Transcript of Nicholas Negroponte Interview

You're back with Silicon Valley Radio. Nicholas Negroponte, the founder of Wired magazine and director of MIT's Media Lab, peers into his crystal ball and predicts the future of the Internet. With a perpetual tan, a love of fine wine and a polished presentational style, Negroponte is an urbane spokesman for the Internet. His new book, Being Digital, explores the cultural impact of digital technology.

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Is there a chance that the Web still might become a novelty, that it might just disappear?
Nicholas Negroponte: No. There's no chance of that anymore. It might take an incarnation that we don't like in the sense that it becomes more one-way than network, but I even doubt that.
SVR: When will the Web become a mass medium? When will it become truly a vital medium?
Negroponte: It'll become a mass medium, obviously, at different rates in different places. For kids in the United States, it'll become a mass medium much sooner than it will for adults in a developing country. The roadblocks that will appear will first of all be the telecommunications regulations. In countries like Germany and Italy at the moment -- the local loop, as it's called -- the tariffs are being doubled so the permanent access charge is getting higher. So that's going to be, for people in those countries, a major setback. Other kinds of delays, I think, will be for just searching it.

The signal-to-noise ratio at the moment is something that kids might be able to tolerate, browsing and playing with it, but adults pretty quickly tire of that. So you've got to have better search engines. And then, to really look at it sort of globally, the cost of PCs has got to go down. And I don't want to argue about a Net computer versus a PC.

SVR: When you say Net computer, do you refer to what Sun's proposing?
Negroponte: Yes, I'm talking about whether it's Sun or whether it's Oracle or whether it's other people who are specifying machines that are more or less dedicated Internet machines, which is not a bad idea, but in my mind will be implemented badly. And I say that just on a hunch. I haven't seen the actual plans, but what worries me is that they're going to be closed systems, they're going to not be modular, not be scalable; you won't be able to add on and turn it into a more robust PC. The disk drive, in some sense, is the cheapest piece of the machine. So to pull it out to save money is questionable, but if you do that, you should certainly make it so that you can plug one back in.
SVR: You said that advertising needs to change or will change from the banner model that we're seeing now. How's it going to change? What are your visions for a more effective advertising model for the Web?
Negroponte: For me, the most effective advertising model comes more from direct mail than from billboards. Direct mail is interesting. Historically, we have called it junk mail. But if done right, it might be the mail we actually cherish the most. There's a bit of a contradiction, because in order to do that you have to release a lot of information about yourself, and normally you don't want to do that.

So you need, perhaps, an intermediary that acts a little bit like a Swiss bank to store that information. But let's presume you had a method of taking very personal information about me and mapping it against products, services, sales opportunities, airplane seats, travel. That could then be sent to me as news, not just advertising. And the difference between news and advertising then becomes a very thin one. I think that what's going to be on the Net will be the more interesting advertising model versus what we now have, which is really very much like billboards on the street.

SVR: Everyone I've talked to here at this conference and everyone I've interviewed has expressed some concern about Microsoft getting on board. List a handful of concerns you have with Microsoft taking control.
Negroponte: You know, I don't have those concerns. I think the Net is bigger than any of us. It's a collective force and intelligence that's bigger than any of us. I also have gained an enormous respect for Bill Gates. In the past year, I think he's changed, personally.
SVR: Did you have that respect before?
Negroponte: I didn't know him as well before, and I see a much more thoughtful young man. I think he reflects a lot more. I think he's a lot less arrogant than he was. And I think that's slowly being reflected in the company. I've heard him give some very thoughtful speeches in the last six months. He's been to TED two or three times in the past five years and delivered very silly speeches. I think somewhere between arrogant and silly. There's sort of a new Bill right now, and I think that is matched with the fact that Microsoft is perfectly competent.
SVR: Let's make a breach for a second. You've been called arrogant yourself.
Negroponte: Oh, yes.
SVR: How do you like to be perceived?
Negroponte: I don't think about how I'm perceived at all. Maybe part of being arrogant is not caring. Arrogance is something that comes from youth. I'm certainly a lot less arrogant now than I was when I was younger, because I think you look back and you're sort of somewhat embarrassed, and you say, god, did I really say that?

And yet, at the time, it kind of served a little purpose. It made you feel more self-assured. And I think that when you get to my age, you have to realize that arrogance doesn't pay off. It doesn't have really a value. You've got to really encourage other people to help people sort of achieve what they're going to do, and very often that's not done through arrogance.

SVR: How do you strike a balance between arrogance and generosity?
Negroponte: It depends on who you're dealing with. Sometimes you can meet a real jerk at a conference who says something that is really silly, and you sort of wind up your arrogance and mean button and you sort of do a fair amount of damage. But I think most of the time you really have to be, you know, generous. I mean, my career, it's not that it's over, OK?

But I think of the things that the various presidents of MIT put up with, and the kinds of stupidities I said when I was younger, and stupidities I did -- and yet people had the generosity to sort of ignore those and sort of notice what might have been a signal in the noise and let me go on. I have an enormous respect for that and like to do that today for the 350 people at the media lab.

