Charlene Weisler: What exactly is Media Lab and what is its history?
Steven Rosenbaum: Back in 2010, the New York City Economic development commissioned a survey to plan for the future of media and technology in New York City. The report was exhaustive, and it’s available for reading
There were a myriad of conclusions, with one calling for the funding and creation of the NYC Media Lab which was launched as a consortium of NYC Universities. NYU, Columbia, Prat, CUNY, The New School, SVA and Manhattan College all joined together. The concept was that New York’s Universities had at their disposal the best and the brightest students, faculty, and graduate students in the world - and that they together could provide the City’s largest media and technology companies with a powerful resource to invent the future of media. There was of course a workforce development aspect as well, we wanted students who graduated from our leading universities to feel welcome to stay here, building companies, get great internships, and build career long opportunities that would strengthen our infrastructure of innovation. I don’t think the drafters of that report could know just how successful those plans would turn out to be.
Weisler: How can you keep pace with all of the changes in the industry?
Rosenbaum: The changes may seem shocking and destabilizing to outsiders but if you have the benefit of working with extraordinary students, as we do at the Media Lab, then you can see with some clarity what the road ahead looks like. Just by way of example, Artificial Intelligence - which is sometimes called machine learning, is going to change everything about how information is created, sorted, shared, monetized, and validated. Already our students are working with media partners to create content that is produced in conjunction with AI, and that results in an increasingly massive firehose of information. Then, AI steps in to help platforms find and filter information. Of the thousand pieces of content that fight for screen time in your feed, it’s an AI algorithm that is choosing what makes it to your feed. And finally, AI is increasingly reading content to help humans filter what is relevant. So machines are making media, and machines are reading media. These changes will only move faster as more devices capture information, and sift passive consumers into media producers.
Weisler: What are the major trends that you can identify for the Lab?
Rosenbaum: Well, certainly machine learning and AI. But that’s the tip of the iceberg. Our students are working with The NY Times on a practice known as photogrammetry, capturing news stories in full 3d so that readers/viewers can walk inside of stories and locations. Another team is working with Consumer Reports to explore how consumers control their data, and what companies ask for an should be shared with the click of button. In education, we’re deep in the world of 5G, working the public schools and the folks at Verizon 5G labs to develop software and teaching environments to expand education into virtual worlds. And with ASCAP Labs, we’re exploring the future of music and entertainment - just how will the future of performance change as machines become part of the creation and performance experience. And finally, with our friends at Bloomberg, the future of how machines engage in media is core to our ongoing investigations. And let’s not forget Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality - those worlds are going to be core to how stories are told to new immersive audiences.
At the same time, there are some big questions on the horizon. How is social media impacting our community, our democracy, and our children? Tristan Harris from the Center for Human Technology keynoted our 3 day SUMMIT in October, and his data was eye opening and shocking. Finally - there are some significant questions ahead about how government should limit or legislate technology. Do we really want free speech curtailed by legislation, or do we trust that platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit will limit themselves.
Weisler: How prepared are students today for work in the industry?
Rosenbaum: I think that’s the wrong question. I think the question is, how prepared is industry to embrace the changing expectations of young audiences, and will they explore and learn from new audiences and provide information and entertainment that meets they're changing expectations. The nature of holding an interactive platform that create and distributes content has changed forever the formerly passive experiences that audiences expect. Young viewers want to watch, comment, share, and re-mix content within their social networks. For media professionals used to creating work that is ‘viewed’ by an audience, this new remix culture can be very de-stabilizing. But new audience will expect nothing less.
Weisler: How has the pandemic impacted your work?
Rosenbaum: Our organization was already working on distributed platforms. And our students and companies were comfortable shifting to remote projects. So the impact has been in some ways a driver for us. We feel a unique urgency to think about how New York tech will evolve to remain vibrant, and we’re working to open more of our programs so that we can grow our audience and our community.
Weisler: Where are the openings for jobs?
Rosenbaum: New York’s tech community is growing quickly. We’re seeing huge footprints and headcount for Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Google, and in the media space Netflix and Amazon are growing their production footprint. I think you’re going to see a growing demand for developers, designers, writers, creators in 3d and VR, and people who have a creative mix of stories to tell, and new visual ways to tell them. Will you be acting on stage, or acting in a virtual reality world - or performing as an Avatar? It’s too early to tell, but the nature of storytelling is about exploring ideas in front of an audience, and then learning from that experience - so New York is positioned to lead the future of innovation and ideas.
Weisler: Where do you see the trends 3-5 years from now?
Rosenbaum: Well, there’s no doubt that there a rough patch ahead. New York will need to tighten its belt, and find new ways to invite young creators to call the city home. This is in many ways a media challenge. My experience in New York over the past six months has been amazing. People in my neighborhood are being careful - masks always - but also being social, and warm, and supportive. So it’s important that we share those stories within our networks, rather than let the stories that will tend to be recorded by the news be amplified and exaggerate what are certainly serious not necessarily representative of the city at large.
The city, and business need to pull together and create some clarity around aligned interests. We need to double down on innovation, on the start-up economy, and on providing infrastructure for the idea economy. We’re going to need new spaces for collaboration, new ways to support how teams work in both collaborative and remote units, and the funding to embrace what makes New York the best place in the world. I’m a writer, a filmmaker, a technologist, and an academic. But what fuels me is listening to Jazz on the sidewalk on the upper-west side, seeing Calder and Hopper at the Whitney, having dinner on a rooftop in the West Village. Music, Food, Fashion, Literary Events, as well as public discourse about politics, the environment, media, and technology. Our diversity is our most powerful strength, and embracing and supporting that diversity is our superpower. We need not forget that.
This article first appeared in Mediapost.com