Nicholas Negroponte: Muse to the Future

Nick Negroponte. —Sam Moore
The founder of the Media Lab and One Laptop per Child talks technology, philanthropy, and angel investing.

Nicholas Negroponte has been a herald of the digital era, and authored the best-selling “Being Digital” (1995), about the growth and future of technology. Trained as an architect, he transitioned into computer science, and began MIT’s Media Lab in 1985, which continues to be the leading force in the development of ideas at the convergence of technology, multimedia, art, and design. He has given 18 TED talks, the most recent a retrospective titled “A 30-Year History of the Future.”

He also founded and led One Laptop per Child, an acclaimed nonprofit that created and distributed millions of quality, low-cost educational devices to children in the developing world. Nicholas and his wife Deborah Porter, the founder of the Boston Book Festival, are nearing the completion of a house in Chilmark. Mr. Negroponte recently sat down to talk to Arts & Ideas Magazine.

Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz: Welcome to Martha’s Vineyard! Tell me about your new place.
Nicholas Negroponte: I studied architecture, but never practiced. I always wanted to build a house. I lucked out on a piece of land that had never been built on, on Squibnocket.

NBH: Have you decked it out with all the latest smart-home tech?
NN: Very little. It’s almost anti-smart home design. The light switches, for example, are not electronic. It’s almost a little retro in that sense. We’ll be able to turn on and off the heat from a distance, but that’s not very advanced. Simplicity is key. We think of it as a beach house. Where we have put a great deal of effort is in solar panels on the roof, to make it possible to live off the grid. The reason I have an electric car is that it will live on Martha’s Vineyard, eventually. The idea of the house powering itself, and the car[s], I find that very, very attractive.

NBH: How did you choose the Vineyard?
NN: We’ve had a home on a Greek island for almost 50 years. It’s a wonderful place to spend time, but it takes 30 hours to get there if everything works right. There’s no airport. You go to Athens, to Piraeus, and take a 10-hour boat ride. So we decided to move our center of gravity to Martha’s Vineyard partly because of grandchildren, and so people can make it out on weekends. It’s every bit as nice as Greece, but a lot closer.

NBH: Did your education in architecture inform your career in technology?
NN: I cherish my design education. If I did it all over again, I’d do that again in a nanosecond. In high school, I was very good at art and math. After four years of architecture, I realized the intersection of art and math was computers, so I quickly moved into computer-aided design. That morphed into human-computer interaction, graphics, and then into the Media Lab. When I look back, the trump card that I enjoyed was having studied design.

NBH: What’s your background?
NN: I’m entirely Greek, the first in my family to be born in the U.S. My parents were visitors, 1938-1970. My brothers and I grew up here; we stayed, and they went back to Europe, living mostly in England and Switzerland.

NBH: Right, you went to several schools. Buckley, Choate, Le Rosey —
NN: And others. I wish I could say I was thrown out of one of them, but I don’t have that badge of honor. I used to go back and forth to Europe as a function of my father’s ski habits, because in addition to being a shipowner, he was also an Olympic skier in 1936.

NBH: Are you any good on the slopes?
NN: I was, but you know, like often happens, you sometimes rebel. My older brother is the good skier.

NBH: You have three brothers, all rather successful: a former U.S. deputy secretary of state, an Emmy winner, and an accomplished artist. What was in the water growing up?
NN: It was a privileged household, so we had grown up in an international, well-educated, and multilingual environment. When we played Trivial Pursuit, my father corrected the cards — that sort of thing. At the dinner table, people would end sentences in a different language than they started. It was also the type of household where the highest calling was civic service.

One Laptop per Child distributed roughly 3 million laptops to children around the world. —On Laptop per Child

One Laptop per Child distributed roughly 3 million laptops to children around the world. —On Laptop per Child

NBH: In that vein of civic service, where’s One Laptop per Child at these days?
NN: We distributed roughly 3 million laptops in less than two years as a nonprofit. When we sold laptops, we sold them at cost. There was no sales team, certainly no advertising. What One Laptop per Child did do that hasn’t been documented, and it’s a rather wonderful little piece of success, we brought the price down everywhere.
If I went to a head of state and said, You ought to do a million laptops, I knew that by law the country required an open tender. Buying at that scale has to be a competitive bid. Usually submissions to such bids were secret, but we, in contrast, would publish ours way in advance. We just had to announce the lowest possible plausible price. That would pull everyone else down. We estimate that there are about 50 million laptops in the hands of kids who wouldn’t have otherwise gotten them, not because we made those laptops, but because we pulled the prices down. People might remember that little green and white laptop, but the real success was lowered cost worldwide.
The country that did the best was Uruguay. It was the poster child. Nicaragua and Rwanda were also pretty good.Today, 10 years later, it has become a collection of domestic programs. One Laptop per Child HQ, in Miami, no longer exists.

NBH: What happened?
NN: We had to make a decision: Are we going to be in the laptop business in the long term? In order to fulfill a promise to provide laptops, we would have to keep an active engineering program, distribution channels, and — the hardest — a maintenance, repair, and software-update program. There was a Catch-22: If you wanted to keep doing this, to be in the laptop business, it was very different and difficult as a nonprofit. Now Uruguay does it as a civic responsibility.

