michael naimark




Digital Expression Symposium

MIT Media Lab, 20 October 1994

Michael Naimark


"Content is everything."

These words were spoken by Jane Alexander, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, on the stage of Kresge Auditorium at MIT along with Mickey Schulhof, President/CEO of Sony America; Raymond Smith, Chairman/CEO of Bell Atlantic; and Nicholas Negroponte, Director of the Media Lab and organizer of this one-day symposium.

That these four individuals were together on a stage was a feat in itself. That it was organized by the Media Lab would have been impossible ten years ago, laughable five years ago, and improbable even last year.

Other participants included musician Peter Gabriel, theater director Peter Sellars, performance artist Laurie Anderson, composer Quincy Jones, Atari founder Nolan Bushnell, film wizard Doug Trumbull, and magicians Penn and Teller. (Francis Coppola was scheduled but unable to attend.) The audience, mostly Media Lab sponsors, was spiced up by a small but wide array of creative types. Natasha Kinski and Lou Reed were there (not together). It was a weird day, signalling a major change in direction.

The relationship between the Media Lab and the arts community went bad early, when in 1980 MIT's "official" art center, the Center for Advanced Visual Studies, angrily withdrew from participation in what was then to be called the "Arts and Media Technology Facility." There was history involved as well as egos.

MIT became a microcosmic exemplar for what happened to art and technology in the U.S. during the 1980s: a widening dichotomy between struggling marginalist artists and well-funded opportunist technologists. While high-tech enterprise flourished, public arts funding (among others) choked. By the mid-1980s CAVS was barely surviving while the Media Lab thrived, minus art. In 1986 a group of Media Lab students circulated a petition for more arts-related activity inside the Lab. Nothing happened.

What's changed?

Sponsors want content now. They want to learn where it comes from, who makes it, and how to get it. They need it.

And the Media Lab, while maintaining its vision, is nevertheless sponsor-driven. Its sponsors are among the largest and most powerful technology companies in the world. Maybe it was the failures of the videodisc, CD-I, DVI, CDTV, HDTV, or 3DO; maybe it's the popularization of "VR," multimedia, or the internet; or maybe it's the awareness that the mass consumer market is the final market, but some kind of threshhold has been broken.

This is news.

"Digital Expression," a one-day symposium for Media Lab sponsors and friends, was held on thursday 20 October at MIT. About 1,200 people attended. The day consisted of three panels hosted by NPR's John Hockenberry, with a lunch talk by Quincy Jones, a late afternoon performance by Penn and Teller, and Media Lab demos into the evening.

There were some highlights.

- Quincy Jones gave a personal and insightful account of the effects of technology in the music world (e.g., observing that when the string bass went electric its role radically transformed from a secondary rhythm instrument to a strong gospel-based voice).

- Nolan Bushnell showed a bar graph of "billions of dollars of sales" over "button clicks per hour" (log rhythmic from 1 to 10,000), indicating a major valley in the middle between TV and video games.

- Sony's Mickey Schulhof (who repeatedly referred to Sony as a "seamless entertainment company") announced "digital video discs," a new format for 2 1/4 hours of "high quality motion pictures" stored on new 5 inch CDs, out by early 1996.

- Doug Trumbull has been working on scaled-down immersive theaters, ones that can fit in "existing retail space" using a 30 foot diameter half-dome screen rather than the 80 foot dome used in his acclaimed "Back to the Future" thrill ride. He's also applied for a patent on an "orthogonal motion platform," which moves in X, Y, and Z rather than pan, tilt, and roll (which, he believes, should be done in the imagery). It's always level and every audience seat gets the same experience.

- Jane Alexander gave several examples of NEA-funded interactive works for classroom education, and mentioned Rachel's "Portable Effects" project by name.

Several themes recurred.

ON INTERACTIVITY - The business community believes interactivity is coming soon, and in a massive and profitable way.

"I want to make very large-scale online games, 'happenings,' like 10,000 people per team, like San Francisco versus Washington DC." - Nolan Bushnell

"When you take entertainment and add interactivity you get profit." - Raymond Smith

"Interactive entertainment will not be cheap to produce, though I don't know where all that development money goes." - Mickey Schulhof

ON ARTISTRY - Everyone is an artist. Tool users must be the tool makers. Access is key.

"We must not have information 'haves' and 'have-nots.'" - Quincy Jones

"Most other cultures assume everyone's an artist." - Peter Gabriel

"Mosiac is hot, but I'm afraid someone might pull the plug" - Laurie Anderson

"Television was invented by engineers for consumers, but photography was invented and refined by photographers. Computers need to be more like photography." - Nicholas Negroponte

"High-tech companies should have artist-in-residence programs." - Jane Alexander

ON ART - Art requires effort. Art requires meaning. Art's quality is not proportional to bandwidth. Art does not need to replicate reality. Art does not have immediate commercial impact.

"It's not like a new artwork will make nine out of ten people change their toothpaste the next day." - Peter Sellars

"Meditation is the absence of information." - Peter Gabriel

"Searching gives meaning to what you find. It should be hard." - Peter Sellars

"The whole point of media is in violating space and time, dream-like." - Doug Trumbull

"The whole point of virtual reality is that it's virtually real not really real." - Jane Alexander

"There is a yuppie denial of experience [by not accepting responsibility when using past artifacts out of context]". - Peter Sellars