Nicholas Negroponte is the co-founder (with Jerome B. Wiesner) of the MIT Media Lab (1985), which he directed for its first 20 years. A graduate of MIT, Negroponte was a pioneer in the field of computer-aided design and has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1966. He gave the first TED talk in 1984, as well as 13 since. He is author of the 1995 best seller, Being Digital, which has been translated into more than 40 languages. In 2005 he founded the non-profit One Laptop per Child, which deployed $1 billion of laptops for primary education in the developing world. In the private sector, Negroponte served on the board of directors of Motorola (for 15 years) and was general partner in a venture capital firm specializing in digital technologies for information and entertainment. He has personally provided start-up funds for more than 40 companies, including Zagats and Wired magazine.
Question: Which of the projects in your career has been the most difficult?
Nicholas Negroponte: It's hard to compare them. One Laptop per Child had the most difficulty and frustration in the sense that it included aspects that I was no good at doing that had to be done. But more important than that, it included things that I didn't anticipate, like the commercial interests fighting against us. I entered the project thinking we had this Mother Theresa shield around us because we're a humanitarian project, we're a non-profit, I don't draw a salary. I mean, I thought that that would isolate us from the normal battlefield of the commercial world and we found that that wasn't the case. I mean, people might wear gloves in public, but they certainly took them off in private and did things behind our backs that were quite frustrating, and I found that difficult.
Media Lab was different. The Media Lab was really amplifying the work of other people. And my job was to make it possible for them to do their research. It was not a management issue, I wasn't running their research, I wasn't even trying to determine it. What I was doing was trying to enable it and that could be making the environment, whether it was physical environment, economical environment, or social environment for those things to happen. So, there were very different challenges and very different periods in one's life.
In the case of the laptop, I had come to a stage in life where I didn't need to earn an income, I didn't need to earn a reputation, I didn't need fame, I didn't need any of the things you might want in your early career. And I knew a lot of people and had certain credibility because of MIT and the Media Lab, so it seemed like we were the right people to do something like the "One Laptop per Child," and sort of break the spell that had been created by companies adding more hardware features that then had more software, that then had more hardware, that then had more software, and the thing sort of gets to this obese state where, I'm going to use laptops in this case, were all like SUV's, they required more fuel to move the vehicle than the passenger. And how could you break that spell? How could you make something child-centric?
Well, one of the ways you could do that is if you had nothing to lose. If you had no other interests and that was our case. And it allowed us to do what then led to the so-called Netbook, and Netbooks today represent 30% of the work market of laptops. And that's a rather interesting change because it's as if I had come to you five years ago and said, "I think we should build an electric car," and I built an electric car and then today, one-third of all cars are electric, I'd feel pretty good about that. They don't happen to be my electric cars in those cases, but they are still, nonetheless electric in that example. And the same thing has happened with One Laptop per Child, that it gave birth to something that then had these other effects that now people can enjoy pretty good computing power, smaller machines, lighter machines, very inexpensive machines. And some of those will migrate to kids in Africa, and it's not just ours.
Recorded on December 4, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen