“You’ll carry your terminal and plug it into a wall jack!”: Excerpts from Stewart Brand’s 1987 biography of the MIT Media Lab

What the MIT Media Lab thought of smart phones, science fiction, the demise of information theory 30 years ago

The Media Lab by Stewart Brand, in the MIT Dewey Management Library stacks

When I started working in the MIT Media Lab this year, I went to the library and picked up the books about the Media Lab’s famous history, including Frank Moss’s 2011 treatment “The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives,” and Stewart Brand’s 1987 treatment “The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at M. I. T.”

Moss’s version was informative but, as befits a former Director of the Lab, was very loving. I loved Brand’s version. He’s a thoughtful, critical outsider seeing the Media Lab for the first time — just like me.

Below are some excerpts from the book I found myself slack-jawed at, or referring back to — some are truly, incredibly ahead of their time. Others are fascinating for what the Lab didn’t see— most notably, the Lab’s total inabilty to foresee a world of wireless connections. Enjoy.

Note: These passages were transcibed with the help of the Prism Go app, so please forgive any errors.


“Art Kleiner, a journalist who has specialized in telecommunications, reported Pacific Bell’s plans for ISDN in the San Francisco Bay Guardian:

Some ISDN lines will have enough capacity to carry real-time video signals into your home or office. “You’ll see the person you’re talking to in video on one side of the screen,” said Donald Simpson, an engineer who represents Pacific Bell at ISDN conferences. “You’ll see a page of text on the other side, and you’ll hear their voice on your phone receiver.” ISDN will also process sound and image digitally remove the silences in a recorded message, filter the hiss out of a piece of music, mute the color of Krystal’s dress on “Dynasty,” change a woman’s voice to a man’s.

Your 15-digit ISDN phone number will travel anywhere with you from Alaska to Zimbabwe. “You’ll carry your terminal and plug it into a wall jack,” Simpson said. “The network will read your terminal and know who you are, and instantly deduct money from your account, not in dollars or yen but in Special Drawing Rights, decoupled from daily currency fluctuations.”

You’ll carry your terminal and plug it into a wall jack. The network will read your terminal and know who you are, and instantly deduct money from your account.

— P. 31


Want to know where the action in a culture is? Watch where new language is turning up and where the lawyers collect, usually in that sequence.

— P. 62


Deregulation does encourage invention, at least until the next monopolies set in; then you have to regulate again to keep the marketplace working while new technology accumulates for the next round of invention-leading-to-deregulation-leading-to-invention.

The content of electronic broadcasting fascinates. That’s its like the content of individual human consciousness, it’s a headlong,Dr,, of amusements, warnings, and work. The work is expressed in sgt**” acquisition, access-to-tools, and countless numbers — -temperature today, stock market today, inflation, unemployment, prices. The warnings, all the bad news that news is made of, which makes good sense when you consider that most of us learn from other people’s mistakes more than our own.

The warnings, all the bad news that news is made of, which makes good sense when you consider that most of us learn from other people’s mistakes more than our own.

— P. 62


The idea of “information” has been changing lately, thanks in part to the computerization of communications. Back in the late ’40s when Claude Shannon, then at Bell Labs, founded Information Theory, “information” was almost physical it was so objective — “the information contained in a message unit is defined in terms of the average number of bits required to encode it” (McGraw Hill Encyclopedia of Electronics and Computers). This was the science of signal and noise and the subtle art of extracting signal from noise.

Marvin Minsky tells an admiring tale of what happened to Information Theory: “They solved all the problems and new ones didn’t come up. I was on this little board making the program selection for the 1965 International Information Theory Congress. We were looking at 140 papers to see which ones were acceptable. There were a couple that were marginal. We sat around trying to figure out how to adjust the threshold of acceptability, and Bob Fano said, ‘Maybe it’s all over. What would happen if we canceled the meeting!’ Someone said, ‘These arrangements have been made.’ Someone else said, ‘Well, have we paid the advance?’ At the end of the afternoon we voted to cancel the field.”

