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Smoke and Mirrors

Douglas E. Heimburger

Several times a year, a flock of high-flying corporate executives sweep through MIT. They don't come for the latest in chemistry or biology or the newest technological innovations at the Laboratory forComputer Science.

Instead, they come to the Media Laboratory, for high-priced reassurance that they are on the cutting edgeof technology. They come for wine-and-cheese receptions and black-tie events as well as demonstrations from undergraduate and graduate researchers of their latest toy and gadget creations.

Yet behind all the smoke and mirror glitter of the Media Lab is an organization that really isn't on the cutting edge of the future of computing for real people. While the lab may impress its corporate sponsors, it really isn't producing much that will affect the average American within the next decade.

There are exceptions, such as the successful launch of Firefly, a software package that helps consumers make product choices. But in reality there isn't much demand today for networked toys that recognize you upon entry or $30 name tags that determine when you're "compatible"with a person that you're talking with.These represent uses of modern technology, but in no way are they truly cutting-edge.

Instead, the Media Lab provides a solution for corporations and particularly their executives that want to be able to say that they're supporting cutting-edge technology. By giving a quarter of a million dollars or more to the lab each year, they receive no assurances that they'll receive anything useful at all. Instead, they receive invitations to schmooze-fests where they are reassured that they're on the cutting edge of society.

These events are masterfully prepared and executed, and often don't even make any attempt to involve the MITcommunity at large - which may actually have the cutting edge products that these executives desire.

What does the Media Lab do for the Institute community as a whole? They don't have an undergraduate program yet, instead only offering many cushy Undergraduate ResearchOpportunities Program positions. Their graduate program is more well-known, but as a whole the lab only offers around 50 classes - four of which are for undergraduates; less than even the poorly-known Health Sciences and Technology program.

Indeed, why is the Media Lab affiliated with MIT at all?From an educational standpoint, there really isn't that much going on. The research could just as easily be conducted at a joint-venture with the companies that currently contribute to the lab.

Indeed, the lab generally uses MIT's reputation and high tech nature to gain its funds and its love from executives. Corporations attribute the Institute as being a haven of high technology, and thus contribute to the lab. Its smoke screen of demos reassures them that they are on the top of technology, even as its researchers reap the benefits.