Thursday, June 15, 2006

The MIT Disease--Nicholas Negroponte

Nicholas is founder and chairman of the One Laptop per Child non-profit association. He is currently on leave from MIT, where he was co-founder and director of the MIT Media Laboratory, and the Jerome B. Wiesner Professor of Media Technology. A graduate of MIT, Nicholas was a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design, and has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1966. Conceived in 1980, the Media Laboratory opened its doors in 1985. 

He is also author of the 1995 best seller, Being Digital, which has been translated into more than 40 languages. In the private sector, Nicholas serves on the board of directors for Motorola, Inc. and as general partner in a venture capital firm specializing in digital technologies for information and entertainment. He has provided start-up funds for more than 40 companies, including Wired magazine.

The varied talent mix seen in many dyslexics seems to be especially well recognized in the world of computers as well as entrepreneurial business. Both are areas where performance is measured by demonstrating working systems (rather than writing reports) and where anticipating technological trends is more highly valued than traditional academic skills and paper credentials. One of the leading visionary thinkers in the computer field is Nicholas Negroponte, the dyslexic founder of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology (MIT). More than a decade ago, he and others started work to form the Media Lab which was to be based on the idea that major industries--such as publishing, telecommunications, television, feature film, and computers--would all converge over time until at acertain point it would be hard to tell which was which. Of course, nowthese predictions are seen as splendidly and universally justified, aswe are daily confronted by the reality of these expectations.

In 1995, Negroponte published Being Digital, a book of essays--based on a series of columns in the magazine Wired--about the varied longer-term effects of the computer revolution. Since the book is so explicitly focused on computers, it is quite remarkable that the first and last sentences of his "Introduction: The Paradox of a Book" refer not to computers at all--but instead to his own dyslexia and his difficulties with reading. The book begins: "Being Dyslexic, I don't like to read books." And pages later: "So why [have I written] an old-fashioned book . . . especially one without a single illustration?" He gives several reasons. Among these are the advantages inherent in the vagueness of words. When you read, he notes, more is left to the imagination and more is drawn from your own personal experience. In contrast, he observes that "like a Hollywood film, multimedia narrative" provides such detailed and realistic representations of things that "less and less is left to the mind'seye." Consequently, finishing his introduction, he says: "You are expected to read yourself into this book. And I say that as someone who does not like to read" (Negroponte).

Thus, Negroponte provides a remarkable example of one of the leading and most prescient communicators of the digital revolution referring in his book repeatedly to his own reading problems. It is also notable that on radio programs during his book tour for Being Digital, Negroponte commented that links between dyslexia and high talent are often observed at MIT-- indeed, these observations are so frequent that locally dyslexia is called "the MIT disease.

"Some months after his book came out, Negroponte was featured on the cover of Wired magazine to celebrate the first ten years of the MediaLab. Playing on the title of Negroponte's book, the Wired article begins: "Being Nicholas--The Media Lab's visionary founder . . . is the most wired man we know (and that is saying something)." During the interview, Negroponte is asked whether he would rather read text on a computer screen or on paper. His answer reveals the matter-of-fact, by-the-way, manner many successful dyslexics have come to speak of their difficulties: "I don't read long articles period. I don't like to read. I am dyslexic and I find it hard. When people send me long [electronic-mail] messages, I ignore them. The only print medium I read every day is the front page of the Wall Street Journal, which I scan for news of the companies I am interested in. All the rest of my reading is on screens, and often not very good screens, because I travel so much.

One Laptop Per Child system - first working prototype Video

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