The Death of the Media Lab?

In a world where the only enterprise that is happy with its investments in high-tech is the U.S. military, what chance does the MIT Media Lab, the product of corporate money have?  This is the question asked by a recent WIRED magazine article.

The Media Lab made its money by convincing big companies to spend a portion of their profit on funding advanced R&D.  Today the average big companies, with a combination of stock options and cash, pays its top managers an amount roughly equal to total profit.  I.e., there is nothing left to invest in R&D at MIT or elsewhere.

In the long run the Media Lab may be remembered best for its revolutionary organizational structure.  The typical university professor is expected to manage research, teach students, raise funds, and promote his or her glorious results.  Very seldom will an individual be expert in all of these areas.  Why not ape the commercial world and divide labor among specialists?  That’s precisely what the Media Lab did.  A dedicated staff of PR professionals did the promotion.  A dedicated team of expert after-dinner speakers and schmoozers did the fundraising.  The founders discovered that MIT did not valorize teaching and therefore the Media Lab elected to leave the grunt work of teaching to other departments.  The best researchers were thus free to spend all of their time managing research.

It all worked great until (1) corporations decided they’d rather spend their money on vacation homes and private jets for their executives and board members, and (2) the Media Lab discovered a $multi-million accounting error that forced a lot of layoffs.

How did the accounting error happen?  Basically there are two ways to set up a business.  If you don’t believe that you’re a management genius you push profit-and-loss responsibility down to the lowest level possible.  In the case of McDonald’s and its franchisees, for example, P&L responsibility is at the individual restaurant level.  If one restaurant is doing badly if doesn’t have access to the bank accounts of the other restaurants and thus there is no way for the bad apples to drag down the barrel.  Furthermore the top managers don’t need to care too much about how an individual restaurant is spending its money.  As long as the group with P&L is making a profit, who cares how they are doing it?

An alternative approach is central management by function.  The Freedom Fries cooks at all McDonald’s would report to regional managers and a VP of Freedom at headquarters.  The soda pourers would report to middle managers under the VP of Soda.  The drive-through cashiers at different restaurants would share a manager and so forth.  If you have amazing business management skills in theory this method could produce higher performance and greater efficiency.  However, without metrics and cost controls there is a substantial risk of bankruptcy because many fewer people have profit and loss on their minds.

Traditional research universities push P&L responsibility down onto the individual faculty member.  He or she must apply for grants and can spend money only from those grants.  Once the money from a grant is gone, that professor can no longer spend money.  This way the university makes sure that more cash never goes out than came in (in fact they charged a fat overhead commission on that grant money when it came in so actually a lot less cash can go out than came in).  A professor who is not successful at raising funds never puts at risk a lab that is getting a lot of grants.

The Media Lab went the big-company division-of-labor route but didn’t mature fast enough to have all of the departmental profit metrics and cost controls of the best large companies.

Prediction:  In 100 years the Media Lab will be remembered primarily for its pioneering approach to managing university research. 

(In the meantime, let’s hope that the new building gets finished.  If you go to the basement of the current building and look at the model, I’m sure you’ll agree that it would be one of the nicest-looking and most comfortable buildings in Cambridge.)

9 thoughts on “The Death of the Media Lab?

  1. A friend AIMed me: “Media Lab probably had issues with having a academic culture of the product-type management where each professor gets to do what they want clashing with the functional departmentalization. ie – the functional departments probably didn’t have the authority they needed to do the job right.”

  2. The Media Lab is likely to be rememberd for promising more than it delivered, for promising too much, and for being out of touch with innovations of a practical sort. One of it’s best known mouthpieces wrote a book describing a future in which our clothing will itself be a computer that can double as a cell phone. While I admire any organization that can stay on the cutting edge of the new, I don’t think publishing science fiction should count – that would be too easy, I could write a story right now, in the next 10 minutes, full of wild technologies, and declare myself on the cutting edge of the new. But would I be adding anything of real benefit to the world?

  3. Future students of architectural and military history are likely to remember the Media Lab as an inexplicable PR phenomenon notable mostly for its proximate role in the demolition of MIT’s notorious and legendary Building 20, home of MIT’s Radiation Laboratory, where the most vital, relevant, and innovative electronics research of the 20th century was conducted between 1940 and 1945.


