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Future Schlock

Creating the crap of tomorrow at the MIT Media Lab

If there is one beacon in the landscape of American industrial decline, it’s the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Or so it seems to the science and business reporters who regularly troop through its doors for their “Ten Breakthroughs That Will Change the Way You Live” stories. The Lab yokes academic researchers backed by corporate money to the task of shepherding gonzo digital technology from high concept to working “demo,” and sometimes all the way to a product launch by a corporate funder or one of the startups that Lab alumni constantly spin off.

To its many admirers, it’s a hothouse that nurtures bleeding-edge gear, hip capitalism, and the kind of disruptive innovations the New Economy needs to blow the next prosperity bubble. Making a pilgrimage to the Lab for its twenty-fifth anniversary last year, PBS NewsHour proposed it as the unanswerable “counterargument” to “Great Stagnation” talk of an innovation drought. Last October’s Atlantic rehashed the hype, hailing the Lab as an “idea factory” that “gather[s] the world’s most imaginative minds under one roof” to chart the profitable reconstruction of the physical and social order. “Our homes will be shapeshifters” and “our buildings will be printed” under the Lab’s new dispensation, the magazine proclaimed, while “your brain will be fixed like your car” and “your phone will know everything.”

Sounds awesome—though, as always with techno-futurist propaganda, one feels in such forecasts the mailed fist of machine rationalization and job-killing automation beneath the velvet glove of consumer choice and convenience. But when you look at the stuff the Media Lab has made, not just “envisioned,” the results are neither dazzling nor scary, but underwhelming and a bit tacky.

Translated into stuff, The Atlantic’s prophecy that “your electronics will be powered by you” boils down to the Lab’s “battery-free electric tambourine that lights up as it’s played.” The “you will be your doctor” scenario means “wristbands that measure stress,” apparently based on the Lab’s Q Sensor technology, which gauges galvanic skin response—that’s polygraph-ese for sweatiness—and tells you your level of “emotional arousal,” in case you didn’t already know it. NewsHour swoons over the Lab’s Gremlins-esque robot Leonardo, which enhances its furry cuteness by pricking up or flattening its ears, goggling its eyes and scrunching its adorable face, and gasps at PingPongPlus, which takes the familiar paddle game to “a whole new level of interactivity” by projecting animated displays of swimming fish onto the tabletop.

Glorified mood rings and plush toys, tambourines and ping-pong tables tricked out with blinking lights and screen-saver motifs: Is this the best the Media Lab can do? Not quite. Last year MIT posted a list of the Lab’s all-time “Top 25 Products and Platforms,” and the Q Sensor barely made the cut. Number 19 on the honor roll is the “Karaoke-on-Demand Machine, developed by Taito Corporation” from seventeen-year-old Lab technology. Number 16 is the technology behind photomosaics, the world’s most hackneyed graphic technique. Number 3 is Lego’s Mindstorms, a robotics kit beloved of school science fairs and adult hobbyists. Number 2? Guitar Hero. Yeah, they made that, one of the best-selling throw-away video games ever. Number 1 is the e-reader technology in Kindle, so give the Lab its due: it has spawned a subset of the video screens that are destroying the Republic of Letters.

The Lab’s website reveals more wonders in the pipeline: an app that lets you order food on your cellphone while you are sitting in the restaurant; electronic origami (“The crane silently flaps on its own”); and a technology called Tastes Like Rain that “dynamically alters the flavor and color of your morning toothpaste to give you today’s temperature and weather.” Not a promising lot, but then the Media Lab has commercialized some very unlikely gadgets, including Clocky, an alarm clock that, according to its patent filing, “moves forward, drops from a table to the floor, and moves to a remote location . . . us[ing] sensors to avoid objects in its path.” To turn off the alarm, “the individual must get out of bed and locate the mobile wake-up device.”

The contrast between the soaring verbiage surrounding the Lab and its trivial, redundant, usually disappointing and often downright annoying output is a feature, not a bug. It was there from the Lab’s inception in 1985, when cofounder Nicholas Negroponte spotted the zeitgeist of the dawning PC age in the marriage of avant-garde technophilia to crass commercialism. Negroponte, an architect, technologist, and professional prognosticator, has a gift for distilling digital messianism into catchy promotional sound bites. (Not for nothing did he call it the Media Lab.) Coining slogans like “Move bits, not atoms,” his 1995 best seller Being Digital celebrated the transcendence, if not total supersession, of materiality by the tide of binary information-processing. His rhetoric swelled with time; a 1998 Wired column forecast a future of Being Equal (“The caste system is an artifact of the world of atoms”) and Being Global (“A united planet is certain, but when is not” [sic].)

