EDGE 7 February 25, 1997
A Talk with Doug Rowan
"The Curator" on the Digerati: Nathan Myhrvold, Denise Caruso,
Bill Gates, Jaron Lanier. Linda Stone, Bob Stein, Richard Wurman
THE REALITY CLUB
George Johnson on Reuben Hersh's "What Kind of Thing is a Number"
William H. Calvin, Doulgas Rushkoff, Paolo Pignatelli, and W.
Daniel Hillis on Joseph LeDoux's "Parallel Memories: Putting Emotions
Back Into The Brain"
Jared Diamond, Murray Gell-Mann, J. Doyne Farmer, Stewart Kauffman,
Seth Lloyd, Lee Smolin, Charles Simonyi , Joseph Traub
( 8,354 words)
THE REALITY CLUB
George Johnson on Reuben Hersh's "What Kind of Thing is a Number"
From: George Johnson
First I'd like to say hello to Reuben Hersh, my New Mexico neighbor,
whom I've read with great delight but not yet met.
This question about the ontological status of mathematics can
be applied to physical laws. Do they exist only in the neural encodings
of the human species or are they universal, hovering in some platonic
phantom zone? I wonder if information-physics can be used to forge
a comfortable middle ground. In "Fire in the Mind:
Science, Faith, and the Search for Order" [http://www.santafe.edu/~johnson/fire.html]
I put it like this:
In "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", Phaedrus, the
author Robert Pirsig's alter ego, is sitting outside a motel room
in the West, drinking whiskey with his traveling companions and
listening to his son, Chris, tell ghost stories. "Do you believe
in ghosts?" Chris asks his father. "No," Phaedrus says. "They contain
no matter and have no energy and therefore, according to the laws
of science, do not exist except in people's minds. Then he pauses
and reflects: "Of course, the laws of science contain no matter
and have no energy either and therefore do not exist except in people's
Pushed up against this edge, science often retreats into platonism.
Here on earth there may be no such thing as a perfect circle, but
we recognize the rough approximations because we somehow have access
to the perfect Circle, a pure idea existing in a separate ectoplasmic
realm. And so we are left with a duality between mind and matter,
ideas and things.
Some followers of the information physics being pursued in Los
Alamos, Santa Fe, and elsewhere suggest a way of bridging the divide:
the laws of the universe are not ethereal, they say, but physical
made from this stuff called information, the 1s and 0s of
binary code. And so they seek to turn science back on itself and
use information theory to understand where the laws of physics lie
(in both senses of the word where they reside and what their
limits are). If information is as physical as matter and energy,
and if ideas and mathematics are made of information, then perhaps
they are rooted in the material world. But the price for banishing
platonic mysticism may be a dizzying self-referential swirl: the
laws of physics are made of information; information behaves according
to the laws of physics. Everything begins to seem like ghosts.
The New York Times
GEORGE JOHNSON is a writer," The New York Times", working on contract
from Santa Fe, January 1995 to present. He formerly worked as Staff
Editor, "The Week in Review", "The New York Times", December 1986
to October 1994. His books include "Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith,
and the Search for Order" (1995); "In the Palaces of Memory: How
We Build the Worlds Inside Our Heads" (1991); and "Machinery of
the Mind: Inside the New Science of Artificial Intelligence" (1986).
He is "now writing an unauthorized (but friendly) biography of Murray
Gell-Mann and would appreciate hearing from anyone with interesting
stories to tell."
William H. Calvin, Doulgas Rushkoff, Paolo Pignatelli, and W. Daniel
Hillis on Joseph LeDoux's "Parallel Memories: Putting Emotions Back
Into The Brain"
From: William H. Calvin
Let me tackle queries about feelings from another angle. Behavior
is only the tip of the iceberg and especially for humans,
because we have such an extensive fantasy life, imagining all sorts
of things that might happen and subconsciously rating them. The
outcome of those ratings are a big part of our "emotional feelings."
Like Joe LeDoux, I tend to doubt that there are a few primal emotions,
conveniently forming the axes of an emotional coordinate space,
but clearly our feelings involve combinations: we simultaneously
feel fear and desire and hope, just as we can simultaneously rate
an apple's appearance and, separately, its taste.
