September 15, 1987
At MIT’s Media Lab the goal is for the audience to take over – to make mass media individualized media. Nicholas Negroponte, the Director of the Media Lab, is not impressed by personal computers. His vision is of personalized computers, televisions, even books that know the user so intimately that the dialogue between machine and human would bring about ideas unrealizable by either partner alone – machines so perceptive they can respond to the user’s voice, gestures, and the subtle movement of an eye.
The rapidly converging technologies of recording, broadcasting, film, and publishing are in the process of redefining the entire field of communications media. New media are being created which transform the human abilities to express, to learn, to communicate. At the Media Lab are intelligent telephones that can chat with your friends, disembodied faces of real people that gesture and converse, interactive video discs, life-size holograms in mid air, television sets that comb the networks and assemble programs that reflect each viewer’s interests, and glimpses of computerized “virtual reality.”
“Communications technologies converge at the individual and at the world,” writes Stewart Brand. While the Media Lab is transforming what happens at the interface with the individual, major changes also are occurring on the world level. A new kind of computer, based on massive parallel design, show signs of extending the computer revolution into the indefinite future. The global structure of communications is being shaped not by policy but by traffic – huge volumes of traffic in electronic entertainment and finance which are eroding national identities.
“How will we directly connect our nervous system to the global computer?” is a question that begins to have meaning. And the Media Lab has a deeply humanistic answer.
Stuart Brand is best known for founding, editing, and publishing the Whole Earth Catalog (1968-1985; National Book Award, 1972) and the CoEvolution Quarterly (now called Whole Earth Review; 1973-1984), but he has also had a longstanding involvement in computers and the media arts.
Following his degree in biology from Stanford in 1960, and two years as a U.S. Infantry officer, Brand became a photojournalist and multimedia artist, performing at colleges and museums. In 1968 he was a consultant to Douglas Engelbart’s pioneering Augmented Human Intellect program at SRI, which devised now-familiar computer interface tools such as the mouse and windows. In 1972 for Rolling Stone he wrote the first article about the computer lifestyle, entitled “Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” chronicling the fringes of computer science at Xerox PARC, the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and MIT. While editor in chief of the Whole Earth Software Catalog (1983-1985) Brand organized the first “Hackers’ Conference,” which has since become an annual event. Currently he is researching learning in complex systems and lives with his wife, Patricia Phelan, on a tugboat in San Francisco Bay.