What the heck is “computational media”?

My Gallatin IAPC (Intellectual Autobiography and Plan for Concentration)  is due in 2 weeks (*resumes hyperventilating*) so I’ve been thinking very hard about everything I’ve done and plan to do as a kid in college and why. I hope that after I write this post I can give a I-know-exactly-what-I’m-talking-about explanation to curious ones who ask what I’m studying instead of shriveling up and answering to avoid further questions, “Art and computer science.”

I am not exaggerating when I say that checking out the Guggenheim’s Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibition last spring, through a lovely friend’s recommendation, change the course of my intellectual life. A collective of Japanese artists formed in the alienating shadows of World War II and Hiroshima, the Gutai were focused on questioning and understanding the nature of humans’ relationships to everyday materials, physical space, and technology. I don’t remember everything I saw but something I read on that walls of the Gugg still remains, that the Gutai aspired to “break down barriers between art, the public, and everyday life.”

A year after the exhibition, I’m taking classes in digital media and computer programming and I’m pondering on the same questions as the Gutai did. In 1974, following the end of an active Gutai, Ted Nelson (the “Tom Paine of the person-computer revolution,” wrote Stewart Brand) loudly and urgently proclaimed in Computer Lib/Dream Machines that the chasm between computer insiders (in the industry and academia) and the ordinary public be closed so that computers can be understood in essence as “versatile gizmos which may be turned to any purpose, in any style.”

“People have legitimate complaints about the way computers are used, and legitimate ideas for ways they should be used, which should no longer be shunted aside.”

He uttered this concern at the dawn of a new media revolution that would become as, if not more, significant as the impact of the printing press and analog photography — “the shift of all of our culture to computer-mediated forms of production, distribution and communication,” as Lev Manovich puts it. Nelson dreamed of a new human experience with computers, one that would “enable new generations of media” in a “radical, open publishing network.”

The computer had a very dull beginning as a calculator of math too frustratingly complex for humans. Then people started thinking and materializing what else the computer can do better and thus for humans, and now we’re either obsessed or terrified over its power over us and the language it understands but most of us can’t, its “artificial intelligence.”

But Ira Greenberg assures us that the computer is inherently dumb and it will “do only and exactly as [it is] told, without any assumption, reflection, or self-awareness.” It is us humans who give it a purpose, for capturing and translating our actions and thoughts into new forms of expression — “intelligence amplification.” The computer is a machine for making your dreams come true, big or small. Alright, maybe Snapchatting or sending emoticons to show is a weird dream, but knowing that we have a tool to not only create but to share, remake, rip apart, and become a part of a culture is breathtaking to me. Abe Hamoid, the saint behind funprogramming.org, displays on his blog: “Code allows me to see the things I imagine.”

But it is also us imperfect, self-centered, and biased humans who, as much as we may assert otherwise, give the computer a meaning that isn’t perfectly neutral or innocent. Ted Nelson was aware of this and hence all the more urgent that people realize this potential of the computer to do good and bad in both our physical reality and, increasingly relevant, the one made of bits.

“It matters because we live in media, as fish live in water…we can and must design the media, design the molecules of our new water.”

“The things people try to do with movies, TV and the more glamorous uses of the computer, whereby it makes pictures on screens–are strange inversions and foldovers of the rest of the mind and heart. That’s the peculiar origami of the self.”

Gee, that’s lovely. Something Red Burns once said in an interview with John Maeda comes to mind.

“It has never been about the tools. It has always been about people — how people use technology, and how these technologies can help people communicate.”

I’ll end for now with the hope that more and more people, including myself, would not stay intimidated and alienated by the language of technology because some of those we entrust to lead the way into our future depend on us remaining oblivious or feeling powerless. Maybe I’m naive in saying this but let’s trust our own hopes and dreams a bit more, even if we start off by sitting on our beds and staring at a computer screen. That computer screen is home to what Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe today’s digital environment in The Second Machine Age, the “playground for large-scale recombination [of ideas].”

(I still don’t really know what I’m talking about.)

Leave a Reply