While most rating scales operate on memories of actual happenings
rather than offline simulations of future courses of action, we
can even incorporate memories of imagined courses of action into
our future emotional base as when we realize that something
is a bad idea, and soon have a gut feeling about it that biases
our future ratings (an important source of ethical behavior, lacking
in other animals). But even if you aren't speculating (as I assume
many animals aren't), emotional ratings are enormously important
in biasing neural operations. I often talk (e.g., in How Brains
Think at ) of the four major diffusely-broadcast neurotransmitters
as the "mood music of the neocortex, the various proportions of
acetylcholine, serotonin, and dopamine being something like the
colors that are produced by various proportions of red, green, and
blue photoreceptors but augmented by norepi's drumroll announcing
a sudden happening in the external world. Regional variations of
neuromodulators are part of the stage-setting for even simple neural
circuits (my wife, Katherine Graubard, works on exactly this problem
in a 30-cell minibrain in the crab, e.g., ); they functionally rewire
circuits, not unlike the way we used to temporarily rewire patch
panels for analog computers.
I tend to look on emotion as part of the memorized environment
that biases a Darwinian process, busy bootstrapping quality in our
speculations about what to say next, using a lot of parallel computation.
Explicit memories are also part of that memorized environment, but
the broad strokes of past "emotional" judgments are what set the
stage, what focus your attention on some fine details rather than
I have a caution about Joe LeDoux's hypothetical example of false
memories of stress: remember that it assumes, as a teaching tactic,
that there could be a complete shutdown of hippocampus to stress
(and thus failure of episodic memories), but with augmentation of
amygdala's emotional memories. Though never observed, that's a useful
extreme example to show how different the systems are. There's no
evidence that false memories, as they are studied by cognitive psychologists
such as Beth Loftus, or as they appear in child abuse lawsuits that
hinge on supposedly repressed memories, have anything to do with
LeDoux's teaching example. Human repressed memories have to be judged
on the empirical evidence, such as how susceptible normal people
are to memory errors (we're often in error as eyewitnesses, and
some people can be persuaded that they participated in events that
never happened), and how stress might change those tendencies to
error (a problem for future research)-
WILLIAM H. CALVIN is a theoretical neurophysiologist on the faculty
of the University of Washington School of Medicine who writes about
the brain and evolution. He is the author of The Throwing Madonna,
The Cerebral Symphony, The Ascent of Mind, The River That Flows
Uphill, How the Shaman Stole the Moon, Conversations with Neil's
Brain with neurosurgeon George Ojemann, The Cerebral Code,
and the Science Masters Series title, How Brains Think. His
October 1994 article for the 150th anniversary issue of Scientific
American explores "The Emergence of Intelligence."
From: Douglas Rushkoff
While Ledoux's biological, quasi-reductionist model of emotions
might work for survival mechanisms like fear, pain, fight, flight,
or even reproductive urges, I have a feeling it would prove less
successful in analyzing more complex mechanisms like the quest for
intimacy, community, and comprehension.
I have always understood biology as a yearning for complexity
in the face of entropy. That is, life itself is a force that resists
reductionism and statistical probability (thus, for example, the
preponderence of right-handed molecules against statistical reason).
Evolution, a tool of living systems, might not be the result of
chance mutation but rather an almost conscious striving towards
dimensionality. It defies the odds. This is why I believe that the
laws of Newtonian physics and entropy don't particularly apply to
Survival instincts are merely our interactions with the force
of entropy our resistance to death so of course they
will be subject to the traditional laws of reductionist sciences.
They are what we use to push off. But to infer from the torture
of animals that all emotion has a base in survival instincts and
the mechanistic world in which they occur is to reduce the enterprise
of life to a determinist and spiritless happenstance within a downward
spiral of entropic inevitability.
No, the universe itself is a battle between entropy and life
and, because it gets smarter over time, life is sure to win.
DOUGLAS RUSHKOFF is the author of "Cyberia", "Media Virus", "Playing
the Future", and the upcoming novel "Ecstasy Club:. He writes a
weekly column for the "New York Times" Syndicate.
From Paolo Pignatelli
As I understand it, in early development, there is a differentiation
of neurons, yet under some circumstances, differentiation is not
such that these neurons' evolutionary changes are irreversible back
to some initial or earlier stage, (the whole concept of polymorphism).