For all its grandiosity, Negroponte’s vision of all-encompassing computation has remained militantly banal. “Computers as we know them today,” he declared, “will a) be boring, and b) disappear into things that are first and foremost something else: smart nails, self-cleaning shirts, driverless cars, therapeutic Barbie dolls, intelligent doorknobs . . . ” The Lab he founded aimed, in the words of its mission statement, to further that goal of “embedding the bits of the digital realm in the atoms of our physical world”—a revolution that promised equality, fraternity, and massive sales volume to the companies that funded it.

In promoting that upheaval, the Media Lab developed the key buzz-concept of the “interface.” Now an interface is any device, like a computer mouse, that lets a human manipulate a machine. But the Lab turned interface into a mystic organizing principle. Wherever there is a boundary—between atoms and bits, machine and human, individual and group, whimsy and calculation—the Lab searches for a technological interface to bridge the divide. Boundary-blurring interfaces proliferate everywhere: in the robotic prosthetic limbs of the Biomechatronics Group, one of a few worthwhile Lab endeavors; in the sensor-laden stage props that Lab technicians built to convert the magic duo Penn and Teller’s wacky gestures into music (a scientific coup the Lab never tires of trumpeting); in the Lifelong Kindergarten Singing Fingers, a synesthesiac toy that smushes sensory modes together by letting kids “finger paint with sound.” The Lab’s interface count is a rough index of the progress of digital imperialism, with a new one sprouting up wherever technology invades a previously undigitized realm.

Negroponte designed the Media Lab itself as a giant social interface. The Lab’s loose structure, based on fluid research groups convened around nebulous themes and ad-hoc projects, requires all entrants to “check traditional [academic] disciplines at the door” and thus renounce departmental barriers and specializations that might constrain the flow of collaboration and knowledge. (Its new glass-walled wing makes transparency a physical fetish.) It welcomes not just computer scientists and engineers but artists, writers, and musicians as well, all of them interfacing in a warm interdisciplinary techno-humanism that softens the unsettling project of omnipresent computing (while demonstrating just how that project will colonize all of life.) And it brooks no atom-spawned caste hierarchies or bit-shackling dogmas. It is a haven for misfits and iconoclasts, “the place where crazy inventors create your future,” according to a recent BBC hosanna, a veritable “salon des refusés,” in Negroponte’s words, upending a stodgy Establishment just like the Impressionists did, only with pixels instead of paint.

The most important of the Lab’s interfaces is the one that connects academic research to commerce. In Negroponte’s scheme, there could be no point in giving the world’s most imaginative minds free rein unless that would also appeal to major corporations and venture capital. Hence his pioneering business plan, unique for a university lab at the time, under which corporate sponsors front most of the budget by kicking in a few hundred thousand dollars a year each for nonexclusive rights to the Lab’s intellectual property. This funding mechanism is fussily calibrated to rake in cash while preserving a façade of independence. A diversified industrial average of seventy-odd sponsors—including Bank of America, Google, News Corporation, Northrop Grumman, and Hasbro—pay for access to a broad “consortium” of research groups but can’t direct their money to a particular project or dictate terms to a specific scientist. All they buy, ostensibly, is a chance to take notes on and adapt for their own ends whatever breakthroughs surface unbidden from the Lab’s creative ferment.

Yet sponsorship guidelines hint at a persistent pressure to turn that arms-length relationship into a bear hug. Companies can’t pay individual faculty, but they can fund individual students; those “graduate fellows” are assigned a “company mentor” who “can have impact on [the] fellow’s research,” and they are expected to “talk in detail about how the company’s issues map onto Lab work.” Faculty are expected to provide consulting and brainstorming services to sponsors, and at pricier sponsorship levels, companies can insert their own employees into research groups and establish “a steering committee, comprising both sponsor and Lab representation, to oversee the sponsor’s relationship to the Media Lab.” Joichi Ito, the Lab’s new director, wants to nuzzle even closer by giving sponsors the vague status of “members,” he told The Atlantic: “They’ve got great ideas . . . I want these people not just to be giving their money, but to feel like they’re part of the team.” (This view comes naturally to Ito, a venture capitalist who is also a college dropout, former rave impresario, scuba instructor, and, of course, cyber-activist—a parody of the Lab ideal of the interdisciplinary rebel with a tie-in to investor money.)

