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Cole Thompson: The Ultimate Photography Manifesto

Cole Thompson is an award-winning black and white photographer who has been creating some of the most amazing and brilliant BW images that I know over the years. His art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous leading publications and has received many international awards.

To learn more about his works, visit his Official Website and read his blog Black and White Photography. You can also purchase his Prints, Posters, Booklets and Folios (click to purchase).

The following is an interview with Cole Thompson where he shares the journey of a photographer who became an artist by gaining his own internal success, which inspires me most.

Niaz: Dear Cole, thank you so much for finding time to join us at eTalks in the midst of your busy schedule. We are thrilled and honored to have you.

Cole: I am more thrilled than you Niaz, and honored that you would invite me!

Niaz: You are a “Fine Art: photographer. Year after year, you have been creating amazing art with the integration of photography, creativity, concept and authentic attitude. At the beginning of our interview can you please tell us more about “Fine Art” photography?

Cole: Well this will be a funny and ironic discussion Niaz, because I really don’t really know what “fine art” photography means! And is there a difference between “art” and “fine art” photography?

Honestly, I only ask myself two questions:

  1. Do I like the image?
  2. Would I hang it in my home?

So why do I call myself a “fine art” photographer? Because people generally know what I’m talking about when I use that title and the term also tells people what type of photographer I am not:

  • I am not a documentary photographer
  • I am not a portrait photographer
  • I am not a wedding photographer

The term “fine art photographer” implies that I am creating something that I consider art and it’s something they may want to hang in their home.

What is fine art? Who cares!

Niaz: You’ve once stated that there’s a difference between a photographer and an artist and you strive to be an artist. I think you’re absolutely right but I would like to hear your explanation of that statement.

Cole: I do think there is a difference and it’s a huge one.

I think of a photographer as someone who documents or “takes pictures” and an artist is one who “creates images” according to their Vision.

For many years I thought of myself as a photographer and felt it was wrong to manipulate an image or to change it in any way.

I grew up believing that I lacked creative skills, and so as a photographer I tried to make up for that by excelling in my technical skills. It seems preposterous now to think that technical skills could compensate for creative skills, but that’s what I thought.

But as I matured with the help of an artist mentor, I started seeing images in my head and found myself wanting to manipulate my photographs to bring them into conformance with that Vision.

“The Angel Gabriel” is the first time that I purposefully “created an image.”

The Angel GabrielThe Angel Gabriel by Cole Thompson

I’d like to tell the story of this image, because I cannot separate the story from the Vision I had of it:

This is the Angel Gabriel. I met him on the Newport Beach pier as he was eating French Fries out of a trash can. 

He was homeless and hungry. I asked him if he would help me with a photograph, and in return I would buy him lunch.

The pier was very crowded and used a 30 second exposure so that everyone would disappear except Gabriel. 

We tried a few shots and then Gabriel wanted to hold his bible. The image worked and the only people you can see besides Gabriel are those who lingered long enough for the camera to record their “ghosts.” 

Gabriel and I then went into a restaurant to share a meal; he ordered steak with mushrooms and onions. When it came, he ate it with his hands.

I discovered he was Romanian and so am I, so we talked about Romania. He was simple, kind and a pleasure to talk with.

I asked Gabriel how I might contact him, in case I sold some of the photographs and wanted to share the money with him. He said I should give the money to someone who could really use it; for he had everything that he needed. 

Then the Angel Gabriel walked away, content and carrying his only two possessions: a Bible and a bed roll.

“Creating” this image was a breakthrough for me and marked the beginning of my transition from photographer to artist. No longer would I document and record, but rather create.

I don’t think it’s wrong to be a photographer, but there were images in my head that wanted to get out!

Niaz: So how and when did you get started in photography? Did you go to school to study photography?

Cole: I discovered photography as a 14 year old boy living in Rochester, NY and I’ve never taken a photography class in my life.

I was out hiking one day when I stumbled upon the ruins of a home that was once owned by George Eastman. That piqued my interest and so I read the biography of George Eastman.

Before I had finished that book and before I had ever taken a picture or seen a print come up in the darkroom, I knew I was destined to be a photographer. I know how silly and pretentious that might sound, but that is how I felt then, and it’s how I still feel to this day.

I am self taught, from the age of 14 and until I was 20, I lived and breathed photography. Photography was my entire life and I spent every waking moment photographing, working in the darkroom, reading how-to books or studying the works of the great masters. Photography so dominated my life that I rarely attended classes and almost didn’t graduate High School.

Gull and MoonGull and Moon by Cole Thompson (created when he was 16 years old)

Learning on my own was good for me, it reinforced a life view that I could do anything I set my mind to and was willing to work hard for. I believe it also helped me avoid “group think” and thankfully I avoided learning the “rules of photography.”

At age 17 I briefly considered going to school for photography, it seemed the natural course for me, but then had this premonition that earning a living through photography would eventually dilute my passion for it.

Instead I earned a business degree and that’s how I’ve earned my living for all of these years. I’ve never regretted that decision, for I still love photography as much today as I did when I was 14 years old.

Niaz: As a photographer what is the most complicated issue you experienced & how have you overcome?

Cole: Overcoming the desire to please others and to receive external validation.

For most of my photographic career I created to please others, to earn accolades and to become famous. As I started achieving some success, I noticed that it felt great for 15 minutes, but the next day I was left feeling hollow and empty.

I realized that no matter the accolades, in the morning it was still just me, my work and what I thought of it. If I was not creating for myself and did not love my images, then no external praise could make me feel good about my work or myself.

And so I began to question my motives and asked myself some hard questions:

  • Why am I creating?
  • Who am I trying to please?
  • What do I want from my photography?
  • How do I define success?

I found it curious that it was very difficult to be completely honest with myself. But it was only by answering these questions with brutal honestly, that I was able to stop chasing transitory praise and focus on the things that would result in personal satisfaction.

From these answers I was able to define what success meant to me and that’s what I now pursue.

In the past I considered those accolades as the evidence of my success, but I now think differently. My success is no longer measured by what others think about my work, but rather by how I feel about it.

While I do enjoy exhibiting, seeing my work published and meeting people who appreciate my art…this is an extra benefit of creating but not success itself.

I believe that the best success is achieved internally, not externally.

Niaz: You’ve citedMy art has appeared in hundreds of exhibitions, numerous publications and has received many awards. And yet my resume does not list those accomplishments.” Why? Can you expand on coming to these perspectives?

Cole: It all goes back to my motivations for creating. For too long I found myself working to create a long resume just to impress: look at all the wonderful places I have exhibited and the awards I’ve won! I must be a good photographer.

But when I found my Vision and defined success for myself, I saw how silly all of that was. My goal is not to impress others, but to please myself by creating images that I love and am proud of.

I’m also against judging a person’s art by their resume. I feel that my images are my resume and that’s all anyone needs to decide if they like my work or not. It should not matter where it has exhibited or what awards it has won.

All I want a viewer to ask themselves is: do I like it? The resume should be irrelevant.

I recently had an experience where a venue wanted to exhibit my work but first wanted to see my resume. I told them that I didn’t keep one and they made it clear that they needed the resume before they could make a final decision.

I think it’s sad that someone cannot judge art unless they know who else has exhibited it, what awards it has won or what critics think of it.

Niaz: What is “Photographic Celibacy”? How has it become your good practice?

Cole: Photographic Celibacy means that I do not look at or study other photographers work.

Why? Simply to keep my focus on my Vision and to not be tempted, either consciously or subconsciously, to copy others.

I’ve spent much of my life copying others; their look, their style and sometimes I’d even try to recreate a specific image by going to exactly where they created it! (Sorry Ansel)

Here’s the story on how I came to practice Photographic Celibacy: Several years ago I was attending Review Santa Fe where over the course of a day my work was evaluated by a number of gallery owners, curators, publishers and “experts” in the field.

