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Nicholas Negroponte: Digital Visionary

The computer pioneer from MIT, visionary of the digital revolution, and widely acclaimed writer reveals deep insight into humans and our technology.
By Dan Page - October 2001

NICHOLAS 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 human beings.

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, Berkeley.

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 underdeveloped countries.

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 better?

Learning is not taught.

The 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.

The 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 mistake.

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 community?

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?

When 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.

Q: 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 management.

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 experience?

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 out loud.

Q: How can educators -- including corporate-sector folks involved in education and training -- contribute to improving education?

Many 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 pursue?

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.

What 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.

Maybe 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.

Dan 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 reports.

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