If we count the (average) number of generations and n-1 is the first
undifferentiated, homogeneous generation and n-p is the present
specialized generation, at what approximate point are the differentiations
such that one type of memory unit can no longer revert or the other,
even when necessary (for survival, or whatever highest criteria
we may choose?
When we say that a fear is "ingrained" we usually mean that it
has been there for some time. Time is one parameter of the generation
number, (the name I call that number between n-1 and n-p). If there
is an irreversible point for neuron re-differentiation, (which implies
that neurons can be considered to have a memory themselves?), and
that seems to be the case seeing the results of stress on memory
that you talk about here, especially the dendrite shriveling in
the hippocampus, then, what is the nature of the potentially "deadly"
neuronal mutations (in a computational framework) that end, for
example, with hippocampal degeneration?
If we imagine both the amygdala and the hippocampus as computing
machines, (Turing machines), and the output as behavior, are we
saying that there is not another Turing machine that can take the
input from one and transform it to the other? If that is not the
case, then how would the Turing models be defective with respect
to the neuronal models? Naturally, that would be equivalent to asking
if emotional memory can be transformed into "memory" memory through
some other area of the brain, which you say can not be done, but
is that because we have not seen it, or is it impossible? I will
go now to your website and read more about your research,
PAOLO PIGNATELLI, a cyber-entrepreneur, is proprietor of the virtual
Corner Store. He is a linguist, translator and scientist who previously
worked in image processing algorithms at Bell Labs.
From: W. Daniel Hillis
How many emotions are there? It's a simple question, but as far
as I know there is not enough scientific knowledge about emotions
to answer it. Since I have been spending my time lately in the entertainment
industry I have been struck by how little science there is that
tells us anything useful about human emotion. The entertainment
business is all about emotion, but there is not much science that
informs its primary mission. Major decisions are made by a combination
of analogy, habit and superstition. Imagine, for example, what the
chemical industry would be like if there was no science of chemistry:
a few recipes that work, some people who have a successful record
of mixing things together, a combination of many failures and a
few unexplainable successes. It would be a lot like Hollywood.
I am very sympathetic to LeDoux's approach to finding a biological
basis for emotion. It is interesting that in large massively parallel
computers engineers have also adopted the general strategy of providing
two different communications mechanisms for controlling computations.
One mechanism is local and specific point-to-point and the other
is a slow, global system that generally coordinates the action of
the local components. I have often thought of these as corresponding
roughly to the electrical and chemical signalling systems in the
brain. What appeals about LeDoux's work is that it may someday lead
to a precise description of how the chemical signaling system works.
We might finally progress from today's alchemy to an understanding
the chemistry of emotions.-
W. DANIEL HILLIS is vice president of research and development
at the Walt Disney Company and a Disney Fellow. He was cofounder
and chief scientist of Thinking Machines Corporation.-
A Talk with Doug Rowan
We create tools and we are molded by our use of them. In our lifetime
technology has changed the world as it changes our minds. Consider
the great power in new imaging techniques made possible through
technological development. One example: during the moon landing
in the late '60s I recall the stunning televised image of the earth
as seen from the moon: night and day at the same time all
times all the time no matter what the time. And my watch
told me the correct time was 3 pm.
A generation later, the advent of the PC and the current communications
revolution are changing our worlds and our minds to such an extent
that the biggest change is the rate of change. Nowhere is this more
evident than in the graphical imaging power of today's desktop machines.
Corbis is a company whose headquarters is outside Seattle in Bellevue,
Washington. They also have offices in New York and London. The business
is building a digital visual library, and it's an endeavor that's
been underway for almost 7 years. According to Doug Rowan, president
of Corbis, it has accelerated quite a bit in the last three years,
and the company ended 1996 with nearly one million high resolution
photographs richly catalogued in the library.
The central concept of Corbis is to provide a very rich set of
digital visual images that attempt to capture the entire human experience
throughout history, so it includes such diverse topics as fine art,
science, nature, technology, wild life, history, celebrity, sports,
etc. Corbis licenses pictures for people to use in print and electronic
publishing and produces CD-ROM products such as "Leonardo da Vinci",
"FDR", and "The Passion for Art."