Review-Santa-Fe

During the last review of a very long day, the reviewer quickly looked at my work, brusquely pushed it back to me and said “It looks like your trying to copy Ansel Adams.” I replied that I was, because I loved his work! He then said something that would change my life:

“Ansel’s already done Ansel and you’re not going to do him any better. What can you create that shows your unique vision?”

Those words really stung, but over the next two years the message did sink in: Was it my life’s ambition to be known as the world’s best Ansel Adams imitator? Had I no higher aspirations than that?

It was then that I committed to find my Vision and one of the first steps that I took, was to stop looking at other photographer’s work. I figured that if I immersed myself in the Vision of others, I was likely to copy their work, either consciously or subconsciously.

I’ve been practicing Photographic Celibacy for about 6 years now and I’m often asked how long I’ll continue it. The truth is, I still find the practice useful and needed.

Let me give an example of why I still practice it: I had an image published in the book “Why Photographs Work” by George Barr. The publisher sent me a copy and I eagerly flipped through the book looking for my image. Along the way, I saw an image by Brian Kosoff that I just fell in love with:

kosoffThreeCrossesThree Crosses by Brian Kosoff

I contacted Brian, purchased the print and would look at it enviously. And for the next several weeks I found myself driving around looking for telephone poles that I could arrange like Brian’s Three Crosses! I’d stop and chastise myself, but then later I’d find myself doing it again subconsciously.

I’m clearly still prone to be influenced by the Vision of others and so Photographic Celibacy is something I continue practice. Most people who read about it disagree with the practice and its usefulness and recently I had someone write to me to boast that they practiced Photographic Promiscuity!

Perhaps Photographic Celibacy is not for everyone, or perhaps it’s a practice that should only be considered at a certain point in ones creative development. I don’t know.

What I do know is that it has helped me a great deal to both find and follow my Vision, and to feel good about the work that I create, knowing that it was created honestly and not copied.

Niaz: You’ve formulated your rule of thirds and I have to fully agree with you. Can you tell us more about your rule of thirds?

Cole: I am self taught and was fortunate to have never learned the “rules of photography.”

Just a few years ago someone came up to me during an exhibition and criticized one of my images for not following the rule of thirds. I was amazed that instead of seeing the beauty of the composition, she could see only rules.

If she would have said to me: I don’t think this composition works or I don’t like this image, I would have respected her opinion even if I disagreed with her. But when someone ignores the image and focuses on some imaginary rule, I have no respect for that opinion.

I think it is foolhardy to think that you can distill great composition down into to a few rules, that if followed, will create great images. It reminds me of the “Paint by Numbers” kits that I loved as a kid.

Paint by NumbersPaint by Numbers – Follow the rules and create a masterpiece!

We were promised that if we followed the rules, we would produce a masterpiece.

Mona-Lisa-Paint-by-Numbers-ComparisonCompetent…maybe…but no masterpiece!

Well, as children we were proud of what we created, but it was certainly no masterpiece!

I have no doubt that if you follow these supposed rules of photography, that you will create “competent” images. But they will be just like thousands of other competent images created by thousands of other photographers who are all following the same silly rules.

If you want to create great images, then forget the rules and create according to your Vision.

So in response to this experience, I created my own rule of thirds:

Cole’s Rule of Thirds

A great image is comprised of 1/3 vision, 1/3 the shot and 1/3 processing

A great image begins and ends with your vision. Vision is a tough concept to describe, but I think each of us instinctively know how we want our image to look and our job as an artist is to bring that image into compliance with our Vision.

When we pursue an image with Vision, then equipment and process becomes the servant and the creative process the master. It’s only then that great images can occur.

Vision is everything.

Niaz: I think the shot – basically technical skills – can be taught and learned, the same applies to the editing. But what about vision? Can you learn vision? Or is a skillful photographer without any vision doomed to be just a skillful photographer whose work will have no artistic value?

Cole: I don’t believe Vision is learned, but rather discovered.

I grew up in a modest home where there was no money for art, music or creative pursuits. Perhaps because of this, I grew up believing that I lacked creative abilities. I came to believe that you were either born with it or you were not…and I was not.

But several years ago I was challenged to find out if I had a Vision. Part of me was very afraid to go down this path: what would happen if I discovered that I didn’t have “it?” Perhaps I would be better off never knowing?

No, I had to let the genie out of the bottle, even thought I knew that I could never put him back in. I decided that I must know the truth and off I went. I was unable to find a “how to guide” on finding your Vision and so I just made things up as I went along, creating a 10 step plan that I followed. (You can read about it here: finding vision)

It took two years of hard work and honest soul searching, but I did find my Vision and learned a lot more in the process. Here is what I learned:

  1.  Vision is simply the sum total of our life experiences that make us see the world in our own unique way.
  2.  Everyone has a Vision.
  3.  Vision is not developed, but rather discovered.
  4.  Finding your Vision is hard, following your Vision is even be harder.
  5.  Vision is what makes great images, not equipment, techniques, styles or gimmicks.
  6.  Finding and following your Vision gives you and your work strength, confidence and independence.
  7.  Vision has less to do with photography or art and has more to do with being a well-adjusted, confident and independent person.

Why do I say that Vision needs to be discovered or found? Because I believe we all have a Vision, but many like myself have buried it under so much “stuff” that we forget that we ever had one.

What is this “stuff” that we bury our Vision under? It’s things like caring what others think, fearing that our work will not be liked, wanting to fit in, trying to please, creating for attention, fearing failure and a whole host of other insecurities.

Once I started to address these issues, I was able to uncover my creativity and find my Vision.

The second part of your questions was: Or is a skillful photographer without any vision doomed to be just a skillful photographer whose work will have no artistic value?

Yes, basically they are doomed. If a person relies on technical skills alone, then they are doomed to create technically perfect but soulless images, with the exception of the occasional accidental great image.

I really believe that Vision is everything!

Niaz: What kind of equipment (camera body, lens, filters, flash, and tripod, cleaning equipment other) do you use? Do you use any special equipment for long exposure?

Cole: For the past several years I have been on a mission to simplify everything that I do, which includes my equipment.

I have a very small and simple kit: my camera (Canon), three lenses that cover from 24 to 400, a tripod and an assortment of neutral density filters including my important tool, the Singh-Ray Vari ND filter.

I find that more equipment does not mean a better image, and in fact I could argue that it gets in the way more often than it helps. I say master the basics and only add equipment when there is a specific need to fulfill your Vision.

Keeping it simple also helps me stay focused on what’s really important: the image.

Niaz: What kind of hardware, software and tools do you use for post-processing, if any?

Cole: As with my camera equipment, I try to use the simplest equipment, processes and software that will get the job done. These things are merely tools and while I want the best tools for the job, I also want the simplest.

I use a PC, Photoshop, a pen and tablet and an Epson printer. That’s it.

I think it’s important to mention what I don’t use: I don’t use special b&w conversion programs, plug-ins, curves, layers, RIPs, monitor calibrators, special paper profiles or inksets.

My workflow is so simple and unsophisticated, that for years I would not let anyone watch me work because I was afraid that they would lose all respect for me. Now I realize that it’s not about the equipment or process, but about the image. Nothing else matters.

I like to show people my before and after images and emphasize that I create them with only six tools in Photoshop. I like to expose the myth that great images require extensive and complex procedures or special plug-ins and programs.

Here is my image Iceland No. 4, before and after:

Before  After

I am not suggesting that others need to process their images using the six tools that I use. But I do want people to know that you can create great images using only simple equipment and processes.

Before AfterThis is “Skelton” and the image on the left is how my eyes saw the scene, and on the right how I envisioned it.

When I show people my before-and-after images, sometimes they come away with the impression that they must improve their Photoshop skills. Unfortunately that is the exact opposite message that I want to convey!

My Vision is what created this image. My equipment and technical skills are mere tools and I use the simplest tools that will get the job done.

There is a great little story told by Sam Haskins that illustrates the role of equipment in the creative process:

“A photographer went to a socialite party in New York. As he entered the front door, the host said ‘I love your pictures – they’re wonderful; you must have a fantastic camera.’

