How the Media Lab's "Demo or Die" evolved to "Deploy."
Even before joining the Media Lab, I had heard the famous phrase “Demo or Die.” 1
This was the Media Lab’s motto in contrast to academia’s “Publish or Perish.” Nicholas Negroponte was known to have said that “the demo only has to work once.”
The idea that it was more important to demo and build than it was to publish was–and is–an important part of the Media Lab culture. It’s through the building of things that we learn, explore, and discover. Building has a different kind of rigor than academic writing, because when you build, you have to make something that works.
Building things allows us to work across disciplines and allows people with a variety of backgrounds to work on something together. I’m not sure how much of this idea of using a model or an object to work across disciplines comes from architecture (where a model can allow designers, engineers, citizens, and others to imagine and work together), but it is fitting that the Media Lab is part of the School of Architecture + Planning at MIT.
The corporate consortium funding model of the Media Lab works very well with “Demo or Die.” It is through these demos during the Lab’s biannual member meetings that companies are able to interact with and understand the work at the Lab. Many products and technologies such as LEGO Mindstorms, Guitar Hero, E Ink, and the SeatSentry smart air bag systems were examples of large companies commercializing ideas and technologies first encountered as demos at the Lab. When I joined the Media Lab back in 2011, one of the things I believed was that the cost of innovation and commercialization continued to decrease, and whether it was a technology, a non-profit, or even an idea, we were more and more able to deploy things directly into the real world.
Many successful startups had emerged from the Media Lab and many of our students and researchers were working in the world directly. At a faculty retreat, I remember musing about whether we should iterate on “Demo or Die” to focus more on direct impact. Professor Joe Jacobson was the one who came up with the idea to change it to “Deploy or Die.” We had general consensus, so that was it. We changed it.
I discussed it with the rest of the Lab and used it in my 2014 TED Talk. Most people really liked it, but some of the students complained that “die” was aggressive and negative. I received relatively strong negative feedback at one meeting with some PhD students. I said, “I understand your concern, but can’t think of a better way to say it. You guys think of something better and I might change it.”
Roll forward to October 2015. I was invited to lunch by President Obama and we spent a lot of time talking about the Media Lab. I explained the history of the Lab and described how we had moved from “Demo or Die” to “Deploy or Die.” I saw him playing that phrase back in his head. Then, I realized that for him “Deploy or Die” probably had a lot more baggage than to even my students. He laughed and said, “I think you’re going to have to work on your messaging there.”
I thought about it for awhile and then at the member meeting later that month, I announced that I’d like to change our motto from “Deploy or Die” to just “Deploy.” Some people complained that it wasn’t as punchy, but my favorite complaint was from the students who had complained to me originally about the “or die” part. They said, “So we students make a suggestion and you ignore us. But then the President says something and you listen. Sheesh!” 😃
According to Nicholas Negroponte, he didn’t coin the phrase, “Demo or Die.” He remembers a student or students at the Visible Language Workshop coining it around when the building opened during the academic year of 1985-1986. He first saw it, perhaps walking around with Stewart Brand, written on a wall clock on the 4th floor, SE corner of building E15. Stewart Brand’s book memorialized it.