The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices: How the Digital Magicians of the MIT Media Lab Are Creating the Innovative Technologies That Will Transform Our Lives
Crown Business (2011)
How and why “individuals empowered with radically new technologies…can succeed in transforming society”
Note: The title of my review is taken from one of the observations made by Frank Moss in the Preface: “I am convinced now that individuals, empowered with radically new technologies that you will read about in the pages ahead, can succeed in transforming society” from the bottom up where our institutions have dismally failed. This has greatly increased my sense of optimism for the future, and I hope it will do the same for you.”
As Moss’s background clearly indicates, he is eminently well-qualified to discuss these and other issues. Currently, he is managing partner of Strategic Software Ventures, LLC, and a part-time professor of the practice at the MIT Media Lab, where he heads the New Media Medicine group. He has spent his career developing innovative technologies and bringing them to market. He was director of the MIT Media Lab from 2006-2011, where he held the Jerome Wiesner Professorship of Media Technology, and before that he had a 30-year career as an entrepreneur in the software and computer industries. Moss holds a BSE from Princeton University in Aerospace and Mechanical Sciences and a PhD from MIT in Aeronautics and Astronautics. He serves on Princeton University’s board of trustees
I agree with Oliver Sacks: “We must humanize technology before it dehumanizes us.” I also agree with Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” That is to say, technology will dehumanize us only if we allow it to. Hence the delicious as well as daunting relevance of this book’s title, one that can be traced back at least to one of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poems, Der Zauberlehrling, written in 1797.
What Moss offers in this book is a personal and extended tour of the MIT Media Lab where “digital magicians” (modern day “sorcerers”) are “creating innovative technologies that will transform our lives.” In fact, several already have or are now in the process of doing so. He carefully explains the process by which the Lab’s capabilities are developed, who have been centrally involved in that process, and what lessons can be learned that increase our understanding of what the probable relationship will be between “sorcerers” and their “apprentices” in years to come.
Here are a few of the dozens of passages that caught my eye, then engaged me within Moss’s lively as well as eloquent narrative:
“Media Lab [isn’t] just a place where you dream up inventions. Here, you are expected to actually build, test, and demonstrate them.” (Page 13)
“Sometimes designed serendipity can lead to inventions that are quite literally magic. To see how, press the rewind button back to 1967 when fourteen-year-old Tod Machover, now a world-renowned composer of ‘Hyper’-symphonies and robotic operas, inventor of electronic instruments, and head of the lab’s Opera of the Future group, first heard the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Page 98)
“How close are we, you might be wondering, to having a sophisticated robot housekeeper like the Jetsons’ Rosie (only less clumsy, who helps you cook the family dinner, does the dishes, and then helps the kids with their homework? [Matt] Berlin concedes, ‘We’re not there yet.’” (Page 171)
John Moore. MD, a PhD student in the Lab’s New Media Medicine group, takes an approach that enables ordinary people to take control of their own health. It is based on the conviction that “if given access to in formation about their health, and the deep understanding of what it means, patients can collaborate better with their physicians and play a much more proactive role in their own health care.” (Page 195)
These are but a few of dozens (hundreds?) of passages in which Moss examines very real people involved in a wide range of experiments at the MIT Media Lab whose common purpose is to improve the quality of human life with new or better, more effective applications of radically new technologies.
I cannot recall another book that I enjoyed reading more while learning so much about so many different subjects about which I knew little (if anything) previously. Also, I appreciate having had the pleasure of Frank Moss’s company and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to meet so many of his colleagues.
Legendary is not a strong enough word. Here in Dallas, whatever punch the word “legendary” carries, it is not enough to describe the name Roger Staubach. The winner of two Super Bowls for the Dallas Cowboys, Roger Staubach is simply the man. And his success on the field carried over into a vast Real Estate success. When I moved to Dallas in 1987, it seemed that the name Roger Staubach was always staring at me from one corner or another.
We have always known that athletic contests build some kind of inner something that carries over into life in ways that are almost too numerous to mention, or even fully grasp. Now researchers are trying to find those ways.
And it is true for women as well as men. In a fascinating article on the Daily Beast, Female Jocks Rule the World by Danielle Friedman, we learn quite a bit about this. Here are a number of excerpts. (I will follow with a few observations of my own).
Athletic women make more money and hold more upper-management positions than those who shun sports—and their numbers are growing. Danielle Friedman on why it pays to play.