Camera

He said nothing until dinner was finished, then:

“That was a wonderful dinner; you must have a terrific Stove.”

StoveSam Haskins

Niaz: How do you educate yourself to take better photos? Can you please name some of your favorite online resources/websites for our readers?

Cole: I don’t read any photo magazines, subscribe to newsletters or visit photo websites.

I am self taught and I learn by trying things, experimenting, sometimes failing and many times succeeding.

Instead of mastering a wide range of technical skills that I might someday need, I have approached learning in the opposite way. First I gain a Vision of the image and then I learn the skills necessary to express that Vision.

For example, when I created the series “The Fountainhead” I first envisioned the images in my head, and then learned the skills and techniques to put that Vision on paper.

Cole Thompson 01 Cole Thompson 02 Cole Thompson 03 Cole Thompson 04
The Fountainhead Series by Cole Thompson

I knew that I wanted to portray skyscrapers in a distorted and futuristic way, but didn’t know how to do that. With time and determination, I finally came upon the idea of photographing the buildings reflection off of a bent ferrotype plate (think funhouse mirror).

Cole ThompsonCole photographing the reflection of skyscrapers from a bent ferrotype plate

I do believe that “necessity is the mother of invention.” When I have a need, I will find the technical solution.

Many believe the opposite, that you must have a myriad of skills before Vision can be expressed. I disagree and believe that this puts the emphasis on processes as being the key to the image.

Anyone can be a great technician but it’s hard to be creative.

Niaz: Do you have any photographers/ artists who inspire you consistently? Please share few of your favorite artist/photographer whose work could encourage for creating an art.

Cole: I do not follow any other photographers or artists.

Being celibate, I do not look at others work. The heroes I did follow (Adams, Weston, Caponigro, Cunningham, Strand, Bullock) are all gone now, but they are still influential on my work because those images are forever burned into my memory.

The photographer who has been most influential on my work is Edward Weston, I love his philosophies and the way he lived. In Ansel Adam’s biography he recounts the first time he met Weston and it illustrates one of the qualities I love about him:

“After dinner, Albert (Bender) asked Edward to show his prints. They were the first work of such serious quality I had ever seen, but surprisingly I did not immediately understand or even like them; I thought them hard and mannered.

Edward never gave the impression that he expected anyone to like his work. His prints were what they were. He gave no explanations; in creating them his obligation to the viewer was completed.”

I love Weston’s images, but I love his attitudes even more; he created for himself and he did not care what others thought.

Another artist that has similarly influenced me is the author Ayn Rand. I first read her novel The Fountainhead at age 17 and like Weston, she taught creative independence. These ideas were mere seeds for much of my life, until several years ago when they germinated and have grown into my current philosophy.

Niaz: And five of your favorite photography books?

Cole: These are books from my past that I still treasure:

  •  Edward Weston’s Day Books
  • Ansel Adams’ Biography
  • The Family of Man

And while it is not a book, I am very inspired by the movie “Finding Vivian Maier.” Her work is amazing but even more inspiring to me is the mystery of why she never showed her work to others. I’d like to think it was because she created for herself and did not need external approval.

Niaz: What is your inspiration to do what you do? How do you stay focused and keep making impressive art?

Cole: I can’t explain why I’m compelled to create, I just am. It brings me pleasure and so I do it.

How to I inspire myself? Well, first of all, there are times I feel inspired and there are times I don’t! Those “down times” used to trouble me, but not anymore. I have come to appreciate the down times as much as my up times. Like a farmer who leaves a field fallow for a season to rejuvenate it, so those down times serve a purpose.

In the past I would fret over those dry periods and try to hasten them along, but now I just enjoy them knowing that a creative season will return as certainly as the winter gives way to the spring. And with each returning creative season, a renewed enthusiasm will result.

So, what do I do to find inspiration? First, I have to get away by myself and create alone. I cannot create with others around, even other photographers.

I’ll spend 2-3 days just looking until my eyes start to see, as I call it. I think it takes me a couple of days just to clear the mundane routines and worries of life out of my consciousness.

I’ll read the Weston’s Day Books and for whatever reason, those really make me want to get out and create.

I’ll listen to the Beatles. Why the Beatles? Because they remind me to keep growing and evolving, even at the risk of offending current fans or upsetting a winning formula.

Many people ask how I go about choosing the subject for a new portfolio. I tell them that whenever I get an idea I write it down, and right now that list is about 50 ideas long. Then I tell them that I’ve never yet used one of these ideas.

The truth is that every idea for one of my portfolios has come spontaneously, in a moment of inspiration. The best example is “The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau” which was conceived and executed in under two hours. Here is the story behind the images:

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 14 - Final 2-1-2009 500The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

My wife and I were visiting my son who was serving in the Peace Corps in Ukraine and while there we decided to visit Poland and took a train to Krakow. Upon arriving discussions began on what to see and of course Auschwitz-Birkenau was high on everyone’s list, but secretly I hoped we wouldn’t visit the camps because I did not want visit a place of such sadness.

However the family voted to go and so I agreed.

We took a bus tour that would spend about 1 hour at Auschwitz and 45 minutes at Birkenau. Even though I had my equipment with me, I had not planned on photographing the camps because it seemed that this might be disrespectful.

The tour began indoors and we saw the meticulous records the German’s kept of their victims and then the iconic piles of personal effects: glasses, shoes and hair.

This was just all too overwhelming and I felt like I was suffocating, so I signaled to my family that I was going outdoors. Breathing in the open air I began to feel a bit better and I began to slowly walk, looking down at my feet.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 1 - Final 2-1-2009 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

Then I began to wonder: how many had walked in these exact footsteps and now were dead? How many had taken this same path and then had been murdered? And I began to wonder if the spirits of those who were murdered still lingered?

And then it suddenly struck me that I must photograph the spirits of those who had died here. I instinctively knew how I would do that, I would use long exposures of the other visitors at the camps, who would stand in proxy for the dead.

The enormity of this task hit me as I realized that the bus was leaving in 45 minutes and so I ran from location to location, working incredibly fast. Each location had its own challenges, I had to photograph people without their knowing it, because if they thought I was photographing they would politely move out of my way.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 3 - Final 8-11-2008 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

I quickly developed a technique to fool people into thinking I was not photographing, I would set up my equipment and then talk on the phone or look in my camera bag, and then trigger the camera with a remote shutter release.

I do feel that I was inspired, both in concept and execution. As I looked at each scene I knew in my mind exactly how the finished image would look. However if you were to see the original shots and compare them to the final images, you would be surprised to see the extensive Photoshop work it took to bring the “shot” into compliance with my vision.

Auschwitz-Birkenau is a depressing place, but I am glad that I went. I hope my images have portrayed the camps not just as a historical location, but as a place where real people lived and died.

2008-5-10 Auschwitz No 8 - Final 6-24-2008 750The Ghosts of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Cole Thompson

Niaz: There are so many photographers working with long exposure photography techniques in black and white that sometimes it is hard to be original. Yet your work is very original. Can you give our readers any tips for finding an original approach to long exposure photography?

Cole: My suggestion will be predictable: find and follow your Vision.

Do not set out to pursue long exposures or any other style or technique, but rather set about to follow your Vision and go wherever that takes you. I honestly don’t know if my long exposure work is unique or not, I only know that it is original and honest for me.

Sometimes my Vision takes me somewhere that is not so original. For example I created a series called “Grain Silos” several years ago and submitted them to LensWork.

2007-5-25 Silos - Final 6-11-2007 750Grain Silos by Cole Thompson

The editor Brooks Jensen replied that he’d love to publish the work but that they were featuring almost identical images in the current issue by a photographer named Larry Blackwood.

Larry and I are friends and we created an almost identical series without each other knowing it! My point is that my work was unique to me, but not necessarily unique in the world of photography.

I’m okay with that as long as my work came about honestly.

