New Media and Cultural Diversity

Statement for "Visionaries' Rants"
Digital Be-In
San Francisco
14 January 1992

I hate when this happens. Being called a visionary turns my brain into a limp noodle. I'm used to arguing with people. Anyway, being here is preaching to the converted. I'm not going to say anything new, but maybe we can all roll around and hug for a minute.

I know that the next thing up is a piece about defense technology. Michael told me so I could maybe address it. In a way, there's not much to say. I feel a great sense of futility about it. It's unlikely that we are going to change what the Defense Department cooks up. Yeah, Telepresence turned down a defense contract a while back. Made us feel good. But there were about twenty guys lined up behind us to take it; the work will get done. The more we know about what they're up to the better, though, because maybe Congress will debate it next time they try to use it, and maybe someday the UN will make it officially unkosher, like chemical weapons. Or maybe it will go the way it did on that old Star Trek episode, where we can fight wars on computers and then just take it out of each other's gross national products.

But I doubt it.

All we're really left with is looking at what we can do with technology to eliminate the occasions for war. What do you make of it when the collapse of one of the most authoritarian governments on earth unleashes a hell of ethnic violence and a crop of candidates for public office that make David Duke look like a liberal? Does this mean that when people are "free" they just turn around and beat each other up like they always wanted to? Does democracy cause war?

There's an explanation that maybe has more to do with what we're interested in. I think, along with a lot of other observers and analysts, that the current climate of global violence is largely a response to the incomprehensible changes in global economics and technology over the past quarter of a century. I think it has a lot to do with retreat from a reality that is just too bewildering and scary to cope with. That's what's bringing back religious fundamentalism, for instance, not only in the Middle East, but in Europe and the United States. It's what's bringing back the worst of ethnocentrism. The world gets crazy and you reach back for your roots, for some kind of balance and self esteem and sense of belonging, and what you find is the dead child that used to be your culture, and all you can do is find somebody to blame and try to kill them.

Can multimedia and virtual reality save us? Whoa, where did that come from? Well, just let me lapse into optimism for a minute. Last year in an interview about VR, William Gibson said this really true thing: "The future has arrived, it just isn't evenly distributed." Well, the future arrived in the 50s in the form of TV, and by 1970 it was pretty well distributed. Telephones are fairly well distributed, too. So maybe it's not hopeless. The real question isn't whether the disenfranchised of the world will soon have access to interactive media; I think that history suggests that at least a significant portion of them will, if for no other reason than to receive and respond to targeted advertising. The question is whether the power of the technology can be successfully expropriated by them to repair and grow their own cultures, and to facilitate the growth of a global media culture that begins to give people a place to come together and grow strong as a community.

That's where multimedia and VR come in. Both are point-of-view media; that is, both are potentially extraordinarily good at letting authors construct personal versions of reality and meaning, and at letting people share each other's perspectives in an intimate, first-person way. And because of the nature of these media and the people who want to use it - musicians, artists, documentary filmmakers - there is an emphasis on access and conviviality that is unprecedented in the old world of PCs. This is the issue that I think we can make some positive difference on.

Technology is always a trojan horse. It always contains the agenda of the maker, the programmer, the corporation. Many of the people here participate in the making of the horses. I think we need to look closely at the ways the viruses of cultural imperalism saturate even our most well-meaning attempts at "empowerment through technology." Kids who can't read shouldn't have to learn C, or even DOS. People without desks shouldn't have to use desktops. We don't need any more Coke bottles in the desert. People need a completely transparent way to get their own images and sounds and shapes and tools into the digital domain, and they need ways to shape them and breathe life into them that don't require the cultural equivalent of a species change. It starts with us, the makers of media and the makers of tools.

A final observation on this score is that, in some very important ways, "they" are "us." We don't have to go to Africa or Asia to encounter cultures and visions that are disenfranchised, or people whose voices and wisdom must not be lost. We have begun and must accelerate the process right here and right now of designing media and tools that enable access with deep regard for diversity. This is not an idea that the mentality of the mass market will naturally or inevitably bring forward. The "squash and spread" philosophy exemplified by DOS, Nintendo, and broadcast TV will die long and hard, if at all. And I firmly believe that the only strategy that can win is to build examples that can demonstrate the potential profitability of conviviality. The dramatic increases in bandwidth and the number of channels that can be supported by our telecommunications infrastructure are factors that can work in our favor. But the thing that will make the difference is whether or not we turn our values into examples that we can advocate successfully, not only in a well-meaning and like-minded crowd, but to the people and institutions who have to live by the bottom line.

I can think of two ways to make progress on achieving this goal. The first is to concentrate on building convivial tools, making things easier and more flexible than they may need to be for your own immediate purposes. This is the strategy of putting a more empowering agenda inside the Trojan horse. It is fundamentally subversive and absolutely vital.

The complementary strategy is to meet the issue on the playing field. Simply put, we have to build examples that will promise a profit. No one would contest the idea that individual empowerment and enhanced global communication can lead to a more productive and harmonious world. But lots of people disagree about how to get there.

We are living in the Broadcast Age - a limited number of one-way channels with huge, passive audiences. We need to demonstrate through the things that we build that the converse can be an even more effective paradigm for the people who live by the balance sheet. Technology is our ally - fiberoptics and ISDN, the growing penetration and falling costs of carriers of big bandwidth, make it technically possible to offer infinite diversity in infinite combinations. We can make a good case. But talk is cheap, and argument alone is almost never effective with executives. They have to taste it and feel it and see that it can work.

Building examples is the proper role of a visionary. At the end of the day, it's a lot more important than making speeches. So congratulations to the people who've built the things we're seeing here tonight. Keep putting your cycles where you hearts are.

Severed Heads table of contents Brenda Laurel Tau Zero