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The Media Lab:
Inventing The Future at MIT

by Stewart Brand

When I first read this book in 1989, parts of it gripped me -- parts of it went whizzing past me. It was my first encounter with the REAL future. I found chapter 7, Hennigan School, especially enticing. Hennigan School is polyethnic, with lower middle class or underclass socio-economic levels. In designing The School of the Future program, the experimenters at The Media Lab wanted to get as far way from computer nerds as possible. Comparing current computer access levels in schools to one pencil per 16 students, the group wanted to see the difference between limited and unlimited computer access. The success exceeded their furthest projections. Music, once the punishment class, less popular than math (and how could that be? Many children in that school likely had their own boomboxes, favorite groups, dreams of being musicians) became the most popular class. Students of all grades began inventing instruments, using keyboards, computers, tin cans, rap, dance, fusing it all into a big exciting free mess.

This experiment was especially exciting for me because my grade school was an underfunded, extremely parochial, Roman Catholic school where a good deal of the instructional time was spent on the Godless Communist Menace. In Hennigan School, the teachers were facilitators and the students did their own learning aided by computers. It seemed glorious, right here and now, in an inner-city, graffiti- covered school (vandalism even went down). I was goldang jealous!

On the other hand, the idea of broadcatch creeped me out. Broadcatching is like a suped-up version of your car radio presets. It allows you to tell the TV what you want it to scan for. How am I going to surprise myself when an AI system is doing all my filtering? Let's take "Factsheet Five" as an example. Every issue, I spend about three hours pouring over it, checking off zines to order. If I had an AI system broadcatching F5, I'd probably only have to spend about 30 minutes doing a little fine tuning. But my favorite zine these days is "Holy Titclamps," a member of a wholly new subcategory: the queerzine. Would my AI broadcatcher be able to recognize new things outside my usual preferences? Examining and risking exposure to new things is something I do infrequently enough as it is. Putting the responsibility on an AI agent would tend to discourage me from taking that responsibility myself.

"The Media Lab" actually gave me my first real taste of future shock; the future rushing past me like a subway train. Before this, I had sneered at the SF writers and pundits who had talked about future shock. I'll never get that, har har, I thought. But "The Media Lab" gave me that feeling because it was something that I really wanted to be part of, surfing on the edge of, but it was all a little beyond me. This stuff is even moving faster than Stewart Brand and the subjects of this book could have imagined at the time (1987).

(L. McGuff)


The Media L ab: Inventing The Future at MIT
Stewart Brand
Viking Penguin, Inc.
1988, 285 pp., with photos and index.

Here is the TEXT POPUP for The Media L ab:

Art is not a mirror.
Art is a hammer.

- note on Media Lab whiteboard

Hennigan had the usual loud, busy feel of any school, but it had none of the usual "SIT DOWN AND SHUT UP" tenseness from the teachers. The kids seemed to be too interested in learning to hassle the system. I found the place so gleeful to be around that I went back a couple of more times just for the pleasure of it.

Broadcatch technology will change or accelerate each of the modes [grazing, browsing, hunting]. Grazing - Couch Potato Mode - is intensified and perhaps even made more attractive by having an inquisitive robot do one's selective browsing all day, all night. Hunting by computer at present is an exhausting business, frequently jobbed out to data-search specialists. But much of what they do can be automated by broadcatch technology and soon will be.


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