Meet the guy running our robot future

Ever wonder who decides how the drones and self-driving cars will work?

Meet the guy. Meet Ryan Calo.

Ryan is one of the figures behind the curtain. As one of the leading robotics law scholars in the country, he gets to figure out how the robots, drones, and self-driving cars will all work today, and in the future.  

Ryan is an assistant professor at the University of Washington School of Law, and co-directs the Tech Policy Lab, which spans computer science, law, and information sciences. Ryan’s substantive area of research is in emerging technology and its interaction with law and policy.  

I sat down with Ryan to better understand how he saw this robotic revolution coming so far ahead of the pack, and where he sees of it going. Are we doomed to be robot slaves? Read on.


How did you get into robotics law before so many other people?

I started to write about robotics law and policy law while I was a fellow at Stanford Law School. But I've always been super interested in robots. My mother, at one point, dug out my middle-school science fair project. This would've been in the 80s, or the early, early 90s. It was on robots. It was my impression of industrial robots. I've long been interested in the technology, but it's only in recent years that I've come to the view that we need to work on a wise legal and policy infrastructure for the technology.

How did you see the see the need for it coming? How did you time the trend so well?

I was lucky in that my hobby became my vocation. I was always interested in robots, but began to realize that there really was a “there” there. What really did it for me was reading Peter Singer's book, Wired for War, which talks about the role of robotics in transforming the American military.

If you look at the patterns over time, many transformative technologies, including computers and the internet itself, originated as a military application. Whether we're talking about code-breaking in World War II or we're talking about what was then ARPA (what is now DARPA), funding the original research that led to the internet, that all came from military applications. I thought to myself, "Well gosh, these same people who are funding the internet and are catalysts for the internet are now turning to driverless cars and other robots. Hmm."

I have to say that people don't necessarily understand how much contact American law has already had with robots. I went back and looked at over half a century of U.S. cases that meaningfully involve robots. I found some gems.

Gems?! Like what?

Really early on, I poked around a little to see if I could find some fun robot cases from the past. I found some fun cases. The first one is one that many lawyers at least are familiar with, which is in the early 90s when Samsung ran an ad that was supposed to be set in the future (2018!) and the ad featured a robot Vanna White. The real-life Vanna White got upset and wound up suing Samsung in a case that went all the way up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. If you read that case, it’s just fascinating. It is all about whether or not a robot version of a person is that person in the right way.

Not only is there a discussion about Vanna White, but there's a long discussion of a robot Michael Jordan for some of the real sports fans in the audience. Oh, and there's also another case called Wendt vs Host International, which is about robot versions of Cliff and Norm from Cheers that somebody made for a bar. Cliff and Norm, the actors behind Cliff and Norm, sued over that.


My head is spinning. I can't believe Vanna White got things going in robotics law.

She did, she did! Obviously on the side of the case law, the technologies that got me interested in robotics as a real legal issue were drones and driverless cars. This is all developing. I wrote some of the early work on drone privacy. From that, I wound up getting to testify before the Senate judiciary committee a few years ago. With Sven Beiker at Stanford University, I also started a program that looked at the legal and policy aspects of driverless cars. We wound up producing some of the really early reports on the legal and policy aspects of driverless cars. This place where the rubber meets the road, so to speak.

Ha! I see, I see. So how does it work? Right now we can discuss the implications of drone technology and self-driving cars but can the law work proactively to anticipate technology 10 years or 20 years in the future?

I think that it's important to be thoughtful about technology in advance, even if you can't fully predict its path. The United States confronted a question very early on in the early days of the internet, which is whether or not we were going to treat  platforms like Google or Facebook, as responsible for what users do on the platform. So, between the Digital Money and Copyright Act in section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, we immunized platforms largely for what users do on them. That was really crucial because if we didn't do that, I don't think we'd have the proliferation of services and industry that we do today.

I think about what is the version of those Acts for robotics? What early good decision could be made so that we capitalize on this important transformative technology? It's tricky to think, "How are robots going to play in society? How are they going to interact with the law?" That's a hard exercise to figure out. There's really an enormous advantage if you can get it right, basically right from the start.


You've publicly called for the US government to create a central robotics commission. How will this work?

The basic thought is that the government needs to be a repository of expertise about robotics. There are pockets of expertise in government about robotics. Right now, it's all siloed. The Security and Exchange Commission is worried about bots trading on the stock market. The Federal Aviation Administration is worried about the safety of drones and the National Highway Transportation Safety administration is worried about driverless cars, and so on and so on. They accrue expertise very slowly and individually.

As a consequence, you don't necessarily have the people who are making policy decisions with the best mental model of the technology. As a shock to the system and maybe a little bit of rabble-rousing on my part, I proposed, "Why don't we make a Federal Robotics Commission, much as we created a commission for railroads, communication, vaccines, and more?”.

