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Future perfect

By Aaron Watson

Nicholas Negroponte sees hope for the retail sector, more disruption in the media industry, and internet access becoming a human right.

Media disruptor, technology guru, futurist and entrepreneur Nicholas Negroponte has a simple focus when considering investment in a start-up – the person.

While a strong idea, sound planning and a business development strategy are key indications of a start-up’s potential, when spending his own money Negroponte looks “almost exclusively at the entrepreneur”.

“I have met founders who will succeed at almost anything they decide to do,” Negroponte says.

“In one case the person failed, but I funded his next venture anyway. It succeeded enormously well.”

An architect by training, and brother of former US Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte, he has a reputation as a shrewd investor. His portfolio of successful investments is varied and includes Wired Magazine and restaurant and nightclub app zagat.com (which was bought by Google).

But he admits that he doesn’t always get it right.

“What gets me into trouble is my interest in eccentric and counterintuitive ideas. So my start-up investment record is spotty.”

Foresight

What he does often get right – more right than many of his contemporaries – is predicting how technology will change modern life. Four decades of educated guesswork have seen the MIT professor develop a reputation as a seer.

In the 1980s, he famously predicted that wired technologies such as phones would become unwired, while unwired appliances such as televisions would become wired – a concept now known as the “Negroponte switch”.

He predicted that TV screens would become “electronic books” long before tablets were invented. He predicted touchscreen technology. He predicted that the movie, publishing and computing industries would merge, and that people would purchase books and newspapers directly online.

When he says the internet is the key learning tool of the future – so important that access to it should be considered a human right – it probably pays to take him seriously.

“My predictions are not really predictions, but extrapolations,” he says

“Even though [his 1995 book] Being Digital is now almost 20 years old, most in it came true because everything was based on things we were doing. It was easy to predict tablets when we were working on flat panel displays in 1978.”

Education for prosperity

The internet, he says, is the most powerful learning tool on the planet because children can reach peers and teachers online and learn in their own ways. And educating our children is vital to ensuring prosperity – particularly for those children from poor backgrounds.

The MIT Media Lab co-founder is passionate about this issue and in 2005 created the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, which he ran for seven years. The OLCP wants to help children educate themselves through customised software and connections they develop over the internet. It sells low-cost computers to governments in the expectation they will be given to schoolchildren – as of 2015 the OLCP reported more than three million laptops had been distributed worldwide.

In one Ethiopian village, children given OLPC laptops learned to sing ABC songs – in English – within two weeks and five months later had hacked the software on the computers to access disabled technology.

The ability of children with limited educational opportunities to advance so quickly when given access to technology puts a civic responsibility on governments to ensure their citizens have this opportunity, Negroponte says.

“Governments should provide the basic means of access, something that is starting to happen in public places and in select cities. The benefits are the same as those we gain from public schools and libraries, street lights, parks and roads.

“The public realm is that which benefits everybody. Making the internet a human right, or at least a civic responsibility, seems so dreadfully obvious.”

Net business

The rise of the internet has brought disruption in its wake to many industries. In Australia and New Zealand the media and retail industries, in particular, face ongoing challenges from online news and online shopping. For retailers, he has a reassuring prediction – people will always like shopping in person for a variety of reasons.

“Socialising, browsing, touching and being serendipitous come to mind.” He also notes an emerging model of brick and mortar stores working with online distribution channels.

“Increasingly, stores are becoming ‘indoor advertising’ for things you buy over the internet – that are both delivered and at lower cost. Faceto- face commerce will continue to decrease, but may soon start to plateau for select reasons.”

But such a serendipitous model is not likely to emerge in the modern media, where Negroponte has experience as a disruptor with the groundbreaking digital edition of Wired Magazine. For the traditional news media, the internet appears to be a bridge too far, he says.

“A wild guess on my part: the average size of a ‘media company’ today is less than two people,” he says.

“In the past, the high cost of production was such that media companies dominated, whether it be the airwaves, print or media (in the sense of physical materials) and they could exercise effective editorial control and apply standards by virtue of their size.

Today, the cost of entry is effectively zero and previously well-guarded lines between news and editorial, for example, have blurred in places.”

The shift to digital media has coincided with a perceived lowering of journalistic standards and a rise in “advertorial” or “native/sponsored content” – which is paid for by clients but not presented as advertising. In this “paid news” environment, can the digital media perform the democratic oversight that has traditionally been considered part of the role of the press?

“Journalistic standards come from control, from ethics, from a corporate resolve,” Negroponte says. And with the optimism of a technophile, Negroponte sees hope in the nature of internet media itself.

“The solution to that has to be the crowd, social filtering and reputational sentiments.”

In short, protecting the reputation of the online media outlet, through the comments and criticisms it garners, will be the new driver of editorial integrity.

There is a lesson here for all businesses that operate in the online space; your online brand is your lifeblood.

Aaron Watson is the editor of Acuity.

This article was originally published in the May 2016 edition of Acuity.