MIT’s Media Lab recently hosted a series of talks to celebrate its 25th anniversary. Anyone who has paid attention to technology news over that period has undoubtedly heard of the various strange and interesting developments that make their way out of the Lab; Guitar Hero, LEGO Mindstorms, One Laptop per Child, and E Ink all started off as Media Lab projects.
But far fewer people fully understand how the Media Lab operates, fits into MIT, and encourages such a creative environment; about half of the anniversary celebration’s program focused on simply defining what the Media Lab is. So, for the benefit of those who weren't there, we'll attempt to explain how it has generated its reputation for being at the leading edge of technology.
According to one of its founders, Nicholas Negroponte (an early contributor to Wired), the Media Lab was set up as an independent department within MIT because that would allow it to make its own tenure decisions and choose its grad students. That latter factor is a significant one. Most departments accept grad students based on their prospects for academic success; the Media Lab attempts to select ones that will best be able to help with some of the ongoing projects.
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