Niaz: If you were advising a young photographer today, what would your words of wisdom be?

Cole: Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way about being a fine art photographer:

Carefully decide if you want to try to earn your living from your art (please note the emphasis). Will you enjoy it if it is your job? From my experience, you will need to focus on what sells and what the market demands, not on what you truly love. Some people can live with that, and for others this takes the joy out of the work.

Early on you should define success for yourself and not just pursue the standard definition that society sells: limited editions and high prices, big name gallery representation, long resumes and book publishing. Perhaps you do want some of that, but be sure to examine that question carefully before you go down that path.

Focus more on finding and following your vision and less on technical skills.

Only create images that you love, not those images that bring praise or sales. You may think you’re winning in the short term, but that that type of success will sour with time.

Be a good person. Success in any field is affected by the kind of person you are. Be sincere, honest, helpful and just plain nice. Those qualities will help you no matter what you do in life.

Niaz: I can see from your portfolio that you are widely traveled, especially within the United States. How important is the contribution of travel to developing your portfolio from an artistic point of view? How has travel helped you develop as a person?

Cole: Travel is not as important as I thought it would be when I was starting off. I initially thought a great location would produce a great image. I have learned that it doesn’t necessarily work that way.

I have been to unique locations and have not created anything unique and I have been to mundane and pedestrian locations and have created something wonderful. Much more important than location is your ability to see and imagine.

I once wrote an article about this, how with the right eye your backyard is enough. I assembled all of the images I had created within a few miles of my home and to illustrate the point.

Best of Cole ThompsonCole Thompson Photography

But yes, I am well traveled. I’m fortunate that my full time job took me all over the US and my children have lived all over the world, so I’m often able to combine work and family with my photography.

Niaz: What defines a good photograph in your view and what prevails: aesthetics or mood/a deeper message? What will last longer or is the phrase ‘mood’ just overrated?

Cole: What defines a good photograph, in my opinion, is simply how I feel about it. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s as deep as my thinking goes.

I am terrible when it comes to using words to describe images and the feelings they evoke. I think that’s why I became a photographer, so I wouldn’t have to use words.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, and so I say let it speak for itself!

Everyone’s definition of “good” will be different and that’s why I don’t believe I can define a good or bad image, I can only say which ones I like and don’t like.

Niaz: And what defines a good photographer in your view? Does s/he have to be a celibate, just like you are or does s/he need to absorb all art, all influences and then try to pick out the best of all these influences and combine and integrate it into his then newly created art?

Cole: In my view, a good photographer is one that creates images true to their Vision and which they love. Achieving that does not guarantee commercial or critical success and it doesn’t mean that others will love your work as much as you do. But I do think that it guarantees personal satisfaction, which I think is worth more than money or fame.

As strongly as I feel about the principles and ideas that I espouse, I am not so naive to think that my way is the only or best way. People learn differently and have different experiences, so I have to believe there are many paths that work.

Niaz: With the arrival of digital tools, the Internet, sites like Flickr, apps like Instagram and other social media, photography has changed in many ways: not only in the way we shoot, the way we post-process them but also in the way we share them with the outside world. We’re flooded with photos on the Internet by people who are self proclaimed photographers and artists, and not only are we now confronted with a lot of bad work that I wouldn’t call art but at the same time I see so many artists who are just fantastic and who would never be discovered if they would’ve lived 30 years earlier. How do you look at this and how do you personally see the future of photography? Is this digital era a curse or a blessing for photographic art?

Cole: I think these new digital tools are wonderful for many reasons.

First, more great artists are being revealed. The technical threshold of digital is much lower so that more people can express themselves more easily. This is a good thing, even though at times it seems that there are so many new and great photographers in the digital world that there is no room left for me!

I also think that digital helps people stay more focused on the image and less on the technical process. In the film world, a photographer had to invest such an enormous amount of time, money and knowledge before they could produce a decent print. Back then photographers became such technicians that many neglected the creative element of photography.

And for me personally, digital allows me to do so much more with my images. My work has never looked so good since I switched to digital. It’s so much easier to manipulate my images to match my Vision. I have many, many fond memories of working in the darkroom, but I’d never want to go back!

And then there is the issue of exposure, in the old days my work would be seen by the few who entered the galleries who carried my work, or those who saw my work in a photography magazine. This meant a relative few people in the world ever would see my work.

Now, I have people contacting me from almost every country in the world. I am now more in control of my destiny, not having to rely on the gallery system. There are of course some downsides and challenges, but all in all, I love the opportunities made available in this new world.

Niaz: How can an artist remain fresh, unique, and on the cutting edge (whatever that actually even means)?

Cole: I never seek to be different, but to simply illustrate what I see through my mind’s eye. Sometimes that means my work will not be very different as in the case of my Grain Silo portfolio resembling my friends work. And sometimes it will be very different as in my Auschwitz images.

But I never worry about that, I simply follow my Vision and create for myself. That’s the best way to stay fresh, unique and most importantly: satisfied.

Niaz: How do you define the term success? What and who comes first when you hear the term success? And why?

Cole: One large mistake I made in my photographic career was to not stop and question what success meant to me. I wasted so much time chasing things that didn’t bring about personal satisfaction.

It was late in life that I defined success for myself, and it’s a very simple definition:

To do what I want.

To create what I love.

For me success has nothing to do with sales, resumes, exhibitions, how popular my images are or any other external measure.

Niaz: I believe you earn a living, or at least a part-time living, as a fine art photographer. Do you have any advice for our readers on how they can work towards achieving the same goal? What can they do from an artistic viewpoint to improve their work and a practical viewpoint to selling their work?

Cole: I do not earn my living from my art, but rather support myself through a full time job in business.

You cannot imagine the freedom that gives me, I am free to pursue any idea, any project and to take as long I need to produce my work. I do not depend on sales and so I don’t care if my work sells or not. I am completely free, aside from my vanities of course!

I am glad that I never chose to earn my living from my “fine art” photography and would advise your readers to seriously consider the impact of that decision on their freedom and independence as an artist. I personally think money and art do not mix well.

If you choose to earn your living by selling your work, then be prepared to create images that the market demands, which is rarely the type of work that you love. Selling to earn your living always means compromising and I have chosen not to make that tradeoff.

Now that doesn’t mean that you cannot do both, create one type of image to sell and then also create your personal work on the side. But I have to be honest, many people write me who have tried to do that and complain that they don’t have the time and energy to do both.

And in that situation, guess which one languishes? Maslow taught us that eating always comes before art.

Niaz: Any last comment?

Cole: Niaz, I consider myself to be the luckiest person in the world. I have a job that pays the bills and I create art that I love. How could life be any better?

I have my honest views based on my experiences, but I do not suggest that they are right for everyone. Perhaps Photographic Celibacy is not the best for you, perhaps earning your living from photography is something you really want and your definition of success is different than mine!

But if any of my ideas resonate with you, then maybe there is something to consider. If anyone would like to ask me further questions, please feel free to contact me directly.

Niaz: Thanks a lot for joining and sharing us your great ideas, insights and knowledge. We are wishing you good luck for all of your upcoming great endeavors.

Cole: Thank you Niaz, I appreciated your questions, they cause me to think and to analyze my beliefs. Thank you for your website and this opportunity!

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

01. Debra Harder on The Art of Photography

02. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

03. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

04. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

05. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

06. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

07. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

08. Gautam Mukunda on Leadership

09. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs

Derek Sivers: Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

Editor’s Note: After making a living as a professional musician, Derek Sivers went looking for ways to sell his own CD online and ended up creating CD Baby, once the largest seller of independent music on the web with over $100M in sales for over 150,000 musician clients. In 2008, Derek sold CD Baby for $22M, giving the proceeds to a charitable trust for music education. Since 2008, Derek has traveled the world and stayed busy creating and nurturing creative endeavors, like Muckwork, where teams of efficient assistants help musicians do their “uncreative dirty work.” He is a frequent speaker at the TED Conference, with over 6 million views of his talks.

