September 22, 2006


September 22, 2006

*Editor's Note

*Opening Note: Christopher Weaver on the Promise of Distributed Optical Communications

*Glancing at the C3 Blog

*Closing Note: Grant McCracken on the Origins of Andre the Giant

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. This week's update features an opening note written by one of the affiliated C3 faculty members here at MIT, Christopher Weaver. Christopher looks at the promise of distributed optical communications and the importance of understanding the development of this technology and its expected impact on communications networks.

And, in the closing note, Grant McCracken has sent along something a little more lighthearted, to coincide with Christopher's tackling of some pretty significant technological issues. Grant's tongue-and-cheek piece on the origins of the Andre the Giant "obey" street art campaign intends to show that academics and marketing researchers can indeed have a sense of humor. And, while Grant's parodic piece is intended primarily to entertain, it does focus on a very real and powerful cultural phenomenon--an exploration of the street art inspired by one of the most famous professional wrestlers in American history, the late Andre Roussimoff.

As usual, the update also includes links to all the entries from the week from the Convergence Culture Consortium blog. Some of you all are already contributors to the blog or else regular followers and even commenters on the blog. We encourage everyone who is part of the C3 team, including faculty and corporate partners, to engage in this public part of C3's work.

If you have any questions or comments or would like to request prior issues of the update, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

The Promise of Distributed Optical Communications

By: Chris Weaver

In the New York Times Business Section last Monday, 18 September, the front page story announced, "A Chip That Can Move Data at the Speed of Light." The article reported that Intel and UC Santa Barbara had "created a silicon-based chip that can produce laser beams," and then went on to muse that, "with the barriers removed, computer designers will be able to rethink computers..."


I smiled when I read this announcement because this "discovery" was neither particularly new or unexpected within engineering circles who work in this area. Nevertheless, it was noteworthy that the writer keyed in to the possibilities of what transmission at the speed of light could provide for and that such a fundamental change was, "certain to shake up both the communications and computer industries." Shake up is an understatement--for it will not be only computers and communications, but every industry that uses computers and transmits data--in other words, all industries.

I was one of the early believers in the potential of distributed environments. But like so many scientists, my vision was colored by the artificial world of the technical environment in which I worked. In the 1980's, we even wore buttons that read "1990, I can't wait!". To us the technology was 'right around the corner.' What we did not realize at the time is that this kind of effort is not only about technology. There are many moving parts, such as regulation, adoption, commercialization, provisioning, etc. Today, even with a far greater number of technical approaches than existed twenty years ago, it is a lot easier to forecast the future of distributed communications than it was in the 1980's. There are major changes that existing industries will face in the near future and the most important of these will be related to data distribution. As existing economic constraints crumble and distribution speed increases, major 'brick and mortar' players will seek government protections that will never materialize. This is to be expected in the context of the historic expectations of entrenched industries of the day, operating within their existing business structure and constrained by the inherent nature of an existing system that depends more upon the distribution of atoms than bits. The mechanics of high-speed (optical) networks and their effect upon existing industries is a tsunami that respects no concept of economic position and will leave no industry intact in its wake.

First, any forecast about the promise of a communications technology must include an appreciation of its place within the larger communications ecosystem in which it will exist. This ecosystem comprises key elements such as transmission, distribution, switching, processing, storage, and display.

Development of a viable communications infrastructure requires that key elements scale together. Photonic technology holds great promise for realizing this coordinated scaling within future high-speed communications networks- from the chip level through board interconnects, to enterprise and long haul. The key is to identify commonalities that drive scale and build the technical infrastructure necessary to enable optical technology to replace electrical devices. As the end-to-end infrastructure becomes increasingly optical, network latency will decrease to the point that communications become perceptually instantaneous to most users and the available amount of frequency will go up--by orders of magnitude.

Speed of communications

Despite the fact that optical fiber has been used since the 1980s, current networks are still limited by the electrical interconnects at their termini. The opportunity to advance the speed of communications lies in replacing these slower components with photonic equivalents.

The realization of optical transmission networks will allow any connected individual to access vast computational resources. Unbounded applications, not dependent upon local storage or processing, will be limited only by the imaginations of those who create them. Think for a moment about the potential of near instant (perceptual) access to virtually any application in 'real-time.' The current economic and distribution barriers between intellectual property owners and end-users will evaporate. Ubiquitous computing and communications will revolutionize many areas including medicine, education, and social interaction. It will also change the nature of entertainment as we understand it today. When latency of human response becomes the slowest portion of a transmission chain, the architecture of whatever is a carried will adapt to further minimize that perception as a function of time, or control its expectations through increased content (read options).