One example of why this is necessary is if you look at the Toyota sudden acceleration scandal and the VW emissions scandal. These are complex interactions between hardware and software that the government isn't very good at solving. When people accused Toyota of having a software glitch that caused them to suddenly accelerate, Congress asked the Department of Transportation to figure out if that was true and they couldn't do it. They had to ask NASA! They had to literally go to NASA and say, "Hey, would you all mind taking a break from putting robots on Mars for a moment. Let's take a look at this Toyota thing." It's not a sustainable strategy. I've argued for that. We really need to do what we did with NASA or the NSA before Snowden, which is to create something that people want to go to because it's the best. The government is capable of attracting the best and the brightest if we all can believe in the mission.


Is there specific robotics technology that makes you say, Holy sh*t! This is way crazier than I even thought?

First of all, I marvel at how fast robotics is changing. It's still really, really hard. I don't think we're going to get anything like human or superhuman intelligence out of robotics anytime in the foreseeable future, but we're seeing some really interesting developments.

The things that make me stand back and go, "Holy shit!" are some of the mistakes that happened yet no one anticipated. They still tend to be in the digital universe, not quite at the physical level yet. Think about the flash crash, where high speed trading algorithms caused a substantial dip in the market over a short period of time. Or when Google’s image recognition software wound up labeling a picture of an African American couple as gorillas, which was mortifying to Google and deeply offensive to the two individuals. Or a great example is when a bot in Amsterdam specifically threatened a fashion show with violence in a way that nobody who created the bot anticipated, and the police had to be called and responded and asked questions and confiscated the bot.

Those are the kind of things that make me say wow and make me confident that there's going to be some really interesting questions to answer with law. As we have more IOT develop, and as we have more cyber physical systems, we'll start to see not just these information-based harms, but much more tangible, even physical harms come out of these systems.

Changing gears, what's your favorite childhood robot or favorite robot over the last 30 or 40 years?

Ryan Calo: I have to go with the safe answer here. R2D2 is the iconic robot. That's the robot of all of our imaginations for the most part, at least those of us who grew up in the 80s.

Did you ever hear about a robot named Topo? Topo was a Japanese robot in the 80s. I was maybe 10 years old. Somehow my mom let me buy a robot magazine, and  I became fascinated with this Topo robot. I'll send you an image of it.

Please do. I don't know Topo. I'd like to check that one out. The Topo of today would be something like Jibo. If you're interested in robots, I would totally pre-order a Jibo, if I were you. I think that's huge. The person behind it is Cynthia Breazeal, who is a famous roboticist out of MIT, and coined the term “social robotics.” Jibo just looks fantastic, and I'm excited. I have a five year old and a two year old at home. I think my five-year-old, he'll grow up with a Jibo in the house. We won't have to just pine after Topo the way that you did as a kid.

Over the next 18 months, what is Ryan Calo personally betting on?

I have to tell you that the thing I've been thinking about as being a big deal that hasn't really come up yet is a new ability to purposely control the weather locally. The dream of weather control has been around for a long time, and supposedly we're doing cloud seeding and other sort of interesting stuff, stirring inversions, and all kinds of interesting things. Given the emphasis that's being placed on technology to get us out of the climate change horror show that we're in, I think regardless of whether it winds up being technology that saves us from this or that, we're going to learn so much through our studying of climate and the weather and our modeling and our ability to affect things, that actually at some point, it will be at least possible to model, and then affect, local weather.

Think about how lucrative that could be. If you could make sure that there's no rain for South by Southwest or in Dallas during a Cowboys game? It's the kind of thing that has a huge upside if we can get it right. It's not immediately within our reach, but it's the sort of thing that in the next few years might start to spin up.

Mind blown again! Are you reading anything cool right now?

Ryan Calo: The last thing I read for work was John Markoff's Machines of Loving Grace. So good. It's basically a series of wonderful John Markoff articles about robotics and artificial intelligence. I'm about to start reading David Mindell's new book, which is about automation. It's about how we've been fascinated with automation, what automation really means to us.

Will Lee of People Magazine: The Wizard of Selling Us Celebrity

This month I’m excited to bring you Will Lee. Will runs content and programming for all of digital for People and Entertainment Weekly, and was a key member of the founding team at TMZ. Will shaped and changed the way we sell and consume celeb content for over a decade and counting. From being part of the team that got the Mel Gibson scoop to helping shape the Kardashian dynasty, Will is the wizard behind the screen.


 Ben Smith: Let’s start with the TMZ days. As part of the founding team at TMZ, you really changed the way that celebrity news is packaged and sold. Were you aware of that going in? Or was it a natural and organic process?

Will Lee: I think kind of like a lot of the best startups, you feel like you are changing the world. At TMZ we really felt like we were changing how the celeb news product was sold in 2006. If you think about what TMZ was at the time, it was a video first product. Digital video was happening. I think what we were really trying to do was to not cover red carpets. A lot of it was a reaction to the way celebrity had been covered until then, which was very reverent, and all about red carpets. It was all about the things that everybody, like the publicists and PR told you about stars.