Sivers is also the author of ‘Anything You Want, which shot to #1 on all of its Amazon categories. His new company, Wood Egg, is publishing annual startup guides to 16 countries in Asia.

Derek writes regularly on creativity, entrepreneurship, and music on his blog: Sivers.org

To learn more about him, please read his amazing book ‘Anything you want, visit his official blog, read his Wikipedia Bio, watch his amazing TED Talks Weird, or just different?, How to start a movement, and Keep your goals to yourself.

You can also follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Derek Sivers recently to gain insights about Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Derek, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Derek: Thank you Niaz.

Niaz: You are a musician, programmer, writer and entrepreneur. You have founded CD Baby and MuckWork. You are also the author of an amazing book ‘Anything You Want’ which shot to #1 on all of its Amazon categories. In 2011, you have moved to Singapore and started your new company Wood Egg. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us about Wood Egg?

Derek: Starting five years ago, I got deeply curious about the differences between countries and cultures, fascinated with understanding the different perspectives. Two years ago, I moved to Singapore, and started visiting all the countries in Asia, asking dumb questions, making good friends.  But my learning felt too unstructured. So while walking around Yogyakarta, Indonesia, remembering “the best way to learn something is to teach it”, I came up with an ambitious plan. I decided to produce and publish 16 books per year on 16 countries in Asia: Cambodia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam. Knowing they wouldn’t be great at first, I committed to improving them every year for many years. After a few years of doing this, they should be pretty awesome.

Niaz: Can you please tell us why have you moved to Singapore? 

Derek: Really it’s just understanding a different point of view.  And not just visiting, but really living somewhere long enough so that it really feels like home.  We’re so surrounded by people who think like us that it’s impossible to see that what we think are universal truths are just our local culture.  We can’t see it until we get outside of it.

Niaz: What have you learned about the entrepreneurial environment of Asia? How is it different from other cultures?

Derek: I was born in California and grew up with what I felt was a normal upbringing with normal values.  I was speaking to a business school class here in Singapore. I asked, “How many people would like to start their own company some day?” In a room of 50 people, only one hand (reluctantly) went up. If I would have asked this question to a room of 50 business school students in California, 51 hands would have gone up!  Thinking maybe they were just shy, I asked, “Really!? Why not?” – and asked individuals. Their answers:  1. “Why take the risk? I just want security.” 2. “I spent all this money on school, and need to make it back.” 3. “If I fail, it would be a huge embarrassment to my family.”  Then I realized my local American culture. The land of entrepreneurs and over-confidence. I had heard this before, but I hadn’t really felt it until I could see it from a distance.

Niaz: What are the cultural challenges to build, operate and sustain next big organization like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook or Twitter from Asia?

Derek: The sense of possibility.  When you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you see famous people around you all the time.  If you want to be famous, seeing those people next to you gives you the feeling that you’re very close to your dreams – you’re in the place where it can happen.  But if you’re living in Urugay or Estonia, you feel that you’re a world away from that kind of fame.  So once a few super-ambitious people have a big international success with a company out of Indonesia, for example, it will give huge encouragement to other people from Indonesia – to give them the feeling that they are so close – that they can do it.

Niaz: What are the necessary steps should be taken to overcome those challenges for making a welcoming, sustainable and supportive environment for entrepreneurs?

Derek: Just do what Singapore and Hong Kong are doing.  They’re doing everything right.  Mix in a little of India’s “jugaad” rule-breaking culture, for a real winning combination.

Niaz: We love to say about breaking the rules though it happens in reality very rarely. You are one of those few remarkable people who have broken so many rules for making things happen, specifically while working with CD Baby. You had a moment you describe in the book when all the MBAs and VCs were asking you “What’s your plan, what’s your growth rate, what are your projections?” And you basically said, “My focus is on helping the customers, and as long as we’re doing that, I don’t care about the projections.” Business Students invest Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars in Top Business School to learn planning, strategy, growth, leadership and setting goals. And you have build CD Baby and sold it for $22 Million where you have not literally cared about planning, forecasting, strategy, and even growth. Can you please tell us about the evolution and success story of CD Baby?

Derek: Ah, it would take about 88 pages to properly tell that story, but that’s why I wrote “Anything You Want”.

Niaz: Can you please briefly tell us about ‘Anything You Want’?

Derek: It’s only 88 pages, a $4 purchase on Amazon, can be read in under an hour, and really tells the tale from beginning to end of starting CD Baby, growing it beyond my wildest dreams, the mistakes I made along the way, then selling it for $22 million, as you said.  It’s distilled down to “40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur”, as the publisher put it.  I’m not just telling my story, but looking back, found some important and usable lessons that you can apply to your own business.

Niaz: Now StartUp means finding an idea, taking seed funding, inviting angel investors and ending up taking fund from Venture Capital. It’s really a very complex cycle. I know it has two sides like a coin. In one side it’s tough to get funding. In other side, it’s tough to get right funding and advisers. Vinod Khosla, one of the co-founders of Sun Microsystems who later went on to create Khosla Ventures, cited in Techcrunch Disrupt SF 2013, ‘95 percent of VCs add zero value. 70-80 percent add negative value to a startup in their advising’. As it’s the scenario, you have had a great and different story. You have done great job with CD Baby and made it a multi million dollars company without taking help from VC. How can an entrepreneur build multi million Dollars Company without taking help of VCs? Is it possible now? Can you please explain it for us?

Derek: I know less-than-nothing about investors, VCs, or any of that.  Never dealt with them.  Asking me how to make a company without them is like asking an Argentinian farmer how he grows his crops without the Empire State Building.  It’s just not a part of my world, so I don’t even know how to compare my approach to another.

Niaz: What are your secrets of taking initiatives and how do you stay confident on taking those risky and challenging initiatives?

Derek: I’ve never done anything that felt risky or even challenging.  When you’re on to something good, and you’re the right person to do it, it just feels like common sense, and quite obvious.  If it feels too risky, too challenging, maybe it’s an unwise venture or maybe you’re the wrong person to do it.

Niaz: Many people now believe that we have already solved all of our interesting problems. New StartUps and companies are also working on almost similar basis. By any chance, if someone is coming with a great idea, rest of the others are getting into it and ending up creating mess. Can you please tell us about how to find really big and interesting problems, working on it in the long run to solve those problems and ending up building next big organization?

Derek: You don’t need big problems or big organizations like you don’t need big passion.  A few times, I’ve been asked a question like, “But what if I haven’t found my true passion?” It’s dangerous to think in terms of “passion” and “purpose” because they sound like such huge overwhelming things.  If you think love needs to look like “Romeo and Juliet”, you’ll overlook a great relationship that grows slowly.  If you think you haven’t found your passion yet, you’re probably expecting it to be overwhelming.  Instead, just notice what excites you on a small moment-to-moment level.  If you find yourself diving into a book about Photoshop and playing around with the program for hours, go for it! Dive in deeper. Maybe that’s your new calling.  For me, CD Baby was just a curiosity: that little hobby that kept me up until 2am every night, programming and experimenting. It just grew from there.

Niaz: Based on your exciting entrepreneurial career and the lessons you have learned over the years, can you please list 10 advices for Startup Company to survive, to grow and to go global?

Derek: I can’t, because it’s different for everyone.  When someone shows me their business plan and asks what they should do, I say, “Well – who are you? What kind of life do you want? Easy? Challenging? Why are you doing this? Money? Impact? Love? To prove something to the high school bully?”  Businesses are not the same.  Business paths are not the same.  Motivations are not the same.  No list of 10 advices apply to everyone.  And I can’t separate business and people.  What you should be doing with your business depends on who you are as a person, not on the business itself.

Niaz: What excites me mostly about you is your Humanistic Perspective of Entrepreneurship. Can you please tell us about the humanistic perspective of entrepreneurship?

