It's a brave man who questions whether there's a future for media company chief executives when sat around a table with three of the biggest in the business.
Andrew Lippman, a senior research scientist at MIT's Media Lab, speculated about the demise of the media honcho at a roundtable last week at the Media Summit in New York. Michael Wolf, the president and chief operating officer of MTV Networks, Kevin Roberts, the worldwide chief executive of Saatchi and Saatchi and William Cella, the chairman and chief executive of media services company MAGNA Global Worldwide were left uncharacteristically lost for words.
The essence of Lippman's argument is that we are rapidly approaching a time when consumers can create and publish content as easily as large media outlets; under such circumstances why would we need chief executives of media companies or media companies at all?
ZDNet UK caught up with Lippman on Wednesday to discover his thoughts on open media, open source, copyrigh, and what exactly he's working on at MIT.
Q: Can you explain in more detail your thoughts on opening up media so that anyone can participate?
A: If you think about the media industry historically, about 500 years ago the creative users of media were also the inventors. For example, Da Vinci dug up the ores that he painted with — he invented the medium at the same time as he was using it as a creative medium. Then came mass media and because it was technology-based, the creators and inventors become different people. The computer age has given us the possibility to get back into that — suddenly creators and inventors are becoming the same people again. This doesn't mean the end of mass media but it fattens the long tail.
During the roundtable you spoke about open source software, and how Brazil is standardising on Linux. How do you think the use of open source software will change over the next few years?
This is my personal opinion; I've not done any research on this topic. But I think that open source is the kind of thing that will grow exponentially. When the community is relatively small, people will only invent things for their own use; programmers are good at making a system for other programmers. But as more people start using the software and the community grows, the software becomes more open for new creative uses and it will grow exponentially.
What's your personal opinion on desktop Linux?
I don't think the average consumer can use it; it's still not as easy as plugging in a Mac. But it will become easier and faster, the larger and more diverse the community becomes; it will feed upon itself. Linux has been around a long time, but it hasn't exploded out of the box because the community was better at talking to its own members than to others.
During the roundtable you also made a point about how the record industry has demonised its audience by assuming that consumers want to steal their products. Can you explain more your thoughts on this issue and what you think the solution is?
Again, this is my personal opinion, but I think that most people have a predisposition to be honest and recognise that they should pay for someone else's work. But the media industry has assumed that they are out to steal it. What you need is friction not perfection — you need to make it hard enough to steal so you're reminded to be honest, but it shouldn't be a rip-off.
I had friend who went to China, and I mentioned this to some people in the media industry and they said 'those are the people that steal our movies'. You've got to ask the question — why do they pay for own local programming and not for American movies? Is it because they're sociopaths? Or is it because the movie costs too much? Media companies force them to become crooks by charging way too much. But, obviously if they charged less in China, people might set up business to resell the DVDs in the US. I don't have a solution to that.
You run a research group on 'Viral Communications' at MIT's Media Lab. What does this mean, and what are you trying to do?
When we talk about viral we mean inventions where the strength and the power come from the community: things that start small and explode. Skype is a good example. It's just over two years old and 250 million people have downloaded it.
But it's difficult to innovate in the world of communications, which is deeply centralised and vertically integrated. The only innovations that can happen are things like Skype and Wikipedia, which are at the edge of a system. Tightly integrated innovations are more difficult to do. What we are working on is breaking that challenge — how robust and stable...
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