Emergent Culture

Copyright © Paul Brown 1998
All Rights Reserved
This essay was commissioned by Experimenta Media Arts and first appeared in the Games Theory issue 12 of their publication MESH. More information is here.

Introduction: pushing the computer
A historical perspective
The response to the new
An emergent culture
On the foolishness of prediction
Experimenta and MESH

This essay is based on a talk given at FOLDBACK, presented by the Australian Network for Art and Technology as part of the 1998 Telstra Adelaide Festival of the Arts, March 8 1998 at the Ngapartji Multimedia Centre in Adelaide and a keynote address to the WWW7 Culture Track presented April 15 1998 at the Brisbane Convention Centre.

Introduction: pushing the computer

I first saw the World Wide Web in May 1993 when I was working at the National Science Foundation's Centre for Computational Field Simulation at Mississippi State University in the USA. Thanks to our links with other NSF centres we got hold of a beta copy of Mosaic, the Graphics User Interface (GUI) based browser being developed by Mark Andreesen at the NSF's Centre for Supercomputer Applications.

I tried Mosaic out on a Sun Sparcstation with a one-bit (black and white) video display. It was impressive and an exchange of email with Andreesen confirmed that a Macintosh and PC version was in the pipeline.

Then, as now, I was editor of fineArt forum (faf). Since its foundation in 1987 faf had existed as a monthly email digest. In 1992, soon after taking over as editor, I established a gopher site for the publication.

The web offered much more: inline images; point `n click navigation; and more. I worked with a group of art students to get fineArt forum on the web ready for the official launch of Mosaic in January 1994. Back then there were only a few art's publication on the web and faf went through quantum jump from small circulation professional newsletter to a widely read arts magazine.

Now, four years down the track, I feel like I've left that behind me. I have every respect for Tim Berners-Lee contribution to late 20 century culture - the web is one of the great inventions of this century - one of the most egalitarian publication medium humanity has ever known.

However it's implementation in the form of Netscape or Internet Explorer suffers all the problems of human computer interface (HCI) design to date.

Not too long ago one of the great pioneers of HCI research and design, Alan Kay (who had worked at Xerox on Smalltalk and the Star) in his essay "User Interface - a Personal View" (KAY91) said ... "you have to live with the consequences of your metaphors".

Although postmodern dogma proclaims that metaphor is the only tool a few of my readers will remember the 1960's will recall the rallying call of ... "truth to the medium" and modernism.

A few of us still believe that there is an alternative to metaphor although, in relation to the computational metamedium, few if any of us would claim that we know precisely what it is. As a modernist I believe it's a quality that's embedded in the intrinsic nature of the medium itself and not in the metaphorical disguises that we expediently create in order to make computers, and the artworks we produce, more intuitive to learn and use. Indeed we can perceive "user friendly" metaphor-loaded GUI's as little more than a ploy for introducing others to our computational addictions (POS92).

A historical perspective

We have several historical models of the introduction of new media that may help us to get a handle on the new computer-based media and their significance.

When the photographic process was invented by Daguerre and Fox Talbot professional image makers who "knew what they were doing" like painters were invited to use the new camera technology. Not surprisingly they cloaked their work with the metaphor of visual art and used them to make pastiches of the monumental paintings they would otherwise have painted. It was 40 years before Margaret Cameron exhibited her naturalistic portraits and everyone smacked their collective foreheads and recognised that that's what photography really was about!

Later Edison and the Lumiere brothers invented the motion picture camera and projector. From it's earliest days the medium was framed by the metaphor of theatrical narrative, the proscenium arch and the semiosis of the stage.

If was 40 years before the technology matured and the Soviet film makers devised "Russian montage" and the language of cinematography was codified for all to use. Feature films have changed very little in their structure since those days. Sound, colour and ever more extravagant SFX have added little to this basic language.

Recently I had the good fortune to see a restored print of Capra's "Lost Horizons" made in 1937, just 12 years after Russian montage was introduced. It's just as vibrant as anything made this decade and in my opinion is in fact a significant improvement on today's Hollywood formula fodder with it's obsession with violence and gratuitous use of special effects.

Given the example of photography and film we shouldn't be too surprised that metaphor has become so embedded in our development of the human computer interface. History shows us that this is precisely how human's first acknowledge and then contextualise and accommodate a new medium or tool.

The examples of both photo and film show us that something new emerges in the 40 year hiatus between invention of the technology and the codification of a linguistic structure that is appropriate to that technology.

This concept, of emergence, is very important and when we return to the present and consider the world wide web (or CD-ROM games or Virtual Reality, ....) it is important that we recognise that the web is a symptom of that emergence and it isn't the emergence itself.

