He calls himself the Chief of ConfusionSeptember 28, 2008
Scientist who oversaw creation of Ethernet and GUI is into Web 2.0 and the world of youth
He calls himself 'an ancient' when asked about his age but declines to reveal it.
Professor John Seely Brown, or JSB as he prefers to be called, was the chief scientist of document management company Xerox Corporation until 2002. He was also director of the legendary Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (Parc) - where laser printing, Ethernet and the graphical user interface (GUI) were created - for half of his 24 years there.
This American may have retired from his past life as a scientist and a member of senior management, but he is still very much in the heat of things.
Today, he calls himself the Chief of Confusion, helping people to ask the right questions and trying to make a difference through speaking, writing and teaching.
He gives public talks, contributes to the online version of Business Week and offers his sagely thoughts to schools, governments and large corporations.
His travels today include regular trips to cyberspace where social networking communities like Facebook, MySpace and Second Life have become a big part of his life.
Shortly after his retirement in 2002, Prof Brown decided that he would not want to do anything that would compete with his previous organisation. The problem was that Parc was into practically everything that had to do with science and technology.
'I figured that the only thing that Parc didn't study about was 16-year-olds,' he said. So, he decided to enter the world of youth. To 'be in their shoes', he made himself an apprentice to a 22-year-old game designer for a year, and learnt 'enough' about game design and the Web habits of youth to 'be in the game'.
He preaches what he practises. When SingTel sought his view recently on bringing about cultural change within the company, he suggested senior management should consider going into 'reverse mentorship', as he had done, to really get a feel of the ground.
He is a regular in Singapore. He has worked with various government agencies, including the Ministry of Education, the Media Development Authority (MDA) and the National Research Foundation. He was in town earlier last week at the invitation of the Singapore Press Holdings Foundation to deliver a public lecture and met up with the MDA on its interactive digital media initiatives and with SingTel, where he took the opportunity to switch his old iPhone for the new iPhone 3G.
The Sunday Times caught up with the legendary scientist at the Goldhill Plaza office of innovation and design consultancy firm Ideas Factory where he is a distinguished fellow, and again when he delivered the lecture at the National Library on the topic: Redefining Media In The 21st Century.
He spoke passionately about the role of the new media in today's world. Against the backdrop of soothsayers foretelling the demise of traditional mass media, he believes that newspapers will actually play an even more important role in the age of blogs, podcasts and Facebook.
The challenge today is with information overload and scarcity of attention. There is an infinite amount of interesting stuff on the Web and blogs, but what is needed are tools to help negotiate 'the economy of attention', he said.
That's where newspapers come in.
'Newspapers don't just report, they make news by the way they aggregate and display information, which tells you what they feel is important,' he said. That is why 'good newspapers are never truly neutral but always consistent in their bias'. The smart reader, he added, needs to understand the different bias.
He noted, too, that many newspapers today, including The New York Times, are also seeking interesting content on the Web and aggregating blogs to expand the interest of the reader and are therefore moving beyond a pure producer of information to also a curator.
'The difference is that the information in newspapers is not aggregated by Google machines but by human editors with skills to manage my attention,' he said.
He warned against newspapers going totally online because the 'newspaper functions because of its format', but added that an e-reader device like Amazon's Kindle might be an interesting hybrid option to consider. The Kindle lets users buy and download e-books and newspaper articles over the Internet.
The scientist suggested that the spirit of Web 2.0 lies in enabling many people to participate in making small contributions that become accumulatively significant. Anyone who wants to find out what has been happening in the world for the last few years, for example, should turn to Wikipedia, which he said has become as authoritative as the traditional Britannica.
But he warned against taking Wikipedia at face value. The right way to read the Wikipedia is to look at what happens behind the scenes, at the backroom arguments between the editors and the community.
'You need to know which parts are contested and which are agreed upon and then you can have a deeper sense of what is really out there. If you are just reading the front page, you are completely missing the point of Wikipedia,' he said.
He noted that society has transformed from one that faced a scarcity of goods to an abundant consumer society spoilt for choice by the technologies of mass production.