Doug Rowan, president and CEO of Corbis, worked for 22 years at
IBM in a variety of marketing positions. He left IBM 12 years ago
and since that time has worked in several companies that did imaging
on the desktop. It was that 12 years and that journey that gave
him an obsession with the technology of digital content, and the
way that digital content is going to change communication. He was
an engineer who got drawn into sales and marketing, and he's been
returning to technology every since.
DOUG ROWAN is president and CEO of Corbis Corporation, in Bellevue,
Washington. Doug joined Corbis Corporation in early 1994 after a
30+ year in the computer industry. After a BSEE and MBA from Cornell,
Doug joined IBM where he held a number of sales, marketing and marketing
management positions over a 22 year period. Doug left IBM in 1984
to join MASSCOMP as VP of Marketing, Sales and Service. After a
similar position at Ampex, Doug joined AXS as President. AXS was
a pioneer in software and rights for the new digital content industry.
A Talk with Doug Rowan
JB: So what's new about the Corbis concept?
ROWAN: What's new is that the whole premise of Corbis is to take
pictures, put them in a digital form, and make the access to them,
that is the search and finding and use of them, quite different
from the prior model of the way pictures were used, which was in
film form. So everything at Corbis is about digital. The pictures
are digital, the data is digital, the access is digital. The customer
search is digital, the viewing of the potential selections, whether
it be for entertainment, education, or professional licensing use-these
are all digital. It is of a size that is unique, and the very nature
of the way the pictures are organized is quite unique. In fact,
we like to think that Corbis is really about three different elements:
It's about content, which are the pictures themselves; it's about
context, which is the way the pictures relate to one another and
to the larger bodies of information that the pictures are a part
of; and then it's about storytelling. There are major efforts at
Corbis in each of these three areas, content, context, and storytelling.
In a world of atoms, in a film world as we call it, it was a challenge
of a type to bring pictures to life, and in a way they were brought
to life in various forms of publications-such as Life Magazine.
In the digital world they can be brought to life with audio, with
video, and with other techniques that allow one to explore them
in a manner that wasn't possible before in print. For example, my
wife and I have been long-term subscribers to the National Geographic,
and I always had the feeling when I read National Geographic that
I would have liked them to have printed certain pictures larger
than the ones they chose. I really didn't have that capability;
an editor made the choices for me. In a digital world, I will be
able to take a subject, such as volcanoes, and I'll be able to explore
the aspects that interest me, and to the level of detail that I
want, tailored for me, and not created by an editor who anticipated
what I would want to see.
JB: How does this play out in terms of the products you bring
ROWAN: From a storytelling standpoint, Corbis has created six
very unusual products in CD ROM form, the latest of which are a
title called Leonardo da Vinci, and one on Roosevelt called FDR.
So we are already taking the pictures of Corbis and putting this
into a very new form that is a cross between education and entertainment.
So that's really happening today. The first of the titles we produced
was on the Barnes Collection; it's called The Passion for Art. While
the Barnes Collection itself was rather hidden from view for many
years, what we try to do in the CD-ROM is to take the wonderful
paintings and to take Barnes himself, and build a context, build
a story around, so that when you look at the wonderful Matisse dance
mural you learn about Matisse, you learn about the correspondence
he had with Barnes, you learn about the fact that he completed the
painting only to realize that it didn't fit and he had to start
all over, after a year and a half, and-so you can do things in the
electronic area that are quite magical in terms of the broader context.
JB: I am grateful for that. I find it painful to stand for hours
ROWAN: One of the things that we've always tried to make sure
people understood is that the electronic version of a painting will
never duplicate the painting, will never duplicate the work of art,
but it can greatly enhance our understanding of the subject. So
that when I first attended a Picasso show, years ago in New York,
I didn't understand Picasso, and it was difficult to relate to him
at any stage of his life, let alone the cubism. Now, as I've gotten
to understand him better, or if we can synthesize art into a form
that enhances our understanding of what the artist was trying to
accomplish, then the meaning becomes much richer.
JB: Are you pursuing newly created images or are you going to
mostly an archive?
ROWAN: Corbis has a very strong commitment to the rights of artists,
and overall the archive is about 5% about fine art, be it older
material or more recent material. The paintings of artists that
lived after 1950 is protected in various ways in different countries,
but there's a strong degree of protection by the artists and the
artists' estates over that material. So we have done some work with
artists who lived after 1950, but it is somewhat more difficult
and-or I should say there are other considerations that need to
be worked with. We do have some material from a number of people
who have lived in that period. In fact, in A Passion for Art, the
work of Picasso, and of a number of other contemporary French artists,
are included on the CD, and we worked with those estates to gain
the permission to include their images on the CD..
