Ones and Zeroes

I wrote this essay in 1999 as an optimistic valentine to the arts. It appeared in the inaugural issue of the Arts4All Newsletter, published by our then-client, Arts4All, Ltd., and edited and produced in my office.

“Money, after a long process of growing abstraction, from precious metals to paper money, through credit cards to the ones and zeroes of binary cash, has become information. At the same time information is becoming our “money”: the new currency of digital data to which nearly every expression can or will be reduced.”

We live in interesting times. Not so long ago, a dollar was a dollar. Dollars could be traded for goods and services. People who had accumulated many dollars could increase their standard of living, and exert control over those with fewer dollars. The arts were too often considered nonessential luxuries for the “haves” of the world. Then came digital information. Then came the Internet.

We are witnesses to an important transformation. Money, after a long process of growing abstraction, from precious metals to paper money, through credit cards to the ones and zeroes of binary cash, has become information. At the same time information is becoming our “money”: the new currency of digital data to which nearly every expression can or will be reduced.

All dollars are the same, and more of them is generally considered a good thing. On the other hand, not all information has the same value. With ones and zeroes, we are more selective. As digital junk, interchangeable with so much other digital junk, clogs the pipeline, isn’t it likely we will place increasingly higher value on non-interchangeable material, like opinion, point of view, imagination – things that often manifest as creative artforms?

The Internet, the giant global bazaar for these binary exchanges, is already influencing communications and commerce, and it can soon be exerting much more influence in the arts, diffusing “content” to traditional as well as underserved communities in this country and around the world. The Internet is able to provide writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, performers, dancers, actors, poets, and all the rest, a sturdier sense of interconnection without regard to time zones, national borders, or political alliances. At this moment, creative works and their makers and sponsors have a spectacular opportunity to reach a world audience while changing our economic model for the arts.

Creative output, instruction and problem-solving – and the methods for locating them in the vast digital universe – will only become more valuable, unlike other more interchangeable forms of informational currency.

The opposition of arts versus technology is a construct hurtling toward obsolescence. Why not encourage its demise, replacing it with more practical approaches likely to benefit more people and institutions? If these approaches can also put money in the pockets of the artists, so much the better. We can cross-pollinate with partners in other areas of expertise and with complementary resources, to provide effective, non-legislated ideas and solutions.

We can also identify business and government entities whose missions overlap the arts’ – to share available technologies and expertise in ways that benefit all concerned. An obvious example is the current international effort to establish reliable authentication methods so that ecommerce can thrive. (How do I know you are who you say you are? How do I know you really have authority at this bank to approve this loan?) Artists, riding the coattails of the international business community, may soon be able to avail themselves of first-rate authentication technologies, to assure their audiences that the work on the Internet is the actual work: the entire work, as posted by the artist or artists who made it.

We don’t have to wait passively to see what happens next, so that we’ll have something new to grumble about. We have chances now at this threshold moment to help determine what happens next. We can ask questions. We can establish and maintain bridges between the arts and technology. We can express our concerns to those who may be able to suggest – even build with us – pragmatic solutions.

Earlier in this decade, there was no listing in the New York City Yellow Pages under “Internet.” In 1999, the Internet, already a major force, is still in its infancy. During this period of expansion and definition, perhaps we can allow its possibilities to percolate, register, and transmute. Perhaps we can help shape its future, so that the Internet will mature as an invaluable resource for cultural exchange, global education, and group creativity

The technologies of the Internet show no sign of slowing their pace toward continued development, refinement, and ubiquity. Why not keep up with the pace? Why not even set the pace, proposing to the technologists ideas that are not quite workable at present, and joining forces to advance the technology to suit the art?

If all ones and zeroes are created equal, some, in combinations, are more equal than others. Who is to say that the binary information representing a work of art is somehow less worthy, or less likely to travel around the world into paying users’ computers, than the binary information of an Internet advertisement for chocolate covered coffee beans?

If artists and arts organizations embrace this chance to effect some of the changes that are jiggling the world’s economic and power balances, a lot can be gained. New digital wealth, in the forms of treasured, artistic information, can touch lives around the world. Happily, while traditional economies have rested on a carefully limited supply of currency, our supply of digital currency is infinite.

Copyright © 1999-2015 Anne M Carley / Chenille Media Company. All rights reserved. For questions about the materials, and reprint and other permissions, email us. First published, 6 July 1999.  Arts4All Newsletter Issue 1.

All articles here, including those previously published elsewhere, are the property of the author. Please mention this website, www.amcarley.com, when quoting from any of the work presented here. Updated links appear wherever possible throughout these materials. Old links that no longer point to live information have been deleted or deactivated. References to print sources (with no web links) were not available online, last time we checked.

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