21st Century Student

I will call him Anthony. He arrived in Vancouver with a trunk full of DVD's. He uses SMS and a variety of social networking tools to communicate with friends and family. He uses a small video camera to record his everyday life and edits the output on a laptop and then uploads the material onto the Web. He is adept at video games, though they are not an obsession. Cell phones are expensive, but he finds the money. This sounds familiar; an entire generation working creatively with Facebook and Vimeo and Youtube and Flckr. He loves old movies, hence the DVD's. He knows more about films from the 1970's and 1980's than most film historians. He can quote dialogue from many films and reference specific shots with ease. He uses his expertise in editing to comment on the world and would prefer to show you a short video response to events than just talk about them.

Cultural analysts tend to examine Anthony's activities and use of technology as phenomena, as moving targets which change all the time, just as they saw pop music in the 1960's as a momentary phase or like their early comments on personal computers which did not generally anticipate their present ubiquity.

However, what Anthony is doing is building and creating a new language that combines many of the features of conventional languages but is more of a hybrid of many different modes of expression. Just as we don't really talk about language as a phenomenon, (because it is inherent to everything that we do) we can't deal with this explosion of new languages as if they are simply a phase or a cultural anomaly.

What if this is the new form and shape of writing? What if all of these fragments, verbal, non-verbal, images and sounds are inherent to an entire generation and is their mode of expression?

Language, verbal and written is at the core of what humans do everyday. But, language has always been very supple, capable of incorporating not only new words, but also new modalities of expression. Music for example became a formalized notational system through the adaptation and incorporation of some of the principles of language. Films use narrative, but then move beyond conventional language structure into a hybrid of voice, speech, sounds and images.

As long as Anthony's incorporation of technology and new forms of expression is viewed as a phenomenon it is unlikely that we will understand the degree to which he is changing the fundamental notions of communications to which we have become accustomed over the last century.

Anthony however has many problems with writing. He is uncomfortable with words on a page. He wants to use graphics and other media to make his points. He is more comfortable with the fragment, with the poetic than he is with the whole sentence. He is prepared to communicate, but only on his own terms.

It is my own feeling that the ubiquity of computers and digital technologies means that all cultural phenomena are now available for use by Anthony and his generation and they are producing a new framework of communications within which writing is only a piece and not the whole.

Some may view this as a disaster. I see Anthony as a harbinger of the future. He will not take traditional composition classes to learn how to write. Instead, he will communicate with the tools that he finds comfortable to use and he will persist in making himself heard or read. But, reading will not only be text-based. Text on a page is as much design as it is media. The elliptical nature of the verbal will have to be accommodated within the traditions of writing, but writing and even grammar will have to change.

I have been talking about a new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

The Transformation of Culture (2)

In my previous post, I talked about the new world of writing that our culture is experimenting with in which conventional notions of texts, literacy and coherence are being replaced with multiples, many media used as much for experience as expression. Within this world, a camera, or mobile phone becomes a vehicle for writing. It is not enough to say that this means the end of literacy as we know it. It simply means that language is evolving to meet the needs of far more complex expectations around communications. So, the use of a short form like Twitter hints at the importance of the poetic. And the poetic is more connected to Rap music than it is to conventional notions of discursive exchange. In other words, bursts of communications, fragments and sounds combined with images constitute more than just another phase of cultural activity. They are at the heart of something far richer, a phantasmagoria of intersecting modes of communications that in part or in sum lead to connectivity and interaction.

Wires to the Sky

In 1938, Orson Welles altered radio forever. Welles produced and acted in one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of the medium War of the Worlds. Radio was a relatively new technology although by 1936 over ninety-eight percent of the British population and over sixty percent of Americans had radios in their homes. Welles played a trick on his audience. He used the authority of a newscaster to fabricate a first-person account of the landing of invaders from Mars on earth.

In 1965, the filmmaker, Peter Watkins did the same thing with his film The War Game. Although it was supposed to be shown on BBC television, the film never made it to air. There were fears that it would overwhelm viewers and frighten them. Watkins used many of the same techniques that Welles had developed for radio except the topic this time was a nuclear holocaust and its aftermath shot in cinema-vérité style. In both instances, the outcry was enormous. The primary effect of these productions was to foreground the impact of media on our culture, identity and sense of history. In Welles’s case, the police actually came to the studio to try to stop the broadcast.

