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MIRED: Negroponte's Wacky Columns Embarrass MIT

One of the greatest advantages of being a former president, according to George Bush, is that you don't have to take a position on everything. If that's so, then Professor of Media Technology Nicholas P. Negroponte, director of the Media Laboratory, would make a very poor former president.

Negroponte, who writes a regular column for the magazine he founded, Wired, has gone on record on everything from the high cost of canine air travel to the appropriate length of fish. Taken together, Negroponte's columns stand as one of the goofiest set of essays ever composed.

As one would expect, Negroponte's columns typically address issues related to information technology, particularly the Internet. The Internet is certainly an interesting subject, both in terms of its technology and its societal effects. When people in industry, politics, and the press want to know about the 'net, they turn to MIT, and hence, to Negroponte. To a large extent, this man speaks for us.

"Doesn't that sound screwy?" Negroponte asks rhetorically in one of his columns. He is referring to the publication of telephone books by AT&T spinoffs. All these books amount to, Negroponte lectures, is a heap of useless atoms; their contents should be reduced to bits alone.

To most Americans, bits are things that come in orange juice; to Negroponte, they are the essence of life itself. "Bits" is Negroponte's jargon for raw information; "atoms" refers to regular matter, which most media rely upon.

The way Negroponte throws words like bits and atoms around, you would think they were in actual usage beyond the confines of the Media Lab. For Negroponte, being digital, or knowing how to use a computer, implies getting silly with the English language.

In many respects, I really admire what Negroponte is doing. He built the Media Lab from ground up, and the people with money really eat up his digital dog and pony show to the point where both he and the Media Lab are rolling in the dough. What's more, I admire Negroponte for having the moxie to bring his eccentric vision before the popular public. Many MIT professors are stuffed so tightly into their ivory towers they haven't the leg muscle to make the stoop. Wacky or not, Negroponte is a voice where none existed before.

Nevertheless, Negoponte's monthly column seems to be going to his head. His comments have spilled over the levee that formerly separated them from total insanity. One recent month's message made for a particularly egregious example. Negroponte, it seems, has discovered that countries are the wrong size for the Internet:

"My gripe with the nation-state is that it is just the wrong size," Negroponte whines. The nerve of those cocky cartographers, drawing our countries so big. Darn Congress of Vienna!

Taking the rhetoric down a notch, Negroponte also manages to find time to complain about his phone bill - in Greece. It turns out they overcharged him, and when he called to complain, they were just downright rude. That would never happen, he tells us, in a country where they have decentralized, Internet-like competition, now would it?

No issue, it seems, is too small for the visionary Negroponte. His laptop, for example, is frequently made the object of Internet-related lessons. Third-world countries are exhorted to supply more electrical outlets for recharging his laptop. How does Negroponte find electrical outlets in a pinch? "Think like a janitor," he says. Negroponte, we learn, prides himself on being the first to locate jacks in airplane vestibule areas. Hotel maids the world over, finding their recharging service carts unplugged in the middle of the night, have only the Negropontes of the universe to blame.

Most of all, Negroponte uses his soap-box to tell the world just how gosh-darn excited he is about the Internet, being digital, yadda yadda yadda. For people who don't know about the Internet yet, this can't be terribly enlightening. For those who are already digital, we'd trade our kingdoms for some substance - or bits, as it were.

Negroponte's special style of boosterism is a dandy expression of his own optimism about the future of technology and society. Unfortunately, this boosterism has largely stood in the way of his actually contributing anything to the discussion about it. Digital or not, fluff by any other name is still fluff.