The reason isn't hard to find. The web, and other new media technologies, have been created by people who's minds are necessarily steeped in the media paradigm of the past. They have used metaphor, necessarily of the past, to qualify their understanding of the nature of the medium and, via the human interface, transfer that epistemology to the user/interactor.

The language we use to describe the web is loaded with historical signifiers. We talk about web "pages" in reference to print and web "sites" to signify an architectural metaphor.

The response to the new

Sometime between 1840 and 1880 a new medium emerged that would become what we now call photography.

I'm certain that at its time it wasn't perceived for what it was and suspect that it was probably dismissed as something undesirable or unnecessary by the "experts" of the day. Even by 1980, a century later, some art theorists were still claiming that photography still hadn't made it into the pantheon of great art.

The then cultural elite condemned photography as "amateurish" - the creation of an inferior -or- more specifically - an uninitiated mind. It's worth reiterating here the role of scholarship as a way of excluding people. Even today higher education serves to initiate acolytes into discipline specific and often "shorthand" languages (or jargon) which expressly exclude the outsider.

A typical example of this kind of criticism is the 1880's cultural mainstream's dismissal of the impressionists and post-impressionists many of whom (like Degas with his Racecourse series) were responding to the photographic image and all of whom, it can be argued, were responding in some way to the photographic paradigm.

The other major criticism of a new medium is achieved by describing work as being involved with the technology of the medium at the expense of other significant content.

A good example of this is the development of close-up lenses in the emergent period of cinema. Theatrical experts dismissed the facial close-up as unnatural and reminded their contemporaries that God hadn't intended us to see our fellow humans that close.

Both these criticisms (that the work is either amateurish or is about the technology itself) are typical of the cultural mainstream's dismissal of emergent media today.

Works are described as "technofetishistic"; uncontextualised; or just plain crap.

All this distraught and defensive rhetoric emerging from the cultural mainstream in regard to new media serves to inform us that something very interesting is going on. Something worth cultivating and which may well be the seed of an emergent culture.

An emergent culture

We can date the starting point for new computational media as either: John Whitney Snr.'s appointment as artist in residence at IBM (the first such AiR position at a computer company) which began in 1962; or as Ivan Sutherland's Sketchpad PhD thesis delivered at MIT in 1963; or as Boeing Aerospace's use of the phrase "Computer Graphics" (it's first known use) in that same year.

Assuming that the gestation of this new medium will take roughly the same as photography or film we can then add 40 years and arrive at a date somewhere between 2000 and 2010. I may be optimistic but I expect a new generation, now in their teens, to emerge in the mid years of the next decade.

They will show us what the new media can do. They might even coin an interesting name for it. This 40 year hiatus from 1962 allows the technology to develop and mature. But far more importantly it enables this new generation to emerge and inform us all. It's also a generation who's minds are not steeped in metaphors for the media paradigms of the past and who will be able to recognise and express the true nature of the media of the future.

As I indicated above the 1960's are littered with many pertinent landmarks for the foundation of our current emergent cultural process. They include: the foundation of the Computer Arts Society; Nelson's conception of "Hypertext", the establishment of the art and technology journal Leonardo and; the pioneering historical review of artist using computers called "Cybernetic Serendipity" which was held at the Institute for Contemporary Art (ICA) in London in 1968.

For me the Cybernetic Serendipity was a singular point of transition. Previously I had seen artworks as objects. Now they became processes. Cybernetic Serendipity had a profound effect on a number of young artists and we gradually began to discover each other. Together we began to learn the skills of using computers. In those days it meant programming in FORTRAN and Assembler, punch cards, paper tape and experiments with building digital circuitry. This was long before "user friendly" appeared.

Back then I assumed that it would take the art mainstream between 5 and 10 years to acknowledge this new and experimental area of art. This is roughly how long it took Pop Art, Performance and Conceptual Art to graduate from the 'alternative' venues and into the mainstream galleries.

Video, for example, became popular with artists in the mid sixties, just three years before Cybernetic Serendipity took place. By 1974, just nine years later, the Arts Council of Great Britain recognised its emergence in The Video Show at the Serpentine Gallery in London in which I and many of my colleagues exhibited.

Now thirty years later we know that the mainstream still haven't caught up. I have neither the time nor inclination to address all the reasons why but mention in passing: their conservatism and fear; their fixation on objects; and the fact that technological-based art threatens and undermines their belief systems (as, of course, it should!).

One hundred years ago the European tradition was ruled by a similarly conservative mainstream represented by the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy. The revolution then was the "Salon des Refuses" - a fringe show of unrecognised artists whose work threatened the mainstream for exactly the same reasons as today's art & technology - it undermined an inflexible belief system.

Nevertheless it was these alternative artists, the impressionists and post impressionists, who set the agenda for the 20th century. An agenda we now call modernism. Their work is better remembered (and commands significantly higher prices!) than that of their more conservative contemporaries.

