The Media Lab

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

“I could feel myself slipping into boggle mode again. ...” That is Stewart Brand’s way of saying that he has been temporarily overwhelmed by the flow of information. It is a sentiment sure to be echoed by his readers.

The Media Lab owes its existence to the vision of its forty-three-year-old director, Nicholas Negroponte, whom Brand compares to Marshall McLuhan. Negroponte, Brand suggests, is just as charismatic in his appeal but much more pragmatic than McLuhan; at the same time, Brand sees Negroponte as a crusader: “Negroponte would use computer technology to personalize and deeply humanize absolutely everything.” Making that vision a reality, in areas ranging from entertainment (interactive television; “paperback movies” on compact discs) to education (“one student, one computer”), is the purpose of the Lab. The funding comes primarily from business, industry, and, conspicuously, the military--a contradiction which Brand acknowledges (is it the purpose of the military to “deeply humanize absolutely everything"?) but never engages.

Brand has written a good bad book, at once stimulating, confusing, fact-filled, and nebulous. Its greatest failing is its lack of critical perspective on the Lab’s researchers and their projects. One need not be a computerphobe to wonder about the future as imagined by Danny Hillis, a Marvin Minsky protege: “I think the process of machine evolution will lead to things we can’t imagine right now. I think I’m not going to get to be immortal, but maybe my children will. They may be made out of different stuff than I am.”