The bridge between truth and fiction was crossed many times by Welles and Watkins who deliberately highlighted and took advantage of the weaknesses and the strengths of mass media. Most importantly, both artists used images and sounds to flout the conventions of communication that had quickly become standardized within the broadcast and film industries. Watkins spent his career exploring a style of self-reflexive documentary that in recent times has been taken up by music videos, television, and Hollywood films. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is The Blair Witch Project, which owes a great deal to Watkins’s film Culloden made in 1964. In both these cases, hand-held cameras were as important as Welles’s voice in overriding the fictional elements of the narrative with the sensation that the story was true.

As both Welles and Watkins understood, there is a wonderful, albeit contradictory fragility in our relations with images and sounds. Our culture is also in the midst of a profound transition as we negotiate our way through the maze of human, social and economic relations that digital technologies are generating. I see this process of transition as an opportunity to reinvigorate our relationship with the tools provided by communications technologies.

Transitional periods like the one we are living through at the moment, allow us to develop new models that will facilitate our understanding of why the invention and development of new technologies continues to be one of the most important activities of Western culture. This, despite the fact that new technologies don't necessarily lead to positive change. The design and use of any new technology is never inevitably bound to the outcomes that were anticipated by its creators, something that the recently deceased author Arthur C. Clarke understood really well.

Why are our identities so bound up with the media technologies that surround us? Ironically, the cultural and social tendency in the discussion of new technologies is to talk about what has been lost. My own approach is to cautiously explore what has been gained.

Instead of seeing the future through dystopic eyes, a future more defined by machines and media than by humans, I want to suggest that the technologies of communication we have created are not just tools or supports for human endeavors. Rather, in tandem with our growth as a civilization, communications-based technologies have always been a part of the ecology of human existence. This is not meant to downplay the legitimate fears that many people have about computers for example, and their possible dominance in the affairs of humans. I do not want to dilute worries about living within simulated spaces and losing contact with reality.

On the other hand, all new technologies have to varying degrees been the means through which Western culture has defined everything from religion to politics to culture. We are very good at building ecological spaces based on images and sounds. The advent of digital media is just one additional phase in a long history of development that has its roots in music, performance and a variety of cultural forms that are dependent on spectators, participation, and presentational technologies.

The Practice of Interdisciplinarity in Design and New Media (Final)

Please refer to the last three entries for the context for this series.

The NewMic collaboration began with two major reference points, Palo Alto and MIT’s Media Lab. Again, this was not unusual. Other projects in Montreal, Melbourne, Dublin and Germany referred to and attempted to reflect the successes of MIT and Xerox. In the beginning the mandate of NewMic was described as follows:

To accomplish its mission, NewMIC is focused on the following objectives:

• Attracting and retaining outstanding faculty and graduate and undergraduate students in new media research and in art and design areas.
• Building excellence in new media innovation.
• Creating more skilled IT staff and industry clusters.
• Developing better industry-university-institute collaboration for the purposes of technology transfer.
• Encouraging the transfer and commercialization of technology through incubation support.
• Attracting more venture capital to the new media industry. (March 2001)

The industrial design component was incorporated into the vision by default under the rubric of New Media. This proved to be an error because so much of New Media is driven by the cross disciplinary relationship among interface design, product design and inclusive design. Ultimately, the goal was to frame the experience of users of New Media within a product-oriented set of research pursuits. Ironically, so many of the lessons that designers have learned over the last two decades, the importance of detailed ethnographic inquiry, the need to think about the relationship between product and user, the flexibility that is necessary to make interfaces work for many diverse constituents, the fact that design is really about people. See a recent speech by Dr. Stefano Marzano, CEO & Chief Creative Director, Philips Design and the knowledge that inclusivity cannot be attained without understanding how people live, was not directly applied to the research in New Media.

