Apps & Software

Silicon Valley and Hollywood: Rivals or Kindred Spirits?


On an evening under the stars on the Fox Studios lot last week, a panel I emceed addressed a question that seems to recur in both creative and technology circles. Namely, how has Hollywood affected Silicon Valley? The pat answer for lots of technologists in the Bay Area would likely be: “Not for the better,” citing the recently tabled SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect Intellectual Property Act) laws.

According to that worldview, SOPA and PIPA were ham-fisted attempts by Hollywood types and their buddies in the music business to commandeer the Internet and remove critical legal protections for search engines and hosting companies that may shelter pirates but also promote free speech and technology innovation. The common belief is that SOPA and PIPA represent yet another instance of entertainment industry greed trying to force people to pay up or face litigation—often for questionable trespasses such as viewing a movie they legitimately purchased on more than one device.

For its part, the entertainment industry views Silicon Valley and its wunderkinder (Google (GOOG), Twitter, etc.) as predators seeking to rip off artists and creative companies that need adherence to IP laws to ensure their very survival. In reality, Silicon Valley owes a tremendous debt to Hollywood for the inspiration imparted by great science-fiction shows, as well as extraordinary movies and music. Likewise, Hollywood clearly owes a debt to Silicon Valley. The computer-generated effects, the novel projection technologies, the HD screens and the Dolby and THX sound systems: All arose from powerful raw technology adapted to meet artists’ needs.

Equally important, the tools from Silicon Valley have made it far easier for creative people to express their visions. The 1999 film The Blair Witch Project illustrated how a blockbuster movie could be shot on a cheap camera. And thanks to advances in music technology, a whole new cadre of “middle-class” musicians has emerged, releasing studio-quality music with modest investments. So the relationship between Hollywood and Silicon Valley is, in fact, quite symbiotic—SOPA and PIPA rage aside.

The symbiosis is essential: Silicon Valley has yet to inspire great art, and Hollywood has yet to produce game-changing technology. The two communities together, however, have powered the most important cultural movements of the past century. As Fox (NWS) Studios Chairman Jim Gianopulos said on the panel, the relationship suffers from periodic friction but is hardly a hate-fest. In fact, the arts have served as Silicon Valley’s muse for many, many years.

I instinctively have known this for some time. I grew up watching Star Trek, and I would venture that half (or more) of the successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley also grew up watching this innovative program. (For example, Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla Motors (TSLA) and SpaceX, and a panelist at the event, also grew up inspired by Star Trek). The show managed to foretell key parts of the technology evolution. A communicator is a smartphone, although smartphones can do a lot more than communicators. A replicator is a 3D printer or another form of additive manufacturing technologies. And the Star Wars films inspired a generation of filmmakers and revolutionized the field of special effects, which in turn fueled tremendous innovation in computing and chips specifically designed for graphics processing. And this enabled the current generation of incredibly rich, detailed video games.

So peel back the surface tension, and Hollywood and Silicon Valley are tightly intertwined in a symbiotic feedback loop. This feedback loop is a powerful driver of innovation, which drives more art, which then drives more innovation. This is even true of the Internet itself.

The point of all this? Next time the geeks in the Valley get riled up about Hollywood hotshots trying to ruin the Internet, take a deep breath and ask yourself whether you watched the original Battlestar Galactica (remember those Cylons?) or read Philip K. Dick, father of Blade Runner and Total Recall (artificial life-forms are now being built by Craig Venter). As for you Hollywood types who view Silicon Valley as a bunch of techie hackers who don’t respect artists’ rights, please keep in mind that draconian tactics and extremely strict interpretations of DRM (digital rights management) policies have angered Silicon Valley.

Step beyond the SOPA and PIPA madness, and it becomes quite clear that Hollywood and Silicon Valley have far more interests that are aligned, not divergent.

Vivek_wadhwa
Vivek Wadhwa is vice president of Academics and Innovation at Singularity University, Fellow at Stanford Law School and Director of Research at Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University. You can follow him on Twitter (@wadhwa) and find his research at wadhwa.com.

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