The New E-xpressionists18

Au Salon des Refusés

The original concept for the Media Lab was to take both human interface and artificial intelligence research in new directions. The new wrinkle was to shape them by the content of information systems, the demands of consumer applications, the nature of artistic thought. The idea was marketed to the broadcasting, publishing, and computer industries as the convergence of the sensory richness of video, the information depth of publishing, and the intrinsic interactivity of computers. Sounds so logical today, but at the time the idea was considered silly. The New York Times reported that one unidentified senior faculty member thought all the people affiliated with this venture were "charlatans."

The Media Lab is in a building designed by architect I. M. Pei (which Pei designed just after the extension of the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., and just before the pyramid of the Louvre in Paris). It took almost seven years to finance, construct, and assemble the faculty.

As in 1863, when the Paris art establishment declined to let the Impressionists into its official show, the founding faculty members of the Media Lab became a Salon des Refusés and had one of their own, in some cases too radical for their academic department, in some cases too extraneous to their department, and in one case with no department at all. Aside from Jerome Wiesner and myself, the group was composed of a filmmaker, a graphic designer, a composer, a physicist, two mathematicians, and a group of research staff who, among other things, had invented multimedia in the preceding years.

We came together in the early 1980s as a counterculture to the establishment of computer science, which at the time was still preoccupied with programming languages, operating systems, network protocols, and system architectures. The common bond was not a discipline, but a belief that computers would dramatically alter and affect the quality of life through their ubiquity, not just in science, but in every aspect of living.

The time was right because personal computers were being born, the user interface was beginning to be seen as central, and the telecommunications industry was being deregulated. Owners and managers of newspapers, magazines, books, movie studios, and television stations were starting to ask themselves what the future might hold. Savvy media moguls, like Steve Ross and Dick Munro of Time Warner, had an intuition about the unfolding digital age. Investing in a lunatic start-up at MIT was an inexpensive hedge. Thus we grew rapidly to three hundred people.

Today, the Media Lab is the establishment. The Internet surfers are the crazy kids on the block. The digerati have moved beyond multimedia into something closer to a real life-style than an intellectual manifesto. Their nuptials are in cyberspace. They call themselves bitniks and cybraians. Their social mobility covers the planet. Today, they are the Salon des Refusés, but their salon is not a café in Paris or an I. M. Pei building in Cambridge. Their salon is somewhere on the Net. It is being digital.

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