But the young entrepreneurs have undoubtedly carried lessons from their days as varsity athletes into the boardroom, attributing many of their managerial skills to their sporty pasts.
“Our coach always had us write our goals on the back of our hands to be constantly reminded of them, to give one example,” says Jenny Carter Fleiss, who was captain of her track team in Riverdale, New York. “Today, I still keep a list of my personal goals posted right in front of me—and encourage everyone else at Rent the Runway to do this—as a constant reminder of the bigger-picture things we’re working on.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Carter Fleiss and Hyman are in good company. Former high school and college athletes of all abilities hold positions of power in an array of arenas, from Sarah Palin (basketball) to Ellen DeGeneres (tennis). Eight-two percent of executive businesswomen played organized sports after elementary school, according to a 2002 study by mutual fund company Oppenheimer, and evidence suggests that figure will likely rise over the next few decades, as more post-Title IX babies enter the workforce.
“There’s a whole lot of anecdotal evidence that disparities between women and men in the workplace are caused by a lack of athletic training and experience,” says Kathryn Kolbert, director of the Athena Center for Leadership Studies at Barnard College. “We’d now like to do the research to prove it.”
In addition to gaining valuable skills, women who played (or passionately follow, for that matter) sports gain unique access to “boys” networks that they’d otherwise be excluded from, experts say. Also compelling: The Oppenheimer study found that one in six adult women identify themselves as athletic—but the figure rises to almost half of women who make more than $75,000.
Stevenson found that ramping up girls’ participation in sports had a direct effect on their education and employment, explaining about 20 percent of the increase in education and about 40 percent of the rise in employment for women ages 25 to 34,
“It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” Stevenson told Parker-Pope. “While I only show this for girls, it’s reasonable to believe it’s true for boys as well.”
…evidence suggests that participating in an organized sport can benefit nearly all women, deeply instilling lessons from the value of practice to teamwork, says Kolbert. It provides participants with a peer group, and a feeling of inclusion. And perhaps most importantly, it helps cultivate resilience.
I was a tennis player. (The operative word is “was”). I was ranked fairly high in Texas my Senior year in high school, had a great, great experience on my tennis teams, both in high school and in college, and my college degree was substantially paid for by my tennis scholarship. I was good – not anywhere near great (I could not challenge the best – and in my years, the best was Trinity University), but good.
To this day, when I run into an old tennis buddy or opponent, my heart beats faster, and the conversation just starts flying.
In my years studying business success, the wisdom of a good coach or athlete seems to lift the level of the thought and conversation. On this blog, the single most viewed article we’ve ever had (fueled somewhat by his death) was about John Wooden – simply the greatest coach who ever lived. (Here’s the article: Wisdom from Coach Wooden: “A coach is someone who can give correction without creating resentment”). And blog posts about Peyton Manning, Coach Bear Bryant, Tony Dungy, John Madden, all have brought more than the average number of page views than articles about the other mere mortals in business seem to generate.
And in one area of business endeavor, the illustrations just seem to come in an avalanche: the 10,000 hour rule, and the need for deliberate practice, is simply best explained by athletic discipline success stories (though music stories, dance stories, and many others, could certainly make the point in powerful ways also). Though Malcolm Gladwell includes stories of Bill Gates and the Beatles in his discussion of the 10,000 hour rule in Outliers, he begins it with stories of Canadian Junior Hockey and international junior soccer competition.
And if you want to understand the impact of, the power of, work ethic and discipline and the need for constant improvement, you may as well just bow down to the legendary practices of such athletes as Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice and Peyton Manning and Nolan Ryan and…
And if you want the best cautionary tales, just check into stories of athletes who could have been great, but lacked those qualities that could have kept them on the path to such greatness. (For one such cautionary tale, just consider the tale of one-game-wonder Clint Longley, the “mad bomber.” A great quarterback that never was…)
The article I quoted above offers a lot to help us understand the power of such athletic undergirdings to business success. But here’s something else to throw in the mix. When I read about deliberate practice, the place/role of a good coach, the 10,000 hour rule, I do look back on my athletic successes, but my athletic failures and disappointments are what I really remember. And in remembering those, I feel somewhat driven to do better at this chapter of my life. Maybe the challenge of athletic disappointment drives us to do better at doing better later in life.
I guess all of this is my way of saying that I am not surprised at the evidence that athletic endeavor — practice, teamwork, competition, the role of a good coach — all help lead to success later in life.
And for women to rise as fast as they have after the adoption of Title IX — well, let’s just say we shouldn’t be surprised.