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By:Holland Wilde

Re:  "Provoking a Plugged Planet"  Seminar Session Oral Text

Broadcast Designers' Association International Conference

Los Angeles, 1996

Good afternoon.  Thank you all for coming to this plenary session with a dais of very distinguished panelists.  It’s good to see standing-room-only attendance.   I'd like to begin by saying this session is the direct result of a discussion I had with Anne White, my session co-chair, at the BDA conference in New Orleans two years ago.   We began sharing stories about how computers had changed our lives so much from just the previous year.  Machines, it seemed, had invaded our world for keeps.

It got us to thinking.  But, what was it exactly?  Was living and working with these new technologies weird or was it just us?  It quickly became obvious that everything, especially our careers and profession, was mutating fast via technology.  Uncontrollably fast... at a pace we could barely maintain or comprehend.  Our anecdotes startled us.

Our first curiosity was how seldom we even acknowledged this discomfort, to ourselves or our colleagues.  From where did this discomfort come?  Where was it heading?  Aren't we broadcast designers willing participants, even leaders, in the new technological world, or, are we simply passengers on a runaway train.  Where were the answers?  Where could we go for insight and advice?  If this global shift was as big as the techno-pundits claimed - then why was there no forum for its discussion?   Our conference needed a session on this topic.  Hopefully, this will be the first of many to come.

If you doubt the necessity for this type of discourse... allow me to paint a personal picture to clarify the point.  When I left grad school with a Master's of Fine Art's in scenic design I had received the best design training money could buy.  But that was 1983.  The very next year the Macintosh was introduced.  Yeah, I saw the Apple TV commercial during the Superbowl.  And, I read about it in Newsweek magazine.  However, I had no real idea what a personal computer was.

But then, who cared?  My profession had no connection to computers.  I owned a good drafting table, mechanical pencil, a ruler.  I made scale models from paper and glue.  I had an assortment of rendering, and painting materials.  I could work quickly, efficiently, anywhere. 

It wasn't until 1989 or so, when my paper work started to increase, that I bought a dinky IBM PC jr.  - as a glorified typewriter - with a daisy wheel printer that sounded like a machine gun at close range.  However, DOS and I didn't get along.  So, in hopes of improving my abilities, I upgraded to an IBM-XT, believing the ads that newer was better and easier.  It wasn't.

In 1992 I made the big switch and bought a Mac IIci.  A huge personal investment, but it worked.  My typewriter needs began to level out.  And a small inkling of the machine's design potential began to dawn on me.  Within nine months I realized I needed to get training.  I hired an assistant, a computer geek really,  to show me the rudiments of the newest, coolest “design” software available, a clunky version of Canvas.  He came, never left, and has now been my design assistant for 4 years.

However, it still took another two years to finally wean myself from doing a lion's share of my design work the “old-fashioned” way, by hand.  But now, in three short years, every part of the design process is done completely by computer.  In my little company of two people, I now have 5 Macintoshes in constant use with enough peripherals to choke a horse.  My drafting table is just a table now.

So recently, I found myself in this situation - it was 6:45pm - I was setting up a rendering on one computer, transferring files to another “server” computer for printing, and typing a response to an e-mail letter on still another, while talking on the phone to an east coast client, when call waiting buzzed.  The new call was my client from San Francisco faxing back approval of an updated document I had just scanned moments before which now needed to be quickly photo-copied into individual over-night packages for my construction shops in North Carolina and Indiana, all before FedEX closed for the evening. 

My assistant, meanwhile, was on the mobile phone discussing hi-res output quality with an in-town service bureau, while dumping a graphic from Beta onto the array hard drive, for insertion into a new 3-D model, that was being textured mapped for a fly-through, so it could be dubbed onto my portable HI-8 player for presentation during my meeting in Detroit the very next morning.  (you've been there, right?)  ...But then...I had a hideous revelation - an epiphany of grotesque proportions.

It had nothing to do with the dramatic changes in my business, or the fact I am completely using new and exotic tools to fashion my designs...  It came, instead when, in the midst of all of this studio commotion, I happened to glance up at the TV on my desk to see a short video clip on the CBS Evening News of a wounded young man writhing in pain on ground in a riot-torn, burned out village in Burundi, Africa. 

