MIT's open communications campaigner

Andrew Lippman thinks communities will be key to the future of communications tech

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...

For more, click here...

...a communications system can we build that has as little infrastructure as possible?

How do you think the communications industry will respond to you work? Won't they resist any attempt to make the system more open as this will result in more competitors and a reduction in revenues?
The great open systems you know of in the digital world — the Internet, the PC — were done in a pre-commercial way. People involved in creating the Internet were concerned with making it as open as possible to future innovations, but the communications industry has been economic and regulated from its inception.

But even though that's true, it doesn't mean that communications companies would be averse to what I'm doing. For example, if you think of the pre-Carterfone era — when you couldn't connect anything to the phone network that wasn't built by AT&T. In the pre-Carterfone era AT&T owned everything. After the ruling, it only owned a slice of the pie, but the whole industry grew with the development of answerphones, fax machines, modems and so on.

Wireless and mobile networks are still in the in pre-Carterfone era — the only way you can connect to a mobile network is via a phone provided by your network provider. You can buy the phone, but there are economic disincentives as the provider subsidises the phone.

If you are a communications company, maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea to open it up — you can gain the benefit of the inventiveness you've enabled. If I can make a cell phone that doesn't need towers — if every phone acts as a tower — this would help the cell phone company as they don't need to pay to build the towers. I'm certainly not on a crusade to eliminate phone companies.

When will your project be completed?
I wish it were easier to answer that question. The program that Nicholas Negroponte [the former chairman of MIT's media lab, who stepped down on Wednesday started — One Laptop Per Child. If you link all these children you would have a pretty fertile network of innovation. You can use mesh networks to get that started.

[The laptops will have wireless broadband that allows them to work as a mesh network — each laptop will be able to talk to its nearest neighbours creating an ad hoc local area network. The project is also exploring ways to connect the laptops to the backbone of the Internet at very low cost, according to an FAQ on the laptops.]

The laptop will initially be distributed to five million children across five countries, but could eventually be distributed to many more. How well do you think such a large mesh network will work?
How well can we make it work? I would like to let them run all the communications they want to do and never run out of steam. Can we make a network so it can grow without bounds? No. Can it do now as well as it will need to do in the end? No. But will the technology probably improve as we go along? Yes. The question is how we can we let it scale.

Do you think everyone will start using mesh networks to cut costs?
I don't think of it as something we're doing to fight costs. The great advances or changes that have come about because of the Internet show the power of the community, such as eBay, Skype or Wikipedia. These are things that are very hard to predict in their specifics. The importance of viral networks is to make the barriers to communication so low that you can get invention in that space. It changes the name of the game of what the platform can be used for.

What are you most excited about in the next few years?
There has been a backlash against technologies, such as the music industry's backlash against digital music. But, I believe that when you start to build an open platform then you will defeat the backlash and society will become empowered. I think society will win eventually.

In the end, laws are supported by society — they don't control society. If you making systems and platforms open, and make them openly available then society will gain and retain their voice. For example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act — the act that criminalised things that were civil infractions before — is now being modified and toned down. Legal structures have to support social structures.