The future in the past and past futures

In June, I spent several days in Nicholas Negroponte’s personal archive from the Architecture Machine Group era up to the founding of the MIT Media Lab — working my way through hundreds of documents and taking some 1600 images. I also had the chance to interview him about the early years of his career. He was gracious, if not a little self-conscious to be discussing things he built and wrote as a 20-something.

Looking at the material in his archive, it struck me that I was viewing one possible future, one version of how things might have turned out. For all of the things that didn’t happen the way they imagined, the seeds for many things were sown some 30+ years ago. It’s not a matter of what Negroponte and his collaborators got wrong, it’s what they got right — and more importantly, the big questions that still have not been answered.

Seymour Papert, founder of the Epistemology and Learning Research Group in the Architecture Machine Group, co-founder with Marvin Minsky of the Artificial Intelligence Lab (and creator of the Logo programming language), spoke to MIT news in 2002 about these big questions behind AI:

“We started with a big ‘cosmic question’: Can we make a machine to rival human intelligence? Can we make a machine so we can understand intelligence in general? But AI [artificial intelligence] was a victim of its own worldly success. People discovered you could make computer programs so robots could assemble cars. Robots could do accounting! AI… wasn’t supposed to end up like that. AI was meant for Bigger Things.”

In looking at these big ideas of early AI, it’s clear that the big questions still haven’t been answered — things like, What is the nature of intelligence when machines are involved? How do machines really help us learn? What does it mean to have augmented architecture and augmented bodies?

With so many big questions left unanswered, it puts the hype around everything from augmented reality to the iPad into context. There’s hefty precedent in projects and writings by ArchMach, the MIT Arts and Media Technology group and the Media Lab and its affiliated researchers. The Spatial Data Management System (1979) provided a spatial way to move through information and capture a layer; the  Aspen Movie Map (1978-80), which allowed its users to drive virtually through a city (and which was used for military simulations as well): Alexis Madrigal offers recent insight into the project. Does the iPad really revolutionize everything or is it just another version of the 1979 “Books without Pages” (which you can read here)?  

My last night in Boston, I had dinner with my friend and mentor, Shelley Evenson. “I look at the past because it’s the future,” I said, in our conversation about ArchMach. “Exactly!” she responded. And that’s just it. The big questions of the past haven’t been solved, let alone adequately addressed. In order to look at possible futures, we need to delve into the past. It’s where the important issues were first formulated. These pasts as also futures.

Two quotes, to close, that I found yesterday. The first from George Kubler in 1962:

“Everything made now is either a replica or a variant of something made a little time ago and so on back without break to the first morning of human time.” George Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things, 1962

and this 1968 one, found in Cedric Price’s archive of his Magnet project, carefully written by hand in 1995.

“IT IS QUITE POSSIBLE FOR THE WORLD

AS WE KNOW IT NOW

TO BECOME UNREGULABLE IN IMPORTANT FIELDS

IN THAT IT MIGHT PASS THE POINT BEYOND WHICH

ANY CONSIDERED ACTION

MIGHT HAVE A STATISTICAL PROBABILITY

OF BEING WORSE THAN RANDOM.

THERE ARE MANY SITUATIONS IN WHICH

TO BE SYSTEMATICALLY LATE

IS TO BE SYSTEMATICALLY WRONG.”

–Sir Geoffrey Vickers, “Value Systems & Social Process,” 1968 (in Cedric Price’s materials for his Magnet project, 1995)

It makes me wonder, are we just replicating the past? And in so doing, are we systematically late — if not systematically wrong?