As the man moaned in the street, another gunman secretly crept up to inspect the fallen man.  The gunman looked down and gently pointed his semi-automatic into the wounded man's chest and - with the TV camera following closely - squeezed off a burst of bullets splattering red flesh up into the air - forever ending his enemy's agony onto the permanence of video tape.  I sat there in stunned silence.  What in God's name did I just see?  What was that?  Why was that?  That wasn't a story.  That was an execution.  Worse.  It was a voyeuristic snuff film, actually recorded and edited by someone, and then transmitted into my home.

This wasn't the typical, slo-motion footage, of piles of dead and bloated bodies we've become accustomed to.  No, this had gone the final last step.  Now, we could witness.... we could...participate.  All the while, the reporter's voice-over droned, about how hopeless the situation was - then, it cut back to Dan Rather.  He was smiling, saying something about 48 Hours, then it cut to a denture cream commercial.  ...Did anybody see what I just saw?  Did anybody notice?   I wanted to vomit.

In a horrific instant I was painfully reminded again of the awful, vulgar direction the medium I've chosen for my profession has evolved.  But who can argue news is worse than anything else?  What's going on out there?  Who's in charge?  It hit home that in the course of four or five short years virtually everything - how I work, who I work for, the industry I work in, the results of my work, even the reason I work had been completely transformed. 

I'm struggling to understand it.  Am I coping well?  Do I even have time to consider that question?  What control, if any, do I have anymore?  Am I an artist, a designer, or, just a hired wrist?  To what extreme expression will my work be associated?  What kind of future am I helping to build?

Well... these are huge questions.  Too huge, I suppose, for specific answers during this conference session.  But, they are questions each of us will be forced to ponder in the very near future.  Because MY theory, (and it's certainly not mine alone) is that as the evolution of our planet gains speed through technology, and the world shrinks into one gigantic strip mall smack in the middle of an even bigger parking lot, a new universal language-via-imagery will become the ONLY effective way to communicate across oceans, continents, and cultures.  The printed word is being replaced with images.  However, for this to happen it will take a global delivery system, like television and computers ... and a group of people to make the images.

Well, I don't have to tell you that the infrastructure is already in place - and that WE are people who will make those images.  WE are the designers of this new universal language.  WE are designing the future modes of communication.  And language is the central component of any cultural structure.  Don't get me wrong here.  I'm not a Luddite.  I'm not preaching the evils of technology, nor espousing the return to some agrarian civilization.  My concern instead, is that - in our haste to fill this new insatiable desire for more images - are WE designers taking the time to evaluate our role in the new world?

Today... - in hopes of instigating a fresh dialogue on these and other topics - I've invited four of today's sharpest thinkers to speak to the real issues challenging our careers and our future with television and technology.   First, I'd like to introduce.....

Bill McKibben lives in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.  An avid outdoorsman, he is also a national member of TV Free America.  He has written for NY Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire, Audubon, and many others.  His recent books include: The End of Nature, Hope Human and Wild, and The Age of Missing Information.

Michael Moore was born in Flint, Michigan where he was influenced to produce and direct his landmark documentary Roger and Me, about the affect of General Motors plant shutdowns on his hometown.  Recently Moore served as host, writer, director, and executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning and critically acclaimed series TV Nation.

Karrie Jacobs is known for her essays on the politics of design and the culture of technology. She has spent the last two years researching and writing about interactive electronics and how it affects the way we live our lives.  Jacobs was, for nine years, an editor and a writer-at-large for Metropolis magazine.  She is now a contributing editor to New York magazine, where she's writing a new column on architecture and urbanism, and to ID magazine, where she's continuing to focus on issues of design and technology.

Douglas Rushkoff is an author, social theorist, television producer, journalist and software developer.  He wrote his first book entitled, Free Rides, about the use of modern and ancient technology to alter conscience, when he was just 26.  His other books Cyberia, Media Virus, and his recent release Playing the Future, are all enlightening journeys through the complexities and obsessions of today's chaotic pop-cyberculture

So now, I'd like to offer each of the distinguished panelists 10 to 12 minutes or so to speak to these various topics.....and then open up the last half of this session for Q&A with the audience.  So, please, sit back and dig in.  I'd like to begin with Douglas......