The UK’s Register on new MIT Media Lab Director

April 29, 2011 at 7:01 am 7 comments

The announcement of MIT’s new Media Lab Director is a big deal, and is relevant for computer science.  What I found most fascinating about this piece was the blatant contempt that The Register obviously holds for the Media Lab, e.g., referring to Nicholas Negroponte as “The PT Barnum of Science.”  They say, “While real research is about finding new ways of thinking and finding new ways to tackle difficult problems, the Media Lab is really an incubator for media stunts, debasing the idea of research.”  (The MIT Media Lab is the home of Scratch and other great computing education innovations.)

Is this just The Register, or is this a common perception of the Media Lab outside the United States?  Do they see the value of things like Scratch, or do they see the education work as similarly “debasing,” or do they not see the education work at all?

MIT has appointed a new director of its Media Lab: a blogger and networker who found computer science boring, and dropped out of higher education completely after discovering that he couldn’t learn physics “intuitively”. But since it’s actually MIT’s Media Lab we’re talking about, the appointment of dot com socialite and self-confessed dilettante Joicho Ito is really the perfect, perfect choice. A happier marriage could not be imagined.

Ito has dabbled as an entrepreneur, running Japan’s first ISP for a year, and in the last few years helped inflate the Web 2.0 bubble. He has been CEO of Creative Commons, set up a Guild in World of Warcraft, and served three years on the board of domain name quango ICANN. More recently he’s been in Dubai, the lowest tax regime in the world.

via MIT Media Lab appoints college drop-out, socialite • The Register.

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Doug Blank  |  April 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

    I wouldn’t refer to The Register articles as what “they” believe — these are basically blog posts by individuals. The article is really a glorified Slashdot comment. Most of the rest of the world doesn’t have any idea or opinion regarding MIT’s Media lab. And that’s too bad. Meanwhile all of the network television stations are showing the same British wedding…

  • 2. Bijan Parsia  |  April 29, 2011 at 9:11 am

    Actually, I’ve heard similar things from within the US, from within the HCI community. WRT HCI, the Media Lab has a rep (in some places) of being of the “Oooo, look HOW COOL and PRETTY” school of evaluation, as opposed to of the experiment/social science school (c.f., Maryland’s HCIL).

    This is an ongoing tension, I think. See Simon Harper’s blog post for some more detail.

    Note that it’s perfectly possible to be the source of many innovations without being the source of much sound science. I’m totally not weighing in on whether Scratch is backed up by formal evaluation or not or even on the relative value of changing the world vs. understanding it. But I do think that the Media Lab does have a “craft”/”stunt”/”change the world” rep (OLPC would naturally foster such a view of course).

  • 3. Mike Byrne  |  April 29, 2011 at 9:45 am

    Being from the empirical science side of HCI, I’d say that perception is relatively common inside the United States.

    This has nothing to do with education work. Frankly, I was pretty much unaware that the Media Lab even did education work–it’s certainly not what they’re known for, at least in HCI circles. What I know them for is perpetually repeated attempts to pass off flashy demos with no substance as science. The Register’s characterization is hostile, but I find it neither surprising or without merit.

  • 4. Laura  |  April 29, 2011 at 11:44 am

    I’ve been a beneficiary of their work with Scratch and their work with “soft-circuits” and micro-controllers. I’ve attended workshops there which have not only taught me the skills I needed, but gave me all kinds of ideas to share with my students. I took on a week-long course teaching my kids to make soft-circuits even though I’d just seen them at the Lab and online. It was a big success.

    And frankly, I love Ito’s quote:

    “I once asked a professor to explain the solution to a problem so I could understand it more intuitively. He said, ‘You can’t understand it intuitively. Just learn the formula so you’ll get the right answer.’ That was it for me.”

    That’s what did me in with calculus–the “just learn the formula” attitude. Many students don’t learn by “just learning the formula” and those that do manage to memorize the formula sometimes don’t remember it years later or have no clue about the relevance of the material to anything.

  • 5. Nick  |  April 29, 2011 at 1:14 pm

    I frankly don’t understand the hostility either. There is plenty of great science that comes out of the media lab. I’ve seen everything from statistics proofs ( graphical models, reinforcement learning papers ), all the way up to cool flashy demos like clocky and oblong. What is lost on many people is that the media lab is technically under thhe umbrella of the architecture department. This means that flashy is important (form vs function); and while it does lead to flashy demos getting all of the press, it does a disservice to the organization to generalize the entire lab based on the crazy ideas of the figureheads and the projects that come out of the “20% time” like that of clocky and Olpc.

    If there wasn’t any science in what they do then they wouldn’t be published by their peers.

  • 6. Bijan Parsia  |  April 29, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    If there wasn’t any science in what they do then they wouldn’t be published by their peers.

    This is certainly an overstatement, to say the least 🙂

    What is lost on many people is that the media lab is technically under thhe umbrella of the architecture department. This means that flashy is important (form vs function)

    This seems to do nothing to undermine the view that science is, at best, secondary at the Media Lab; indeed, it makes it more likely!

    Nothing you mentioned seems to help their HCI case (i.e., it’s possible that they have good machine learning science, but all their HCI is “mere” flash).

    I’d love to have some sense of whether “20% time” is a fair characterization of where the effect is put (and what the output is).

    Again, not endorsing the perception, merely reporting it.

  • 7. Max Hailperin  |  May 1, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    The mention of P.T. Barnum brought a circus-related mixed metaphor to my mind: perhaps the Media Lab is a big enough tent that it has room for both “stunts” and “real research,” so that how you characterize it all depends on which part of the elephant you feel.


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