The Medialab Europe finally went dot.bomb last Friday after it emerged that the Irish government would no longer fund it. To some in the Irish internet industry, this was a long time coming. The MLE had been referred to as the Grand Academy of Lagado - a fictional academy in Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels”. Written a few hundred years ago, Swift intended it as a satire. The MLE shared many traits of Swift’s fictional academy. And the MLE was located not too far away from where Swift lived in Dublin.
The reaction to the MLE closure has been mixed. At one extreme there is outright rage that the government had wasted so much money on MLE in return for so little. At the other extreme there is the mourning of a great institution that we Irish did not really understand because we don’t really understand research. I can appreciate the sentiment of the former and I resent the latter. The Irish health care infrastructure is in a poor state and the money that went to fund the vanity that was MLE could easily have been spent on a RadioTherapy cancer treatment facility for the South East of Ireland.
And as for the theory that we Irish do not appreciate research and should have been in awe of the great minds in MLE - rubbish! Many proper research labs in Ireland are funded by industry and run in conjunction with universities and the Institutes of Technology. MLE just wasn’t a proper research lab. MLE was never intended to be a proper research lab. It appeared to be more some huge art studio where the people played with technology in artistic ways.
The value of research is a very interesting problem. To the businessman, it is commercialisable results. To the researcher, it is opening up new worlds, exploring new problems and ultimately finding answers. The MLE just did not appear to have any of those characteristics. It did some nice demos though and these were intended to wow and amaze the media. The media in Ireland just loved MLE. Then again very few journalists ever seriously questioned what was going on there.
While some good research must have been done in MLE, most of it was just people being creative for the sake of being creative. And that is a very dangerous thing when it comes to doing any research. The good stuff would have been open to commercialisation and the rest would have been consigned to the dung heap of peer-reviewed journals and conferences. Very little worthwhile research came out of MLE. Some artistic and creative stuff did but in a nation of artists, digital grafitti is just a smear on a virtual wall that many will never see. And the hard rain of fiscal reality soon removed the soft spot for MLE’s art from the public’s mind.
There is quite a difference between the directed research of real research operations and blue-sky research. It is easy to claim that MLE’s activities were so escoteric and long term that they defied the norm. But this is too trite an excuse. Research has as its aim the identification of problems and potential solutions. It appeared that in the current financial climate, the Irish government were keen on getting some more directed research done.
It was always hard to classify the MLE. It was initiated at a time when Ireland was supposed to be the “e-commerce hub” of Europe with a communications infrastructure that would have embarrassed a Third World country. MIT/Medialab’s hype was intoxicating to those would never understood technology. Negroponte operated like some kind of dot.bomb pied piper getting the childlike politicians to follow him. And like the story of the Pied Piper, the MLE ended badly for those involved.
Indeed Wired magazine, once the cheerleader for the dot.com era, began to question the whole MIT/Medialab/MLE operation in a 2003 article. The harsh fiscal reality that the industry suffered as the dot.com bubble burst made everyone count the pennies. Everyone except MLE it seemed. But Negroponte seemed to think that we appreciated madness and as such MLE was perfectly situated in Dublin and we would be just mad enough to fund it indefinitely. Guess what - he was wrong!
MLE’s funding model was confusing. Industry funding or sponsorship was an important factor. The cachet of being associated with MIT and Medialab once meant something in the dot.com era. However that was advertising - what the sponsors really wanted was commercialisable Intellectual Property. And there seemed to be very little of this coming out of MLE to warrant new sponsorship. The rise of Ireland’s own academically connected research labs looked far more attractive to corporate sponsors. Indeed there are talks about a new research lab, or rather a real research lab with a budget of a few million Euros per year to replace MLE. But this new lab would have good connections with European academic institutions.
It was as if MLE tried to style itself as an academic research lab for monetary reasons without the checks and balances that academic institutions and labs operate under. The result was, not surprisingly, no cheques for MLE. But the people there seemed to have had a great time. The Irish academic research scene has changed considerably in the last ten years or so. It is amazing what of these operations have achieved for a fraction of the money that was spent on MLE. There is a more Machieavellian aspect to this. Perhaps the Irish government was using the MLE as bait to attract real business and real investment. Given that Google, Ebay and some other big name operations have set up Irish offices, it may have worked. Many of the academic labs are building links with industry to such an extent that they are providing a lot of good research and reasons to invest. But MLE will not be a part of that.
MLE was just the foam on the waves in this sea of knowledge.