NBH: Any regrets there?
NN: We said it would be $100. It never got below $150, to be honest. We were beaten up a lot. There was a point where I found that the biggest obstacles for us were those created by commercial interests. We spent far too much time fighting with Microsoft and Intel. And they were both ruthless, absolutely ruthless. I thought I had this Mother Teresa shield around me. First of all, it was a nonprofit, I took no salary whatsoever, most of our software people were part of the open-source community, not getting paid. There were a great many volunteers, and it seemed to me somewhat inappropriate to compete with us in a manner more suitable for commercial rivals. It’s almost as if the World Food Program had to compete with McDonald’s.

NBH: You’ve also had a fairly prolific stint as an angel investor. What’ve been your favorite investments?
NN: My net was probably 0. The only two investments that made money were Wired magazine and a Chinese Internet company, Sohu, and everything else was pretty much breakeven, at best.

NBH: Your other predictions, however, have been very successful.
NN: I tend not to make predictions, just extrapolations of what we were doing in the Media Lab. Let me tease it apart. If you look at my first TED talk in 1984, you’ll see touch-sensitive displays, connected speech recognition, and e-books: Those are simple extrapolations, not predictions. We had a flat-panel display in the lab in 1974. It was a piece of glass 6 inches by 6 inches, 64 x 64 black-and-white pixels, 20 percent of which were broken: nonetheless, a precursor of a tablet. It’s not hard to imagine those pixels all working, instead of 64 x 64 to be a 2000 x 2000, eventually color, all of that stuff. To project those forward is simple extrapolation.

NBH: What about some extrapolation that was perhaps a complete dud?
NN: I spoke about speech recognition at least two decades before it happened, and misjudged it enormously. I thought it would happen much sooner. And I never even touched on social networks. It may be less about duds and more about things that just didn’t happen for a long time. Some felt obvious, like color displays — I found myself arguing for color, against so-called “technical arguments” for why color wasn’t a good idea, was confusing, why monochrome had more “clarity.”

NBH: What’s your real focus now?
NN: Well, besides building a house on Martha’s Vineyard, I’ve been spending most of my time in the connectivity equivalent of One Laptop per Child. Namely, if connectivity were considered a human right, and considered more like roads and streetlights, you could quickly connect everyone in the world at a surprisingly low cost.
I’ve been working with low-Earth-orbiting, LEO, satellites. As soon as you’re at that low-orbiting altitude — above 100 miles — you’re outside of the jurisdiction of countries. That means you do not need to get their permission, and you can basically connect every square inch of the world.
There are a few LEOs in design at the moment; they tend to be very commercially oriented. These things take three to four years to launch and put into orbit; the cost is not outrageous. You could do the whole world for $5 billion, and say another $5 billion to operate it for 10 years. Our weekly expenditure in Afghanistan was $2 billion. Go figure.

NBH: You’ve done many interviews, many TED talks, but what’s something you’re never asked that you’d like to answer?
NN: The question I’m not asked, but love to think about — have we swung too far toward being entrepreneurial, doing startups, and being your own boss?

NBH: You should meet some of my friends.
NN: Everybody wants to start a company. The result: Those people are being sucked out of big and long-term thinking. It used to be otherwise — one could count on a certain number of people, graduating from places like MIT and Harvard, tackling the really hard, long-term problems.
Today there’s a rather foolish expression, I hate it, used often by Mark Zuckerberg: “Fail fast.” What that typically means is, You throw the spaghetti at the wall; if it does not stick, throw something else. There is a thin line between trial and error and attention deficit. What happens in this approach is that really hard, long-term, often basic problems go untackled, with not enough people doing them. Rather than address nuclear fusion, you’re going to have another food-delivery app. This is happening now to a degree that will have a long-term, negative impact. The larger concept of competition, the dog-eat-dog mentality, is also going to cost us in the long term.
We may be turning a small corner. I may be dreaming, but I think your generation [the writer is a junior at Harvard] is a bit more concerned about making the world a better place than people of your age 20 or 30 years ago. There are plenty of ways to change the world without thinking of everything as a business.

NBH: Could you say a little more about that?
NN: I think what happens, particularly with the way startups are financed, venture capital comes in, whether it’s an angel round or a proper series A, saying the new F-word. It is “focus.” They tell you to focus on something, so by definition an already small idea is going to get even smaller.
Furthermore, you are encouraged to become cash-flow-positive, which is a silly idea. It means being even smaller. You should be pushing the idea, and when you get to a cliff, raise more money because the idea is so good. Once you get cash-flow-positive, you’re almost destined to stop growing your idea.
In your field, in biotech, there’s perhaps more happening today that qualifies as big thinking. However, if you take some of the really big thinking in biotech, we really don’t want it locked up in a company. You want it to be open and as widely published as possible, for others to build on, rather than to keep it proprietary and as somebody’s competitive advantage.

NBH: You’ve made a life in technology, but do any of your devices still give you trouble? A printer, perhaps?
NN: The real question is how many times a day.

Nathaniel Brooks Horwitz is a junior at Harvard majoring in molecular biology with a focus on translational biotechnology. He graduated from Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School in 2014.

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