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NewsPeek - Personalized News in 1981

  • NewsPeek: a peek at the news, with homage to George Orwell's 1984

  • NewsPeek: the first personal newspaper (created in 1981)

  • NewsPeek: pre-Internet social media featuring personalization with privacy

Key excerpts from the 1981 NewsPeek thesis introduction would be an extension of both the television set and the telephone, facilitating a bi-directional interchange of data.

This exciting prospect, that of being able to transmit a reply to an article or make a statement on an issue, as well as receive information from a greater variety of sources, will help to open up a whole new world of learning and information.

However, a tool which can provide unlimited access to informational resources can be used as well as terribly abused. ... there are several important issues which should be kept in mind during the design of a large scale integrated system.

  • Private information, e.g., personal letters sent by means of an electronic mail, must be guaranteed private and untappable. [note: This can be accomplished using current, state-of-the-art public key encryption methods.]

  • No single interest group, such as the government, military, or private corporation, should have the ability to control the flow of information on the system, or have any influence upon what is and what is not generally available.

All of these guidelines should be completely adhered to or we lay ourselves bare to manipulation and exploitation for the good of some special interest group. As people begin to learn how to use the system for learning and dissemination of information, and with these precepts as a foundation, we will be able to move towards a better informed public, decentralization of decision making, and perhaps a more coherent public policy along socially useful lines.


While an undergrad at M.I.T. in the mid/late 1970's, I was troubled by the ignorance, apathy and powerlessness expressed by much of society and I wanted to do something about it. Perhaps due to the fact that I was so immersed in the process of learning, I came up with a plan to educate the world. There was folly in this idea, partly because much of our society often appears not to desire further education, but more importantly, a single source of information could easily devolve into fascism.

While pondering what to do for a Computer Science thesis -- perhaps involving intelligent agents (actors) or dynamic first order logic proof checkers from the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory -- an exciting new piece of hardware arrived at the Architecture Machine Group (or "Arch Mac," later renamed the Arts and Media Technology Center, or the Media Lab, for short) where I was spending much of my time. A Mead Data Lexis/Nexis data terminal was installed with access to huge (for the time) quantities of news and information, but with a clunky user interface. Seeing this triggered the realization that providing high quality information to those willing to seek it out would be a key step in my original goal.

Further, the very definition of what high quality information is should be up to the informed choice of each individual consumer. The entire publishing system was going to have to be turned upside down with people choosing what they wanted to read. As a first step toward this I added saved search capability and preference sharing to Nexis, thus creating NewsPeek, a personal newspaper. The concept description along with the necessary hardware and software interfaces to the Mead Data Nexis terminal became my undergraduate thesis in 1981.

NewsPeek combined the seemingly limitless information resources of Mead Data Corporation's Nexis online news service with large scale personal computing, artificial intelligence and advanced communications and networking to produce an electronic newspaper containing high quality news, information and entertainment individualized by and for the user.

(For more on NewsPeek, read the NewsPeek Thesis or check out the The Media Lab by Stewart Brand, Viking Press, ©1987)


This thesis was not created in a vacuum but rather at the M.I.T. Architecture Machine Group, an interdisciplinary multi-media laboratory extending the reach of computers into people's lives for the first time. Arch Mac's director, Nicholas Negroponte; Walter Bender, then a graduate student and later the executive director of the Media Lab; and Andrew Lippman, a professor focusing on the future of TV while I was focusing on the future of the newspaper, all provided encouragement and pushed me to explore the edges. Without their support and the fertile atmosphere they created within the walls of Arch Mac, NewsPeek would not have been created.

I also drew ideas and methodologies from my work at the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Lab, and from interactions with its professors including Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert, Gerry Sussman, Hal Abelson, Carl Hewitt and Richard Greenblatt along with Richard Stallman and many others. The AI Lab was an awesome place in the late seventies and I was fortunate to be a part of it.

Finally, special thanks to Rocky Grober for typing my thesis as I scribbled it down on paper before heading out to California.

=Fen Labalme

The 1981 NewsPeek Thesis (reformatted in 2018)

Why two dates?

The NewsPeek concept, hardware and software interfaces to power it, along with this thesis, were all created in the 1980-1981 school year culminating in its completion (during the summer term) in August 1981. The author left the thesis in his advisor's office and headed west for a planned six-to-nine month job in California after which he expected to return to extend and complete the work as part of a graduate degree. But the California job - and the weather and life experiences - were beyond enticing so the task of following up on the degree slid to the back burner.

Many years later - in 2018 - Fen began the process of getting the already fully written thesis officially signed. Anne Hunter, Academic Administrator for the EECS Undergraduate and M.Eng. Programs, provided invaluable assistance in tracking down decades-old course records and graduation requirements, and I was doubly fortunate that Andy Lippman - still at the Media Lab! - remembered me and my work and offered to be my thesis supervisor. He read the reformatted thesis written 37 years earlier, assigned it an "A" grade and wrote: "A prescient project, well done and overdue for appreciation."

List of changes from the 1981 original to the 2018 version

The thesis that was signed in 2018 is identical to what was written and originally submitted in 1981 with only formatting and spelling changes as detailed below.

Entire document:

  • Formatted for Google Docs and Markdown from OCR scan of printed original
  • Formatting of Nexis commands in monotype font

Title page:

  • New verbiage for the "Submitted" statement
  • My name changed from "Steven Ford Labalme" to "Fen Labalme"
    • I legally changed my name in 2007
  • "2018" added to "© 1981"
  • Andrew Lippman added as Thesis Supervisor for 2018 signature

Spelling corrections:

original misspelling corrected spelling
wth with
subsantial substantial
horizens horizons
anly only
dirict direct
Kissenger Kissinger
facillitate facilitate

Other changes:

  • added opening parenthesis to "(known around MIT as a daemon)"


1981 MIT computer science thesis







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