You’re not going to believe this, but Will.i.am is a tech visionary

Will.i.am tech visionary CES 2013

At the Consumer Electronics Show, time is valuable. Too many products to see, too many meetings to attend, too much everything – CES is, quite literally, an entire year condensed into mere days. So it was no small decision to spend a precious hour of my CES life sitting in the Las Vegas Hilton Theater listening to Black Eyed Peas’ frontman Will.i.am talk about “innovation.”

It was also an easy one: Will.i.am is not just a world-renowned celebrity, Grammy Award winner, and jet-setting millionaire; he’s become – much to the confusion of tech industry observers – a major player in the world of consumer electronics.

In 2011, Intel hired Will.i.am as its “Director of Creative Innovation,” and describes him as a “visionary.” He’s a founding investor of Beats Electronics, maker of Beats headphones. Coca-Cola brought him on as an idea man last summer, and recently launched his Ekocycle brand, which seeks to use recycled Coke bottles to make new products, like Beats headphones and Levi’s jeans. And in November, Will.i.am launched i.am+, which makes a line of cases for the iPhone 4/4S and iPhone 5, dubbed foto.sosho, that turn the popular Apple smartphone into a 14-megapixel point-and-shoot camera (which, you should know, also has a full QWERTY keyboard and starts at over $300).

My fellow consumer tech journalists have slammed Will.i.am’s high-profile position in the industry as some kind of marketing joke – a celebrity-enhanced ploy to squeeze dollars out of our wallets. And the foto-sosho doesn’t help anything – it’s absurd! And yet, here he was, headlining the “Next Generation of Innovators” keynote address at CES along side a crew of highly successful and respected entrepreneurs: David Lieb, co-creator of Bump; Cyrus Massoumi, CEO and founder of ZocDoc; and Eric Vishria, co-founder and CEO of Rockmelt.

Why the hell was Will.i.am on this keynote panel? Did CES just bring him on to draw a crowd? Or is there really something “visionary” about the guy behind “My Humps?”

Just after 11 am, the event host, Jeff Jordan – a partner at venture capital powerhouse Andreessen Horowitz and board member of companies like Airbnb, OpenTable, Pinterest, Lookout, and Zoosk – took the brightly lit stage of the LVH Theater to introduce the keynote’s lineup. Will.i.am strutted out first, to polite applause, a white-and-gold foto.sosho V.4 hanging from his neck.

At first, the cynics seemed justified in their criticisms; Will.i.am rambled on for three, four minutes at a time. He would jump from topic to topic with a slew of non sequiturs that made each spiel almost impossible to follow.

When, about 20 minutes in, he was asked how he landed consulting jobs for Intel, Coca Cola, and Anheuser-Busch, Will.i.am kept rambling.

“Well, like I said earlier, I’m just traveling a lot,” he said. “And anthropologists study people and behavior. And a lot of the studying, when they study current culture, is post-content via the eye of the taste-maker – the curator. So, by traveling, in the fashion of an anthropologist – but at the same time, affecting pop culture – you know, I started to look at myself as a popthropologist. Which is, you know, I don’t like to create in a vacuum. I like to see what’s happening, to smell what’s happening, feel what’s happening. And then go and create, whether it’s a song, a dock, a prospective. And I do that for companies as well.”

Huh? I almost left the keynote early, unable to handle what seemed like the self-serving nonsense of a bored rich person. It was interesting in the same way a car accident is interesting. But compared to the polished responses of the other people on the stage, it felt just wrong, out-of-place. But then, about 30 minutes in, he said something that caught my attention.

“When you think about the music industry, it just totally collapsed – forever, which is a good thing.” (Whoa!) “Because,” he continued, “for a while, we forgot that the record industry was technology – because it was old technology.”

Sure, he continued to ramble on about Twitter for a while, but he had my ear. He was saying something – if not new, at least taboo, the thing most musicians are afraid to say. I was listening.

From then on, Will.i.am seemed to hit his stride. He had the crowd hanging on his every word (and there were many). Then he got to the topic of Apple and Samsung, and my entire opinion shifted.

“So one thing about Apple – if you compare Apple to Samsung, Samsung sells more product, but for some reason, Apple’s a bigger brand. And they’re a bigger brand, and they mean so much in culture because of Steve Jobs – what he meant to culture, pop culture, as well as tech – there’s [no one] like that. So that’s part of the reason Apple is Apple: it’s synonymous with the arts. Every graphic designer prefers Apple. Musicians prefer Apple. DJs dj through that glowing Apple. Apple Apple Apple – it relates to tech and the arts.

“Samsung hasn’t got that yet. They haven’t got the art part. So the next big mega-brand is going to come from someone the youth can identify with. We haven’t seen that yet. We haven’t seen consumer electronics identify with an icon.”

And you know what? That’s true. That’s the reason Samsung isn’t Apple: It’s still just a giant corporation without a character we can identify with in any way.

Will.i.am went on to explain how Dr. Dre changed the headphone business. “You didn’t walk through the airport and see headphone stores [before Beats by Dre.],” he said. “Just think about how it changed the marketplace. Here’s an iconic person, Dr. Dre, and headphones. I know that’s not the most technological piece of consumer electronics. But it changed manufacturing and distribution of a product.”

“So you’re going to see more of that,” he continued. “It’s going to come in the next four years where some company was worth X and four years from now it’s like X-extra.”

Also true. Also insightful. I had to admit it: Will.i.am was right. The rest of the innovators on stage nodded their heads in agreement, smiling in embarrassed disbelief. The crowd clapped. He won us over, sold us on the idea that he is, in fact, a thinker for this industry. An eccentric, yes. But a smart eccentric, one with a sense of business and culture that no focus group in the world could explain.

Following the keynote, I went back to the crowded CES press room and listened to my recording of what Will.i.am had said. To my surprise, even what sounded like ramblings the first time was actually quite smart the second time around. From his views on the promotion of science and technology education among children to his ideas about entrepreneurship – all of it was very wordy, and totally spot on. I realized I had let my bias about this person whom I never met before, whose music I don’t care for, change the meaning of his words as he said them. I was the fool, not he.

Fact is, the tech industry needs people like Will.i.am, those who understand people as more than just “consumers,” those who connect with others on an emotional level as only an artist can, and are willing to say whatever crazy thing flows out of their streams of consciousness. That’s what Intel realized – and what me and my fellow tech pundits failed to understand.

Hours later, when he waltzed into the CES press room, not a single body guard in sight. I jumped on it.

“You mentioned your ability to ‘see voids’ in the technology industry,” I began. “What do you think gives you that ability: the artist side of you, the entrepreneur side?”

“The creative side,” he said. “But to turn that off – unfortunately you can’t turn that off. Because really, you’re creatively complaining.” You ‘re seeing problems and always wondering why there isn’t a way to fix them, he explained. “But unfortunately, that follows you in your day to day life. When you’re at home, When you’re chilling with loved ones … It ain’t like something you can turn off. And that’s bad for your personal life.”

Will.i.am, it seems, is not just a genuine visionary. He’s a martyr for our industry. And we would all do well to listen to what he has to say, however he decides to say it. And honestly, what you think of his music is of absolutely no consequence. 

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