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MIT Prof Praises Big Thinking

MIT professor Michael Hawley, whose projects include a mattress-sized book of photographs, says settling for mediocrity is threatening American progress.

MIT professor Michael Hawley thinks big. Hawley masterminded the world's largest book, a mattress-sized color-photo tour of the Himalayan country of Bhutan.

"You don't make progress in baby steps," said Hawley, director of special projects and founder of MIT's GO Expeditions program, in a speech Sunday night at the InformationWeek Fall Conference in Rancho Mirage, Calif. A willingness to settle for mediocrity could hold back technical progress, he said. "We're duct-taping our way through."

Hawley's mentor, Edwin Land, the inventor of instant photography, once told him that anything worth doing is worth doing to excess. That's literally true for Hawley's book Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across The Last Himalayan Kingdom, published in late 2003. It weighs 130 pounds, measures 5 by 7 feet, is priced at $15,000, and features 100-plus pages of dazzling color photos of the subsistence-farming country that first got television in 1999. Bhutan was a showcase for new digital photography and printing techniques. Laying out the book "blew holes in every piece of flagship software Adobe [Systems] had," Hawley said. Sales through have ticked up to 100 copies, but "I'd rather sell 100 books to 100 interesting people than deal with a bunch of New York publishers that just want to squeeze royalties our of Harry Potter," Hawley said.

Hawley helped found the Things That Think and Toys of Tomorrow labs at MIT and worked as an engineer at Steve Jobs' former company, Next Software; as a researcher at Lucasfilm; and as a user-interface designer at Bell Labs.

American culture is trending toward mediocrity, he said. His evidence: CEOs in jail, sports figures accused of steroid use, and poor government. Those things threaten progress.

Mediocrity is also a problem in technology. Too often students work without defining a problem or a deadline. "If you don't have a problem, then you don't have a solution," Hawley said. "Once you take your eye off the ball, you get lost in XML and all that stuff."

But Hawley says it's little ideas played to their conclusion that effect the most change.

There's room for hope, though. In addition to Land's Polaroid and Jobs' Macintosh, Hawley cited a recent example of small ideas having a big technical impact when they're thought through to their conclusion. The engineering team for seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong discovered, by instrumenting Armstrong's bicycle and studying his performance, that he could become at least 10% more efficient by pedaling longer in lower gears and staying in the saddle at the beginning of climbs instead of rising up immediately for more leverage. Attention to small details, big result. It's the kind of thinking Hawley said more technologists should apply.

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