But now, a century later, Modernism is the absolute dogma of the conservative academy despite their feeble rhetoric that claims conversion to some Post-Modernistic ideals that might more correctly be referred to as Late-Modernism.

Meanwhile on the fringes, an international celebration of new media arts has emerged and over the past 30 years grown in strength. It's my opinion that it constitutes a global Salon des Refuses. Furthermore I believe that it's likely that it is this often marginalised group that is writing the agenda for the creative arts for the 21st century and the new millennium.

On the foolishness of prediction

I defy anyone to predict what this agenda may be. Indeed Brenda Laurel warns against attempts to predict the future (LAU89). By doing so we may prejudice it's evolution.

It's also very difficult for someone who's emersed in the current paradigm to see a future change particularly when that change threatens the accepted wisdom of the status quo. In this sense the future is the enemy. Impressionism would overthrow the 19th century academy and their criticism of impressionism is symptomatic of their distress at the immanence of their demise. That this perception was possibly subconscious is irrelevant. The new paradigm is like a stranger with a loaded gun that's pointing at your head. To make them welcome is tantamount to suicide.

Here again history teaches us that the new is almost inevitably rejected by the holders of the status quo.

However I'm tempted to predict some aspects of the new media. In his landmark essay on Software (KAY84) Alan Kay coined the name "Metamedium". Although it never caught on it serves to describe the chameleon-like nature of the computational medium.

To date most of our attempts to use the medium have, as indicated above, used metaphor to create "intuitive" signifiers to tools and processes with which we are already familiar.

So the question, framed in 1960's modernist parlance, becomes: is there an intrinsic nature to the computational metamedium or are we forever shackled by the expedient metaphors of the application in hand?

I'm predictably optimistic and see two significant components to this emergent medium that suggest an answer. The first is popular culture and, in particular computer games. The second is field of artificial life or emergent behaviours.

Both have their origins in the work of John von Neumann who, along with Alan Turing, is credited with the invention of the modern digital computer.

Cinema succeeded early despite its emergent nature and its critics. In Proserpine Heritage Museum in Central Queensland there's a notice in a 1905 newspaper for "one of Mr. Edison's 100 feet feature films". Some 20 years before the medium matured commercial movie production succeeded and was capturing the publics attention in even remote parts of the world. Film is a popular medium that circumvents the censorship of the cultural arbiters of fashion. Ordinary people go to the movies.

Just as today ordinary people play computer games. It matters little to them that they may be playing an even greater role in the emergence of a new metamedium and culture - it's good fun, good value for money. Who cares if it's art or not!

Von Neumann perceived that games were powerful models of the behaviour of time-based structures and of life itself. He codified and named "Game Theory". Amongst his greatest contributions is his "Theory of Self Replicating Automata" (VON66) which wasn't proved until after his death by Arthur W. Burks.

In order to comprehend and demonstrate his theory Neumann developed the field of cellular automata that had been devised by Stanislaw Ulam. These are simple games (often simulated digitally) which are regulated by simple rules but which can, nevertheless, manifest complex behaviour.

Cellular automata became a major research interest after John Horton Conway created "The Life Game" in the late 1960's. Their study became what's now known as "Artificial Life" or "Emergent Behaviours". Most recent research in this important area has concerned the "breeding" of software by the application of Darwinian natural selection or the field known as "Genetic Programming" (LEV92)

Many artists have contributed to this important area since the 1960's. They include: Julian Sullivan; Chris Briscoe; Edward Ihnatovich; Harold Cohen; Karl Sims; Michael Tolson; William Latham; as well as Australians Jon McCormack, STELARC and many others.

Although all of these artists, by virtue of their age alone, are firmly embedded in the contemporary cultural paradigm they have nevertheless created a fertile domain for the emergence of the new culture.


KAY84 Kay, Alan, Computer Software, Scientific American, Vol 251, No. 3, pp. 40-47, 1984

KAY90 Kay, Alan, User Interface: a Personal View, in Laurel, Brenda (ed.), The Art of Human Computer Interface Design, Addison Wesley, 1990

LAU89 Laurel, Brenda, A Taxonomy of Interactive Movies, New Media News, Vol. 1 No. 3, 1989.

LEV92 Levy, Steven, Artificial Life, Pantheon Books, 1992

POS92 Postman, Neil, Technopoly, Knopf, 1992

VON66 Von Neumann, John, The Theory of Self Replicating Automata, Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966.

Experimenta and MESH

This essay was commissioned by Experimenta Media Arts and first appeared in the Games Theory issue 12 of their publication MESH.

Copies of MESH may be ordered from:

Experimenta Media Arts
PO Box 1102
St. Kilda South VIC 3182
+61 3 9525 5025 phone
+61 3 9525 5105 fax


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