Early History and Education

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Matthew K. Gold (MKG): I’d like to start by asking you what your relationship to books was like before you encountered electronic texts.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Bob Stein (BS): I grew up in the 1950s on the Upper West Side, where intellectual life was important, and books were important. I’ve been browsing bookstores since I was young. And I had worked in book publishing for a long time, so books were, in a lot of ways, the centerpiece of my life — at least my media life.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: When you were in college at Columbia University, what were you envisioning as your future?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: It was the 1960s; we weren’t thinking that far ahead. I was a founding member of the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] chapter at Columbia. I ran quite a large community center while I was in college, and teaching kids to read was part of what we did. With a friend, I wrote a reading primer. I went on to graduate school in education. So, learning, very broadly, has always been a central interest.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Were you thinking about becoming a teacher early on?

Permalink for this paragraph 0

BS: I don’t think so. From the time I was in university until the time I was 34, I was doing full-time political work, trying to change the system on a pretty fundamental scale. I considered myself a radical revolutionary; we really thought that there was a chance that we would bring down capitalism at that time. We were wrong, but I think that that was the overarching rubric, and, yes, within that I was interested in publishing, learning, etc., but I wasn’t looking for any kind of a traditional occupation.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: How did the political organizations that you were involved with communicate with the larger public?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: Mostly through written propaganda. I signed the original lease on Revolution Books here in New York. I worked on the Revolutionary Worker newspaper. I set up a wholesale operation to distribute left-wing books across the country. So it was very much a sort of publishing effort that I was involved in.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: To what extent were you experimenting then with new ways of reaching people?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: It was paper. We didn’t have anything except paper.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: Do you remember your first encounter with an electronic text?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: I think the first time I saw the potential of it was visiting Nick Negroponte’s Architecture Machine Group lab at MIT (now the Media Lab) in 1981 and seeing, for the first time, anti-aliased text on a television screen with a video window and realizing that the possibility was there to completely redefine the notion of a book so as to allow it to have audio and video on the page, as well as text.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: What brought you to MIT at that point?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: I had stopped doing political work in 1980 and had sort of lucked into a consulting gig with Encyclopaedia Britannica. I was working with Charles Van Doren at Britannica and took him with me to MIT. I had already gotten interested in video discs as a way of publishing multimedia, but it wasn’t until I went to the media lab that it took on a particularly book-like instance for me.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: That you saw text entering the picture?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: [nods]

Permalink for this paragraph 0 MKG: What kinds of potential were you thinking of then?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 BS: One of my kids was about eleven, and although he had a really impressive genius-level IQ — he was a stepchild, so I can say that — he wasn’t much of a reader. And he came to me one day and said that he was really interested in model airplanes and would I buy one for him. I didn’t have any money, so I said, “Go learn something about airplanes and I’ll buy one for you.” He went to the library and he got a stack of books, and he sort of thumbed through them, and it was very clear to me that what he needed was something that wasn’t just text; he needed something like an animation of the wind going underneath the wing and lifting it up. I realized that it would be fantastic if it would be possible to create learning materials which accounted for different styles of learning. Just then, the possibility was emerging, particularly out of the Media Lab at MIT, of giving authors a much more complex palette than they had had before, so that they could choose whatever medium was specifically best to get a point across, and sometimes to do it in several different ways to account for different learning styles.

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