Marvin Minsky has died. There is a wonderful description in Steven Levy’s ‘Hackers’ about Minsky and The Tech Model Railway Club and Midnight Computing Wiring Society at MIT. It is inconceivable now to imagine a university tolerating such a state of affairs: the state of affairs that was key to the development of the modern world. Rebellion and discovery are often of a piece.
The people in charge of the lab, particularly Marvin Minsky, were very understanding about these things. Marvin, as the hackers called him (they invariably called each other by last name, knew that the hacker ethic was what kept the lab productive, and he was not going to tamper with one of the crucial components of hackers. On the other hand, there was Stu Nelson, constantly at odds with the rules, a hot potato who got hotter when he was eventually caught red-handed at phone hacking. Something have to be done. So Minsky called up his good friend Ed Friedkin, and told him he had this problem with an incredibly brilliant 19 year old who had a penchant for getting into sophisticated mischief. Could Fredkin hire him?
Stewart Brand’s description nails it:
I think that hackers — dedicated, innovative, irreverent computer programmers — other most interesting and effective body of intellectuals since the framers of the US Constitution….. No other group that I know of has set out to liberate a technology and succeeded. They not only did so against the active disinterest of corporate America, their success forced corporate America to adopt their style in the end. The quietest of all the ‘60s subcultures has emerged as the most innovative and powerful.
Professor Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder and chairman emeritus of the Media Lab, says:
“Marvin talked in riddles that made perfect sense, were always profound and often so funny that you would find yourself laughing days later.”
And from the Economist’s obituary.
He also, almost by the way, did other things, such as inventing a confocal scanning microscope and robotic “seeing hands” for surgery. His own intelligence continually leapt between postulations and speculations, all delivered with an endearing smile: what a thinking machine would have to notice when it drove down the highway, whether robots could be made tiny enough to beat up aphids or dexterous enough to put a pillow in a pillowcase, what would happen if you wrote “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” to a different rhythm. Students flocked to his evening classes, never quite knowing what mental challenge he would toss out next.