JB: What percentage of business is devoted to CD-ROM storytelling?
ROWAN: There are really two business parts of Corbis today-one
is the licensing of pictures for use in print and electronic publishing
products, and that represents probably 70% of our revenue today;
the other 30% comes from the CD-ROM side and these six titles now
that we have in the marketplace.
The Leonardo title, which we thought long and hard about whether
it would be successful, is off to a very fast start-aided by the
exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York
City. That exhibition is now in Paris and will go to the Seattle
Art Museum in the fall of '97. It is apparent, both in the U.S.
and in Europe that there is a tremendous amount of interest in Leonardo,
and I think we've explored the subject in a way never done before.
I'd love to give you an example of what can be done and we did
with the Leonardo material that simply wasn't possible before. Leonardo
wrote a series of documents throughout his life, and they're known
as notebooks or Codices. The Codex Leicester, which is one of those
notebooks, was exhibited in New York and, like his others, is written
backwards, by Leonardo, in ancient Italian. The most commonly held
theory is that he wrote backwards because he was left-handed, and
was constrained by the writing materials available to him in the
early 1500's. He wrote The Codex Leicester between 1505 and 1509.
What we've done on the CD is put the entire codex there, so there
are some 72 pages with all the wonderful diagrams, some of them
very well known, and we allow you to mirror, and then to lay across
on the screen something that we call a Codescope, which translates
the codex into either English, French or Italian and soon into German.
Keeping all the diagrams intact, you can move the codescope over
the manuscript and see it in the language that makes sense to you,
at the same time preserving the wonderful texture and sweep of hand
of his actual writing that went into this manuscript. The Codescope
could not have been accomplished until the advent of current computer
technology.. You could translate the codex, but could never be able
to see together the combination of the original with something you
can really read.
JB: So why isn't it now known as the Gates Codex?
ROWAN: The codex had been known for hundreds of years as the Codex
Leicester. When Armand Hammer purchased it, he changed its name
to the Codex Hammer. When it was purchased in December of 1994 by
Bill Gates, he changed the name of the document back to the name
by which it was most well-known, the Codex Leicester, after the
Earl of Leicester.
There is no other codex named after an individual, and this is
the only codex of da Vinci that is in private hands. So it is kind
of special. Since Bill bought it it's been on tour. It was exhibited
first in Venice, then in Milan, then in Rome. It came back and rested
for a little back at Christies, and then went into the exhibition
in New York. So it has not been at Bill's house, yet,-it will come
there after it leaves France, for a short time, before again parts-and
all of it-go out on exhibition again. Bill's intention is to preserve
it, have some of his own access to it, but predominantly utilize
it to give other people access. One of the nice things about the
exhibition in NY is that you can see the codex itself, and then
you can move to a computer station that's adjacent and you can read
the same words in English, going in the right direction, that you
haven't been able to see on the actual codex.
JB: Can we talk about CD-ROM business for a bit? It seems to be
in a sorry state. At the Milia conference in Cannes, you see the
same small companies exhibiting the same CD's year after year whereas
at the Frankfurt Book Fair, agents and publishers always showing
new proposals and books. In America, it seems very hard for a company
to survive by publishing CD-ROMs on intelligent subjects.
ROWAN: Corbis has created CD-ROM products to celebrate the Corbis
library. We really have only done titles where the pictures that
provide the predominant use for the title come from the library.
We had the paintings from the Barnes Collection in the library before
we ever decided even to undertake the project on that.
The CD-ROM business is interesting. The market for what I would
call higher-brow, or cultural, CD-ROM products, is a very weak one
at the moment in the United States. The CD-ROM market in the US
is currently being dominated by games, by reference titles, and
on a selective basis by children's titles, and those three categories
are occupying the bulk of the retail distribution space. That has
made life difficult for the distributors of titles such as those
Corbis produces, and that will cause a bit of a shakeout within
the industry. If you consider what a consumer faces walking into
a store looking at CD-ROM titles-they have to make a judgment based
on a box. They really are not given an opportunity to try the product.