Now, society is moving to a 'creator economy' where niche communities and the 'long tail' phenomenon - the business strategy of selling a large range of products in small quantities instead of a small range of mass market quantities - will thrive.
While he thinks that Second Life will 'just be a blip on the horizon', he is confident that the real big things are the online social networking communities forming in names like Facebook and MySpace. The latter, he added, has 110 million active users, deals with 50 million e-mail messages a day and has 300,000 new users every single day.
'It's taking off, and it's beginning to explode,' he warned.
Born in Hamilton, New York, Prof Brown grew up among academics. His grandfather was a mathematics professor, his mother ran a fine arts library and his father was a physical chemist.
He received a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University in 1962 in mathematics and physics and a PhD from the University of Michigan in 1970 in computer and communication sciences. Over the last eight years, he has also picked up four honorary doctorates.
When he was head of Parc, he expanded the role of corporate research to include topics like organisational learning and knowledge management. He has always been interested in the dynamics of people working together.
Interestingly, Prof Brown was behind one of the earliest forms of social networking community in the world.
In the mid-1990s, Xerox tasked Parc to figure out why productivity was low among its field technicians. His team noticed that the representatives would gather at the warehouse regularly to trade anecdotes about their work. It was at such gatherings, when the representatives told stories about their work experiences, that they learnt from one another.
From this insight, Parc developed the Eureka system which enabled 25,000 field technicians to channel their real-life experiences in solving work problems to a central knowledge management system. By 1995, Xerox believed the system cut down 5 per cent of a technician's time and saved 5 per cent in replacement parts.
He still believes that there is a 'huge amount of real work which is done at the water cooler' around informal conversations.
'Think of today's social networks as a fantastic amplifier of the water cooler,' he said.
In his lecture last Tuesday, he gave an example of how real business is entering the life of informal social networks - author Cory Doctorow launched his new book in Second Life in 2005 and met avatars from around the world for the launch.
When queried by a member in the audience if the new media was something which only a minority of nerds go to, he joked: 'I break the world down to geeks and dinosaurs.'
But on a serious note, he said: 'MySpace alone has 300,000 new users a day. Social networks will change the way we work. If you don't understand that, then you will be left out.'
Yet even his efforts to be in the Web 2.0 world may not be good enough. He recounted how a 16-year-old girl he met recently told him: 'John, you know a lot about the stuff but you are not really in it. You are learning about this, but you are not learning how to be in it.'
Maybe that is why despite him declining to reveal his age and Wikipedia and Google not immediately showing it, this reporter still managed to dig it out from an online article about him when he was inducted into the industry's hall of fame in 2004.
He can run but he cannot hide.
He is 68, if you must know.
On Apple's iPhone
'Just holding it makes you feel good about it. It has really been a joyful experience, I keep discovering applications that make me smile and go 'Wow, that's cool'. How many times do you discover something in information technology that makes you keep going 'that's cool'?
While the whole packaging behind the iPhone is superb, the real magic is in the interface which is simply spectacular. Twist it to the side and your screen shifts to fit your point of view.
I managed to set up my Microsoft Exchange (e-mail) account in just two minutes
and now I can push all my mail and synchronise all 4,000 contacts into this device. I have handled many gadgets in my life but the iPhone is really nearly perfect.'
On Singapore's push to be an interactive digital media (IDM) hub
'There is a tremendous opportunity for Singapore to be the Asian hub for IDM. There are no natural hubs right now. Singapore may be a small country but the plus is that you can wire the entire country almost overnight.
It has a competent central government that can think through its strategies carefully and then move aggressively to achieve long-term goals. In my country, long term is two to three years, and for corporations, it is three months.
Singapore has no trouble taking a five-, 10- and even 15- year plan. Singapore's development of a creative community has been outstanding. It knows it has to attract gamers, animators and make it a fun place for them to be in.
The IDM guys have some very interesting programmes and competitions to build an entrepreneurial and creative culture here. Combined with funding of the right kind, Singapore can become a magnet to pull the best people from all over the world.'
On whether the crux of US election debates has shifted from mass media to the Net
'I did not realise there were debates anymore in the United States, just screaming matches.'
Source: Oo Gin Lee -- The Straits Times (Singapore) , September 28, 2008 Sunday