It’s an article of faith at the Media Lab that that there is no conflict here—that tight bonds to commercial sponsors augment the Lab’s independence rather than curtailing it. As the Lab sees it, sponsorships are links to a free market that is always freer—and more creative—than mere academic freedom could ever be. Ito’s predecessor, Frank Moss, gives a detailed appreciation of that dynamic in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives. Among the innovative technologies Moss spotlights is “a fork equipped with a tiny motion sensor” that “measures the time between bites and lets us know we’re eating too quickly by flashing a light or gently vibrating”: it is no longer mentioned in the online roster of research projects, possibly because test subjects smashed the prototypes.

Moss pays lavish tribute to academic autonomy, chalking up the Lab’s success to researchers’ “unrestricted freedom to create and invent as their passions dictate” in a setting so thrumming with “the power of passion” that the “incredible passion” of “passionate, wildly energetic people” mounts relentlessly until “their passions are unleashed to the fullest.” But he admits to worrying before he joined the Lab that sponsor intrusions might inhibit the unbridled coupling of researcher and muse. Fortunately, his misgivings were laid to rest by the faculty themselves, who assured him that sponsors “didn’t direct the Lab’s work but rather informed it by keeping it up to speed on the needs and trends they saw in their marketplaces,” a perspective that could only broaden the Lab’s “passion-fueled exploration.” All doubts allayed, Moss instituted what the Boston Globe described as a “buddy system” linking sponsors with faculty.

Passion for sale is definitely the vibe one gets from Moss’s description of the Lab’s fabled Sponsor Weeks, the twice-yearly extravaganzas where corporate bean-counters view the tangible product their sponsorships pay for. Preceded by a “hell week” in which caffeinated students pull all-nighters to get their prototypes in working order, it’s the centerpiece of the Lab’s “demo or die” culture. But in Moss’s account, it’s redolent of a whorehouse lineup, as the techies frantically ready their blinking, buzzing, frisking demos to strut their stuff for the leering suits. And what tantalizes would-be sponsors, the Lab knows, is something a bit tawdrier than its gauzy, high-minded cyber-conceits.

The Fluid Interfaces Group’s official mission may be to “integrate the world of information and services more naturally into our daily physical lives, enabling insight, inspiration, and interpersonal connections.” What it demos, however, is LuminAR, a lamp-shaped computer projector that beams product information onto countertops—a breakthrough that “Will Change How You Shop at Best Buy,” according to’s drooling headline.

The Information Ecology group may be all about “seamless and pervasive connections between our physical environments and information resources,” but what it demos is Takeover TV, a system that “heralds a new era in bar patronage,” wherein the humblest citizens “vote to pick a new show using your beer glass—or your iPhone.”

The Object-Based Media Group murmurs about “unobtrusive acquisition of unconscious self-generated content to permit reflexive self-knowledge.” What it demos is Pillow Talk, a cushion-embedded recorder into which you narrate the dream that just woke you up.

Whether the Lab dances to the sponsors’ tune or has internalized a virtual corporate overseer in the form of a business-friendly philosophy, the outcome is the same: a betrayal of the public mission of a great research university. There’s a long history of businesses funding academic research in science and engineering, but the Media Lab, with its corporate mentoring and steering and consulting and all-around buddying, and its fanatical packaging of research projects as launchable products, has taken such relationships to a new level of intellectual barrenness. When an oil company funds a geology lab, the knowledge that results, while aiding petroleum exploration, will often advance science in broader ways. Media Lab projects rarely generate such public benefits or add anything significant to our understanding of the world; their contributions usually end with the electric tambourines and karaoke machines they spin off. The result is a diversion of resources away from the pursuit of science of lasting value into projects that belong in Hasbro’s marketing department.

Thanks to its financial success—and PR prowess—the Media Lab virus is spreading. Clones have sprung up at Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, most of the University of California campuses, and elsewhere, all featuring splashy digitalia and corporate penetrations that often go even deeper than at MIT. Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute, which recently caused a minor press sensation with its cookie-serving robot, offers courses in which students work directly on devices for the sponsoring company.