They can't, as you can with a book, open it a read a few pages.
And so in a way the industry, both the manufacturers like Corbis
and the distributors, have really failed to understand what the
consumer's need is. So as thousands of products became available,
competing for a tenth or less that number of slots of shelf space,
the consumer was often burned.
I watched one time a woman in Paris looking at one of our products
in French in one hand, and another product in her other hand, and
she was clearly trying to decide which to buy. I knew both products
very well, she needed to make the decision from the box, and I resisted
the temptation to be yet one more ugly American walk up and tell
her which one she should buy. I never stayed to find out which one
she bought. But I know that's a terrible dilemma for the consumer.
What I hope will happen is that through online supplement to future
titles, and through a better job being done by the distribution
side, with manufacturer's help, that the consumer can have a taste
before they buy, and therefore make better choices.
The people that have purchased our product love them. We've actually
just recently done a mailing to the people that have registered
our products, and they're snapping up additional ones like crazy,
so they like the experience, they like the products. But it's hard
for the consumer to decide what to buy in this sea of choices. On
the other hand, in Europe, the CD-ROM business for cultural titles
is much stronger. France is a market with a much smaller installed
base than the US. Yet we may sell more copies there of a single
product, such as Leonardo.
JB: What about profit?
ROWAN: We do CD-ROMs to make money. A Passion for Art has already
become a profitable title for us. 1996, the sales of this year,
has become much tougher for all of our products. But we're in these
businesses to make money, and I believe that on an international
basis we will be better than break even on each of our products.
JB: What kinds of distribution channels are you selling into?
ROWAN: We're doing a lot of different things. For example, with
the Leonardo da Vinci title, it's on sale at the museum shops and
through a variety of catalogues. We also have an active effort to
sell it on a direct basis. The recent Time Magazine article that
talked about both the FDR product and the Leonardo product, gave
people a way to access Corbis directly, and that's has helped tremendously.
We're in bookstores; probably the best channel for us to date in
that regard has been Borders-that has been very successful. I just
wish they had ten thousand stores, instead of the numbers they have.
They've been a wonderful distributor for us. We also are quite active
with the computer software channel, although that is the channel
that has become most cluttered with a large number of products and
increasingly is being dominated by games. Some reference and some
kids titles, as I mentioned. Internationally the distribution channels
are slightly different. The Europeans are not nearly so voracious
for games, so when you walk into a computer software store in Paris,
or in Germany, you'll see a higher percentage of the titles being
sold are cultural titles, which is a good thing for the manufacturers
like Corbis both that are US based and those in Europe.
JB: What about competition from the Web and the inherent limitation
of the CD medium.
ROWAN: It's interesting-we think of our titles from the standpoint
of the number of hours of playability that are in them. And they
range anywhere from a conservative 8 hours to as many as 20 hours
or more. I believe if you're very careful, and we have been, you
can give the same pick-up-from-where-I-left-off ability with the
CD-ROM almost that you can with a magazine. Admittedly, you have
to have your computer running and you have to start it up, but it's
quite possible to do that-I personally have done that quite a bit
with one of our titles that is a favorite of mine which is called
Critical Mass-it's on the making of the atomic bomb and the people
who were at Los Alamos. I spent some time exploring Richard Feynman
through the title, and I looked at letters that he wrote to his
wife when she was dying of cancer, approaching the Trinity test,
and various documents, and the travail that he went through when
he was popular and unpopular and then popular again. After I finished
Feynman I went back and picked up reading the article on Oppenheimer,
I did the same thing with him.
The accessibility is there, if you're very careful about it. In
fact let me make another comment: I've read surveys that indicate
that consumers are much more satisfied with the experience of using
a CD-ROM than they are, today anyway, satisfied with the experience
of using the World Wide Web. I spend quite a bit of time in both.
The problems of available bandwidth and of the ability of the sites
that I'm visiting on the Web to have a variation in demand, gives
a sort of an intermittency that is quite frustrating. I can turn
the page of a magazine when I want to-I can actually turn the page
in the CD-ROM metaphor equally. I can do that on the Web, but I
don't know how long I'm going to have to wait for it to happen.
