MIT's multimedia marvels

David Nyhan

The personalized newspaper is just one among a dazzling list of projects ranging from audience-reactive films to computer-generated holography developed with state-of-the-art communication technologies in MIT’s Media Lab. In the following selection, David Nyhan reports on his investigation of the lab as well as its critics, and voices some "humanistic reservations" over the MIT scientists' vision of the media of the future.

Nyhan is a columnist and editor at the Boston Globe. Formerly a White House correspondent for the Globe, Nyhan authored The Duke (Warner Books, 1988), a book on Michael Dukakis and the 1988 presidential election.

I have seen the future, and it's weird. It's loaded with gimmicks. The people calling the shots are not like you and me, in that we earn our living by doing journalism. And to be perfectly frank, I'm not sure it works, or will work, the way the brainy people at МГГ think it will.

That said, they've got a helluva toy shop at MIT. If some future historian of media breakthroughs writes a book, MIT's Media Laboratory might one day be cited as the Los Alamos of post-modern media; that is, if they still use books.

If there were such a thing as a mission control for media Star Wars, a sort of SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] for journalists-advertisers-entertainers, this would probably come closer than anyplace else.

What do they do in the Media Lab? Anything they сan get away with, using computers, video, print, and bundles of money from media mega-corporations from everywhere in the Free World.

They play with TV sets that let viewers customize their own plotlines. Movies that measure the audience and alter plots depending on the boredom factor. Newspapers that function like a rifle, instead of a scatter-gun; that is, the reader orders up his own combination of stories. If USA Today is McPaper, then the version here is Burger-Paper as in, "Have it your way, at M-I-T!"

The key is the computer, which can function as a travel agent, bank teller, personal cartoonist, disc jockey-composer-arranger, video librarian, and personalized researcher оn any topic. You can do just about anything with it, except eat from it or sleep with it. And they may be working оn that—I was there for only a couple of hours.

Every media person who takes a pass at the lab is struck by the breadth and reach of the joint. The project titles alone are mind-boggling: movies of the future; computer-generated holography;

music and cognition; school of the future; child as epistemologist; paralinguals; knowledge-based kinematics; asynchronous television.

Some of the lab's projects are further along than others:

• The "personalized newspaper," whose menu is generated by a computer that culls news stories from wire-service bins, depending upon the individual reader's tastes and predilections.

• The holography special, a combination of techniques that allows creation of a computer-generated image, using lasers, a mirror, fiber optics, and film, resulting in an image that can be viewed as if in three dimensions from a 180 - degree viewing field. This is said to have applications in everything from auto design to surgery on humans.

• A smart-ass personalized life-organizer and message service called "Phoneslave" that performs some of the kinds of programmable chores that-butlers, secretaries, nannies, and others do for those who can afford all kinds of help.

• A computer-driven video teaching machine that can take, say, a repair manual for an automobile and break down the repair process into simple, step-by-step functions that a would-be mechanic can follow at his/her own speed, and repeat, if necessary, till the damn carburetor is fixed right.

As fascinating as the place is — running through it is like hitting F.A.O. Schwarz before Christmas — they seem to be preoccupied with money. In my normal line of work (politics), that is usually a warning sign. My experience is that any time an institution — academic, religious, social-service, military, artistic, whatever — starts paying more attention than the bare minimum to the old cash flow, you better watch out.

It is hard for any kind of meat-and-potatoes workaday journalist to drift through the operation without coming away with the suspicion that this is a very slick operation they've got going here. I don't pretend to understand it, any of it, but if I had to bet, I'd say 50 per cent of it is probably blue-sky science fooling-around, 25 per cent is probably very sound research that is going to mean something shortly, and the rest is Grade A unadulterated persiflage of the academic variety. My only problem is I can't tell which is which.

It's part Disney World, part Las Vegas, and then you throw in all the movies about little kids hacking their way into somebody's computer.

The raw material here is the current state-of-the-art in three basic info-industries: motion picture and broadcast, print and publishing, and computers.