We felt like there was another side to celebrities. We were going to cover it. Like a lot of startups, we had internal rules and manifestos. One of ours was to never use any red carpet shots ever. We did not talk to PR, ever (except to check facts).  We didn’t pick up any other outlet’s stories. We only ran our own stories. Those are pretty difficult rules to follow, because so much of the early web was about curation and still is today. Back then, it was just about picking up other people’s stories.

We didn’t really think about how we were changing the landscape until the Mel Gibson DUI story. As the person who actually published that story in the TMZ cms and made the story go live, I can say we really did not know what would happen. We thought that this was either going to be a big moment for us or it would be a brutal beating for us

Ben Smith: Was the Mel Gibson story “the big moment”?

Will Lee: Yeah. The big moments until then had been the Paris Hilton DUI, the Lindsay Lohan fire crotch, and Woody Harrelson beating up our photographer.

But this was an actual news story that was pretty explosive. Ten years ago, Mel Gibson was probably one of the biggest movie stars in the world, probably one of the top three male movie stars in the world, an Oscar winner, as an actor, producer, and director. It was a pretty big deal. That’s what started everything. Then Michael Richards happened and we started getting everything.

The real difference for us though was being a video first destination. That ultimately changed the way you wrote news digitally, and in turn dramatically changed the velocity of news in a pretty significant way. Not just for celebrities, actually I have to say. When something like Anna Nicole Smith’s death happened, I think I wrote 25 stories in one day on that one story, on that one topic.

Ben Smith: Wow.

Will Lee: That day, we probably did 60 stories, which at the time was a huge amount. At the time, it was basically me and two other guys writing everything. I think probably the most telling moments was watching MSNBC. They were covering Anna Nicole Smith. They were reporting about one of her hearings after her death. I typed a headline in and wrote four line of text to get our article out the door. 90 seconds later, on the MSNBC scroll, you saw “TMZ reports….”.

Ben Smith: That’s incredible.

 Will Lee: That’s how we became a de facto source for all of that news. I remember when Tim Russert died, the NBC News guy. We were not the first. We were the second by probably 40 seconds or maybe just over a minute. I remember how slow everybody else was on the story. All the other competitors in the celebrity space were 20, 30, 40 minutes behind. I just remember thinking how can you operate like that? The news is out there. Why would you wait around?

Ben Smith: Now, since you joined People about a year ago, you’ve taken them from fourth to first in terms of viewership. What is the vision?

Will Lee: When I joined, People was fourth in the entertainment news category. It was TMZ, Yahoo Celebrity and E! Online as one, two and three. To me, it was three things. Mentality, metabolism and messaging. The mentality was we’re not just a magazine website anymore. It’s not about It’s not about some simple version of the magazine online. We had to break ourselves off that mentality.

Then the metabolism part of it is okay, we’re not going to do like 35 or 40 stories a day while the Daily Mail is doing 900 and Huffington Post is doing 600. We don’t have the staff like they do but we’re going to increase the production a lot. We quintupled the production pretty soon after I arrived. This is just the basic calisthenics of content production, the metabolism. We are a 24/7 newsroom. We don’t work on weekly things anymore.

And the messaging part it is, let’s not get fucking beat by E! Online. Get a little goddamn competitive and don’t let E! Online beat you because nobody loves E! Online. I’m sorry. They just don’t, right?

Ben Smith: Right. I love that. It’s true, so true.

Will Lee: You have a brand like People that is beloved. There’s a certain degree of addiction there. It’s a brand that people care about and you’re letting E! Online beat you on the internet every month? The message internally was that’s not acceptable. We have to be much more competitive. We have to look at ourselves as the category leader. Very basic stuff.

Ben Smith: How have the rules changed this time around? At TMZ, you guys clearly rewrote the rulebook. Ten years later, you have Instagram, and celebrities that all go direct to consumers. Has that changed the way People puts out stories?

Will Lee: Yeah. We say all the time that our biggest competition is Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Celebrities can control their own message. I think because they can control their own message, they also want to work with outlets and brands that help define the conversation. People is that brand. If you want to really tell your story, you’re probably not going to do it just on Instagram. You don’t really control what happens once it’s out there.

     If you come to People, we can really shape the narrative. If it’s something pretty significant, like some life relationship change or something that you really want to be able to tell, it’s important to have an outlet that people trust.

Ben Smith: That’s amazing to me. You guys concede breaking news to Instagram and Facebook, but the idea of storytelling and narrative, that’s People’s job. Is that right?

Will Lee: 100% correct. What we talk about is the job of People in the new digital age is to humanize screens. We want to humanize screens because People’s mission since it started in 1974 was extraordinary people doing ordinary things and ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I think that still holds true. There are so many possibilities for us to own storytelling for celebrity and human interest for celebrities and civilians both across every platform.

Ben Smith: Branded advertising has been taking a lot of heat lately. Predictions for how your industry is going to continue to monetize?