Sometimes it's very quickly; sometimes it's slowly. The Web has
great promise, and Corbis is making a very large investment in it,
for the future, but it hasn't quite come together to provide the
same either learning or information or entertainment experience
that one can get from the CD-ROM.
JB: What about "fat pipes." Is bandwidth a huge issue for you?
ROWAN: It's absolutely a huge issue. But let me address something.
We spend roughly a half million dollars, total cost, producing a
CD-ROM title. And that CD-ROM title may have 20 plus hours of playability
on it. So we're creating what we think and what the reviewers tell
us, is a very compelling CD-ROM experience-a very compelling entertainment
and education experience for around half a million dollars, for
ten to 15 to 20 hours of result. We have several people who are
interested in repurposing that material, either for television or
for other types of online features that are lower in interactivity;
that are more semigraphic and more linear, and that's something
that we think we will do, and we think has the potential of providing
a better return for the types of investments we're making in producing
Last year at Intermedia I was asked to participate in Stewart
McBride's three-minute thing. What I was asked to do was to show
three minutes of Critical Mass. I thought I was doing well to get
it down to ten minutes at TED, but to get it to three minutes! But
I had it totally rehearsed, and I timed out what I could do in three
minutes-and I ran exactly 180 seconds, three minutes. I watched
other people who were showing things they were doing on the Web,
and they were dead, because they had no control over the time, and
time was really their enemy. That is part of the consumer experience;
that what the Web has to be is as reliable in a sense as a CD-ROM.
And when it is, it may replace it.
JB: Problem: I like to do my serious thinking lying down. Unfortunately,
my powerbook has no CD-ROM drive.
ROWAN: That's a very interesting observation. Bob Stein gave me
an idea to try, was reading Jurassic Park while lying in bed with
the powerbook on my chest. And with my wife laughing in the background
I went at that seriously. I tried it for about 5 minutes, and I
said wait a minute, this-you know, the weight, the heat, the whole
thing-that wasn't what it was all about. But I do think that it
is possible to invent a home based product which has all the convenience
of a television with the ability to have it interactive and the
advantages which the computer can bring, and that certainly what
a number of companies are trying to do.
JB: What kind of revenue model do you in the near future?
ROWAN: Let me comment on that-there are three parts to the Corbis
strategy. One is the creation of CD-ROM products, and it hasn't
been easy to make money there, but we believe it is possible to
make money if one does some extraordinary things both in the development
and the distribution of products.
A second part is the professional licensing business, which is
being pursued actively by Corbis, in a different way that the existing
other stock agencies pursue it-they do it through film, predominantly,
we do it in a digital manner exclusively, and that's a business
that we are growing and that we can make a lot of money in, and
that we're going to go after quite aggressively.
The third part we call online publishing, and that's the one where
the business models aren't clear yet. We need to be patient relative
to that segment. We have done some things today that we think are
very unusual online, and the energy we're putting into that is increasing
substantially for 1997. At the same time we don't expect to be able
to either see clearly or to cross the profitability line on this
third part for some period to come. Getting to profitability and
having a business model will take a maturity of advertising within
that electronic space; it'll take a maturing-maybe not maturity-of
merchandising, of how people can see the products they want to buy
and buy them that way, and it'll take in our case a maturing of
the way that people access information, be it for education purposes,
for entertainment purposes, or to be informed.
One of the visions that Bill Gates had in setting up Corbis was
the high school student, doing a term paper, needing a picture of
a great person, say Churchill, to use in that paper, and being able
to come into Corbis, find it, and for a nominal fee be able to use
it, and have that to enhance the term paper that they've created.
We know that that is something that has value; we know it's something
we can do; how that works overall to provide profitability for that
segment of that leg we're not sure, and we need to figure out, and
we're going to figure out, but we're going to have to be patient
with it, just as some of the other attempts that other companies
have made to make money online need to be very patient as well,
because some of these dynamics aren't worked out. Until there's
a natural way for you and me at home that is comfortable for us,
that doesn't feel like we're at night sitting down again in front
of the same computer screen that we've escaped and left at our workplace,
until it becomes very natural and part of what we do, then it will
be hard for many businesses to find a way to make money.
JB: That will happen as the Web environment becomes "the" environment.
It becomes another real world.
