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Digital Expression

By Nicholas Negroponte

Message 18:
Date: 12.1.94
From: Nicholas Negroponte
<nicholas@media.mit.edu>
To: Louis Rossetto <lr@wired.com>
Subject: Digital Expression

Computing as Photography

Jerome Wiesner, former president of MIT and co-founder of the Media Lab, tells a story about Vladimir Sworkin, who visited him one Saturday at the White House when Wiesner was John Kennedy's science advisor. He asked Sworkin if he had met the president. As Sworkin had not, Wiesner took him across the hall and introduced him as "the man who got you elected." Startled, the President asked, "How is that?" Wiesner explained: "This is the man who invented television." Kennedy replied, "How terrific. What an important thing to have done," to which Sworkin wryly commented: "Have you seen television recently?"

Technological imperatives, and only those imperatives, drove the development of TV. Then it was handed off to a body of creative talent with different values and from a different intellectual subculture. Photography, on the other hand, was invented by photographers. The people who perfected photographic techniques did so for their own expressive purposes, fine-tuning the technology to meet the needs of their art. Means and messages were deeply intertwined.

Personal computers have moved computer science away from the purely technical imperative and are evolving more like photography. Computing is being channeled directly into the hands of very creative individuals at all levels of society and is becoming the means for creative expression in both its use and development. The means and messages of multimedia will become a blend of technical and artistic achievement.

Music as Fly Paper

Music is one example. During the Media Lab's early days, MIT colleagues advised me to avoid computer music. They said: "Nicholas, MIT thinks multimedia is sissy science; including music will just put the nail in the coffin." To me their remarks were a code: do it. Ten years later, music has proven to be one of the most important shaping forces for the Media Lab.

Music can be viewed from three diverse but complementary perspectives, each as powerful as the others. Music can be considered from the digital signal processing point of view, including such difficult problems as sound separation (like taking the noise of a fallen Coke can out of a music recording). Or it can be considered from the perspective of musical cognition: how do we interpret the language of music, what constitutes appreciation, and where does emotion come from? Finally, music can be treated as artistic expression, with a story to be told and feelings to be aroused. The point is that all three are important in their own right and allow the domain - music - to be the perfect intellectual landscape for moving gracefully between science and art.

The traditional kinship between mathematics and music is multiplied manyfold within the hacker community, which tends to be musically inclined, if not gifted. Even if music is not a student's professional objective, it satisfies an often important need for avocation.

This can be generalized because many avocations are needlessly subordinated by parental and social forces, when they could be vehicles for more meaningful, deeper learning. The concept of a hobby is subject to great change in digital life. While it is used to mean an extracurricular passion, in the digital world such hobbies can be part of the toys with which we think and the tools with which we play.

The computer provides a complete range of points of entry to music and does not limit access to the prodigious child, nor to those who are sufficiently disciplined or genetically inclined.

The Return of the Sunday Painter

Painting is another example. A refrigerator door with a child's drawing attached to it is as wholesome as apple pie. We encourage our children to be expressive and to make things. But when they reach age 6 or 7, we switch gears on them. We leave them with the impression that art class is at best like baseball (a hobby) and at worst for wimps. And for the next 20 years we feed their left brains like a Strasbourg goose, leaving the right sides to catch as catch can - or shrivel into a pea.

Seymour Papert tells the story of a mid-19th-century surgeon magically transported through time into a modern operating theater. This doctor would not recognize a thing, would not know what to do or how to help. Modern technology has transformed the practice of surgical medicine. By contrast, if a mid-19th-century school teacher were carried by the same time machine into a present-day classroom, that teacher could be a substitute teacher today, more or less picking up where his or her late-20th-century peer left off. There is no fundamental difference between the way we teach today and the way we did 150 years ago. The technology is almost the same.

This sort of change is slow. I believe that's because it's deep - deeper than most people think. We are moving away from a hard-line mode of teaching that caters primarily to compulsive, serialist children, toward one that is more porous and draws no lines between art and science or right brain and left brain. When children use the Logo program language to make pictures on their computer screens, those images are at once artistic expression and mathematical expression, seen as both or either.

What was once only an abstract concept - like math - now has a window into it that has many components from the visual arts. What this means by extension is that computers will make our future adult population much more visually literate and artistically able than today. Ten years from now, teenagers are likely to enjoy a much richer panorama of options because the pursuit of intellectual achievement will not be tilted in favor of bookworms but cater to a range of expressive tastes.

"The Return of the Sunday Painter," the title of a chapter I contributed to The Computer Age: A Twenty-Year View more than two decades ago, is meant to suggest a new era of respect for avocations and a future with more active engagement in making, doing, and expressing.

My belief in this comes from watching computer hackers, both young and old. Their programs are like paintings: they have aesthetic qualities and are shown and discussed in terms of their meaning from many perspectives. Their programs include behavior and style that reflect their makers. These people are the forerunners of the new expressionists.

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