The emphasis on innovation, technology transfer and commercialization, although necessary, cannot be accomplished in a context that is entirely oriented towards applied research with short timelines. This is a conundrum because it is completely understandable that industry would want to see some results from their investment, but the essence of collaboration is that it takes time. In fact, one of the crucial lessons of the NewMic experience is that developing designs that are environmentally sensitive and inclusive requires not only that people from different disciplines participate, but that time be given over to the development of shared communities of interest. Interdisciplinarity is as much about a coming together as it is about recognizing differences.

Here are some examples of the discussions that were held on various projects:

Scenario 1:

Setting: World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle
Technology: Wireless devices
1. Two organizers need to stay in constant contact. They need to gain access to information quickly and efficiently.
2. Their wireless devices have to have access to a mapping program that allows them to constantly track each other,
3. They run into unexpected problems including some demonstrators destroying public property, additional police blockades and more passive demonstrators who want to march peacefully but find themselves caught up in the action.


1. Telephonic
2. Exchange of information
3. Mapping
4. Ability to connect to other organizers
5. Ability to send video images quickly to confirm events
6. Ability to allow other organizers to join their private network
7. Ability to gather in snippets of news broadcasts for additional overviews of the information
8. Instant messaging
9. Use of icons to show location and intention

The distance between the devices determines connectivity and peering relationships are established and can change as circumstances permit. An important feature would have to be the ability to identify hostile as well as friendly “connects.��?

Living Archive:

The living archive becomes an adaptable software component of P2P. As the demonstrations develop, the LA brings all of the data into a series of predetermined categories. Then, using AI, it begins to prioritize the input and change the order to reflect moment-to-moment changes in events.


1. Memory cells
2. Visible icons for the cells
3. Input tracing
4. Output tracing
5. Cells can be rearranged and edited in much the same way as a series of images
6. As different memory cells are attached to each other, the program maps the history
7. Images and sounds form one of the sources for the cells

The key to a successful communications network will be the ad hoc nature of the usage. There will have to be enough elements to allow for changes on the spot.

Response from Alan to the series on Design and Interdisciplinarity

Thanks for this dialogue Ron.

I have been involved in many successful interdisciplinary ventures including going from artistic and/or future vision to successful market products...including disruptive category shifts. In fact, it is refreshing to see that some of the research I pioneered in the VOIP field is finally surfacing as infrastructure shifts. Therefore, I am less curioius about the magic that happens because, as you reference...., it happens, has happened and will continue to happen. I would argue that EVERY product that is on shelves is as a result of interdisciplinary activity!! The person on the assempbly line is as important as your take on the creative and birthing phase. Are all products luscious and desirable? NO!! could they be improved by more inputs and sweeter collaboration? YES!! However, I'm not that interested to hear about another IDEO flexi toothbrush...mine is fine...

I am more interested in hearing your take on why things don't work...I would love to hear about why innovation and imagination transfer fails.... I have thoughts about this...

I think that your third chapter should be about governance. I was involved in a successful bid to set up a research center in Australia in Interaction Design which was very similar to NewMic

The reason for its success is, in part, how it has been set up. The University partners don't have their hands out looking for dollars. The involvement of researchers is the Universities' in-kind input into the organization (a battle actually occurred as one of the University partners kept committing more people so they would contorl the reserach obejective. Eventually we decided that a researcher would need to commit two days a week to be a valid contributor!). The researchers are then rewarded as the papers they produce are part of their tenure track efforts.

This guarantees a stable research output and results in a research pedigree for the organization. Industry partners are then engaged to take part in taking advantage of this stable research base. There is also a component of SME engagement...that is.... small companies are engaged to do small contract pieces to productize research that the larger companies may be interested in. I haven't checked in lately but they're still operating which is more than can be said for NewMic.

Endpoint is that the governance of engaging disparate organizations is all important before the philosophy and spirit of working together. This is usually quite attainable as I have demonstrated and experienced. Reason before philosophy.

In my time at NewMic I had too many phone calls from University researchers asking for money for their individual reserach efforts which had no connection to the desires of the industry partners...Governance period.


The Practice of Interdisciplinarity in Design and New Media (1)

This short piece examines the history of a multi-disciplinary centre for Design and New Media in Vancouver, Canada. I explore the challenges of developing research models that make it possible for a variety of investigators and practitioners in the areas of Design and New Media to link their work to that of engineers and computer scientists. This is a crucial area for collaborative projects that involve designers and new media creators.