ROWAN: Let me give you an example that's very current and that
we're very excited about. There's fairly well-known company in Seattle
called Starbucks. Starbucks is thinking a lot about its stores in
the future, and they have thought about the people who come into
those stores, and how they differ over the course of a day. And
what they want to do is create an experience for them, while they're
in the store, buying their coffee drinks, that is different. So
Starbucks built a store of the future at Comdex, and they built
it inside the Intel booth. They had five large, flat monitors-screens-and
they came to Corbis to ask if they could use some Corbis images,
to help create the experience that they saw for their stores in
the future. We did that. So there are Corbis images being used on
these screens at Comdex as we speak, and that is a rather maybe
unusual use, but a rather interesting use, of imagery, and there
may be other businesses and other venues where a similar kind of
a model can be used.
When Jackie Kennedy Onassis died, which was shortly after I joined
Corbis, we had a screen saver for all of the 200 or so systems at
Corbis using pictures from the archive. When Jackie died, I was
looking at amazing pictures of her on the screen. And I looked at
that and I said, This is a product. I mean there is an application
here for an ability for a person to have information-in that case
it was about that great personality, and I saw pictures of her that
I'd never seen before and that would have value to a person, and
of course we need to figure out how to package that and make that
work, for the people that are partners with Corbis as well as for
JB: Can you comment on the relationship between Corbis and Microsoft
and also with Bill Gates.
ROWAN: Corbis is a private company; it's owned entirely by Bill
Gates, and there is no connection with Microsoft, other than the
fact that Bill is the chairman of Corbis and the chairman of Microsoft.
So we work hard to sell our products to Microsoft, and we buy their
products for our use as we buy from other people in the marketplace.
So it's very separate. Bill is very closely tied to the vision and
the strategy at Corbis; he spends a number of hours each month with
me and the other managers at Corbis, and is a very active component
of what we do. Not in the day-to-day sense, but from the standpoint
of strategy and vision.
"THE CURATOR" on the Digerati
I don't know NATHAN MYHRVOLD well, except by reputation. He also,
as you may not be aware, is quite an accomplished photographer.
Calls himself an amateur, but the people that I know that know him
say that he's really better than that. As a result of that, our
paths have crossed a few times in the photographic community, but
I really don't know him well, except to know that he has been and
continues to be one of the very important individuals at Microsoft.
DENISE CARUSO has a really good insight into some of the trends
that are going to shape the development of the whole digital revolution.
She was one of the individuals who saw the codescope in the Da Vinci
title as being something really different, as really defining on
the electronic canvas, as I like to call it.
I have to say one thing about BILL GATES that had a strong influence
on why I went to work for him, and that is I've never met anyone
who is as open to new ideas. He is very interested in a wide range
of fields, and I find that fascinating. Most people who get into
a position of power, as Bill certainly has, start believing their
own press, and they stop learning. Their antenna stops being up.
Bill doesn't do that. He's very interested in learning and growing
and finding out. He's extremely curious, and I find that to be a
wonderful quality. I love to work for him.
It's quite interesting-when professional licensing clients use
the Corbis archive over the Internet today, as 50 companies are
on a beta basis-they have a choice of either we'll do the searching
or they'll do the searching. And as the Corbis library grows, there
are going to be increasingly be people who want to have assistance
in that regard; they'll want agents. JARON LANIER wrote a very interesting
article that I happen to agree with about the need for a guide he
called them bicyclers-bicycle messengers in cyberspace. I'd like
to meet him.
The work that Voyager has done is amazing and BOB STEIN was at
the center of that. It's a shame that they weren't able to distribute
their products better and therefore have a stronger business model
that would have moved Voyager a lot further today than they are.
LINDA STONE I knew at Apple, and I've continued to keep contact
with her at Microsoft-a really quite amazing lady. She's a wonderful
networker, and she has a wonderful sense of the number of trends
that are going on in the community, and if there's anyone who can
make reality out of avatars, Linda probably can.
RICHARD WURMAN is fascinating. I've been to two TED's, I'll go
to the next one. He's been nice enough to ask me and also Curtis
Wong who worked for Bob Stein at Voyager for a number of years and
now works at Corbis, to speak there. Richard has a wonderful understanding
of the way that information should be and can be organized. We've
had some great conversations I've had with him and he's had with
other people at Corbis about that, and since that is the context-the
cataloguing of pictures at Corbis is the context, there's a really