LAS VEGAS-James Cameron, self-proclaimed “King of the World” and Oscar-winning director of “Titanic,” talked about the impact of mobile technology with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone and U.S. Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra during a roundtable discussion at the CTIA Wireless 2010 conference on March 25. Moderating the session was CNBC anchor and reporter Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.
In contrast to the previous days’ keynotes, which included speakers such as Deutsche Telekom CEO Rene Obermann and AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, the added celebrity “oomph” of the roundtable led to a mild crush of CTIA attendees attempting to enter the event.
When asked why he was sitting on the panel, Cameron joked: “Good question.” But the director, who initially made his reputation with movies such as “Aliens” and “Terminator 2,” which demonstrate how cutting-edge technology can best be used to blow things up in really spectacular fashion, proved adept at talking about the more substantive issues at hand.
The panel focused on such diverse topics as government leveraging of social media, Internet piracy and intellectual-property protection, using Twitter and text messages over cell phones to promote democracy and sustainable farming, and startups for 3-D technology.
“We are witnessing this mobile broadband revolution,” Chopra, who was selected for his role in May 2009 and has stated goals of speeding the pace of IT innovation in critical areas such as health care, told the audience. “If we can create the conditions, I think the private section will deliver amazing innovations.”
Among those innovations: microblogging and its increased use on a global scale. “Allowing people to communicate can have a positive impact: you have more of a sense of yourself as a global citizen.” Stone said, talking up the virtues of Twitter. “We’re the facilitators of this open exchange of information; we just need to keep the service running.”
Twitter’s influence on certain events-real or imagined-has apparently reached the point where Stone receives calls from media outlets whenever a revolution-style event occurs around the world. In one instance, Stone recalled, he arrived at work to find his voicemail clogged with calls about his role in a protest in Moldova, an event of which he had been unaware until that moment.
Later in the panel discussion, Cameron discussed traveling to India and meeting with a professor who had designed a way to plant seedlings in a way that only used a tenth of the water of traditional planting methods. “I said, -How do you get this to Vietnam and Indonesia and Southeast Asia?’ These guys don’t have the Internet, but they all have cell phones-so by social networking very critical information…here’s an opportunity that could transform lives and crop yields.”
Stone saw that sort of event as a potential play for Twitter. “We’ve done deals with 65 providers [worldwide] to make Twitter over SMS free,” he said. “These types of things can happen, like farmers just talking over SMS.”
Twitter has been expanding its capabilities of late. On March 15, Twitter unveiled @anywhere, a service that allows users of third-party Websites to post microblogging “tweets” without actually needing to sign onto Twitter. Early participants include The New York Times, Salesforce.com, Yahoo and YouTube.
At the panel, Stone emphasized that existing technologies could continue to provide just as much impetus for innovation and growth as products currently in the pipeline: “Someone asked me at some time what’s blocking you technically, what do you need to be invented, and really my answer was not as sexy as it should have been: What do we have already that we’re not leveraging? A perfect example of that is SMS.”
The federal government also apparently sees Twitter and its ilk, and the grassroots activism they inspire, as tools that can help modernize its approach to international affairs. “We’re trying to marry the capabilities here with traditional diplomacy,” Chopra added.
When asked about the government’s take on Google’s decision to pull out of China, Chopra said: “We care deeply about Internet freedom. It’s ultimately a decision by a private company, and we’re watching with extreme interest.” He declined to discuss the potential national-security aspects of the issue.
Biz Stone also commented obliquely on the China situation. “I can talk about Twitter. What we want is for Twitter to be available in as many languages as possible, so this free and open exchange of information can take place.”
Cameron saw Web and mobile assets such as Twitter, and their influence on governments and world events, as evidence of “the shifting nature of political power.” Seeing the future as one where community-level groups will “solve a lot of our problems,” he said that “all these tools will enable people to function together in these microsystems.”
But the Web’s ability to disseminate large amounts of information also has a potential downside, as the panel explored in terms of piracy issues. With regard to illegal downloading, Cameron said, “The music industry saw it coming, it rolled over them, and then they started suing everybody.” By advancing 3-D technology in his movie “Avatar,” the director added, he was trying to “re-invigorate” the cinema experience-essentially, giving people a reason to head to a movie theater and pay $10 as opposed to downloading a film for free.
Cameron mentioned as an aside that he had founded a small startup to develop 3-D technology and train people in their use, although he was understandably tight-lipped on details.
Despite the popularity of his recent film, Cameron added, “‘Avatar’ is also the most pirated movie in history.” What that means, he thought, “is that people want both experiences. They want more accessibility, more portability; they want to watch movies on iPhones. Certain entertainment they want portability, but with other entertainment they want something else: they want the experience.”
“We do have a strong commitment to [intellectual property] protection,” Chopra interjected.
“It’s very efficient,” Stone cut in, and the audience laughed.
On a larger scale, Chopra said, “We aspire to lead the world on ensuring the innovations that’re born off the Internet regime will be commercialized here in the U.S. So we need the private sector to be as successful as possible in terms of this capital.”
All three panelists flashed some humor, as well. “We’re going to be announcing 3-D tweets next week. Text blocks come at you,” Stone said at one point near the end of the discussion.
When asked how it felt to lose the Academy Award for best director to his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, Cameron said: “I think the [Avatar] team was disappointed, but individually, if I had to choose between the trophy and the $2.6 billion [in revenues], I’d choose the $2.6 billion.”