to be
the most powerful. I know this sounds simplistic, but try it.
Q: If MegaCorp of the Galaxy granted you an
unlimited budget to have the Media Lab focus on improving
education today, what things would you choose to
Easy: primary education in the
developing world. Hundreds of millions of children do not get
elementary education today. The only way to eliminate poverty
is through education. This is a given. The most precious
natural resource of any country is its children.
is not a given is how. All too often, developing nations seek
to copy our form of classroom and our concept of school. We
take for granted age segregation. The one-room school is
looked upon as an artifact of rural poverty.
some or all of these assumptions are wrong. With MegaCorp of
the Galaxy's money, I would seek to understand these, and
address primary education on the scale of the whole planet.
Page Dan Page has written about the Internet
and technology since the early '70s. His work appears in
magazines, a book and more than 250 annual corporate