The University of Southern California, with two separate clones geared to Hollywood sponsorships, puts the Media Lab to shame with its vapid, L.A.-style commercialism. USC’s new Annenberg Innovation Lab already has a blockbuster innovation called Film Forecaster, a market research software tool that, in a triumphant road test, successfully predicted a $100 million opening for The Hangover Part II last summer by analyzing Twitter chatter. Meanwhile, AIL’s older sister-institute, the Entertainment Technology Center, touts its ground-breaking research into “18 Questions Every Sales Associate Should Be Able to Answer About 3D.” Here is the sunny, stupefied future of the Media Lab’s model of academic research, unchained from the canons of discipline and scholarly tradition, raptly attuned to the promptings of the marketplace, subservient to the chintziest of corporate imperatives.

But while the Lab often seems like a marketing team posing as an academic institution, the corruption is subtler than the mere capture of the ivory tower by commerce. The Lab is a failure by the standards of storied corporate-sponsored R & D outfits like Menlo Park and Bell Labs. Instead, the Lab focuses on what corporations think is cool. Negroponte, in full Nostradamian spate, says it best: “Every surface will be a display. Everything will be linked to every other thing. Things will know where they are and some may know who they are.” No matter how ridiculous the Lab’s mockups, its grand schematic of omnipresent computing, sensors, video representation, and interactivity is a thrilling business prospect, promising enormous revenues from a tech network that redefines the meaning of ubiquity. And more than that, it’s an expression of an ideology of consumerism—the commodification of things that once were free and the shift toward a lifestyle of infantile narcissism—that the Lab takes to unprecedented extremes.

What the Lab offers the world is a treasure chest of digital “tools” that ostensibly empower us but also require that our every interaction—with things, with friends and family, with our own bodies, minds, and souls—be mediated by electro-mechanical interfaces that are impressive only for their inescapability. We’ll move in an information cloud called SixthSense, a “gestural interface” housed in a computer-camera-projector pendant that beams an Internet portal onto any surface at the wave of its wearer’s hand. Our homes will be draped in, yes, “interactive wallpaper” that liberates us from the tyranny of the on-off switch: just “run your hand across this wallpaper to turn on a lamp, play music, or send a message to a friend.”

Our smart phones will alert us to compatible strangers in the crowd, and our sociometric badges will warn us when we’re not mingling enough. We will be supervised by digital nannies like Weight Mate, a smartphone app that will “log dietary habits, track user behaviors, social interactions and emotional states” and offer “just-in-time persuasive feedback to improve eating habits.” (Another cyber-nag is Merry Miser, unique among Lab apps in that it discourages the purchase of useless crap by “provid[ing] personalized interventions when the user is near an opportunity to spend.”) Instead of confiding in friends or unburdening to a diary, a girl will turn to a cumbersome computer program called G.I.R.L.S—“Girls Involved In Real-Life Sharing”—to interface with her feelings; employing “a new technology called common sense reasoning,” the interactive routine allows her to create a video storyboard of vexing experiences and then assess them on an “emotional weighting screen” where she can “choose from the nine core emotions.”

In fact, Common Sense—the Lab’s artificial intelligence program— is now available in several apps, including Moral Compass, an ethical reasoning module, and MakeBelieve, a story-generation tool for blocked writers. (MakeBelieve wrote the following 53-percenter fable all by itself: “John became very lazy at work. John lost his job. John decided to get drunk. He started to commit crimes. John went to prison. He experienced bruises. John cried. He looked at himself differently.”)

The Personal Robots Group fields the Lab’s most insidious interface technologies, designed to infiltrate their users’ psyches with sustained eye contact, subtly expressive faces, sympathetic body language, natural speech patterns, and considerate behavior. There are fluffy kids’ bots for immersive holographic play suites. There is, inevitably, a robotic weight-loss coach called Autom that counts calories and offers encouragement reinforced by “mutual gaze.” (You’d think a twelve-step robot—call it Bill W.—programmed to call you on your shit and reminisce about hitting bottom would be a no-brainer, but the Lab has not yet developed one.)

The fusion of man and machine takes a long step with the “robotic avatars,” the gamiest of which is Huggable, a teddy-bear bot that functions as a surrogate in long-distance adult-child relationships. Wirelessly linked to a remote “operator”—hopefully, please God, an out-of-state grandparent—Huggable cuddles with the child, aping the operator’s gestures, which are captured and transmitted by motion sensors, and cooing the operator’s texted words in its own animatronic voice, all the while streaming back live video of the encounter. With 1,500 sensors in its silicone hide, the bear is fully equipped for “affective touch-based interactions,” including “teasing pleasant,” “punishment light,” and “punishment painful.” (Its makers hint at other commercial applications, noting that Huggable could be a “therapeutic companion” that is “viscerally and emotionally pleasing to interact with.”)

