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Nicholas Negroponte on stage
Nicholas Negroponte on stage
December 2006: I was lucky enough to meet with and attend a presentation by Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder, Professor and Chairman Emeritus of the Media Laboratory at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), founder and chairman of the One Laptop per Child non-profit association and board member of Motorola Inc. He wrote the best selling book, Being Digital in 1995 which has subsequently been translated into 40 different languages and he remains a controversial and maverick figure in the technology space.

Despite using the headline of “The One Dollar Handset” to provoke a reaction from his audience (most of whole work in the mobile communications industry), the topic of his presentation largely focused on his “One Laptop per child” project which appears to be coming to fruition as the first test units come off the production line.

Below is a summary of the comments he made. Below this picture I have pasted the entire text but I have also pasted the relevant text below each slide for reference.

It should be noted that Negroponte made it clear that the views he expressed in this presentation were his own (not those of Motorola where he is a board member). He clearly reveals in given incredibly outspoken views on topics close to his heart.

Slide 1 (The One Dollar Handset)

For his opening slide (which contained the headline “The One Dollar Handset”) Negroponte used a picture taken in 1982 during a visit to Senegal – he stated that it was around this time he was first inspired as to how technology could help the poorest people in the world.

Slide 2 (Looking back)

He then went on to pick on some hot topics related to the mobile communications industry firstly lamenting the way in which the licenses for 3G spectrum were sold in the UK back in year 2000. He alleged that the decision to auction the spectrum resulted in the UK government effectively “screwing the future” for the technology given the ludicrous sums that were raised (?22.6 billion). He proudly told the story of how his comments at the time were picked up by the media and allegedly resulted in the headline “England is screwing it grandchildren” in the FT. The UK auction resulted in similar behaviour taking place across the rest of Europe and meant that the technology was “crippled before it had even started to be deployed”. Describing the “opportunity cost of 3G” as “unreasonable” he stated that it had “created a disaster as the industry has struggled for six years to try and get the technology working.” He instead argues that greater efforts should have been made to make more use of the technology that was already in existence (such as GPRS) allowing nascent services to develop rather than the desperate attempts to get services working on the immature technology that 3G offered at the time. Making an observation on recent events he announced that he thought the Chinese were “really stupid” to have their own 3G standard and described how he had met with a senior party official in the Chinese government’s communications ministry to try and persuade him to “skip” 3G and move straight to 4G. (Notably Negraponte did not define what he thought 4G was although his enthusiasm for WiFi and 802.11 technologies might suggest it would be a variant of that technology similar to WiMax).

Continuing with the theme of the 3G auctions which he regarded as “ludicrous” he went on to contend that there is no such thing as spectrum scarcity – simply a market where spectrum has been regulated into scarcity. He used a wonderful analogy to describe how spectrum had been recklessly distributed in the 1940’s and 1950’s with big wide tracts of spectrum being allocated with enormous buffer zones (guard bands) wide enough for a “drunk driver to safely drive home” down the spectrum highway. Furthermore he said that the decision to sell spectrum like “real estate” meant that the value of spectrum had appreciated dramatically. Therefore any efforts to reallocate spectrum more efficiently result in costly compensation for those who “have used the real estate to build swaths of houses” making it highly problematic to reallocate spectrum as communications technology becomes more efficient (e.g. collaborative radios).

Another area where he passed comment was in the area of subsidies. The slide contained a bullet point saying “subsidy worked” but I wonder whether this was a typo as he stated that “subsidies are truly a mistake and the faster they can be removed the better”. He stated that be did not believe that subsidies would last much longer. He also made the observation that for the traditional telcos and mobile carriers / operators competition is not now from within (other telcos) but it comes in the form of fast moving Internet upstarts such as Google and Yahoo.

Slide 3: (Looking forward)

Turning to the future Negroponte expressed his belief in a number of technologies including software defined radio (SDR) combined with Meta standards. He be
Karl Bartos at the Bed Supperclub, Bangkok Thailand
Karl Bartos at the Bed Supperclub, Bangkok Thailand
The Bed Supperclub reminds me of the Korova Milk Bar in the movie A Clockwork Orange, complete with a sterile white atmosphere, impractical "modern" decor with pretention bleeding from between the sheets. Essentially, it is a restaurant and dance club where you eat lounged on a bed with friends a la the Bed Bar in the HBO tv show Sex and the City. The whole place is housed in what amounts to a giant tube- like an airplane fuselage with two floors of bed-based seating. We (Sachi, Newley and me) were constanly amused by the scene in general which felt like another world of high fashion, performance art and people who appear to take themselves far too seriously. We were outsiders. As an example, the server gave is a comment card that had ratings 1-5 with 1 being "meow" and 5 being "ROOAR!" When we arrived there was a brightly lit women standing in the middle of the room, looking a bit like a Cirque Du Soleil clown with vines wrapped around her. Upon asking, we found that she was a performer in an interactive/performance art display, called "Cut Piece". We were supposed to cut away the vines to "free" her and then "contemplate and discuss the meaning amongst friends." We insisted on discussing what it takes to find meaning in such things. We received "instructions" for Cut Piece and the first line read, and I couldn't make this up... "Walk to the beautiful worm" and "Keep piece of brach as souvenir" Oh, and Karl Bartos of the legendary electronic band Kraftwerk performed as DJ, which was really cool to see. He seemed to fit perfectly as he posed for muliple photographers as text scrolled across the screen above the dancefloor saying "before MTV there was Bartos. This is Karl Bartos." The Bed Supperclub was a priceless experience for us as backpackers, perhaps in the same way a heavy metal rocker might experience an opera- it's not really our thing, but it's really interesting to watch and seems strangely familiar.

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