One only needs to look at the world fifteen years ago to understand the social impact of the cell phone. The evolutionary development of real-time wideband networks promises to achieve an even more dramatic effect. Many enabling components already exist. The process has started in isolated areas. Time coupled with economic demand will supply the necessary bridges.

The demand created by these new long haul networks will allow driving technologies to be applied on a commercial scale. With the advent of new communications infrastructure, 21st Century society will be witness to a renaissance of applications spawned from the ability to extend computer-moderated information directly to the end user in real-time. Third generation applications will fuel the information vehicles and photonics will speed the underlying highway.

Content drives platforms

How does this apply to social networks, data access and entertainment? Because content drives platforms. It has taken DVR's over ten years to achieve consumer traction for a host of marketing, economic and infrastructure reasons, but now that a nexus has formed with MSO's getting into the act, DVR sales have witnessed a dramatic upswing. This is the tip of the distribution iceberg. Pay close attention because technology history teaches that once critical mass is achieved, markets move at a rapid, nonlinear rate.

There should be no doubt that thin wall screens connected to on-demand video servers will drive the market for high speed wideband. The same content driver economics will follow for high-resolution imaging, secure communications, centralized processing and storage, library texts, VoIP, and real-time interconnected games networks to name a few. The economics of Long Tail theory--where the classic 80/20 rules of physical distribution no longer apply--will come into play as the distribution economy is transformed to one that pays for moving bits rather than atoms. The days of mass consolidation and distribution facilitators will give way to small, specialty providers. There will be a connection directly between IP developers and Users. The long term ramifications for virtually every data-related industry--the core of which is based upon the economy of bits--are enormous.

As a member of the Communications Technology Roadmap Group in the Microphotonics Center at MIT, as well as a C3 member who teaches in the Comparative Media Studies program, Christopher Weaver brings a unique perspective to the future of electronic distribution and the emerging technologies that will drive it.

----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

New Advertising Techniques Using Scientific Methods to Better Understand Consumers. A New York Times piece looks at various ways in which social and cognitive scientists are being consulted to better understand consumer behavior.

Comics and Convergence, Part Four. Henry Jenkins details a fourth outtake from his book relating to comic books, this time looking at issues surrounding the concept of micropayments.

Reebok Interactive Commercials. New commercials through ESPN's airing of football games on Monday night will allow viewers to buy products directly through their remote control, thus providing an immediate benefit to television ads for viewer and advertiser alike.

MSN Video Soapbox Launches Beta Version. Microsoft's answer to MySpace and YouTube's video sharing capabilities is being tested out, and the company should hope that it has a product strong enough to get a positive vibe from early adopters if they want this service to comopete.

The Office Launching Mobile Content Through I-Play. The popular NBC show is launching one-to-two minute clips that not only will serve as another outlet for existing Office fans, as the press release implies, but could also empower those fans to spread the word.

Adobe Flash Enabling Indie Game Development for WII. Stefan Werning points to recent news regarding Nintendo's making the new system open to playing indie games through use of Adobe Flash.

Universal Threatens to Sue YouTube and MySpace. The conglomerate's media division feels that use of their music on these sites amounts to an attach on their copyright and threatens to take the matter to the courrs.

Mr. McMahon Says, "This Site Sucks!" Plans to add substantial new content to their Web site leads the WWE to turn it into a storyline-of-sorts online, with McMahon telling investors at a conference that the Web site sucks and the editor of the site issuing a response to the CEO on the site itself.

U.S. Army's New Game Emphasizes "Real Heroes." The latest America's Army focuses on several real-life soldiers, who appear in the game to give advising to players, as the army hopes to beef up enlistment numbers.

How to Watch a Fan-Vid. Henry Jenkins examines the creative criteria and aesthetic considerations one needs to keep in mind when watching user-generated content.

Senate Passes Bill to Study the Effects of Screens on Cognitive Abilities Among Children. The bill, proposed by a team of three senators including Hillary Clinton and Joe Lieberman, already appears to suppose that there are effects and they are negative and are commissioning the research to back these assumptions up.

Tape Bacon to the Cat. Alec Austin looks at the viral spread of a homemade video in which someone does as the name of the post implies, in the process causing a massive spread of this video.

FOX Launches First Few Episodes of Shows on Multiple Sites. The first episodes of new series like Happy Hour, Justice, and 'Til Death will all be featured on more than forty different online platforms.

CBS and Comcast Strike Deal for Ad-Supported VOD Content. The new deal will allow for free VOD downloads, making eight popular CBS series available for four weeks after the shows initially airs in their primetime slots.

ABC and iTunes Giving a Million Free Downloads Away. iTunes is teaming with the network to offer free downloads of last season's finales for popular shows to help promote the next season's debuts.

ABC Streaming Seven Shows Through Its Site. The network will be providing full-length ad-supported episodes for several weeks after their initial airing, including current favorites as well as newbie series.