Back in the late ’40s when Claude Shannon, then at Bell Labs, founded Information Theory, “information” was almost physical it was so objective — “the information contained in a message unit is defined in terms of the average number of bits required to encode it.”….
In 1979 anthropologist-philosopher Gregory Bateson offered another definition of “information”: “Any difference which makes a difference.”

— P. 71


[MIT] Professor Marvin Minsky, co-founder of Artificial Intelligence:

“You have to think about your own career and your mind as a resource to conserve, and if you fill it up with infantile garbage it might cost you something later. There might be right theories that you will be unable to understand five years later because you have so many misconceptions.

“You have to form the habit of not wanting to have been right for very long. If I still believe something after five years, I doubt it.

You have to form the habit of not wanting to have been right for very long. If I still believe something after five years, I doubt it.

“Anything that you hear about computers or AI should be ignored, because we’re in the Dark Ages. We’re in the thousand years between no technology and all technology. You can read what your contemporaries think, but you should remember they are ignorant savages.”

We’re in the thousand years between no technology and all technology. You can read what your contemporaries think, but you should remember they are ignorant savages.

— P. 104


Probably all good ideas start by making a distinction, and then they usually die by stopping there and dividing everything up into those two. Information theory is interested in signal and noise. Maybe we should make a distinction — signal, noise, and meaning.”

After a dinner of take-out dim sum, Minsky, who had been reading the Koran with some dismay at its violent inquiry-blunting formulae, sermonized, “Religion is a teaching machine — a little deadly loop for putting itself in your mind and keeping it there. The main concern of a religion is to stop thinking, to suppress doubt. It’s interested in solving deep problems, not understanding them. And it’s correct in a sense, because the problems it deals with don’t have solutions, because they’re loops. ‘Who made the world?’ ‘God.’ You’re not allowed to ask, ‘Who made God?’ “

I said, “Science feels and acts like a kind of religion a lot of the time.” Minsky had heard that one before: “Everything is similar if you’re willing to look that far out of focus. I’d watch that. Then you’ll find that black is white. Look for differences! You’re looking for similarities again. That way lies mind rot.”

— P. 107


[MIT Media Lab Director John] Negroponte: “Basically, it’s going to make cameras into computer peripherals. You’ll play with the images in the computer, sequence them and store them, make albums, do all of your retouch stuff.”

— P. 222


Marvin Minsky knows exactly whom to ask about technology and fantasy problems. He keeps up with their literature, seeks their friendship, visits their homes. On the snowy Sunday afternoon at Minsky’s home I asked him why he was so interested in science fiction writers. “Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful.

I think of [scifi writers] as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Asimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and their ideas aren’t very powerful.

“Whenever Pohl or Asimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Asimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.” Other writers he pays close attention to are Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Gregory Benford, James Hogan, John Campbell, and H. G. Wells. If Minsky had his way, there would always be a visiting science fiction writer in residence at the Media Lab.

Science fiction is the literature at MIT. The campus bookstore has a collection as large as some science fiction specialty stores. Every computer science student knows and refers to John Brunner’s Shockwave Rider, Vemor Vinge’s True Names (Afterword by Marvin Minsky), William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

— P. 224


“Now, I should tell you that I have been worrying about this issue since the late ’70s, but a major financial crisis keeps not happening, even though the system has been getting massively more electronic and interconnected that whole time. We’re starting to refer to this as ‘resilient fragility.’ The system appears more fragile than it is. It’s often the case that complex systems produce resilience in unpredictable or even in unrecognizable forms: you can’t find what’s producing the resilience even though you’re looking for it.”

We’re starting to refer to this as ‘resilient fragility.’ The system appears more fragile than it is. It’s often the case that complex systems produce resilience in unpredictable or even in unrecognizable forms: you can’t find what’s producing the resilience even though you’re looking for it.

“Presumably,” I presumed, “when the system either crashes or conspicuously threatens to crash, then out of that comes the new game and new rules.”

— P. 233