I left the Media Lab 15 years ago this week. At the time, I never would’ve predicted that I learned one of the most useful skills in my career there: demo-or-die.
The culture of “demo-or-die” has been heavily critiqued over the years. In doing so, most folks focus on the words themselves. Sure, the “or-die” piece is definitely an exaggeration, but the important message there is the notion of pressure. But that’s not what most people focus on. They focus on the notion of a “demo.”
To the best that anyone can recall, the root of the term stems back from early days at the Media Lab, most likely because of Nicholas Negroponte’s dismissal of “publish-or-perish” in academia. So the idea was to focus not on writing words but producing artifacts. In mocking what it was that the Media Lab produced, many critics focused on the way in which the Lab had a tendency to create vaporware, performed to visitors through the demo. In 1987, Stewart Brand called this “handwaving.” The historian Molly Steenson has a more nuanced view so I can’t wait to read her upcoming book. But the mockery of the notion of a demo hasn’t died. Given this, it’s not surprising that the current Director (Joi Ito) has pushed people to stop talking about demoing and start thinking about deploying. Hence, “deploy-or-die.”
I would argue that what makes “demo-or-die” so powerful has absolutely nothing to do with the production of a demo. It has to do with the act of doing a demo. And that distinction is important because that’s where the skill development that I relish lies.
When I was at the Lab, we regularly received an onslaught of visitors. I was a part of the “Sociable Media Group,” run by Judith Donath. From our first day in the group, we were trained to be able to tell the story of the Media Lab, the mission of our group, and the goal of everyone’s research projects. Furthermore, we had to actually demo their quasi functioning code and pray that it wouldn’t fall apart in front of an important visitor. We were each assigned a day where we were “on call” to do demos to any surprise visitor. You could expect to have at least one visitor every day, not to mention hundreds of visitors on days that were officially sanctioned as “Sponsor Days.”
The motivations and interests of visitors ranged wildly. You’d have tour groups of VIP prospective students, dignitaries from foreign governments, Hollywood types, school teachers, engineers, and a whole host of different corporate actors. If you were lucky, you knew who was visiting ahead of time. But that was rare. Often, someone would walk in the door with someone else from the Lab and introduce you to someone for whom you’d have to drum up a demo in very short order with limited information. You’d have to quickly discern what this visitor was interested in, figure out which of the team’s research projects would be most likely to appeal, determine how to tell the story of that research in a way that connected to the visitor, and be prepared to field any questions that might emerge. And oy vay could the questions run the gamut.
I *hated* the culture of demo-or-die. I felt like a zoo animal on display for others’ benefit. I hated the emotional work that was needed to manage stupid questions, not to mention the requirement to smile and play nice even when being treated like shit by a visitor. I hated the disruptions and the stressful feeling when a demo collapsed. Drawing on my experience working in fast food, I developed a set of tricks for staying calm. Count how many times a visitor said a certain word. Nod politely while thinking about unicorns. Experiment with the wording of a particular demo to see if I could provoke a reaction. Etc.
When I left the Media Lab, I was ecstatic to never have to do another demo in my life. Except, that’s the funny thing about learning something important… you realize that you are forever changed by the experience.
I no longer produce demos, but as I developed in my career, I realized that “demo-or-die” wasn’t really about the demo itself. At the end of the day, the goal wasn’t to pitch the demo — it was to help the visitor change their perspective of the world through the lens of the demo. In trying to shift their thinking, we had to invite them to see the world differently. The demo was a prop. Everything about what I do as a researcher is rooted in the goal of using empirical work to help challenge people’s assumptions and generate new frames that people can work with. I have to understand where they’re coming from, appreciate their perspective, and then strategically engage them to shift their point of view. Like my days at the Media Lab, I don’t always succeed and it is indeed frustrating, especially because I don’t have a prop that I can rely on when everything goes wrong. But spending two years developing that muscle has been so essential for my work as an ethnographer, researcher, and public speaker.
I get why Joi reframed it as “deploy-or-die.” When it comes to actually building systems, impact is everything. But I really hope that the fundamental practice of “demo-or-die” isn’t gone. Those of us who build systems or generate knowledge day in and day out often have too little experience explaining ourselves to the wide array of folks who showed up to visit the Media Lab. It’s easy to explain what you do to people who share your ideas, values, and goals. It’s a lot harder to explain your contributions to those who live in other worlds. Impact isn’t just about deploying a system; it’s about understanding how that system or idea will be used. And that requires being able to explain your thinking to anyone at any moment. And that’s the skill that I learned from the “demo-or-die” culture.