May 15, 2003
Neil Gershenfeld
Henry Holt & Company (1999)

I have a vested interest in the future, because I plan on living there. I want to help create one in which machines can meet the needs of people, rather than the other way around.

As more and more gadgets demand our attention, the promises of the Digital Revolution start to sound more like those of a disinformation campaign.

A counterrevolution seeks to protect our freedom to not be wired. But rather than ask whether reading is better done with a book or a computer, I want to show how to merge the best features of each.

This modest aim has radical implications, and regrettably little precedent. Putting ink on paper, and data on a CD-ROM, are separated by a divide between the old analog world of atoms and the new digital world of bits. The existing organization of industry and academia,of scientific research and product development, serves to enforce rather than dismantle that distinction. I’ve spent my life being gently and not-so-gently steered away from the equally great problems and opportunities that lie neglected at the boundary between the content of information and its physical representation.

In high school I fell in love . . . with the machine shop. This was the one class in which I showed some promise. Then the curriculum split, with the college-bound students sitting in classrooms, and the vocational students going off to a trade school where they could use an even better machine shop, and make circuits, and assemble engines, and build houses. There was no competition—that’s what I wanted to do. With some effort I was persuaded to stick with the college track, but I couldn’t understand why making things had to be separated from learning about things. I still don’t. At Bell Labs I was threatened with a grievance for daring to leave my lab and approach the machine tools in the unionized shop, which was intended for the trade school graduates rather than the college graduates.

As an undergraduate I migrated from studying philosophy in order to ask deep questions about the universe, to studying physics in order to answer deep questions about the universe, and eventually ended up back in the machine shop in the basement of the engineering building rediscovering the joys of manipulating things rather than ideas. In physics grad school I figured out that theorists weren’t allowed in the machine shop, but experimentalists were allowed to do theory, so the only way to do both was to claim to be an experimentalist.

I was officially a physicist by the time I visited the Media Lab to develop sensors to interface Yo-Yo Ma’s cello to a computer.This prompted some people to ask me a question I never understood:”That’s fine, but is it physics?” I could answer it, explaining where the traditional physics occurred. But I didn’t want to, much preferring to discuss the remarkable consequences of connecting Yo-Yo to a computer.

When I arrived at the Media Lab I didn’t see it as a place to do”real” science, but it was only there that I was able to bring together these disconnected pieces. This was finally a place where I could set up a lab that put machine tools, theoretical physicists, and musicians in the same room at the same time. As it began filling with students and sponsors, I was delighted to find that I was not alone in struggling to bridge rather than bound the digital and physical worlds.

Emerging from this effort is a vision of a future that is much more accessible, connected, expressive, and responsive, as well as many of the ingredients needed to realize the vision. This book tells that story. I feel safe in making these predictions about the future because they’re really observations about the present. In the laboratory and in product development pipelines, information is moving out of traditional computers and into the world around us, a change that is much more significant than the arrival of multimedia or the Internet because it touches on so much more of human experience.

Much of the book revolves around the Media Lab, because much of my life does. Although this book is a personal statement, it owes a deep debt to the dear community of colleagues, students, and sponsors there who have shaped these ideas. I describe global changes that still have too few local environments that are as supportive of bringing bits and atoms together. My hope is that the book’s focus will come to appear to be parochial, as the Media Lab’s role becomes less unique.

This book reflects recurring conversations that I’ve had with ordinary people about how the world around them does and will work, with industrial managers trying to navigate through coming business threats to reach these new opportunities, and with researchers struggling with emerging questions in new areas along with declining interest and support in old ones. I’ve written for all three because I’ve never been able to separate these parts of myself.

I will have succeeded if a shoe computer comes to be seen as a great idea and not just a joke, if it becomes natural to recognize that people and things have relative rights that are now routinely infringed, if computers disappear and the world becomes our interface.

WHEN THINGS START TO THINK by Neil Gershenfeld. ©1998 by Neil A. Gershenfeld. Reprinted by arrangement with Henry Holt and Company, LLC.