Derek: I don’t understand how the two are different or separated in any way.  It’s like asking about the humanistic perspective on marriage.  It’s 100% completely and thoroughly human.  What’s good for business?  What’s good for people!  What’s good for each customer?  What’s good for each person working there?  What’s good for the owner?  These are inseparable questions.

Niaz: Do you think humanistic perspective of entrepreneurship is seriously big thing that will help entrepreneurs to be more human to solve real big problems of this mother earth to make it a better place to live in?

Derek: No.  I don’t think that big.  But I’m glad you do.

Niaz: What’s the one last thing you want to tell us?

Derek: Don’t make your business like someone else’s business.  Don’t make your life like someone else’s life.  Ignore people who tell you what you should be doing because someone else did.  Your life, joys, and motivations are different than theirs.

Derek: Thank you so much for sharing us your invaluable ideas, knowledge and experience. We are wishing you very good luck for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Derek: Thanks Niaz.  I really appreciate it.  Sorry I don’t have very many answers.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Five Inspiring Quotes By Derek Sivers:

#1

You grow (and thrive!) by doing what excites you and what scares you everyday, not by trying to find your passion.”

#2

Success comes from persistently improving and inventing, not from persistently pushing what’s not working”

#3

You can’t please everyone, so proudly exclude people”

#4

Anything you hate to do, someone else loves. So find that person and let him do it”

#5

If you really care about starting a movement, have the courage to follow and show others how to follow. And when you find a lone nut doing something great, have the guts to be the first one to stand up and join in”

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Jeff Haden on Pursuing Excellence

2. Daniel Pink on To Sell is Human

3. Barry Schwartz on Wisdom and Happiness

4. Hugh Mac­Leod on Creativity and Art

5. Shaka Senghor on Writing My Wrongs

Gerd Leonhard: Big Data and the Future of Media

Editor’s Note: Gerd Leonhard is a well-known Futurist and Author of 5 books, a highly influential Keynote Speaker, Think-Tank Leader & Adviser, and – since late 2011 – the Founder of GreenFuturists.com. Wall Street Journal called him ‘one of the leading Media Futurists in the World’. He is well-known as the Co-author of the influential book ‘The Future of Music’ (Berklee Press, 2005), and as the author of ‘The End of Control’ (2007), ‘Music 2.0’ (2008), ‘Friction is Fiction’ (2009, Lulu Publishing), and ‘The Future of Content’ (Kindle-only, 2011). His new book is “From Ego to Eco”.

Gerd is a fellow of the Royal Society for the Arts (London), a member of the World Future Society, and a visiting professor at the Fundação Dom Cabral in Brazil. A native German, he now resides in Basel, Switzerland.

You can read his bio and learn more about his works from here, here, here, here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Gerd Leonhard recently to gain his ideas and insights about  Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Leonhard thanks for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are honored and thrilled to have you at eTalks.

Gerd: My pleasure.

Niaz: At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us about Big Data? How is Big Data revolutionizing our life and work?

Gerd: I define Big Data as the result of exponentially increasing velocity, variety, volume, virality and value.  All of us are generating increasingly large amounts of data, whether it’s by using Google, or sharing a location, rating a site, tweeting, facebooking, photo uploading etc. – and this is primarily driven by the Social-Local-Mobile SoLoMo revolution on the Internet. Once this data can be harnessed – and safeguarded i.e. refined and permitted – it will allow for substantial cost savings (such as with networked public cars, logistics, p2p energy etc.) as well as for pretty dramatic new values such as prediction and anticipation offerings like Google Now and Siri.

Niaz: Why does Big Data excite you most?

Gerd: The possibility of generating real user value from the raw data, i.e. faster understanding of complex issues, realtime, customized news and content feeds, and an overall dramatically improved digital content experiences.  The downside – as we have just recently discovered see my post on this, that we may all become permanently naked and subject to whatever data obsession governments may follow.

Niaz: What do you think about Big Data Products?

Gerd: They are more like services, platforms and experiences then they are products — but we are still very nascent with this; kind of like the beginning of Search, 10 or so years ago.  Every major technology company, every internet portal and every media company is now diving into Big Data as the next big thing – and this connects to Social Media of course, and to The Internet of Things (IoT)

Niaz: How the futures of products (Big Data Products) are going to be changed?

Gerd:  Big Data, unlike Big Oil, will be all about ecosystems, about creating win-win-win solutions, about interdependence and mutual respect i.e. permission and trust. Unless we have that worked out, it will fail.

Niaz:  As you know, Big Data has started revolutionizing almost everything. Marketing is changing significantly. Can you please tell us about the impact of Big Data in Marketing?

Gerd: Basically, IF users allow marketers to track them i.e. if there is a ‘like’ relationship, than big data feeds are a goldmine for marketers – everything will be 99% track able, customized and personalized.  Again, IF value is there for the users, this is dream come true for marketers. The main focus will be on securing and maintaining TRUST – which is why the PRISM debacle is such an issue

Niaz: What do you think about the future of Marketing?

Gerd: We wont need Marketing as we know it. It will all be about sense-making, curation, experiences, added values, timeliness and conversations (see my HBR piece)

Niaz: If you go for buying foods, soda or any house hold things you will have so many good alternatives. Considering broader area, if you go for buying smart phone, computers or even cars, you will have so many good alternatives too. But living in such an exciting era, we just have only one good search engine, only one good micro blogging site, only one good social network and only one good professional network. Are we going through any crisis?

Gerd: I think we have a multitude of platforms and services – innovation is moving much too fast!

Niaz: How can we recover this crisis? What is the future of this trend?

Gerd: The only way forward is to create some kind of ‘sustainable capitalism’ based on hyper-collaboration and new, interdependent ecosystems of money, media, energy, food and data (See ego to eco).

Niaz: As you know, as long as we are watching adds on social media or web, we are no longer human beings, we become products. Social media companies are making billions of dollars but they are not making their consumers wealthy and not even enriching the life of consumers. What are the core problems of our social media?

Gerd: As the saying goes: if you don’t pay you ARE the product. This is not per se a problem – unless we lose control of our bargains. Too much too fast too deep can become a real problem for the human brain, as well, so… deteching will increase as well.

Niaz: How do you see the world of social media evolving over the next 10 years?

Gerd: All the web is social, mobile, local – there will be no difference in online and offline in less than 7 years, and the same goes for ‘social’.

Niaz: By this time, Google has become very gigantic. It controls almost all information available on the Internet. It shows us that information it wants to. So many people have already started to believe that Google is going to control the whole world. We have also seen Google to use its monopoly power. Google’s search algorithms “decide” what is relevant and valuable. What do you think about Google’s monopoly? What could be better for the whole world?

Gerd: If Google behaves like a monolith and stops earning our trust it will die very quickly as we will feel be betrayed – this is why WE control these big web companies, in the end.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about real-time approach?

Gerd: Everything is going real-time because of mobile internet, cameras, social media, big data — in many ways a torrent of noise, in other ways a treasure trove. We will need better filters and curators.

Niaz: What are the impacts of real-time approach in everything we do now?

Gerd: Basically if it’s not realtime we won’t care.

Niaz: Dear Gerd, we are really grateful for giving us time and sharing us priceless ideas, insights and experience for eTalks community. We are wishing you very good luck for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Gerd: Thank you Niaz.

_  _  _  _  ___  _  _  _  _

Further Reading:

1. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

2. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

3. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

6. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

7. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

F. M. Scherer: Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation

Editor’s Note: F. M. Scherer is Aetna Professor Emeritus in the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Born in 1932, he received an A.B. degree with honors and distinction from the University of Michigan in 1954; an M.B.A. with high distinction from Harvard University in 1958; and a Ph.D. in business economics from Harvard University in 1963.

