A Wild Ride Into the Digital Future

Artists and scientists talk about the information revolution and how it's changing their relationship with audiences at a Massachusetts Institute of Technology symposium

IMAGINE sending Abe Lincoln an e-mail message congratulating him on the Gettysburg Address. Or reordering the choruses in Mozart's Great Mass in C.

Personal computer (PC) users are gaining access to realms that used to be the exclusive domain of journalists, politicians, musicians, and filmmakers. The emerging technology gives them power to mix their own compact discs, choose movie endings, and customize the kind of news they read. They can contact the president and vice president directly by electronic mail or enter the fantasy world of pop stars like David Bowie via CD-ROM (compact disc read-only memory).

It's a wild world out there.

Last week, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Laboratory hosted a day-long symposium called ``Digital Expression.'' The meeting, moderated by ABC correspondent John Hockenberry, brought together prominent artists and scientists as well as representatives from business and government to explore the future of creative expression in the face of new technology. But participants also sounded a few warnings about the dark side of the electronic playground.

To start the dialogue, the Media Lab recruited a panel that included pop musician and video pioneer Peter Gabriel, performance artist Laurie Anderson, stage and film director Peter Sellars, and director of MIT's Experimental Media Facility Tod Machover. Each of them agreed that technology is permanently altering arts and entertainment to the point that observers and participants are calling it the beginning of a renaissance, if not a revolution. And technology is redefining the roles of artist and audience.

``I've always fancied the idea of being a designer of experience,'' says Mr. Gabriel, whose own CD-ROM, ``XPLORA1,'' is one of the most successful interactive discs on the market. ``XPLORA1'' allows a user to pop the CD-ROM into a personal computer and, through a series of choices, ``enter'' Gabriel's studio, participate in his videos, and go backstage at one of his concerts.

Currently, Gabriel and Ms. Anderson are collaborating on an ``experience park'' to be built in Barcelona, Spain. ``We want to put people inside our dreams and let them manipulate them,'' he told the MIT audience of 1,200.

Technology, they acknowledged, allows artists to go beyond one-way communication (television, for example) to design interactive pieces where the audience does not merely listen or watch but experiences or interacts ... or perhaps just meanders through.

``We're just trying to touch what actual experience is,'' Mr. Sellars says. ``We're in the early stages, it's primitive right now.''

``As artists, our role is to set up the context and environments to stimulate [audiences],'' says Mr. Machover, who oversees the development of ``hyperinstruments,'' such as a sensor-computer-aided cello that Yo Yo Ma has played. In the past, the idea was that musicians spent an enormous amount of time setting up a work exactly the way the composer wanted the audience to receive it. Now that has changed, he says.

It came as no surprise that several of these artists viewed mass-access information (gathered via systems like Internet) as a tool of both creativity and democracy. Gabriel says ``We're moving toward collage'' and out of the era of specialists. Now an artist with access to the technology bonanza can become a jack-of-all-trades. A musician doesn't have to rely on producers and recording studios to get his message out.

Sellars welcomed a more-the-better outlook. He worries about what he sees in present-day society as a very narrow body of information that is controlled by a handful of people. He says the way to get government out of its ``insane gridlock'' is to reinvent democracy at the grassroots through bypassing traditional news sources such as radio and TV.

``Huge parts of human experience are going undocumented and not reflected,'' Sellars says. He advocates people-to-people communication, like that between PC and FAX users.

Artists can open up alternate routes of information and offer communication to challenge the ``massive thought-control most people grow up with,'' Sellars says. ``Let's remove the laugh-track from life,'' he suggests. In the 13th century people made pilgrimages to discover themselves and the world, Sellars says, and the ability to meander is a great pleasure in life. Today, now that all this information is coming to you, the search itself has value again, he notes. ``Searching is the thing that gives you meaning ... it's not just a consumer product to be ingested.''

Anderson interjected a concern that big companies will begin to package the Internet and services like it by ``shrink wrapping'' what is now a fairly open and mostly unsupervised public forum. She cited a newspaper article about a women's on-line discussion group that was ordered to go off-line because authorities feared youngsters would access it.

Gabriel says he hopes that people, when faced with the deluge of information, will eventually ``work toward nutritious information.'' He added that the ultimate freedom is freedom from information, because we all need ``meditative space.''

``The best part is you don't know what's going to happen,'' says Quincy Jones, the arranger and music impresario who spoke later. He provided the conscience for the symposium by stressing that there needs to be equal access for minorities and the disadvantaged in this renaissance. The division between the information haves and have-nots needs to be addressed, he says. ``The information highway needs to be more inclusive and more empowering, the on-ramps must be accessible to everybody.''

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