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Filmed on Wednesday April 17, 02013

Nicholas Negroponte

Beyond Digital

Nicholas Negroponte founded the MIT Media Lab and the One Laptop per Child Association. He is the author of Being Digital and was the first investor (and a leading columnist) in Wired magazine.

It’s far easier to predict the future when you are helping make and distribute it. Nicholas Negroponte exemplifies this with his notable accomplishments, including co-founding the MIT Media Lab, being the first investor in WIRED magazine, and co-founding the One Laptop Per Child program.

His 01995 book Being Digital gave a glimpse into the world we now occupy--complete with wireless, touch screens, ebooks and personalized news. In this talk, “Beyond Digital”, Negroponte will once again give us a glimpse of the possibilities that lie ahead.

A world of convergence

In education, Negroponte explained, there’s a fundamental distinction between "instructionism" and "constructionism." "Constructionism is learning by discovery, by doing, by making. Instructionism is learning by being told." Negroponte’s lifelong friend Seymour Papert noted early on that debugging computer code is a form of "learning about learning" and taught it to young children.

Thus in 2000 when Negroponte left the Media Lab he had founded in 1985, he set out upon the ultimate constructionist project, called "One Laptop per Child." His target is the world’s 100 million kids who are not in school because no school is available. Three million of his laptops and tablets are now loose in the world. One experiment in an Ethiopian village showed that illiterate kids can take unexplained tablets, figure them out on their own, and begin to learn to read and even program.

In the "markets versus mission" perspective, Negroponte praised working through nonprofits because they are clearer and it is easier to partner widely with people and other organizations. He added that "start-up businesses are sucking people out of big thinking. So many minds that used to think big are now thinking small because their VCs tell them to ‘focus.’"

As the world goes digital, Negroponte noted, you see pathologies of left over "atoms thinking." Thus newspapers imagine that paper is part of their essence, telecoms imagine that distance should cost more, and nations imagine that their physical boundaries matter. "Nationalism is the biggest disease on the planet," Negroponte said. "Nations have the wrong granularity. They’re too small to be global and too big to be local, and all they can think about is competing." He predicted that the world is well on the way to having one language, English.

Negroponte reflected on a recent visit to a start-up called Modern Meadow, where they print meat. "You get just the steak---no hooves and ears involved, using one percent of the water and half a percent of the land needed to get the steak from a cow." In every field we obsess on the distinction between synthetic and natural, but in a hundred years "there will be no difference between them."

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We would also like to recognize George Cowan (1920 - 2012) for being the first to sponsor this series.