Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

07 JUNE, 2011

The Sorcerers & Their Apprentices: The Untold Story of MIT Media Lab

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What jazz-playing robots have to do with intelligent cars, the future of reading and augmented intuition.

Since its inception by Nicholas Negroponte in 1985, the MIT Media Lab has become a potent petri dish of innovation, churning out some of the smartest, most exciting, most optimistic technology-driven promises for a better tomorrow. From humanoid robots to e-ink to smart city cars, the lab continually pushes the bleeding-edge of what MoMA’s Paola Antonelli calls “humanized technology” — objects, devices and systems that enrich and empower our lives. Now, the fascinating story of the MIT Media Lab is finally told in full in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives — a fantastic new book by Frank Moss, who spearheaded the lab’s vision and operations between 2006 and April of this year, when he was replaced by Joi Ito.

Moss, whose formal background is in aerospace engineering and who became an early tech entrepreneur before taking over the lab, pulls the curtain on what Google’s Eric Schmidt calls “the creative chaos” behind the remarkable inner workings of this hub of human genius.

The book really is about people and their passion, how they go about inventing. So often today people write books and talk about innovation as if it were a business process. True creativity and invention, which are the seed of innovation, come from people and they come from the stories of people. They come from their backgrounds, their passions, what moves them, the things that worry them, the things that are their dreams.” ~ Frank Moss

For a taste of the kind of astonishing, jaw-dropping, all-inspiring brilliance that emanates from the lab and its projects, look no further than the incredible Sixth Sense wearable gestural interface project by Patti Maes and Pranav Mistry, demoed at TED in 2009:

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent review and Amazon has a fascinating (but ironically un-embeddable) video tour of the lab as Moss talks about the book.

More than anything, The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices is a fresh breath of optimism amidst a culture of techno-dystopia 30 years in the making, offering a surprisingly believable blueprint for the kind of innovation that maybe, just maybe, can abate our worst nightmares and materialize our greatest dreams for the future.

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26 MAY, 2011

Follow For Now: A Time-Capsule of Contemporary Thought

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What the changing guard of design has to do with evolutionary theories of network dynamics.

Much of today’s fixation on retrofuturism and the paleofuture meme has to do with the pleasure we take in fact-checking the visions and predictions of the past against the commonly agreed upon reality of the present. And while there’s an undeniable luster to the shiny jetpack visions of yesteryear’s gadget-dreaming, what I find even more fascinating are the cultural and intellectual movements that powered these visions. In Follow for Now: Interviews with Friends and Heroes, Roy Christopher collects over seven years’ worth of conversations with contemporary cultural luminaries, including TED founder Richard Saul Wurman, street artist and remix culture frontman Shepard Fairey, science fiction author Bruce Sterling, Brain Pickings favorite DJ Spooky and 39 more.

The book was originally published in 2007, which makes it a rare, paradoxical and infinitely fertile cross between sort-of-contemporary cultural critique of the present and near-prophetic time-capsule of the recent past, swiftly fluttering across disciplines and ideologies to deliver a powerful cross-pollinator of modern intellectual and creative curiosity.

I love Steven Johnson, so it’s no surprise his interview is one of my favorites. Here, he captures precisely where I stand on the debate on what the internet is doing to our brains and the future of information:

Popular culture, on average, has been growing more cognitively challenging over the past thirty years, not less. Despite everything you hear about declining standards and dumbing-down, you have to do more intellectual work to make sense of today’s television or games — much less the internet — than you did a few decades ago.” ~ Steven Johnson, No Bitmaps for These Territories

The time elapsed since the book’s publication makes it particularly fascinating to reverse-engineer how the ideas in recent popular books by these thinkers originally germinated. For instance, Albert-László Barabási‘s interview presages his excellent 2010 book, Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do:

For many decades we believed that networks are random. Whenever we had to face a very complex system, such as people are connected by social links (society), chemicals in the cell connected by chemical reactions, webpages connected by URLs, we assumed that the links are thrown randomly around. In the last few years, we learned that this is not the case. Instead, networks hide wonderful order and are described by rather rigid evolutionary laws. These laws lead to the emergence of hubs, nodes with an extraordinary large number of links, that partly dominate real networks but they also keep them together.” ~ Albert-László Barabási, Think Networks

And as a longtime fan of Shepard Fairey‘s (whose portrait of Blondie’s Debbie Harry is my favorite piece of art that I own), I enjoyed this 2002 peek inside his creative reservoir, pre-Obama notoriety.

I like people who blur the line between fine art and graphic design. There are a lot of people who have grown up with a lot of advertising and sensory over-stimulation from video games and MTV, who are making very smart and engaging art and graphics. I don’t know what to call this movement [but] I really think the changing of the guard in the art and design world is beginning.” ~ Shepard Fairey, Giant Steps

Relentlessly stimulating and insight-packed, Follow for Now is the kind of book I’d like to see published every decade, and devoured every subsequent decade, from now until the end of humanity.

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13 MAY, 2011

Happy Birthday, Velcro: From Nature to NASA, Animated

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Innovation that sticks, or how to turn nature’s aggravations into universal usefulness.

This year, Velcro — one of the world’s most beloved multipurpose inventions — celebrates its 60th birthday, and today marks the 53rd anniversary of Velcro’s US patent. The miracle adhesive was the brainchild of Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral. One afternoon, as he was taking a walk in the forest, he noticed the that burrs — the seeds of burdock thistle — stuck to his clothes and wondered how they did that. So he excitedly rushed home, stuck one under the microscope, and spent the next ten years perfecting nature’s brilliant hook-and-loop adhesion mechanism, eventually producing one of history’s smartest applications of biomimetic design.

To celebrate Velcro’s birthday, here are three different animated short films that tell the same great story of ingenuity and perseverance in just over a minute each.

From HowStuffWorks, here’s a characteristically short-and-sweet evaluation of the invention. Though I have to disagree with their 2/5 on the benefits-to-humanity scale — anything that’s good enough for NASA should be good enough for at least a 4.

From Pan-African media portal ABN Digital, a beat-by-beat recap on the chronology of Velcro’s invention and its impact as a zipper alternative.

And my favorite, from designer Antonio Alarcón Román, a delightfully fuzzy motion graphics narrative:

And a big “THANK YOU” to my wonderful intern, Adam Rubin, who is doing an admirable job of cataloging notable birthdays, deaths and historical anniversaries for me to find interesting content around.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.