The operating premise here is that by the year 2000, or thereabouts, three different industries that began life as very separate and distinct tributaries will by then have combined, or very nearly overlapped, into a giant river of information transfer.

This figurative Mississippi of megabytes will, in theory, drain the watershed of modern knowledge and spew out its product into the Delta where print, light, and sound interact, resulting in a Gulf of new knowledge, efficiency, and creativity. Or something like that.

And MIT would like to be the New Orleans of this metaphor, and the guys and gals at the Media Lab would be the mayor, the city council, and the barons of Bourbon Street in this brave new world of mega-media.

The way MIT operates, academic entrepreneurs of the type drawn to enterprises like the Media Lab are exhorted to solicit money from corporations that might one day be interested in the fruits of the research. It sounds a little like an academic version of strip poker, or a peep show: you pays a little more, and you sees a little more.

This is why there is a "sponsor's room." Ideas may take or break the lab, but money is what has to come in before anything goes out. According to Time, only one corporate sponsor (Toshiba Corp.) has refused to renew its funding.

Through the alchemy of grantsmanship, whiz-bang technological gimmickry, and a little of the old You-better-get-on-board-now-before-the-train-leaves-the-station salesmanship, the Media Lab has learned how to turn grant applications into gold.

The sponsor list is dazzling. Name a category, and the best-and-brightest from the private sector are here: high-tech firms (IBM, Apple, Kodak, Zenith, Polaroid, Wang); entertainment conglomerates (Columbia Pictures, HBO, Paramount, Warner Bros.); networks (the usual suspects); media outfits (Time Inc., Times Mirror, Washington Post, Dow Jones); Japanese mega-corporations (Sony, Hitachi, Nippon Gakki), and some entries that seem odd at first glance (Hughes Aircraft Co.).

But there are lingering doubts salted around Cambridge about the emphasis on computers, and the easy-breezy fashion; in which terms like "inventing the future" are tossed around. One old-timer on the Cambridge scene, a genuine pioneer in the linking of humans to computers, is skeptical but resigned about the kinds of claims that spew from the Media Lab. "I've heard some about them, but I don't take it all that seriously," he shrugs. "That's the kind of thing you have to say to get funded these days."

They can talk all they want about their grants-manship, and their CADCAM [computer aided design camera] at the Media Lab, says a younger critic, "but that has very little to do with the way we live, with our level of comfort, with the fact that America is still ugly. Computers have got goddamn little to do with that solution, of making a more compatible environment."

This argument, which might be called the humanistic reservation about the Media Lab, goes something like this:

A man with nothing more high-tech than a pencil and a piece of paper, if he is merely thinking about how he can be part of his community, can do more to envision a solution for our living conditions, or making us better as individuals or groups or in toto, can increase our chances of, and pleasure in, living together on this tiny spaceship we inhabit, so long as his values come out of a sense of community, and never stray too far from the issues of the options of living.

Cambridge has lots of people who prize computers. But it has some who don't like them, too. "The computer," says a landscape artist with disdain. "People use it to try and ape painting. They ape the texture and tonality of great chiaroscuro, the light and the shadow of a great painting; but it's a sort of a poor joke, a very primitive appreciation of what painting is, what art is."

Carrying this dissent from the computer revolution over to the realm of journalism, or reportage of history-in-the-making, of trend-identifying and trend-explaining, the parallel argument goes something like this:

Judgment, commitment, and leadership — these are the human qualities that the media need, arid they are the very qualities that the computer cannot give you. The lurch of recent civilization, the two-steps-forward, one-step back fandango we've danced since the Industrial Revolution, exhausted us. We discovered technology is a two-edged sword.

Progress-boasters point to the car, the television, and the computer as three epochal inventions that ushered out one age and ushered in another. But the car isolates suburban man from his city and his fellow-citizens. The TV traps humanity in its five-hour-a-day glare, isolates even adults from spouse, children, neighbors. The computer, which has made some things so much harder as some things become so much easier, has also contributed to the profound sense of dehumanization that afflicts twentieth-century existence.

