michael naimark

more at http://research.culturalequity.org/psr-global_jukebox.jsp
the official Alan Lomax website

Alan Lomax's Multimedia Dream

December 2002

I first visited Alan Lomax in New York in the late 1980s when I was consulting for Apple Computer. Alan was kind and generous, and we spent the afternoon together in his upper West Side home and study. He showed me rooms full of films and tapes he had recorded and collected, of song and dance from around the world. But he also showed me several graphs and charts, and exclaimed, "this is IT! All of human culture is represented HERE." It was his research on performance style of which he appeared most proud. Lomax and his team at Columbia University spent years coding thousands of songs and dances from hundreds of world cultures, then cross-correlated them with each other and with other ethnographic databases. Patterns emerged, about similarities and differences between cultures, and between life styles and art forms.

For example, based purely on factor analyses, Lomax has shown statistical significance for how the traditional music of Georgian Russia is similar to (and may be a descendent from) that of Central Africa, and how the music of Patagonia is similar to that of the Inuit. And how dances with strong lateral knee movement correlate with societies with a tradition of pottery (and potter's wheels), and how dances with narrow heel-to-toe movements correlate with societies whose main crop is planted in narrow rows (like rice). And how song-styles with large amounts of rasp in the male voice correlate with societies that raise boys to be independent rather than team players. And how song-styles with a high degree of tonal blend (sounding as one) correlate with societies where women account for most of the food production. The list goes on. It's strong, romantic, provocative stuff. It changed Alan's life.

At the time we first met, Alan saw the newly emerging field of interactive multimedia as the technology he had been waiting for. Every school child could trace their cultural roots. New correlations would be found. "It will produce a thunderburst of knowledge," he said with the enthusiasm of a teenager. He called his dream the "Global Jukebox."

By the mid 1990s (with some help from Apple Computer, the National Science Foundation and Paul Allen's Interval Research Corporation, among others), Lomax and his team managed to build a first-pass version of the Global Jukebox. The system was complex and its interface a bit clunky, but almost everyone who experienced a demo was utterly astounded. Corporate executives would phone their colleagues on the spot.

It seemed clear that the Global Jukebox was destined for popular and commercial success. Alan Lomax fans included George Bush Sr. (from whom he received the Presidential Medal for the Arts), Brian Eno, Jerome Wiesner, and Mick Jagger. (I once heard Alan refer to Dylan as "Bobby.")

But in the end, the corporations never followed up. Alan couldn't understand why. He told me he was confused.

The confusion, I'm convinced, was not Alan Lomax's. It was the multimedia industry's. The Global Jukebox is a textbook study of what's been wrong with interactive multimedia.

When the large technology companies began to realize that interactive multimedia might be the next big thing, they went about looking for "killer apps." IBM sunk over $10 million into an interactive story of Christopher Columbus, critically and commercially deemed a disaster. Phillips spent over $1 billion promoting their multimedia platform called CD-I before throwing in the towel.

Things are not any better today. The big media companies are sinking billions into "interactive television," even after twenty years of embarrassingly false starts. For reasons that never made much sense, they start by designing the toaster, then decide on the toast. Multimedia hardware makers are too often seduced by the technology and mistakenly believe that consumers will be as well. They haven't fully realized we don't want the toaster, we just want the toast.

The Global Jukebox has fallen into an abyss between academic and pop culture, between world-saving and money-making, and between content and technology. And in the new media industry, the technology folks seem to drive the content, rarely the other way around. The result is the sort of mindless mediocrity that Alan Lomax spent his lifetime battling. It's too bad, since most of the planet's cultures have the content but not the technology. If these corporations would listen carefully and build organically, everyone might win. Meanwhile, Alan Lomax's Global Jukebox continues to fall on deaf corporate ears.

Michael Naimark is the 2002 recipient of the World Technology Award for the Arts.

Back to Alan Lomax's Global Jukebox Project