SVR: Do you see networks developing on the Web?
Negroponte: There already are networks. There's a network I've learned about recently where couples have gotten together and one spouse suffers from Alzheimer's? That's an extraordinary concept when you think about it because it really is now a network, it's the human network, obviously, connected electronically. A subset of the Internet that has no geographical proximity but something in common, which is in this case somewhat tragic. But they support each other and so on. So I think you'll see that kind of subnet grow very, very rapidly.
SVR: As a wine enthusiast, have you used the Web at all to find information about wine or wineries?
Negroponte: I'm one of the financial backers of Virtual Vineyards, so I am indeed very interested in the subject. I haven't had the time to look at auctions and things, which I understand are out there, but I just haven't done it.
SVR: How will the Web change society? How might it change the younger generation of people?
Negroponte: Well, it changes them in one way very immediately in that it gives them access that they really didn't have. They get access to other young people. It gives them access to people who wouldn't give them the time of day over a telephone, let alone face to face. I think that kids find now on the Net a certain resonance and sort of understanding where they previously might have had to beat their head against something, and they went to school and found that the teachers didn't quite understand, and then they went home and they found their parents didn't understand, and maybe even their immediate circle of friends didn't. So it gives them a sort of wider circle.
SVR: I was surprised to find out that the largest growing market is that of senior citizens.
Negroponte: It's a wonderful way to communicate with children and grandchildren. My mother is now a regular user. My parents, who are both alive and well, never understood what I did. It was just gobbledygook as far as they were concerned. And these are people who speak seven languages and read books all the time and are very literary and theatergoing, they're European and live in Europe and sort of live in some sense the opposite of a digital life. And then one day, because I'm a fanatic about my e-mail, I logged in and found this message in a private mailbox from Catherine at America Online. And I said, 'Oh my god, someone's found my private mailbox.' And it was my mother. My son had taught my mother how to use it, and now I get a message a day.
SVR: Who do you think are real visionaries?
Negroponte: The most interesting things I hear about the Net are people you've never heard of who have just neat little ideas. I heard last week of a game, an idea for electronic games, where multiuser games would be played over the Net in sort of 3-D role-playing environments. And what this particular game did, amongst other things, was compute the latency. So that if, when I went through a door, I was actually going from my machine into your machine, it would compute the latency, and the door would kind of stick a little bit. And when it finally opened, you didn't really know there was any latency, but it kind of felt like it was part of the game.

If for some reason your machine was down, the handle would break off in my hand, and I wouldn't be able to go into that door. And so it would be part of the game, and you'd feel it would be written into the script on the fly. And I thought, 'God, what an interesting, simple, nice idea. What a great idea.' Now, that's not a big, visionary view of the Net, but it's just a nice, little idea. I come across, I would say, one a day like that, and it's the rate of these ideas that's just terrific.

SVR: When is 3-D technology really going to take off and be less of a cartoon and more of a graphic reality?
Negroponte: Oh, it'll do it very quickly. As Intel starts shipping 500-megahertz Pentiums and 1000-megahertz Pentiums, they're going to have to do something with all that power, and 3-D will be that something.
SVR: What are some of your interests? I know you're a wine enthusiast, but what are some other things that you enjoy when you're not dealing with technology or when you're away from MIT?
Negroponte: I do collect wines, and I really enjoy cooking. It's a fact that until this year, we kept a house in France just for that reason -- to cook. At this point, I spend a fair amount of my time just trying to get away and be alone with my wife. Being away has kind of almost become such a luxury that we joke between ourselves that we look for boring. Let's see where we can find boring. Where is boring in the middle of August? And you might have to go to someplace in France to find boring in the middle of August, where nobody else is because they've all gone to the coast or something.
SVR: Were you interested in technology as a kid?
Negroponte: I was always interested in technology. And so I went through grammar school and high school always doing two things -- being good at math and being good at art -- and I decided that what I would do is take those two and put them together and go to architecture school, because that seemed to be the real mix. Which I did -- I went to architecture school and actually got two professional degrees in the field. But it turned out that wasn't really it; the real mix turned out to be computing.

I did my second professional degree in computer-aided design or what was then called computer-aided design. And computer-aided design led to computer graphics, which led to human-computer interface, which led to building sort of memory-based video systems, etcetera, etcetera. And by 1973, '74, we were building more out of integrated circuits than we even do today in the laboratory. And it was a real sort of computer shop.

SVR: Do you think if Frank Lloyd Wright was around today, he'd be interested in the Internet?
Negroponte: Oh, I think he'd be fascinated with the Internet, as would Buckminster Fuller, even more than Frank Lloyd Wright. Frank Lloyd Wright might have dismissed it as not something that he would be interested in, but Bucky Fuller would have taken it on.
SVR: What are your future ambitions?
Negroponte: Oh, dear. I guess my future ambition is to deal with the question of who the second billion users on the Net will be. And that really has to do with the developing world. There's got to be a way to bring computing, communication, the Internet to schools throughout the world and countries that don't have the kind of economic advancement we have. For the moment, that is my preoccupation.


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