In 1986, Brand made an extended visit to the Media Lab at MIT to get an idea of what the future might hold. While there, he saw working prototypes of new communications technologies and the issues they raise, including personalized newspapers and video news, fast personal connections to the Internet using ISDN, HDTV and globalization. The book is organized into two parts: The World of the Media Lab, in which Brand describes the main projects underway at the Media Lab while he was there, and Life in Parallel, in which he relates some of the projects to overarching issues that may become prominent in the future (keeping in mind he was writing in the 1980s). Interspersed in the text are black-and-white photos of some of the key players at the Media Lab in 1986. There is also a section of color images from some of the Lab projects. At the end of the book are found a short bibliography and an index.
Brand's material is almost twenty years old now. The sections in which he discussed the historical development of the Media Lab or its projects remain relevant for today's readers. But unfortunately, a great deal of the book was an attempt to look into the future; hence it became outdated as prediction almost as soon as it was written. What's quite interesting today, however, is to see that almost every project that Brand predicts will have some chance of success has actually become commonplace today. For prediction, that's an incredible track record. Did Brand achieve this by sticking only to cutting edge technologies, those that were just on the very edge of leaving the lab for the real world? Were there other projects at the time that Brand didn't choose to write about here because they were obviously going nowhere? It would be a an interesting project to look back to see the actual status of these projects at the time.
I picked up this book because I was interested in learning more about the culture of the Media Lab. In my own years at MIT, the Lab certainly had a reputation for the uniqueness of its faculty and for attracting students who were highly original as well as capable. It was hard to learn more about the Lab, however, unless you were a part of it. This book, with its emphasis on predicting future technologies, didn't real satisfy my curiosity about the Media Lab. The book contains a few interviews with leading figures in the lab such as Andy Lippman and Danny Hills. But the interviews don't quite succeed at conveying the personalities of these people along with their viewpoints. Instead, they seem to add to the feeling that this book is a personal record of the variety of experiences Brand encountered during his visit.