- Published on January 1, 2009
- Written by Louis Rossetto
I met Nicholas Negroponte in 1988 when he was the head of the MIT Media Lab he founded and I was editing an obscure technology magazine called Electric Word. We met in Amsterdam, where the ever-peripatetic Professor agreed to an interview at the Hotel de l’Europe. We followed that up with another interview in Cambridge, and the result was an Electric Word cover story on his optimistic vision and unrelenting drive, and an enduring friendship.
That friendship was cemented by Nicholas agreeing to be the first investor in Jane Metcalfe and my Wired start up in 1992. This is how it happened: Jane and I had spent a year trying to raise money after we repatriated after Amsterdam, with a notable lack of success. We got rejected by publishers, investment bankers, VCs; the no’s were probably north of 300. We had been trying to talk to Nicholas, not because we thought he would invest—he was a university employee, after all—but because he might have some insights where we might find investors. He had, of course, almost singlehandedly raised the funding for the Media Lab and its $50M I.M. Pei building from corporations in the media and consumer electronics industries around the world.
But it was devilishly hard to actually talk to him, he was continually in motion, caroming around the planet giving lectures, meeting patrons, attending confabs, hanging out at the World Economic Forum. His travel schedule was the stuff of legend, one being that he traveled with nothing more than a brief case filled with a laptop, a modem, and extra batteries, with clean white shirts and underwear being Fedexed to him along his route.
But finally, Jane and I were able to connect with him at Ricky Wurman’s TED 3 in Monterey. By this time, a year out of Amsterdam and our savings accounts running on empty, Jane and I were pretty desperate. During a coffee break, the three of us sat in the empty, darkened auditorium while he methodically and silently flipped each and every page of the 120-page live text and art prototype we had laboriously constructed. At the end, he closed the book, paused a second, and then said simply, “I’m in; how much do you need?”
From that point on, Nicholas was our patron, muse, and indefatigable collaborator. He helped us raise investment money. He agreed to write the back page column giving us instant credibility, and accepted more stock in exchange for payment because we didn’t have cash. I thought he would do that at best for a year; he persisted beyond the five years I was editor-in-chief of Wired, until he had passed fifty columns. The first few years were collected in Being Digital, his worldwide bestseller on the Digital Revolution.
I’m reminded of the genesis of Jane and my friendship with Nicholas because we just met up with him at Michael Hawley’s Entertainment Gathering in Monterey in December. In many ways, EG is the successor to the original TEDs (Wurman was in attendance, telling the audience that the pupil Hawley and now become the master)—but that’s another story. This story is about Nicholas’s current incarnation.
Nicholas was there to report on the latest news about his One Laptop Per Child project. Since leaving the Media Lab, Nicholas has been pursuing his largest vision ever—to create laptops cheap and rugged enough to give one to every child on the planet, to connect them to education and each other, help lift the world out of poverty, and bring about universal peace. Nicholas was never the one to have small dreams or ambitions.
You may have heard about or even been following Nicholas recently, primarily through news stories about the attempt by Microsoft and Intel to kill his project. Since the OLPC is Open Source and cheap, it threatens Microsoft’s operating system and software monopolies, as well as Intel’s hardware hegemony (the processor is from AMD). Their reaction to OLPC has been vicious. Nicholas and his team would go to a country, talk to the president, prime minister, education ministers et al, conclude a deal to supply hundreds of thousands of XO laptops—only to have Microsoft and Intel execs sweep in behind him on their private jets to raise questions about the “lack of standards” (read it’s not Windows) of the OLPC. Deals vanished. The press smelled a juicy controversy. The story became not bringing education to the neediest around the world, but Nicholas’s struggles to overcome his Wintel antagonists.
What Nicholas reported this year at EG was that the OLPC concept was alive and well, even if the prospects for the ultimate commercial success of his project were less clear. What was clear was that his OLPC spec—a low powered, small laptop—was precisely what the market needed. The new Netbooks, introduced in the last year and spec’ed close to the OLPC—are going to form the majority of laptop sales in 2009, for example.
But that doesn’t mean that they are OLPCs. Conspicuously, they are not rugged, they are not mesh-network enabled, they have no programs to integrate them into a child’s education in a village without electricity. Meanwhile, Nicholas has delivered over 1 million OLPCs to dozens of countries around the world. That’s a million kids who had access to education and the Web who didn’t before.
Nicholas showed three videos. They’re pretty cool.
Then Nicholas showed us where he’d been recently: in Colombia, traveling on Colombia Army helicopter to deliver OLPCs to a village recently liberated from FARC narco-terrorists. And he related that in the next few weeks he was on his way to the West Bank and Afghanistan to also distribute OLPC laptops.
One theme I keep coming back to in my blog entries is taking direct responsibility for making positive change in the world. Electing politicians is not taking direct responsibility. Even signing a petition or marching in a protest is not direct action. Direct action is working directly with the people who need the help, working in concrete ways to make their lives better. We try to walk that walk with our TCHOSource program, to create win-win outcomes with the farmers in Peru we directly work with. But we are pikers compared to what Nicholas is doing.
President-elect Obama has made much of the need to replace military power with soft power—working to improve conditions so that the seeds of terrorism don’t take root. Nicholas points out that giving a laptop to every child in Afghanistan, along with the infrastructure to deliver internet access as well as teacher training would cost $1B, a fraction of the billions spent on military action in the country. Regardless of whether we approve of that military action, I think we can agree that helping to provide education to children in a country where 70 percent of girls don’t attend school is a good thing.
Meanwhile, we all have an opportunity to make a difference.