Anecdotes and reflections on playing catch-up with technology.
“Surrounded by gadgets and software and data, those of us in Westernized society may soon exhaust our fascination with them (if not our dependence on them), shifting our attention to the quirky, the creative, the emotional, the personal.”
Finding out about the Next Great Idea is one thing; making it your own is quite another. It’s nice when an inspired innovation comes along just when you had identified a need for something quite like it. It’s great when, faced with a novel idea, product or method, you come to find it’s quite useful, perhaps even transformative. But how often does that really happen?
A colleague recalled the request: the head of his college wanted a required undergraduate course for art majors, Commentary on Art, to be taught entirely online, to students at a satellite campus of a large state university. This was in 1994, a time long ago, when Netscape™ was a noncommercial precursor of itself, called Mosaic, available only to those in the know; a time when Internet Explorer™ was not yet a gleam in Uncle Bill’s eye. My friend the professor, meanwhile, was a little stumped. He tried to imagine teaching all semester – about visual art – with students known to him and each other only through plain, old-fashioned, unformatted, ASCII-based email – utilitarian and homely. His imaginings were not making him happy.
A year passed. Mosaic had made its presence known to my friend the professor, and with it, the notion of the World Wide Web. By the time he had learned html, developed this new curriculum and was ready to teach it, Netscape had been released and his students were among the first anywhere to participate in web-based distance learning.
For me, that’s a wonderful story – a fable maybe – of identifying a need, barely definable, and having the need satisfied through the confluence of events and creative initiative. But how often does that really happen?
Another professor had been formulating his analysis of the digital revolution and its potential to invigorate arts and humanities education. In 1993 he foresaw with enthusiasm an inevitable “dynamic oscillation” between criticism and creation, play and purpose, in the digital world: “[Y]ou simply cannot be a critic without being in turn a creator. This oscillation prompts a new type of teaching in which intuitive skills and conceptual reasoning can reinforce one another directly.” What could be better than such a comprehensive embrace of rhetoric and philosophy, after 2,500 years of their opposition?
This new kind of integrated approach, “taking for its engine our evolutionary heritage as primates – our need for pure play and competitive hierarchy – and slipstreaming behind them some act in the practical world,” would accommodate the changes wrought by digital information and technology while accommodating the global, multilingual nature of discourse at the end of this century.
Using readily available tools, we would draw a bitmapped picture on a computer screen, and then listen to those bits, converted into music. We would teach creative writing to students around the world, each posting their work to the course’s common website, from wherever they could find a cybercafé. We would “assume the digital presentation of the arts as a second norm and contrast its dynamic genius with masterpieces of fixed presentation, … reflecting the oral/literate axis around which the Western liberal arts have always circled.” But how often does that really happen?
In December 1994, just as my friend the professor was preparing to launch his first web-based semester, a technology thinker published an article, “Intellectual Value,” to which I still refer with pleasure. It begins: “In this new world of the Net, it is easy to copy information but hard to find it.” She explains: “Intellectual property is the embodiment or automation of effort, replicable easily for all. Intellectual value, on the other hand, is the effort, service or process itself; it can sometimes be shared, but the effort can’t be replicated without another person around to do the same task.” We encounter examples routinely: the distinction between a photograph and a photographer’s eye; facts and advice; a library and an annotated bibliography, updated and provided only to paying subscribers. The former, readily digitized and exchanged, are declining in value as the latter, more scarce and harder to reproduce, are increasingly deserving of our favor.
A futurist in Denmark recently predicted that because we are “in the twilight of a society based on data,” capitalism may morph, with the odd result that “Marx may have been right: In an ideal society, employees will own the means of production – in ther heads and in their hearts.” Surrounded by gadgets and software and data, those of us in Westernized society may soon exhaust our fascination with them (if not our dependence on them), shifting our attention to the quirky, the creative, the emotional, the personal.
How do we respond to the digital revolution? (Undeniably it is underway.) If, as predicted, we begin to look to new products and services for emotional stimuli, first, and practical aids to living secondarily, what does this do to innovation? Who will be the new innovators? How does one make a leap from the familiar to the fantastic, from tools to theory, from comfort to challenge?
Well, for starters, by doing. The teacher who has come to celebrate videoconferenced distance education might not have gone out of her way to learn about it initially, but once she sees its promise, she does not hesitate to adopt the technology. The writer and the musician who knew only to hate each other in theory, find ways in practice to assist each other and share their love of story and song. The sculptor, who did not know a method for building large expressive sculpture the way he needed to, comes up with a new method. The web-wanderer combines whim and technology to travel in time (virtually) as well as on a bus (actually).
But how often does that really happen?
For a first-person account of that Commentary on Art class in the spring semester of 1995, one of the first to be taught over the web, see [Old Link] http://www.mcad.edu/classrooms/jmaddox/AltoonaClass.html
In his book about the salutary consequences to education of the digital revolution, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts, (University of Chicago Press, 1993) Richard A. Lanham, a UCLA professor, published his analysis and recommendations in 1993. One chapter from this book is available online at [Old Link] http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/lanham.sample
Esther Dyson’s forward-looking essay, “Intellectual Value,” first published in December 1994 issue of Release 1.0, appeared in Wired magazine, Number 3.07, July 1995, and is archived on the web at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.07/dyson.html?topic=&topic_set=
Rolf Jensen, Director at the Copenhagen Institute for Future Studies was quoted in “Dream Society,” by Cathy Olofson in Fast Company magazine, October 1999 issue, at page 86. http://www.fastcompany.com/online/28/futurist.html The Institute’s website can be found at http://www.cifs.dk
Dr. Maria-Therese Hoppe, Research Director at the Institute explains the emotional pull of the story, no matter how humble: “The market for free range eggs can be double the market for ordinary eggs. We pay for the chicken’s life style.” [Old Link] http://www.cifs.dk/int/index.htm
Anne M Carley is occasionally a futurist. She has flirted with past-ism from time to time. She is inclined to believe that presentism is a notion whose time has come. First published, 12 October 1999. Arts4All Newsletter Issue 6.
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