In 2000, the New Media Innovation Centre (NewMic) was started in Vancouver, Canada under the aegis and with the support of five post-secondary academic institutions, industry and the federal and provincial governments. Approximately, nineteen million dollars was invested at the outset mostly from industry and government. I was one of the leaders in the planning and development of NewMic, in large measure because I have a long history of involvement teaching and researching, as well as producing New Media. (The industry members included, Electronic Arts, IBM, Nortel Networks, Sierra Wireless, Telus and Xerox Parc.)

One of the foundational goals of NewMic was to bring engineers, computer scientists, social scientists, artists, designers and industry together, in order to create an interdisciplinary mix of expertise from a variety of areas. The premise was that this group would engage in innovative research to produce inclusive and new media designs of a variety of products, network tools and multimedia applications. The secondary premise was that the research would produce outcomes that could be implemented and commercialized in order to produce added value for all of the partners.

I spent a year at NewMic as a designer/artist in residence in 2002 and was also on its Board of Governors from 2000-2003 until it was closed down late in 2003. There are a number of important features to the history of this short-lived institution that are important markers of the challenges and obstacles facing any interdisciplinary dialogue that includes artists and designers working with engineers and computer scientists. Among the challenges are:

* The tendency among engineers, designers and computer scientists to have an unproblematic relationship to knowledge and knowledge production;

* Lack of clarity as to the meaning, impact and social role of inclusive and new media design products;

* Profound misunderstanding of the relationship between inclusivity, user needs and technological innovation;

* Conflicting cultures and discourses;

* An uninformed and generally superficial understanding of the differences between the cognitive sciences and ethnographic explorations of human-computer interaction;

* Focus on a false distinction between pure and applied research.

Underlying some of these challenges was an apprehension that without interdisciplinarity, it would be impossible to be innovative. The artists and designers from Emily Carr Institute who participated in NewMic and whose concerns were centred on community, creativity, outreach, inclusivity and the ethical implications and effects of new technologies, found themselves in a difficult and demanding position. In my next entry I will examine the benefits and successes as well as some of the problems and failures that were encountered in trying to make NewMic into a world-class environment for new media and design research.

Part Two…

Transdisciplinary Thinking and Learning

I have been an educator, administrator, writer and creative artist for over thirty-five years. During that time, most of the disciplines with which I have been involved have changed. For better or for worse, the very nature of disciplines (of both an artistic and analytic nature), their function and their role within and outside of institutions has been immeasurably altered. The context for this change is not just the individual nature or history of one or other disciplines or practices. Rather, the social and cultural conditions for the creation and communication of ideas, artifacts, knowledge and information have been transformed. From my point of view, this transformation has been extremely positive. It has resulted in the formation of new disciplines and new approaches to comprehending the very complex nature of Western Societies. However, we are still a long way from developing a holistic understanding of the implications of these social and cultural shifts.

From a cultural point of view, the impact of this process of transformation first appeared in the early 20th century when the cinema became a mass medium and accelerated with the advent of radio and then television (although there are many parallels with what happened to literature and photography in the 19th century). Networked technologies have added another layer to the changes and another level of complexity to the ways in which ideas are communicated and discussed, as well as learned. The conventions that have governed communications processes for over fifty years have been turned inside out by the Internet and this has led to some fundamental redefinitions of information, knowledge, space and time.

Time, for example, does change when the metaphors that we have available for explaining temporal shifts are no longer rooted in conventional notions of seasonal shift and measurement of incremental change. Technology plays a role, but it is not the only player in what has been a dramatic move from an industrial/agrarian society to a mixed environment that is extremely dependent on cultural activity, networks and information.

The disjunctures at work in our society and the upheavals caused by profound cultural and social change have begun to affect the orientation, direction and substance of many different academic and art-related disciplines. Some of these disciplines have been around for a long time. I would suggest that most disciplines have been under extreme stress for the better part of the 20th century.

We are very likely in the early stages of a long-term shift in direction and it may take some time yet before that shift is fully understood. One important way of understanding this shift is through the an examination of what has happened to learning in the digital age and the role that technology has played in sustaining and sometimes inhibiting changes in the way learning takes place both inside and outside institutions.