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Michael Hawley, Programmer, Professor and Pianist, Dies at 58


Michael Hawley, a computer programmer, professor, musician, speechwriter and impresario who helped lay the intellectual groundwork for what is now called the Internet of Things, died on Wednesday at his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 58.

The cause was colon cancer, said his father, George Hawley.

Mr. Hawley began his career as a video game programmer at Lucasfilm, the company created by the “Star Wars director George Lucas. He spent his last 15 years curating the Entertainment Gathering, or EG, a conference dedicated to new ideas.

In between, he worked at NeXT, the influential computer company founded by Steve Jobs after he left Apple in the mid-1980s, and spent nine years as a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab, a seminal effort to push science and technology into art and other disciplines. He was known as a scholar whose ideas, skills and friendships spanned an unusually wide range of fields, from mountain climbing to watchmaking.

Mr. Hawley lived with both Mr. Jobs and the artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky, published the world’s largest book, won first prize in an international competition of amateur pianists, played alongside the cellist Yo-Yo Ma at the wedding of the celebrity scientist Bill Nye, joined one of the first scientific expeditions to Mount Everest, and wrote commencement speeches for both Mr. Jobs and the Google co-founder Larry Page.

Two of Mr. Hawley’s Media Lab projects — Things That Think and Toys of Tomorrow — anticipated the Internet of Things movement, which aims to weave digital technology into everything from cars to televisions to home lighting systems. Led by companies like Amazon, Google, Intel and Microsoft, the movement is now a $248 billion market, according to the market research firm Statista.

Mr. Hawley developed “a pattern of ideas that emerged long before the Internet of Things,” Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab, said in an email.

“I would call that pattern not artificial intelligence, but intelligence in the artificial,” he wrote.

Mark Seiden, an independent computer security consultant who met Mr. Hawley in the early 1980s when they were both working at IRCAM, a music lab in Paris, and eventually hired him at Lucasfilm, compared Mr. Hawley’s exploits to those of George Plimpton, the writer whose participatory kind of journalism had him masquerading as a boxer, a professional football player, a circus performer and a stand-up comedian.

“Plimpton was a famous dilettante,” Mr. Seiden said. “Mike was just as a diverse as Plimpton — except he wasn’t a dilettante.”

Michael Jerome Hawley was born on Nov. 18, 1961, at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base near Oceanside, Calif., to Mary Kay (Dixon) and George Hawley, and grew up in New Providence, N.J., about 17 miles west of Newark. While still in high school, he interned at Bell Labs, where his father was an electrical engineer. He also underwent years of formal training as a pianist and went on to study both music and computer science as an undergraduate at Yale, earning degrees in each.

After meeting Mr. Jobs in the lobby of Lucasfilm in the early 1980s, Mr. Hawley shared a house with him and spent six years at NeXT, which aimed to build a new kind of personal computer. For this machine Mr. Hawley built one of the first digital libraries. A friend of his had worked on a new edition of “The Complete Works of Shakespeare” at Oxford University Press, so Mr. Hawley and Mr. Jobs flew to England to negotiate a deal for the digital files, offering $2,000 upfront and 74 cents for each personal computer sold.

When the NeXT machine was launched, Mr. Hawley added a dictionary, a thesaurus and a book of quotations — all now standard online fare.

In 2005, he helped write Mr. Jobs’s Stanford University commencement speech (“Stay hungry, stay foolish” was one of its much-quoted lines), which did much to define the Apple founder as an international celebrity in his last decade. Four years later, after meeting Mr. Page on a boat ride across San Francisco Bay, Mr. Hawley repeated the trick, writing the commencement speech that Mr. Page delivered at the University of Michigan.

After he joined the brand-new MIT Media Lab as a graduate student in 1985, Mr. Hawley lived in Mr. Minsky’s attic, and after finishing his Ph.D. he stayed on at M.I.T. as a professor.

In 1998, he served as the scientific director on an expedition to Mount Everest. Four years later, he tied for first place in the prestigious Van Cliburn amateur piano competition in Fort Worth, playing his own arrangement of a suite of pieces from “West Side Story.” (His selection of Broadway show tunes proved a controversial choice.)

ImageMr. Hawley at the piano in 2002 in the Van Cliburn amateur piano competition in Fort Worth. He shared first prize. Formally trained, he studied both music and computer science at Yale, earning degrees in each.
Credit…Michael Hawley

As the director of special projects at M.I.T., Mr. Hawley published “Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Himalayan Kingdom” in 2003, drawing on his experiences and photographs spanning four visits to Bhutan over a decade and a half. Measuring five by seven feet and weighing more than 130 pounds, it was certified by Guinness World Records at the time as the world’s largest book.

“Michael was always finding some cool new idea,” Mr. Seiden said. “And then he would actually do it.”

Mr. Hawley and his wife, Nina You, were married at Kyichu Lhakhang, a seventh-century Bhutanese temple, and lived in a 193-year-old church in East Cambridge, where he kept three pianos, including a Steinway. She and his father survive him, as do a son, Tycho; a daughter, Choki Lhamo; and two brothers, Stephen and Patrick.

In mid-April, as Mr. Hawley’s cancer worsened amid the coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Negroponte organized an online Festschrift, a celebration of one’s scholarly work. Those that spoke about Mr. Hawley and his accomplishments included Leonard Kleinrock, one of the creators of the internet; Stewart Brand, editor of The Whole Earth Catalog; and the legal scholar Laurence Tribe. It was hosted by Peter Sagal, the host of the NPR game show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

“I didn’t know what a Festschrift was,” Mr. Sagal said in an interview, wondering if this was one more big idea Mr. Hawley had helped push across the world.


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