From 1974 to 1976, he was chief economist at the Federal Trade Commission. His research specialties are industrial economics and the economics of technological change, leading inter alia to books on Patents: Economics, Policy and Measurement; Industrial Market Structure and Economic Performance (third edition with David Ross); New Perspectives on Economic Growth and Technological Innovation; The Economics of Multi-Plant Operation: An International Comparisons Study(with three coauthors); International High-Technology Competition; Competition Policies for an Integrated World Economy; Mergers, Sell-offs, and Economic Efficiency (with David J. Ravenscraft) and Innovation and Growth: Schumpeterian Perspectives.

You can read his full bio from here, here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed F. M. Scherer recently to gain insights about Industrial Economy, Digital Economy and Innovation which is given below.

Niaz: You are an expert in Industrial Economics.  At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us about Industrial Economics?

Scherer: “Industrial economics,” the name commonly applied in Europe, is also called “industrial organization” in the United States.   It is primarily concerned with studying the functioning and malfunctioning of real-world markets, using an array of methods – theory, econometrics, and history.  It also has substantial policy implications, for example, encompassing all varieties of regulatory policy and antitrust policy (called in Europe competition policy).

 Niaz: How is industrial economics different from our traditional economics?

Scherer: The main differences are a strong real-world orientation and a focus on individual industries or markets rather than generalized markets or the overall macro economy.

Niaz: As you know, the economy is transforming to a digital economy.  What revolutionary changes have occurred in this era of digital economy?

Scherer: Virtually every era experiences changes that might at the time be viewed as revolutionary.  The digital economy is not really different.  I suspect most readers know the main elements: the enormously increased capacity and reduced cost of digital devices following Moore’s Law; the evolution of much more capacious means of transmitting information from one place to another – notably, optical fiber cables; and the application of information theory to compress more information into a given transmission medium, either cable or over-the-air.  Building upon these fundamental changes are a host of specific applications, ranging from smaller and more powerful computers to smart phones to the use of computers and robots in automation.

Niaz: What are the impacts of industrial economics in our digital economy?

Scherer: The field of industrial economics has evolved to track and understand the economic implications of the changes mentioned earlier.   We’ve done a lot, for example, to measure the economics of learning curves, which are one facet of Moore’s Law.  Perhaps our most important contribution has been a rethinking of the proper framework for, and means of, regulating specific industries, including telecommunications.  Regulatory reform in telecoms helped open the way for optical fiber cable networks and reassignment of the ether’s frequency space to new modes of information transfer.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about the future of the digital economy?

Scherer: Economists don’t have a particularly good reputation for predicting the future, try as we may.  It’s quite clear, e.g. from studies by economists such as Erik Brynjolfsson of MIT, that more powerful computer systems are helping to raise industrial productivity, as non-digital innovations have been doing for at least two centuries.  Among other things, computerized systems have improved inventory control and logistics in industries such as retailing.  Wal-Mart has been a prominent example here.  But the phenomenon is not really new.  In the 1960s, for example, Anheuser-Busch applied computer-based operations research to optimize its plant structure and shipping patterns, becoming in the process the nation’s largest and most efficient brewer.  And my own experience as a scholar using computers for quantitative data analysis suggests that the changes have been less than revolutionary.  I was able to analyze some rather large data sets successfully in the 1960s using computers that were by today’s standards primitive, but the analysis went through nevertheless.  Long processing queues meant foregoing instant gratification, but the gratification was all the greater for the waiting.  True, today one can access richer data bases – e.g., data on millions of health care interventions, complete retail product transaction tape records, and the whole historical set of U.S. patent grants – that would have been impossible in 1965.

The digital revolution affects not only industrial productivity, but also diverse consumer activities, including communication patterns and entertainment methods.  Here I’m much less confident about the consequences.  Surveys show prodigious numbers of hours spent in the average week, especially by younger people, on computer games and social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Many individuals’ use appears from my observation to border on addiction.  (Disclosure: I seek an e-mail fix several times daily.) I suppose people get a lot of pleasure, some narcissistic, from social networking, but I’m much less sure that we are becoming better or more productive human beings as a result.

Education is likely to be affected with special force through the growth of massive open online courses (MOOC).  I’m personally thankful that I’m exiting from teaching just in time, for I know nothing more alienating than talking to an anonymous video camera.

Niaz: There is a tremendous problem of digital divide in under developed, developing, and poor countries.  What are the core challenges for those countries to embrace the blessings of digital economy?

Scherer: Yes, there is such a digital divide, just as there is a less immense digital divide between the United States and nations such as South Korea, Japan and Belgium with faster and more extensive internet connections.  The good news is that cell phone technology is diffusing rapidly into many relatively poor nations, permitting richer intercommunication generally and better information, e.g., on future weather events and market prices, which farmers can use in their planting, harvesting and crop shipping decisions.  From the base that has been established, there will be growth into more advanced generations of digital phone capabilities.  Important to this future progress is the construction of additional cells and high-capacity optical fiber cables to interlink them.  Cheap computers are also becoming available to students in less-developed nations, giving them richer access to the world’s information resources and enhancing their educational progress and, among other things, introducing them to writing software.  These things take time and money.  Both are in short supply, but progress will occur, perhaps faster than I suppose.

Niaz: So what are the new perspectives on economic growth and technological innovation?

Scherer: I suspect the wording of your question implies the identical wording of a short book I published in 1999.  My answer incorporates some of the pessimism I expressed in that book.  The world’s most advanced nations have experienced truly extraordinary technological progress and productivity growth during the past two centuries.  Some nations once viewed as less developed, such as China, are joining in, taking advantage of what has been learned elsewhere to advance at even more rapid rates.  But in the most advanced nations, growth rates have been ebbing, and nations like China and other later developers will experience diminished growth rates once they have extensively installed imitative  capital goods and must then innovate to advance further – a phenomenon called convergence.   The key question is, what can we sustain?  My own view is that environmental constraints, even if not raw resource constraints, will make future growth more difficult than it has been in the past.  But I confess I could be wrong, as other skeptics have been in the past, and indeed, I hope I am wrong.  I also worry about the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth that has occurred over the past four decades as skill requirements, patterns of international trade, and modes of competition have changed.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about your book, ‘Innovation and Growth: Schumpeterian Perspectives’?

Scherer: That was a collection of articles, mostly previously published, issued by the MIT Press in 1984.  It pretty well reflected what I had accomplished during the first two decades of my professional career, at least in the field of technological innovation.  Its main emphases were identifying salient characteristics of how innovation occurs and works its magic on the economy, how market structures affect incentives for investing in innovation, and  how innovation shortfalls contributed to the productivity growth rate slump experienced by the United States beginning in the early 1970s and continuing up to the time the book was published.  (Growth did pick up, at least temporarily, in the 1990s.)  These were, I believe, some of my best contributions.

Niaz: What are the new scopes and opportunities of innovation and growth?

Scherer: As I said before, predicting what will happen is difficult.  In the 1984 Innovation and Growth book, I included one 1978 article with my characterization of technologies that were still evolving rapidly.  My list of potential breakthrough areas included molecularly engineered pharmaceuticals, hormonal insecticides, asexual plant reproduction, optical fiber message transmission, and energy from thermonuclear fusion.  Making allowance for developments that emerged in somewhat different forms than I visualized, I was pretty much right on the first four.  I missed badly on the nuclear fusion score, which people had been cultivating intensively beginning in the 1960s and are still pushing without evident success.   Earlier in the list, I also erred seriously in classifying digital computers as “approaching maturity.”  I completely missed the PC revolution!  The big continuing breakthrough areas, as I look to the future, are further developments in human and plant gene sequencing and splicing, among other things revolutionizing some aspects of health care, and of course, continuation of the information revolution.

Niaz: Do you think we have already solved all of our interesting problems with technology and innovation?  If not, what are your suggestions to come up with big ideas and solve big problems?