I don't want to belabor this point. But there have been a half-dozen suicides among the 11,000-strong MIT family in less than two years. A recent graduate told a New York Times reporter: "I think the problem has gotten worse in recent years because of the widespread use of computers. They're very isolating."

I'm not giving you some raving Luddite's anti-computer rap; I own one, use two more, and fully appreciate all they've done for us. All I'm saying is that searching amongst the bits and bytes for clues to the next generation of media metamorphosing should not be the only way media managers look when they think about the future.

Doing something about the underclass, for example, should be every bit as important to newspaper publishers, worrying about flattened or falling circulation, to magazine editors shuffling the same deck of cards to come up with enticing advertiser demographics, and broadcasters serving up our image of ourselves, as is the stuff at MIT's Media Lab. I'm just not sure it is.

And that, in the end, is not the fault of the media researchers here, but of our keepers in the media biz.

Without question, the smart minds at MIT and in оur media corporations feel the Media Lab is a wise investment of their time and effort and cash. But I harbor doubts.

I have a longtime friend, John Lees, a designer in Cambridge with a nice little business and a twenty-year record of going around the world to improve the look оf things. He is a pencil-and-paper guy, still, though his younger cohorts are buzzing around the computer he's just installed at work. I ask him if he believes that computers can help craft better media.

"The answers lie in the educational system," says Lees. "In awareness, and human sensitivity, aesthetic values, and the community meaning of architecture, in the balance between public and private space — these are not the values that the computer can teach you."

They are the values you learn with and through other people.

Lees: "The computer cannot help you make good judgments, either from the human point of view, or the aesthetic point of view. The computer is only a new tool, it cannot give you the answers. The computer cannot make you a good designer — that takes knowledge — and human experience." I believe him.

The same Time magazine (August 31, 1987) that carried a slightly breathless compendium of what's happening at the MIT Media Lab carried a full-page profile of the New York Times' semi-retiring James Reston, under the we'll-beat-any-price headline: "The Best Journalist of His Time." Now, whether you agree with Times' evaluation of Reston or not, my point is that Reston's contributions had nothing to do with his mastery of media technology.

I don't know the man, but I'd be very surprised if he, like virtually all others of his generation, did not have to be dragged kicking and cursing to the keyboard of the elementary word processors- we all use these days. Further, if Reston is anything like me, he swears under his breath each time he has to hook up the VCR to record some program that will likely never be watched again, and, again if he's like me, normally stabs three or four wrong buttons before hitting the right ones.

So whether Scotty Reston was the best journalist of his time, or just the best in Time, or whether he was second best or ninth best or 267th, what made him influential and won him his big rep was what he typed and how he handled himself in the clinches in D.C., in Manhattan, in the Sulzbergers' salons, and so forth. Being a media mechanic, a computer whiz, a video cadet, and so on, had nothing to do with his success.

Leadership, judgment, character, these are the hallmarks of superior journalists, and will remain so, no matter what they invent over here. The expert should be on tap, yeah, for sure; but the expert should never be on top, that, too. The top journalists should never be experts; in a world of specialization, now more than ever we need generalists, all-round guys and all-round women. Don't fence us in, please.

And since that's my point, I leave it at that.

But the last note on my yellow legal pad, half-consumed by a whirlwind tour of the Wiesner Building, cries out for inclusion. Let it be recorded that, outside the main entrance to the MIT campus, and in contravention of the work going on inside the Media Lab, there appear daily, as seemingly permanent fixtures, one pretzel vendor's cart, one ice-cream truck, and five, count "cm, five, newspaper boxes, peddling the wares of the Gutenbergera technology of the Boston Globe, Neiu York Times, Boston Herald, Cambridge Chronicle, and USA Today. They may be inventing the future here, as they claim, but by God or by McLuhan, it ain’t| here yet.