more at http://research.culturalequity.org/psr-global_jukebox.jsp
the official Alan Lomax website
Alan Lomax's Multimedia Dream
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
Michael Naimark is the 2002 recipient of the World Technology Award
for the Arts.
Back to Alan Lomax's Global Jukebox Project