 Will Lee: We are going to have to figure out how to get people to pay for great content. I think People and EW have a much better chance than anybody else does because there’s this level of addition to the content.

Ben Smith: Do you think People will ever do 360 deals with talent? Will you take a stake in some of the talent?

Will Lee: Let me put it this way. If you look at what’s happening with everybody from Jessica Alba to Blake Lively, to Reese Witherspoon, they’re all entrepreneurs. If you were a celebrity, why would you not want to potentially incubate your business in that realm with People, right? I think if we do our jobs right in the next 18-24 months, you will see our relationship with celebrities change in a very significant way.

Ben Smith: What are you personally betting on over the next 12 or 18 months personally? What is Will Lee betting on?

Will Lee: I think under the rubric of addictive, immersive experiences, VR is important. If you think about our access and the way we tell stories and present celebrities, that’s probably the one area in which People can connect audiences to celebrity in a way nobody else has before. To be very blunt, I think VR is an important thing for us.

Ben Smith: How long do you think the Kardashians can keep going?

Will Lee: Limitlessly. I think as long as there are content platforms, the Kardashians will endure.

Ben Smith: They are the Ford Motors of social media basically.

Will Lee: They power the web. I’d really like to see Kris Jenner’s Gantt chart, her roadmap. Her product roadmap is a very long and it would be the envy of every good startup...


Jerry Meyer of 247 Sports: The New Formula for Breaking News Online

This month I'm excited to bring you Jerry Meyer. Jerry is the Director of Basketball Scouting for 247Sports, the leading platform for tracking top prep basketball recruits and where they decide to go play college basketball. Where a recruit decides to go to college is a billion dollar business, and everyone from coaches, NBA teams, shoe companies, and diehard fans live and breathe the latest news and updates from 247.

So let's get started!

Ben Smith: When I look at 247Sports, what really impresses me is the real-time speed and succinct manner you guys put out recruiting news. Recruiting is a murky, dark area by nature. 247 is mind-blowing to me because you guys are putting out accurate information way before everybody else.

And whether you know it or not (and it's clear you do know it), you have the formula. The formula applies not just to basketball recruiting, but also to the rest of the web.

Jerry Meyer: Yeah it makes total sense. I see the application. Out of everything, I think our crystal ball feature is really what people love. (Ben: the crystal ball feature on 247 has Jerry and others making bold player recruiting predictions).

The crystal ball has made me a much better recruiting analyst because I've had to put my money where my mouth is. My predictions are all documented and there's no hiding it. It’s even taught me so much about human psychology.

I've had to develop thick skin and believe in what I'm doing to be good at it. It’s also great as we’ve befriended just about everyone in our industry and brought them on the platform. We're become the platform people in our industry want to be involved with. I get phone calls, intelligence, and help on what's going on from random newspaper guys and scouts because they want to feel useful, and help us. It has really expanded my network because people see it as a platform. Even if their name is not mentioned on the site, they feel like they are part of the game.

People in today's world are looking for authenticity. I know this is just an odd little weird subculture basketball recruiting culture, but I've been amazed to see how people have gravitated to our platform in our field. It has given people a sense of authenticity and identity.

Ben Smith: Tell me more about how 247 formula works.

Jerry Meyer: We created a brand new technological platform, all from scratch. Everything was very organic, holistic, and seamless. If a player commits to a school we put it in the database, the algorithm takes over and the class ranking for that team changes, all in real time. I'm not looking at eyeballing everything on paper, and doing it manually. We're so much faster than everyone else, so that helps us get sourced by newspapers and print media. We have the data they want while the news is still fresh.

Our CEO Shannon Terry has given me 3 or 4 bits of incredible advice, and the one that has really sticks with me is: "Cut through the noise." Our technology allows me to cut through the noise. In our business, it's so easy to develop false narratives based on inaccurate gossiping.

Ben Smith: On the web, recruiting rumors become true the second anybody tweets them.

Jerry Meyer: You have a monumental change in basketball recruiting due to Twitter. There is so much noise and false narrative out there. In essence, I'm trying to conclusively answer 3 basic questions: how good is the player, where is he going to go to school, and how will he fit in when he gets there?

At 247 we try to keep it really simple, keep it concise, give people what they really care about. And you better be hard-hitting and succinct, because the internet is such a huge place. You better make it count when readers come to you, or you will lose them.

Ben Smith: Speaking of Twitter, do you think the best young high school players today utilize formal marketing plans?

Jerry Meyer: Yeah! Whether the kids know it or not, they sure do. Part of it is that every kid has an entourage or crew. I don't say that derogatorily at all. It's a business and I think athletes get treated unfairly in this regard. I think it’s such a misconception about recruiting. If people logically think about it, it's not right. If you have a child star in the arts, or an academic star, musician, writer, actor, or gymnast, they're going to have people around them managing them. People try to paint basketball recruiting like it’s a dirty thing. Why shouldn’t these 15, 16 year olds have a plan? Why should they not have control?

