Why progress in high-tech needs open, creative minds
Director of Information Technology (IT) at the Massachusets Institute of Technology’s (MIT) famous Media Lab since 1995, Michael Bletsas was interviewed by Kathimerini on the occasion of the ninth Conference of the Union of Greek Advertising Companies (EDEE) which started yesterday and is ending today. The subject of the event, which Kathimerini is co-sponsoring, is ideas: How they are born, their impact and, in particular, the difference they can make for firms in today’s extremely competitive international environment. Besides networks, Bletsas is keen on discoveries, travel and cooking. You have been the Media Lab’s IT director since 1995. What is the Media Lab; what is its aim and how is it linked to the concepts of «ideas» and «creativity»? The Media Lab initially contributed to the creation of established new means, such as multimedia and digital video. Today, its scope is expanded and includes exploration of the ways in which information affect human activities. It aims at «illuminating the field» and showing new ways of mutual influence within the field of information. Its main means of achieving this is through «demonstrations» of ideas relative to this mutual influence. This means that its basic function is the steady production of ideas in an environment conducive to their development through the full spectrum of possible stages. Your lab includes people with some completely disparate fields of activity. How does this work in practice? You need an open mind, a critical disposition toward any form of division between different fields of knowledge, a deep appreciation between partners, teaching abilities and a willingness to learn – all at the same time. Practically, it requires an environment where the whole is worth more than the sum of its individual parts. As we have found out in the last 17 years, the size must be kept small to avoid any forms of inertia. Can you describe a day at MIT’s Media Lab? Or, to be more accurate, two, one that goes well and another when ideas come short. One of the good days at the Media Lab usually includes a visit by some of the sponsors. What makes the day better than others is the degree to which our discussion with the sponsors will work as a process of natural selection in the system of the lab’s ideas. A bad day was when we were cut off from the Web due to the activities of some brainless vandals who wish to be called «hackers,» while fully ignorant of what the word means. Are the products of the lab addressed to business as well as to academia? How are your partners evaluated for success? Unlike most applied research labs, our products are rarely in commercial form and, when this happens, it is due more to luck than intention. A good internal «demo» has much more authority than an academic publication; most of our researchers find a balance somewhere between the two. We live in an age when computers offer infinite possibilities to users, for instance, musicians. But all great music was composed even before electricity was invented. So, what help to art are such things as electrostatic sensors that record movements? For a start, I do not think we know what weight your evaluation will have 100 years from now but I can accept it as part of your question. Music, as any creative activity, needs particular conditions in which to flourish; the rich patrons who enabled most great composers to create their masterpieces no longer exist. By contrast, due to technology today, the threshold of effort needed for someone to create music has fallen dramatically and this means that more children will take up music and will have more chances of becoming virtuosos. You have formed a «heretic» view on the issue of copyrights. What is its purpose? To begin with, for a view to be «heresy,» it must be contrary to some dogma. As an engineer, I can easily accept guidelines but no dogmas. But, in an age when an increasing percentage of total wealth is based on intangible goods, I think that the issue of copyrights is fundamental. What has completely changed with digital technology is that information has been completely separated from the means of its transmission and representation. The existing mechanisms are properly called «protective» and wrongly «copyrights,» for what they protect are the means for transmitting information. Since information has become digital, copying has become very cheap and existing laws increasingly outdated. I think we need a completely new framework for managing copyrights, with the creator nearer the receptor. The other dimension of the issue is related to the tendency lately for the period of copyright to be extended, which completely ignores the desired fundamental balance between the creator and the public intellectual field on which creativity is based, or more generally, the degree of control that the past may exercise on the future. What do you mean when you say the long-term goal of your team is to be superseded? Very simply, the main problem with computers today is their difficulty in use and unreliability. When such problems are solved, Media Lab will not need an entire team of computer engineers in order to function. Could a media lab be created in Greece? What is required or what rules it out? You would need creative people who are not comfortable in «molds.» You need an outward-looking economy which would function as a patron of this activity. And, as with many other things in Greece, it will take a sincere willingness to ignore short-term results in favor of longer-term prospects. Since you assumed the present post in 1995, how many times have you had to redefine your goals due to technology’s development? I think that the basic change since 1995 has been in broadening the lab’s field of activity. As regards particular activities, I think focusing on technology in the developing world is particularly important. But the central idea remains that, instead of opening particular paths, we prefer illuminating the field.