Academic Digital

MIT 'The new new thing'

I’ve had quite an interest in MIT since I heard that they put all their lectures, etc. online (on YouTube, etc. under Creative Commons licences), something that is resisted by many an academic… and have found that it has increased interest in their courses. Here, Times Higher Education looks at their Media Lab…

Joichi Ito does not have the kind of background that would normally catch the eye of an appointment committee searching for someone to head a prestigious university research lab. To start with, he is not an academic – he is an internet entrepreneur, a venture capitalist and a former disc jockey. And, if that were not enough against him, he dropped out of university. Twice.

But not every lab is like the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which turned 25 last year, is world famous for its “renegade” research environment and creative and wacky projects that combine design with cutting-edge technology. It is responsible for, among other things, the electronic ink technology that e-readers use to simulate printed paper; for Guitar Hero, the hit video game in which players simulate playing the guitar in rock songs; for Lego Mindstorms robotics building kits and for the XO-1 laptop, a budget computer designed to be distributed to children in developing countries around the world as part of the One Laptop per Child project.

Nicholas Negroponte set up the Media Lab to explore human-machine interaction and the life-enhancing possibilities of new technology. He led it from its start until he stepped down as director in 2000. Ito, who took over in September, is the third person to head the lab since the departure of its founder; he took the reins from Frank Moss, professor of the practice of media arts and sciences at MIT.

“I was surprised as well,” Ito says of his appointment. The 45-year-old, who recently served as chief executive of the open licensing technology non-profit organisation Creative Commons, was an early investor in more than 40 technology start-ups, including Twitter and Flickr. But he admits that, until now, his experience of universities “hadn’t been great”.

Ito says he dropped out of university – once from studying computer science at Tufts University in Massachusetts and once from studying physics at the University of Chicago – because the learning environment did not suit him. This was not because he lacked respect for formal education but, as he sees it, because his brain was wired to learn by pursuing passion and interest rather than by attempting to absorb the contents of lectures and books. For this reason the Media Lab is a good fit, because it is a “whole class of people who are kind of like me”. The appointment committee wanted someone whose sole project was going to be the lab, Ito thinks.

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