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science doesn't need hype

[via Philip Greenspun]: A wired article: The Lab That Fell to Earth. Quote:

The house that Negroponte built is dealing with a nasty postboom hangover. Corporate donations once accounted for 95 percent of the Lab's budget, with much of the booty coming from thriving sectors like telecom. Now the struggling companies of the world are, needless to say, no longer as liberal with their loot. The Lab's techno-optimism and demo-centric approach to R&D has fallen out of favor. Like many private-sector startups, it has responded with belt-tightening, layoffs, and lots of rhetoric about alternative funding. One look at the vacant lot next door, though, and it's obvious the crisis isn't over.

Even worse, the financial shortfall is dredging up long-festering issues. When times were flush, no one rocked the boat. Now the hard-science groups are bucking for independence, claiming that the Lab's art-meets-technology focus is passé. Students complain that egocentric professors are undermining the Lab's interdisciplinary spirit. And the Lab's reputation as a scientific lightweight - "all icing and no cake," as Negroponte sums up the rap - never seems to die. Designing props for the wacky Flying Karamazov Brothers juggling troupe isn't exactly what the Nobel committee is looking for.

The Media Lab, I think has suffered more than anything from its own hype. The vision its people described, Negroponte in particular, has always been cool, and in many cases right on the mark.

But for whom?

What I mean is, who would use the technology? I knew a person that got an advance copy of Being Digital in 1996 and I borrowed it. Of course, I read it avidly. But even as I read what I dreamed of, even as I found myself inspired by it, in a hidden corner of my mind I was thinking: This is all very good, but who is going to be able to afford it? Who can benefit by the holographic screens and having your refrigerator do the shopping for you? Certainly not most of the people in Africa, or Asia, or Latin America, or, hell, anyone who doesn't live in a few choice cities, mostly in the Western World, and their surrounding suburban areas. From the article:

Much of that reputation stems from Negroponte's punditry, especially the predictions that peppered his bestseller Being Digital. He was right about quite a bit - the untethering of data, the genesis of the digital video recorder. But there were also the outré prophecies about pill-sized computers that will diagnose illnesses and Barbie dolls that will go online to order new dresses. Crowd-pleasing stuff, but easy targets once the luster wore off technology's star. Britain's The Register now adds snarky quote marks to the phrase "technology expert" when reporting on Negroponte's latest flight of fancy.

To be fair, other Lab alums and personnel took even more outlandish stands. In 1997, Danny Hillis, a Lab graduate and founder of Thinking Machines, was touted in a Los Angeles Times Q&A as a biotechnology guru. Among his predictions: Telephones would be farmed, cabbages manufactured, and trees modified to produce kerosene. The performance earned Hillis the Technoquack of the Month award from the hype-busting Crypt newsletter and bolstered the Lab's reputation for goofiness.

Now, I don't mean that science shouldn't be pursued because it's not going to provide tangible benefits today, or tomorrow, or in ten years, or in the next century. Particle physics, just to take one example, is not really "useful" in that sense. But breakthroughs in science, and specially fundamental science, always end up trickling down to people, even to poor people, sometimes with far-reaching consequences.

But Negroponte's vision, and the Media Lab hype in general, always had this implication that this is going to change the world now, and for everyone. Wide ranging descriptions of how "everyone would do their shopping" (for example) in the future were, and in some cases still are, the norm. In part I imagine it was a sign of the times: if someone could think that selling pet food over the Internet was a world-changing paradigm, then certainly the Media Lab was entitled to, and with more reason. But then again, I wish they hadn't bought so deep into the self-promotion, and the hype.

Doing science, fundamental science, even things that other people consider useless, freaky, or strange, or ridiculous, is just fine.

Hyping it, pretending to know the future and telling everyone that you're the next hot item is not.

At least not if you're doing science. There's a name for that. It's called Marketing.

On top of that, the Media Lab's funding model is heavily tilted towards corporate money, and so makes it hard when recessions, or near-recessions, hit.

You know, like now. As the following paragraph from the article explains:

Unlike other university research entities, the Media Lab has relied almost solely on corporate money: Currently 125 sponsors each kick in a minimum of $200,000 annually, entitling them to license any Lab invention royalty-free and consult with the faculty at whim. In the halcyon days, that was good enough. Company executives happily camped out in the Lab on the off chance that a professor's random brainstorm might have the whiff of IPO about it. Now that corporate excess is out of vogue, sponsorship is a tougher sell. Stung by the telecom sector's demise, a Lucent or a Nortel is now loathe to sponsor the quest to build a "conversational humanoid," a current project in the Gesture & Narrative Language group. "Those companies are fucking dead," says one especially blunt Lab professor. "Where do we get the money from now? I don't know."
The funding model probably needs to be revised a bit, no? Recessions are not really new...

What's happening is also part of the way it goes: behind the hype, the naysayers follow. The truth is usually somewhere in between. If the hype stops, so does the counter-hype. And then the Media Lab could prosper again.

Categories: science
Posted by diego on April 18, 2003 at 11:56 PM

decentralization, take 2

The past few days I've been thinking a lot about synchronization, decentralization, sharing, and so on, as I move to connect the pieces that will make all of those things possible in spaces without making it difficult to use. Perchance, I found this article by Kevin Werbach on decentralization. I had linked to exactly the same article before, except that then I had found the CNET version of the article. The CNET and ZDNET articles where published in tandem, in a form of "decentralized synchronization." Heh

Categories: clevercactus
Posted by diego on April 18, 2003 at 1:57 PM

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