February 5, 1996

MIT Miffed About '24 Hours in Cyberspace' Project


Talk to the photojournalist and entrepreneur Rick Smolan and he will describe an ambitious and innovative undertaking that will occur on the Internet this Thursday.

On that day, Smolan, who gained fame from his best-selling "Day in the Life" series of coffee-table books in the 1980s, is sending 100 photojournalists around the globe armed with conventional and digital cameras to document a day in the life of cyberspace.

Those images, of people and how their lives have been affected by access to the Internet, will then be sent digitally to San Francisco, where an army of editors, designers and technicians will create an instant book on the World Wide Web called "24 Hours in Cyberspace." Smolan calls the $5 million project the largest one-day on-line event ever on the Internet.

But talk to Michael Hawley, an associate professor at MIT's Media Lab, and he will tell you that such a project has already been done. In fact, Hawley is pointing an angry finger at Smolan, accusing him of stealing the idea from MIT, which had hired Smolan last year to oversee an on-line "Day in the Life of Cyberspace" for the Media Lab's 10th birthday in October.

Smolan, he says, pulled out of the event in late August, leaving the Media Lab scrambling and nearly derailing the project.

What particularly galls Hawley and his colleagues is not just that Smolan immediately set up his own version of the "day in the life" event, but that in the last month or so he has not mentioned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in any of his attempts to court media attention.

In fact, in a recent interview at his headquarters in Sausalito, Calif., Smolan said he came up with the concept the previous summer while spending a weekend with old college friends. He never mentioned MIT.

"I was shocked in December and January when their press releases went out," Hawley said in an interview late last month. "They read like clones of what we had just done: a mission control, lots of editors, touting it as the largest Internet event to date. It's the same story. And the total lack of acknowledgment really bothers us."

In the end, Hawley and his colleagues pulled off their "Day in the Life" event and posted a Web site on Oct. 10 that compiled examples of the impact of the Internet on people's lives.

Smolan, 46, an affable but shrewd businessman, acknowledged later that he had made a deal with MIT and said he wanted to complete that event. But, he added, there simply was not enough time to do a quality job.

"The more I talked to sponsors and technology people, the more advice I got to do it well or not at all," Smolan said about the MIT project. He said he tried -- unsuccessfully -- to persuade Nicholas Negroponte, the director of the Media Lab, to simply announce the Internet project on the October birthday and then build the Web site this month.

Smolan said he reluctantly left the project. Carl Gustin, senior vice president of marketing at Eastman Kodak, a potential sponsor, recalled a meeting with Smolan and Hawley in August, when he told them that "they were moving on an unrealistic schedule."

"If they intended to create a project that would offer value to a sponsor like Kodak," he added, "there wasn't going to be enough time to do the job right."

Hawley said Smolan came on board the project in May, dragged his feet for two months and when he finally got heavily involved in August, "he saw big dollar signs. This wasn't going to be a 'Day in the Life of America,' it was going to be a 'Day in the Life of the Whole Planet.' "

Smolan denied such motivations and said he was mystified by the controversy. "We had two very different events in mind," he said. "Nick wanted a big event for the birthday. They just wanted lots of people sending in random bits about anything. He didn't want a photography-based project like we are doing. I don't understand the problem.

"They did their event. They have a Web site up," Smolan said. "I have a lot of admiration for the Media Lab and Nicholas. But I think people should visit their site and then visit ours and judge for themselves."

Until recently, Negroponte had remained above the fray, saying the Media Lab was an academic institution and was supposed to be a wellspring of ideas, not a battlefield for debate. But in an interview two weeks ago he called the sudden tempest "a very unfortunate event."

"Rick could have diffused it instantly with zero effort, a footnote to a footnote saying he had worked with some students and faculty at MIT to develop the idea," he added. "But to say he conceived of the idea is just dishonest. He'd never even thought of it until I called him."

Meanwhile, Smolan has raised more than $3 million in cash and equipment, principally from Kodak, Sun Microsystems and Adobe Systems, and has commitments for equipment and services worth another $2 million. If he pulls it off, the Web site -- which will be posted for a few days, taken down to be polished up and then reposted permanently in March -- will test the limits of current technology.

The photojournalists, most using Kodak's digital cameras and storing the images on lap-top computers, will be sent to all corners of the globe, said Karen Mullarkey, a prominent picture editor who is coordinating photographers for the project. The images will come from thousands of ideas sent over the Internet to the project's temporary Web site.

Among the 250 stories to be covered: the on-line tracking of elephants by the Malaysian Wildlife Department using global positioning systems and the Internet; youths from the tough neighborhood of East Palo Alto, Calif., building home pages for the Web financed by a private social action group called "Plugged In"; a daily on-line reading of the Torah; and Inuit children near the North Pole who are using the Internet to communicate with children in distant villages.

"I'm looking for pictures that give us a sense as to why the world is a different place because of this technology," Smolan said. Each photo will be accompanied by a 500-word story, as well as audio clips of interviews with some of the photographers about the experience. Smolan said Tipper Gore would be one of the photographers.

Tom Melcher, who is overseeing the technical operations for Smolan, said the huge network, custom designed and built for the event, would allow the editors to build Web pages "on the fly."

"This could well be the future of publishing," he added.

As for taking credit for the idea, Smolan said: "We were already doing this kind of stuff in 1994 and I talked all the time about these projects. Remember, I'm the guy who invented the 'Day in the Life' book, so it's hard for anyone to say it's their idea."

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