Ben Smith: I think some of this is perpetuated by the emergence of AAU summer leagues. I see massive parallels to the tech industry. In your industry, you call it “AAU”, and in my industry we call it “accelerators” for all of our young thoroughbred startups.

Jerry Meyer: I love the term! You get these teens as startups and then they're part of an accelerator. They get exposure, "education", and guidance for better or worse as they graduate to the big leagues.

Ben Smith: Do you support the emergence of accelerators (AAU) in your industry?

Jerry Meyer: I'll put it this way: AAU is not the negative that it's portrayed to be. These kids have to play somewhere. It's capitalism. It’s money. Why are the shoe companies sponsoring teens? Because they can financially benefit.

Ben Smith: It feels like not so subtle racism is involved.

Jerry Meyer: Unfortunately I feel there's a huge racial component to a lot of it. It’s unfair. Most of your very top basketball players are African-American. That's not a controversial statement, that's reality. Most entourages and AAU teams are the uncle or the guy who lives down the street with a little bit of money. We portray them as hustlers, pimps, and drug dealers. I'm not saying they are always great guys but it's not as it's portrayed. I think there's a real racial bias there.

Ben Smith: Do you maintain direct relationships with the players or do you work through other contacts?

Jerry Meyer: It’s really changed. I used to have direct contact with the actual players. Now I can just read them on Twitter. Today, I follow the next level of information and deal with second level contacts, such as AAU coaches and other scouts who are tied into grassroots basketball. They are a stepped removed from the player, so I’m more likely to get truth and accuracy from them. If I talk to the player directly, I'm going to get PR spin.

Ben Smith: Fascinating.

Jerry Meyer: To use your term, I primarily work through the accelerators of our industry. For example, I have a guy who works for Nike and he hears a lot of what’s happening with a player or perhaps I hear from another agent at another shoe company. Maybe it’s not the Nike guy, but another guy who coaches them or trains players down in Florida. That's primarily the level that I work at now.

I'm trying to break through the noise. The players will all say "Oh, I have 5 schools, they're all even." We all know they're not even. All players have a favorite, but they have been told not to say. So I use buddies in the business who are close to players to get much more accurate information.

Ben Smith: Who is the last player to give you goosebumps?

Jerry Meyer: Probably the last player is Josh Jackson. He's the number one guy in the class this year.  He had a game this summer that was Kobe Bryant-esque. When he plays at the top level of his game, he reminds me of Kobe. Goosebumps.

Ben Smith: What are you personally betting on over the next 18 months for you?

Jerry Meyer: I’m betting more sites try to become more like 247. Less noise, and less fluff. I see so many companies going with all video and I don't know if that's the future. I know when I post articles that are primarily video, I get less views. I know people primarily want information. In basketball recruiting, people want to know where a kid is going to play college basketball.

Ben Smith: Are you reading anything cool right now?

Jerry Meyer: The book I always like to talk about is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It's describes the importance of the mundane, and how to tie it to the more esoteric, more abstract way of thinking. I’m interested in the ability to fuse diverse worlds that are on the opposite ends of a dichotomy.

As a reminder, the purpose of QTime is to learn how talented people in our industry and beyond are great at what they do. No one ever asks the really unique, fascinating people in our space these types of questions. So I decided to find these people and share super short profiles. They are meant to be a small, happy part of your day.

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Virtual Reality's first real celebrity.

This month I'm excited to bring to you Bruce Wooden.

Bruce has been described as virtual reality's first celebrity. He currently works with AltspaceVR, staying on the pulse of the VR developer community. He also hosts his semi-monthly VR livestream show, and is the co-founder of the Silicon Valley VR meetup. 

As a reminder, the purpose of QTime is to learn how talented people in our industry and beyond are great at what they do. No one ever asks the really unique, fascinating people in our space these types of questions. So I decided to find these people and share super short profiles. They are meant to be a small happy part of your day.

If you have any comments or ideas, please reply to me. I answer every email personally. Hopefully you find QTime to be a community of thoughtful, smart people coming together to share insights. 



BS:  You have been called VR’s first real celebrity. How do you feel about that and how did it start?

BW: It’s really wild. It didn’t really hit me until I went to a couple VR events, and people would literally stop me from across the hall. People would yell out my name. I was like, “What? Who am I?” (chuckling). It’s just been wild. Very gratifying...contributing to the community and it’s definitely opened doors as well.

It started back when I was just conversating in this online VR forum in late 2011. A lot of people were talking intelligently about VR. Next thing you know a prototype built by Palmer Luckey is being sent to John Carmack. I got in my head to put something together, develop something, change my career path. And everything sorta swiveled. Once I got my unit, I made some videos. At the time, most of the videos were not so informative. A lot of Devs were asking design questions or specific questions that were not getting answered, so I filled that void. Next thing you know, that video blows up, and I’m just known in the VR circles and everybody's like “Hey!”. Really wild. 

BS: How did you decide to take the big leap?

BW: I was pretty comfortable in my old role. The career path was progressing and I was definitely satisfied. When the transition started, it gave me a difficult choice. I was a director of a huge summer camp, grossing over $1m a year, and I was part of the camp’s brain trust. But I told them there is a VR opportunity I just can’t pass up, and I need to leave.

I was definitely out of my comfort bubble! But I would just go back to the idea that VR is so special and interesting. This is one of those moments in history, like when the PC started. I don’t want to be an old man that said, ‘Oh yeah, I was around and watched that happen.’ I’d much rather say, ‘I was in the thick of it and I contributed. This is my story.’ That’s the position I want to be in. It’s too cool to fail! I just had to be in the middle of it.

BS: Why are you good at what you do?

BW: I have a talent for explaining complicated things in a simplified manner. I think that’s really helped me a lot, especially when making my video content. I try to communicate the experience I’m having in the words I choose and also in the emotion. The reactions. And that’s genuine. I have people come to me all of the time and say, “Hey, I got involved in VR because I saw one of your videos. I knew it was something special.” And that makes me incredibly happy. The gift of communicating the essence of something well. 

BS: What do people in the industry not realize about VR right now?

BW: We still have quite a few people who are not enthusiastic about social VR, about being in VR with other people. On the face of it, most of this community is game focused. They want VR to escape to another place. There is something so cool about being with humans in VR. VR has this phenomenal ability to bring people people together. It’s far more fulfilling than leaving messages on a wall.

BS: Who will be the next VR celebrity (besides yourself?)

BW: There could just be some kid out there who is waiting to get his headset. Reverend Kyle is a beloved figure in the VR community doing some super cool stuff. But it’s so early. Some kid is going to do something we can’t even imagine yet. VR is a brand new medium, and we’ve ventured into it using a lot of the same paradigms of TV and the internet. There will be things that can only happen in VR, and that’s going to be the thing that gets us excited.

BS: Coolest thing that gave you goosebumps lately?

BW: Elite Dangerous. It’s probably one of the most polished experiences out there right now. You’re in a spaceship flying and exploring the galaxy. The galaxy is accurate to star maps in real life, and you even have voice commands. You can say “computer, retract landing gear” and the ship says “landing gear retracted” back at you. The hairs on my neck stand up! This is the dream of 8 year old me. It’s better than anything I have ever experienced at Disneyland and it’s right here in front of me.

Also when I was at the VRLA conference, there was this really cool app with 3D abstract shapes. You could float through the shapes. It was a profound moment for me. I was basically able to take a tour through another person’s imagination. People have these ideas and dreams, and it’s hard to communicate them in words. It turns out VR is an empathy machine where you can instantly experience another person.

BS: Are you betting on a particular platform?

BW: Hard to say. The community is really excited about the HTC/Valve Vive. Valve has been doing VR research for just as long as Oculus. Vive had such a great showing at GDC. I’m all in on the Vive. Just so impressive. They have a firm hold on exploring the language of VR. The analogy is film. When moving pictures started, there was no concept of making a cut, a wipe, or even panning. That all happened over time. Even when the talkies came along, it took years to ascertain the language of the medium. Vive/Valve is exploring the language of this medium with an open attitude toward development. They let the devs go wild.

BS: What are you reading right now?

BW: Dune. It’s a classic.

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MC Serch: The Secret to Building Amazing Brands

This month I’m excited to bring you the legendary MC Serch.

Growing up in the 90s, MC Serch changed my life. Not only as part of the groundbreaking hip hop group 3rd Bass, but also as a producer/manager for Nas and OC. Serch helped give me the confidence to be different and cool, maybe even a little weird.

Serch is an essential part of the hip-hop scene both yesterday and today. I got a chance to catch up with him to learn how he’s been so masterful at creating the pop culture we’ve been loving for decades and counting.

So let’s get started!

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Ben Smith: You’ve been a performer, a producer, a promoter, and marketer. You’ve been involved in every phase of creating and selling art. Why do you think you’re good at what you do?

MC Serch: From way back in the 3rd Bass days, I was born, raised, and trained to market myself. Ultimately, you have to have that skillset as an artist to connect with the audience you want to have support and build your career. I always wanted a larger platform for my music and career, so you have to be really good at marketing yourself, knowing where your audience lives, knowing where they’ve been, and knowing how to build on that.

Ben Smith: You’re famous for your hustle. There are so many legendary stories. I remember hearing about you as a young unknown trying to get Russell Simmons’ attention. Does hustle and grit mean something different to you today than way back in the day?

MC Serch: No, it’s really the same thing. I hustle hard regardless of what I do. For me, it was hard hustling early on because you want to expand your own brand. But now telling somebody else’s story makes the hustling even more challenging. And that’s ultimately really what marketing is all about: you pick a product and you convey to an audience what their story is and you try to help that story turn into reality.