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--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

Andre Excavated (or, What I Really Do for a Living)

By: Grant McCracken

People say, "Grant, what are you really doing on these crazy trips of yours? Moscow, one week. Chicago, the next. What gives?"


And now on the heels of a great triumph, I can reveal my true mission: to discover and document the often obscure and distant origins of popular culture. Think of me as Carter of Egypt. Speke of African. Lewis of Oregon. Or just some guy looking around.

For this trip, the question was simple. What were the origins of the Andre the Giant "obey" poster that began to appear a couple of years ago in the American city. The posters were a great phenomenon of the 1990s. Suddenly they were on park benches, road signs, utility poles. None of them were signed. None were attributed. This mystery of popular culture had no ready explanation.

We met, as we always do, at the Explorer's Club in New York City. Preliminary intelligence suggested that Andre origins might be found in Chicago or LA. The specific notion was that "Andre" might be a corruption of "Andrew," and something useful could be found if we scrutinized records of the English or Scottish immigrant communities of the 19th century. (A free floating "w" was discovered in the archive of Chicago's Folger Museum, but this proved, finally, a false lead.)

Eventually, the hunt took us abroad, first to Moscow and then Shanghai. I had my doubts we would find anything of value in the former, and I now believe the trip was contrived by Marriott who had never been to the hermitage in St. Petersberg. (Not all members of the team are quite as dedicated or discliplined as others. For some team members, frankly, it's all a bit of a lark. And just between you and me, if Marriott's father hadn't put up substantial funding we would have dumped the little fellow years ago.)

Then last week, a frantic call in the middle of the night. One of our people in China had stumbled upon an important clue. And the race was on. (We couldn't be sure that the Scandinavians or the Israelis weren't already in place.) Time was of the essence. Steam ships were out of the question. We would have to fly.

A week in Shanghai gave us nothing useful. The evidence seemed to operate like a shortwave radio, first a weak signal, then a strong one, then nothing at all. It looked like a trip to Guangzhou might be "indicated," and, as some of you know, we arrived here on Sunday.

And then yesterday, the break through. The local team had zeroed in on a block of flats on the outer rim of the southern part of the city. It took all of Monday and most of Tuesday to work our way through the possibilities. Finally, in the late afternoon, with dusk coming on, and the exertions of the day upon us, we climbed the 8 floors up to the modestly appointed apartment of a startled woman of middle age. "No," she said, she had never heard of "Andre" and, no, she was most certainly not harboring clues as to his origins.

"Would she consent to a search of the apartment", we asked her, and when she said, "no," we did one anyhow. The entire scientific community awaits these results, and we'll be damned if we let someone's rights to privacy get in the way. It's for science. I mean, really.

We were just about to give up altogether when, ho, a cry from the pantry. Marriott was shouting incoherently but with great force. We rushed in to see what the matter was. And sure enough, there it was. Marriott, the little bastard, had done it. We were looking at the object of the hunt, no doubt about it. I don't have to tell you it was a bitter sweet moment. Marriott's name, not mine, would now live on in history as the man who discovered "Andre antecedent, CBNYD 2."


Here's what the little bastard found. To the right, you will see a round plastic container, with a pinkish top and a face staring out. That's a Ritz container on the right, and a white plastic bag on the left. We think it's now being used as a cookie jar.

To be sure, this is an early Andre. He is happier, rounder, and, er, like, not yet a giant. But I think the identifying characteristics are unmistakable. The eyes, especially. And that gaze, hollowed out, fixed on the infinite, seeing all, fearless, unblinking. The Andre we know from bus shelters in St. Louis is of course an older, more mature Andre, an Andre who has lived too well, seen, perhaps, too much.

But as I say there is in my mind no question that this is the original Andre, the image from which all the other Andres must spring. What the image is doing here on a child's biscuit container, that's a question for future expeditions. How the image made its way from Guangzhou to the West, this is another puzzler. There is of course every possibility that Andre's origins are entirely elsewhere, that the biscuit container somehow merely "turned up" here Guangzhou, here in this 8th floor apartment, here on this kitchen shelf. But I am proud to say that we did something remarkable yesterday.

The mystery of Andre the Giant is now a little less mysterious.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: The Web site for the Andre "Obey" campaign is located at The official site of Andre the Giant, run by the Andre R. Roussimoff Testamentary Trust, is located at

Grant McCracken is a faculty adviser for C3 and the author of various books on brand management and cultural consumption. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from the University of Chicago and has been a senior lecturer at the Harvard Business School, in addition to director of the Institute of Contemporary Culture at the Royal Ontario Museum. He is also currently an adjunct professor at McGill University and a corporate consultant on brand management.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (

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