  4. Well, if the industry has money to spend, it can give a little to Media Lab. The ceo’s wont cut their salaries and give the money to Media Lab.

  5. I hope the lab continues. The book “Being Digital” by Nicholas Negroponte had an influence on me. Some of the ideas were far fetched, but I believe the underlying theory was sound. Digital technology has exploded into everyday use over the past 8-9 years.

    The book, however, did not predict abuse of monopoly power in the PC marketplace, terrorist attacks on the US, Big Business corruption, and widespread reactionary politics. Those things definitely caused a bump in the road on the way to the future. The rest of the future however, remains unwritten, and Information Theory will continue to affect us in profound ways. I wasn’t even a blogger a year ago! ;o)

  6. I had no idea about the Media Lab’s radical structure for doing research. Professional fundraisers and PR people — it explains so much, particularly the resentment often directed towards them from people in many mainstream CS/AI departments. The feeling among many people I’ve met is that what they do is more flash than substance.

    I had a tour of the lab last summer while attending ICDL’02, and remember thinking that it seemed like a really nice place to work. As for the research, it’s tough to tell from demos, since they can often be mostly smoke and mirrors, but I thought Deb Roy’s work seemed very good. On the other hand, in another part of the lab there was this weird video game thing with wolves. It was very flashy and they obviously had put tons of money into equipment for displaying it (e.g. a plasma display on the wall). I played it, and we all stood around scratching our heads wondering what its scientific contribution was. I never did figure it out.

    It’s interesting that the lab’s demise is reported/predicted by Wired, since they were a major conduit for Media Lab PR for much of the last 10 years.


  7. One of the best things to come out of the Media Lab was the LEGO Mindstorms system. The early work on programmable bricks and open ended play by Seymour Papert and Mitch Resnick was groundbreaking. LEGO helped to fund the research and eventually released a fantastic product – Mindstorms.

    Too bad that the open ended play required close supervision by the researchers. In my own work with kids and Mindstorms, I found that computing was too abstract for many kids and required a lot of one-on-one time.

    I guess my lasting impression of the Media Lab after the Mindfest gathering was “Who pays for all this stuff – and what are they getting back?”

    Cheers, Ralph

  8. Brilliant to point out the innovation in the academia game. That structure explains why academia is mostly out of focus with reality & why the media lab was so interesting… it could somehow relate to reality without falling into academic gobbledygook-speak that fill 30 pages of better-than-valium research reports no one ever bothers to read.

    Totally stupid & out of place to position your politics in the argument. Re: the fries.

  9. To earn my daily crust, I write about technology and related areas. I particularly enjoy writing about research and researchers. I’ve done a few pieces now on Media Lab/Media Lab Europe, and certainly supported the Irish decision to bring in MLE. Why?

    Well, I’ve heard all the arguments about ‘what do companies get out of it’ and have also heard plenty about the resentments and peeves. 1) companies wouldn;t endlessly throw money away, year after year, if they felt they were getting NO value in return. For companies, I think they value the creative jolt they get. 2) Success breeds resentments, especially when the success gets lots of publicity. And interdisciplinary collaborations –especially spanning areas like arts/sciences, really get up some people’s noses.

    Bottom line: There are plenty of ‘regular’, product or concept research labs out there, across universities and industry. There’s only one Media Lab, where tech overlaps in highly unusual ways into other disciplines such as literature and music and other arts. Just allowing that kind of creative turbulence is an important end in itself. One could argue (and I would) that public interest and understanding of technology has been spurred and shaped by the kind of coverage ML has had. They have shaped the culture of technology in some profound ways. Do they do some silly things? Sure. And so do Carnegie-Mellon, Bell Labs, IBM and PARC. But you don’t tend to see their sillinesses.

    As for a lab and lab founder/director that produces science fiction — an awful lot of what we take for granted in technology today would have been seen as scifi 20 years ago; and in some cases, was actually sparked by writerly imaginations that have shaped our sense of what technology should be. So I think such crossings-over should be encouraged, not scoffed at. One key example: I talked to three of the world’s pioneering researchers into voice recognition from the 60s.early 70s a few years back. I asked all three what got them thinking that one should be able to communicate with a computer through speech. All three cited two key influences: 1) HAL, the talking computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey; 2) the talking computers in Star Trek. Heh!!

    I hope ML rethinks itself into a viable future, as it has already done in the past.

Comments are closed.