Futuristic communications tailored to individual interests

The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT, by Stewart Brand, New York: Viking. 264 pp. $20. Would you like to read a newspaper that knows what your interests are and puts the news you want most on Page 1? How about an electronic piano that accompanies your live performance on the violin, matching your tempo perfectly? Are these science-fiction dreams? Twenty-first century fantasies? These and a host of other electronic marvels have already been built - at ``the high church of technology,'' the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Media Lab.

In his book about the Media Lab, Stewart Brand offers an inside look at its work and its incredible inventions. Here the term ``media'' means ``electronic communications technologies,'' and includes ``television, telephones, recordings, film, newspapers, magazines, [and] books.''

As he describes the potential of the computer revolution, Brand bounces the reader through discussions of computer chips, satellite technology, the promise of fiber optic cable, ``talking heads,'' intelligent television, and more - so much more that he has a name for it: ``boggle.''

The lab was formed to put some shape to the inevitable transformation of communications. Because textual, audio, and video information can now be manipulated digitally (on a computer), the media that traditionally provide this information to people are changing radically. According to Brand, ``Each time the means of communication advanced, the `world' metamorphosed.'' Words, sounds, and pictures can be gathered, sorted, and retrieved to provide information to people in a variety of formats, often tailored to a person's specific interests.

The first two-thirds of his book explores the technical aspects of the lab's work, while the last third touches on the economic and political ramifications of this revolution in communications.

The socioeconomic waves created by these changes are already being felt. Brand discusses the phenomenon of ``digital sampling'' in the music industry. The advent of electronics allows the duplication of any sound, ``...a falling tree, somebody's complex guitar strum on a Compact Disc - and [allows one to] make a virtual instrument out of it, reproducing that sound at any pitch, in any combination, any tempo, on a standard electronic keyboard.'' Just one area this impacts is that of copyrights.

Brand quotes lawyer Bill Krasilovsky in Billboard magazine: ``Copyright laws only cover the sequence of notes in a composition, not the actual notes within that sequence. It [the new digital technology] takes a redefinition of all the terms.''

One fascinating application of this revolution is the futuristic ``personal newspaper.'' Based on topics specified by the reader, the system sorts through a variety of information sources, including news association wire stories, general and specialized electronic data bases, and television news. It displays only wanted items.

This ``newspaper,'' which will be read on a computer screen, will give the reader the option of getting more information on a particular story just by touching that story on the screen. Photographs can appear the same way. Historical information on a particular news item would be just as easily retrieved. If live video footage of the event is available, the ``newspaper'' would in effect become a television receiver, playing back for the ``viewer'' the news clip on the story.

The lab is taking this concept even further. Brand says, ``The Lab's current direction for the personal newspaper is exploring the nature of newsworthiness.'' He notes that Nicholas Negroponte, the lab's director, insists that the most important ``news'' to the reader is electronic mail. The personal newspaper would tell readers, right on Page 1, that items were waiting in their electronic mailboxes. Negroponte says, ``It's news only to him, but it's the most important of all.''

Brand fills in the gaps between the diverse but related concepts being studied at the lab while providing just enough technical description to embrace the reader in a warm, fuzzy aura of understanding. Brand says, ``...the idea of intense personalization to the user is at the heart of most of the Lab's projects.'' His book patterns this philosophy.

The book jacket sports a hologram created by the lab's spatial imaging group. Inside, color photographs are intended to give a better picture of some of the lab's projects, but ultimately the reader's imagination provides the best approach to understanding the ideas put forth.

``The Media Lab'' may seem to whisk readers through the ideas of those individuals contemplating, and ultimately shaping, the future of communications media. But readers will find themselves stopping and pondering. Indeed, this book requires and inspires thought.

Taylor Horst is on the Monitor's staff.

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