One of my first jobs was doing brand integration and marketing for Mark Ecko and Ecko Brands. Mark didn’t want to be an urban designer. Ecko wanted to be Ralph Lauren and to be perceived that way. So in telling his story, we had to create that atmosphere. We couldn’t lean one way or another; we had to go as popular and big as we could on a limited budget. I think we did a good job. Every brand has a story and then you try to connect those dots.

Ben Smith: If you were trying to break through today as a content creator, is there a certain way you would approach it or think about it?

MC Serch: It all comes back to doing your best job to tell a story and convey that story through any way possible. The most vital thing is to have a very clear story and to believe that story. A friend of mine tried to compete against YouTube with his own new platform a couple of years back. His story wasn’t as clear as YouTube’s, so it didn’t succeed. You have to believe the story, you have to make other people believe that story, and if I were putting out an artist today, I would mostly focus on the story through his or her music.

Ben Smith: Was the story clear when you produced Nas and OC? (note: Nas’ Illmatic album is widely considered to be the best hiphop album of all time)

MC Serch: Yeah. The story was very clear with Nas. In fact, his story was easy. Nas was very focused, very clear on what he wanted to do and be perceived, and all we had to do is to make sure the record label understood that. We converted that story to a fan base.

You have to remember Nas already had several tracks out when the Illmatic album happened. We were already telling his story (as a great storyteller). The thing that people love about Nas is that 20 years later, he still conveys the story of a young kid suffering. The dialogue hasn’t changed.
OC was a little more difficult. We had to spend a lot of time and effort into making his music work. We didn’t have the tools that Nas did to convert and tell O’s story. I had to do a lot of things that were very street-oriented and get my hands dirty. So I did. We did a wheatpaste guerilla campaign, and got the biggest graffiti artists (Cost and Revs) in New York to put up wheatpaste posters on the back of every walk/don’t walk sign in New York. Just so we could have some recognition, it was literally these wheatpaste posters that was like, “Who’s OC? Call Cost and Revs.” And we set up a 718 number and we were getting thousands of calls a day.

Ben Smith: Insane! What sticks with me is how much The Source was such a gatekeeper for hip-hop music in the late 80s and 90s. Are there gatekeepers like that today?

MC Serch: You know, I have never told this story but the “Word…Life” album was supposed to get 5 Mics from The Source in 1994. Someone at the magazine leaked to me that it was going to get 5 Mics. I went to John Shecter and David Mays about a month before the issue came out. I said, “I just want to say, I’m totally amazed that you’re going to give OC 5-Mics.” They were like, “What are you talking about? We never said we were going to give him 5-Mics.” I said, “What do you mean?” Angrily they asked me who had squealed. And of course, I wouldn’t say who told me. So they wound up giving OC’s album 3 and a half mics. Later, they changed the rating in the hundredth issue of The Source.

Ben Smith: How does Spotify and streaming sites play into all of this storytelling today?

MC Serch: A lot of young people I talk to, even through focus groups, don’t listen to the radio anymore. To them, radio is ancient. Kids listen to streaming sites. Yet, if you want to sell records, you have to be on radio. It’s an interesting dichotomy in a lot of ways. I don’t think Spotify helps you sell more records. I think that it’s a great platform for people to hear new music and learn about how new music blends and sounds with different artists but I don’t see it as a selling tool.


Ben Smith: What’s the latest music project or artist that gave you goosebumps?

MC Serch: I really love Action Bronson. I love Action a lot. Not only because he’s from Queens and he’s a Jew, but also because he does a great job of converting his story and making his audience buy in. One of my favorite YouTube videos is Action at a show in Toronto. Action Bronson’s not a little guy, I think he weighs 400 pounds. He literally was bodysurfing his audience, they moved him all the way from the back of the stage to the front, and he fell flat on his ass and kept rapping. They put him back on stage. His fans literally support him (laughing). Joey Badass is another one who I just love and just respect. His story, he reminds me so much of Nas, a young Nas.

Ben Smith: What are you betting on personally in the next 12 to 24 months?

MC Serch: That’s a great question. I have a liquor brand so Nuvo would probably be one of them. We had great success from 2008 to 2011 and then got caught up in a distribution issue. We just got the brand back so I’m really looking forward to relaunching that. I’m also betting on Serchlite Publishing, with my artists (Boldy James and Ashley Rose).

Ben Smith: Are you reading anything cool right now?

MC Serch: I pretty much read the same things over and over again: Ad Age, Mobile Marketer, and Hollywood Reporter. For books, it’s Ethics 101 by John C. Maxwell.

I love that book. It’s short, maybe a hundred page book. It talks about how there is no such thing as business ethics and regular ethics, there’s just ethics. As my wife likes to say, how you do anything is how you do everything. So to me that always resonates with me. If you are shady in business, then your personal life is going to also be shady. If you’re honest in business, then you’re going to have a very honest and open relationship, and flourish. I read the book pretty regularly.

As a reminder, the purpose of QTime is to learn how talented people in our industry and beyond are great at what they do. No one ever asks the really unique, fascinating people in our space these types of questions. So I decided to find these people and share super short profiles. They are meant to be a small, happy part of your day.