Scherer: Clearly, we have not solved all the interesting problems.  The previous answer listed two of my breakthrough candidates.  The biggest yet-unsolved problem in my view is learning how to use energy in ways that will allow the world’s huge and increasing population to prosper without precipitating disastrous climate change.   Seeding the atmosphere with sunlight-deflecting substances is one possible solution, but it is unproven and poses significant risks of getting the balance wrong.  How do we come up with the big ideas?   The essential facet in my view is continuing support of first-rate basic scientific research across a wide diversity of fields.  Chairman Mao was right in urging that we allow 100 flowers to bloom, because we can’t accurately pre-select which ones will thrive best.

Niaz: What is the economics of technological change?

Scherer: It’s a sub-specialty in several fields of economics concerned with the issues I have alluded to earlier.  I’ve been working in the area for more than five decades.  In the 1950s and 1960s, there were only a handful of us.  We were the “happy few … the band of brothers” in Henry V’s soliloquy.   Now there are hundreds of us working in the vineyards.

Niaz: My readers will love to know about your new book, ‘Quarter Notes and Bank Notes: The Economics of Music Composition in the 18th and 19th Centuries’.  Can you briefly tell us about it?

Scherer: It unites two dominant interests in my life: classical music and the study of innovation.  It uses among other things a statistical sample to reveal how 646 composers kept body and soul together in pursuing their chosen profession or avocation.  Among other things, it investigates composers’ education, their motives, their employment modes and entrepreneurship, their remarkable geographic mobility, and how they were affected by the spread of music publication and the emergence of copyright law.

Niaz: Last but not least, can you please leave us some points, ideas and advice to build a strong economy in this era of digitalization?

Scherer: You left the hardest question until last.  Education is of course critical.  We’ve come a long way, but there is very much more to be done, especially in the less affluent nations.  And even in the United States, our results leave lots of room for improvement. Among things, we need to provide higher status and pay for primary and secondary school teachers.  For economic strength, we also must reverse the increasing inequality of income distribution.  If the majority of our citizens don’t share the gains from our economic growth, it will be difficult to sustain continuing advances in broad-based consumption technologies.  And discontent is likely to manifest itself politically in ways that could destabilize the economy.   And finally, we need to avert disasters such as rising sea levels and adverse crop-growing conditions likely to be associated with global warming and to keep the nuclear genie in the bottle.  I grew up under the ominous shadow of nuclear disaster.  We had some frightfully close calls.  We’ve been fortunate thus far to avoid that fate, but the danger continues, and we need to keep it in check.

Niaz: Dear Scherer, I am thanking so much for finding time, sharing invaluable ideas and educating us with impressive thoughts in the midst of your busy schedule. I am wishing you very good luck for your good health as well as for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Scherer: I am happy to contribute.

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Further Reading:

1. Peter Klein on Entrepreneurship, Economics and Education

2. Derek Sivers on  Entrepreneurship, CD Baby and Wood Egg

3. Robert Stavins on Environmental Economics

4. Diego Comin on Entrepreneurship, Technology and Global Economic Development

5. Stephen Walt on Global Development

6. Juliana Rotich on Social Entrepreneurial Innovation

7. Naeem Zafar on Entrepreneurship for the Better World

Ryan Holladay: Technology and Music

Editor’s Note: Ryan Holladay is an American artist and co-founder (along with his brother Hays Holladay) of BLUEBRAIN, a music and technology duo creating site-specific sound installations, interactive concerts and GPS-based compositions for sites across the country.  He is a TED 2013 Fellow. WIRED dubbed Ryan and Hays as “pioneers” of location-based music composition.

Bluebrain has been featured in The New York Times, BBC World Service, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Engadget and Fast Company among others. Additionally, Ryan serves as the new media curator at Artisphere.  You can read his full bio from here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Ryan Holladay recently to gain his ideas and insights about Technology and Music which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Ryan, thank you so much for joining us. We are thrilled to have you at eTalks.

Ryan: Thanks for having me Niaz.

Niaz: You are a self taught musician.  Can you please tell us about your background and the evolution of your musical journey?

Ryan: Well self-taught isn’t quite accurate. I would say I’m just under-trained. I took piano lessons as a child and then learned other instruments along the way. But neither my brother and I (with whom I collaborate on everything) would consider ourselves masters of any instrument. I think the studio has always been our instrument. And with that, we are self-taught.

Niaz: You are the co-founder of ‘BLUEBRAIN’, a music and technology duo creating site-specific sound installations, interactive concerts and GPS-based compositions for sites across the country. Can you please briefly tell us about ‘BLUEBRAIN’?

Ryan: So Bluebrain stemmed from my brother and I dreaming up ideas that didn’t fit in the category of a normal band. We love performing music and releasing records, but we also have always talked about ideas of ours that didn’t really make sense within your touring band scenario. We were taking inspiration from conceptual art, landscape architecture and emerging technologies. So eventually in our mid-twenties, when our last more or less typical band ended, we formed Bluebrain with the idea that no ideas were really off the table. So yes, sound installation, interactive performances, even iPhone app development became central to what we were doing. So much so that the typical “band” label didn’t seem to fit us at all after a while.

Hays Holladay and Ryan Holladay

BLUEBRAIN: Ryan Holladay and Hays Holladay

Niaz: How many instruments you do play?

Ryan: I’ve always been better at piano and Hays is really an incredible guitarist. But really, neither of us are virtuosic. We use the studio and get by with the musical skills we have.

Niaz: What are your current projects?

Ryan: We have a number of things in the works right now, but primarily we’ve been spending time as visiting artists at Stanford University’s Experimental Media Arts Department working on a location-aware composition for Highway 1. It’s been a fun project and one that allows us to get to spend time on one of the most beautiful stretches of road anywhere in North America.

Niaz: WIRED dubbed you and Hays as “pioneers” of location-based music composition. What is location based music composition?

Ryan: Location-based music is the somewhat clumsy term we’ve used to describe a type of composition that uses GPS to sonically map a landscape. We have released 3 albums, each for a different location (The National Mall in Washington DC, Central Park in New York and Austin, Texas for SXSW Interactive), released exclusively as mobile apps. These aren’t albums you can download or purchase on a CD. That’s because the music and the landscape are intrinsically linked and they only work within the confines of the designated space. Musical nodes and pockets are geotagged throughout a park so that as the listener traverses the physical space, a musical score is unfolding around him or her. Think of it as a chose-your-own-adventure of an album.

Niaz: That’s really awesome. You serve as the new media curator at ‘Artisphere’. Can you please tell us about ‘Artisphere’ and your involvement with it?

Ryan: Artisphere is 3-year old arts space in Rosslyn, Virginia — just over Key Bridge outside of Washington DC. I am one of two curators and I deal with all of the new media work — so video art, film, sound art, anything that plugs in or is interactive. It’s a wonderfully symbiotic job that compliments my work as an artist very well — they’ve been really supportive of all of the work I do with my brother and I think our experiences with Bluebrain have introduced me to artists that I wouldn’t have met otherwise and have brought into Artisphere. I’m really fortunate to have such an amazing job.

Niaz: What do you think about the future of music?

Ryan: I don’t know how well I can answer that question, but I can tell you that my desire is to see artists and music companies start to innovate more than they have. I think music lends itself to disruption so much — not just in how we consume and share it but in how it’s created and enjoyed. As artists begin to explore more how to use these technologies, not simply to add bells and whistles to the old model, but to dream up new ways to experience music in our everyday lives, I think things will get more and more exciting.

Niaz: By the way, my heartiest congratulation for you on being selected as TED Fellow 2013. What are your favorite TED Talks?

Ryan: There are so many! I’ve always had a fondness for talks about architecture. Having lived in Seattle for a while, I really loved ‘Joshua Prince-Ramus‘ talk on creating the breathtaking Seattle Public Library.

Niaz: When are we going to see your TED Talk? 

Ryan: Hopefully sometime soon! They don’t tell me when the talk will hit the web but I’ll be sure to let you know when it goes live.

Niaz: Ryan, thanks so much for your time and ideas. All the best wishes for your all upcoming projects.

Ryan: You’re welcome and good luck to you too.

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Further Reading:

1. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

2. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

3. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

6. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

7. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

8. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation