Penn State

Brian K. Smith - associate professor of information sciences and technology, affiliate professor of education and of computer science and engineering, Penn State University Park

Book Title: The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT

Author: Stewart Brand

Book Description:

I was a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering when my father gave me this book in 1987. I assume he thought I'd find it interesting. I don't think he imagined it would change my life.

The early Media Laboratory was *the* place to be in the 1980s to see how computing could intersect with the arts, education, and all things humanistic. Stewart Brand documented the lab's technologies and the unique, interdisciplinary group of researchers that lived, worked, and played in the building. Both were equally fascinating, as they combined to form a sort of counterculture to established, academic computer science.

In fact, they were so fascinating that I read the book several times, then went to an administrative office at UCLA and switched my major to computer science and engineering. The remainder of my undergraduate career was dedicated to becoming a graduate student at the Media Lab. I applied in 1991 and was invited for an interview.

Unfortunately, I didn't make the final cut. However, I went on to pursue graduate studies at another startup lab, Northwestern's Institute for the Learning Sciences, another life changing move that prepared me for a second invitation to the Media Lab in 1997. The next five years as an assistant professor of media arts and sciences was perhaps the most influential period of my research career.

The lab has changed over time, and many of the technologies that appear in the book are now mainstream and/or outdated. But it is still relevant, as it tells the story of a young research team that defied tradition to develop new models for interdisciplinary research. It also inspired a generation of young students (myself included) to understand computation as a means to fundamentally improve human lifestyles. As a tenured faculty member, it is my responsibility to inspire a new generation of students to understand that the product of good research is better people. For me, this understanding started with the adventures of the Media Lab pioneers.

Demo or die, invent and iterate, make the future of tomorrow...the night before it's due.


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