If you have any comments or ideas, please reply to me. I answer every email personally. Hopefully you find QTime to be a community of thoughtful, smart people coming together to share insights.

If you would like to subscribe to QTime, just click here


Leta Grzan: How the Gagosian Gallery Embraces Social


This month I'm excited to bring you Leta Grzan, one of the top Artist Liaisons at the legendaryGagosian Gallery in Los Angeles. 

For over 30 years and counting, the Gagosian Gallery has been one of the dominant players in the contemporary art world. With the explosion of social media, it's clear the business is in the middle of a large scale transition to digital first. As artists and the art business increasingly move into the online space, it's fascinating to get a glimpse into how the brightest young minds in the art business embrace new opportunities. 

So let's get started!


What do you do?
I work as a liaison to artists and artist estates for the Gagosian Gallery, specifically with Ed Ruscha and the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation, among others. The job entails overseeing, managing, and facilitating all of their business for the gallery. So everything from exhibitions to sales and PR to museum shows.
What are you working on right now?

At the moment, I'm finishing up work on a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition that recently opened in our Chelsea gallery in New York, Greene Street Mural. For the show, we recreated the mural that Roy did in 1983 at the Leo Castelli Greene Street Gallery. This is a 100 foot long historical mural that Roy painted on site, which was then destroyed at the end of the exhibition. There was never any intention for this to be a commercial piece. At the time, he was quoted as saying, "It was my Christmas gift to Leo Castelli and to the visitors of the gallery." Check out the video of the recreation of the mural.  

Amazing. Today there would be millions of social media images.

There are so many people that never had the opportunity to see this in 1983. Our generation now sees everything. Everything before 2005 or so is just not as well documented in the art world.

It’s a different world. How do you handle social media at Gagosian?

We had to come up with an aggressive strategy on social media, so that we can control the message. We now function as our own “media generator” in the way we release artist news.
In the past, it was all about print advertising and mailers. Often people wouldn't even know what was in an exhibition if they couldn't physically be in the space. They would have to wait for one of the arts magazines to come out and write a review about it, which usually comes to press after the shows close. Shows tend to wrap between 4 to 8 weeks maximum in a commercial gallery, typically 5 to 6 weeks.

Today we'll still have traditional press coverage in the newspapers. But now so much information is instantaneous, news generated about a show is almost immediate. So social media has become a big part of how we promote our artist and exhibitions. Some of our artists are quite talented in how they use social media; it is changing how they interact with the public as well.

Which artists are great with social?

It’s wild-- everything has become accessible. You have artists such as Richard Prince who are using Instagram and social media as a means of promotion and it directly is influencing their art. Recently Richard Prince did a series of Instagram paintings.  Mark Grotjahn, another artist that is of a younger generation, uses it as a tool for showcasing his process. Then there are artists like Murakami, who did the amazing Instagram campaign called InstaMeet. It was global; the level of exposure the project gained was fascinating.

There's a new strategy to exposing the images and the work in itself. Gregory Crewdson, for example, employs social media as a means of previewing new projects as he works up to the release date.
With artists on Instagram and the like, the public not only gets access to the work, but gets a sense of the artist as a person. I think that's opened art up to a new generation of people that are active in social media in general, the 40 and under demographic.

Who are the hot young artists?

Jonas Wood from Los Angeles is getting lots of attention right now. He's just opened a show in London at our space on Britannia Street. His social media is quite strong. You get to see into his personal life. He posts images in the studio, of his family, or his trips and vacations. He's somebody that you really get to understand who he is, as a person, along with his practice and his art and what he's making in the studio. I think his social media is changing the way his work is seen.

What are you reading, or recommending?

I’m always reading several books at a time.  At least one novel and several art books.  Currently I’m reading the novel “The Remainder” by Tom McCarthy.  I have several art related books I’m reading through – the Duchamp bio by Calvin Tomkins, Call Me Burroughs by Barry Miles and the new Broad Collection publication. I also always love to read through the Gagosian exhibition catalogues.  People don’t know that the Gagosian Gallery has a full publications department, and produces beautiful art books. Last year for the holidays, I gave away a ton of books on Richard Avedon, from our Women show. It's this beautiful unbound book of images of Richard Avedon's female portraiture, spanning half a century. We co-published it with Rizzoli. Gagosian does a lot of partner publications as well. I can't count how many of these I gave out last year, maybe 20?! Not only to clients and artists, but also to family members and friends. I never give out novels as gifts.  I'll always give an art book.  


As a reminder, the purpose of QTime is to learn how talented people in our industry and beyond are great at what they do. No one ever asks the really unique, fascinating people in our space these types of questions. So I decided to find these people and share super short profiles. They are meant to be a small, happy part of your day.

If you have any comments or ideas, please reply to me. I answer every email personally. Hopefully you find QTime to be a community of thoughtful, smart people coming together to share insights. 


If you would like to subscribe to QTime, just click here