It’s doubtful that these clunky, creepy novelties will catch on with consumers (or jump-start an economic recovery), but the Media Lab’s underlying message certainly has. Rather than making the world soulless and mechanical, the Lab assures us, technological interfaces have achieved a complete symbiosis of the animate and the inanimate, thus making the world literally magical. Equipped with delicate sensors, fluent emotions and shrewd common sense, things come alive and respond to our every need; they will know not only who they are but who we are—and what we want—better than we do.

It’s a vision that jibes perfectly with the primal consumerist fantasy of a world where objects exist solely as the vehicles of our desire. As well it should, for the Lab’s highest ambition is to reboot consumerism and spread it to previously unreached domains of unpaid, self-sufficient thought and action—to ensure that no idea will be imagined, no memory recollected, no emotion felt, no dream pondered, no resolve carried through, no friendship sparked, and no child comforted without the purchase of commercial technology and content.

Yet the Lab sometimes feels a twinge of unease at the human diminishment its creed implies. Those misgivings surface in the music of Tod Machover, the Lab’s court composer. His Opera of the Future Group is no mere adornment but a Lab heavy hitter, the outfit that came up with the lucrative Guitar Hero technology. (Their latest project, Personal Opera, is a “radically innovative creative environment that enables anyone to create musical masterpieces sharing one’s deepest thoughts, feelings, and memories.” Can’t wait for the video game!) Machover is proof of the magic of interdisciplinarity: an opera composer plunked down amid robotics workshops, he duly came up with a “robotic opera”—Death and the Powers, a bombastic summation of the Lab and its discontents.

Framed by an introduction in which a chorus of actual robots sings about the long-vanished humans who created them, Death and the Powers follows the odyssey of Simon Powers, an aging tycoon who cheats death by uploading his consciousness into a computer network he calls the System. Simon, an immensely wealthy early adopter with a bionic assistant named Nicholas, is a mythic Lab-oid figure, and the System, which puts his thoroughly digital household’s devices and functions under his disembodied command, is the apotheosis of the Lab’s ideal of a seamless interface between spirit and hardware. (Machover literalizes that metaphor with a technology he calls “disembodied performance”: the offstage baritone who sings the uploaded Simon is fitted with motion sensors that capture his breathing and gestures and transmit them to the stage, where they cause lights to flash, walls to oscillate, and books to jostle on their shelves.)

The System thus ushers Simon into a narcissist’s paradise; because his material environment is literally a hardwired extension of his personality, there is nothing around him that is not himself. His “powers” are preserved—“I can still write checks!” he chortles—and even his pleasures: in one charged scene that made critics swoon, his wife, clad in a flimsy negligee, makes out with a vaguely pelvic chandelier into which Simon ports his moaning essence. But from another angle, Simon inhabits a consumerist hell. Completely subsumed within his belongings, he is a man reduced to a vestigial check-writing function, one whose erotic appeal to his wife resides mainly in the high-end furnishings he affords her. Death’s complex take on the System, both romantic and satirical, acknowledges that techno-consumerism can deracinate and debilitate even as it coddles and aggrandizes.

Machover and the Media Lab feel confident that consumers will strike that bargain, and maybe they are right. But let’s not forget that the real victim in all this is technology itself. The Lab’s insistence that we merge with our machines may be bad for us, but it’s terrible for machines. Look at its wretched offspring: a lost generation of feeble, feckless gadgets; robots whose lot is to simper and cringe at our dieting travails; poor Huggable, trapped forever in clammy psychodramas. Machover’s robots represent the absurdist endpoint of that degeneracy, vying slavishly for “Human Status Credits” long after humans have ceased to exist.

There was a time when machines had a grandeur and glamour in their own right, when steamships, airplanes, cars, and dynamos were astonishing innovations that accomplished inhuman feats. Back then, we did not expect machines to be us; they were bigger and stronger and faster than us, and we revered them as they remade the world in ways we had never imagined. That heroic Machine Age ended when the Saturn V rocket, greatest of machines, took us all the way to the moon, and what did we do? We hit some golf balls and went home. Now machines can aspire to nothing but mundane servility, catering to our whims, reflecting our dull fantasies back at us. They take us nowhere except into our own heads.