The TED2 Conference Writeup -- 22 Years Later
What follows is my report from the TED2 conference that happened in February 1990 in Monterey, California. This was the second TED conference, and so far it is the only one I have ever attended.
Think about that timeframe: February 1990, twenty-two years ago! Microsoft Windows 3.0 wouldn't be released for several more months. The World Wide Web did not exist yet. Steve Jobs was already five years gone from Apple; his NeXT Computer, Inc. company was struggling to find a market with its NeXT workstations. Apple was led by John Sculley, and was struggling to find a profitable niche in a Microsoft and IBM dominated personal computer market.
This essay was originally written as a series of spur-of-the-moment "liveblog"-style messages entered into an electronic conferencing system called The WELL in late February 1990. When my wife Patricia and I returned form Monterey after attending the conference, I spent the next day or so entering in my recollections of what had happened at TED2. What follows is essentially an unedited copy of the original text. While greatly tempted to tamper with the original words, aside from a few minor grammar/typo corrections I've decided to leave the original words alone and let them stand.
It has never appeared on the Internet until now due to the fact that it was never posted outside of The WELL to my knowledge, and to my dismay The WELL folks told me they lost their backups of many 1990-era posts years ago.
This month I found a partial printout of the document so here it is, manually re-typed (hopefully no new typos). It doesn't cover the whole conference, in fact covers only the first two days out of three. There were plenty of other memorable sessions including one by Douglas Adams. Unfortunately those writeups have not survived, or if they're still around, I haven't yet found a readable floppy disk backup from the early 90s that has the right .txt files.
I have not read this conference writeup in two decades. It's weird reading it over in 2012. Lots I still agree with. Then again, some of the predictions I made in 1990 in this document can now be seen to be laughably, flat-out, dead wrong. But isn't that always the way it goes with predictions of the future? Far better to just go invent it. But regardless of the document's flaws, and my cynical and sometimes whiny take on the proceedings, I think it captures fairly well some of the pre-web buzz about technology and computing. It was all still to come!
(NOTE: Where it makes sense, I have embedded links to people and topics and things (now that we have this thing called The Web) so you can jump to watch the video I make reference to or see a picture or a Wikipedia entry or whatever. I have also, Bruce Sterling-style, embedded comments using his triple-parentheses approach.)
The second TED conference came six years after the first, and this time brought together architects, graphic designers, software designers, writers, artists, filmmakers, video producers, musicians, radio people, scientists, educators, and others to explore how the disciplines within the fields of technology, entertainment, and design are blending and converging.
The 1984 TED conference was a “financial disaster”; they had to bring students in to fill the empty seats in the auditorium. Things were different this time. The conference organizers reported that they received over 5000 applications; 4500 of them had to be turned away. The TED people wanted to keep the audience small, so the 500 attendees could have a chance to meet and network. More on how well they succeeded on that score later.
The conference itself made it clear that we have a long way to go still. Technology, Entertainment, and Design are by no means converged yet! The three fields are still quite separate, and, some would argue, they should remain so. I found the conference instead to be variations on a three-way theme. Variations like: “designing entertaining technology (DET)”, “technologists as designers of entertainment (TDE)”, and, perhaps most importantly, “entertaining technological designers (ETD).”
Some of these permutations worked better than others. There was some debate as to the “E” in TED2: besides Entertainment, some suggested Education, Engagement, and Empowerment. As the conference wore on, I kept thinking, Ego.
The conference co-chairs were Richard Saul Wurman, author of Information Anxiety, creator of the ACCESS city guides and the design for the PacBell SMART Yellow Pages; and Harry Marks, creator of many well-known and current TV ads and ID sports for ABC, CBS, and other networks.
In the following messages I'll try to recount my observations on each day of the conference. Tonight I'm gonna review what went on Thursday, 22 February. Tomorrow I'll try to tackle went on Friday, 23 February. Friday, and specifically Ted Nelson's presentation, was the turning point of the conference. Let's start with Thursday.
Thursday, 22 Feb 1990
Megahype, or Talk Show futurism at its finest.
The first speakers were the husband-and-wife team of John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene (J.N. and P.A., respectively) who spoke about their MEGATRENDS 2000 book, which, we were told during their introduction, was and is #1 on bestseller lists. There were two podiums on the stage. One on stage left, the other, stage right. Both were brought together, side by side, center stage, for the two speakers. I found the arrangement awkward: as if these speakers needed a fortress between them and the audience.
Decentralization, decriminalization, globalization were among the various "tions" mentioned during their talk. See their book for a summary of their speech as their speech was but a (long) summary of their book. J.N. talked about his conversations with Gorbachev. I found it hard to believe he had real conversations with Gorbachev, and not photo opportunities. J.N. and P.A. talked about how they had traveled the world, meeting with people, finding trends. They claimed that more and more people are moving back to the country, to a small town environment, to ranches with FAXes and PCs and satellites and the rest. They bragged about their living in Telluride, Colorado, a simple lifestyle, 7 hours form the nearest metropolitan area.
It's one thing to claim to live a simple rural lifestyle; it's quite another to jet around the world, appear on talk shows on the major networks, and then come home to Telluride for a rest.
J.N. and P.A.'s presentation was the least relevant of the TED2 talks; we could have skipped it and not missed a thing.
Interesting tidbit: during Friday's lunch sponsored by Walt Disney Imagineering, each attendee was given a postcard on which they were to write a single question they would like to address to anyone else in the conference. The cards were collected and then read aloud as open questions for the intended parties. Best one was addressed to Naisbitt and Aburdene: "What planet are you from!?" Everyone (minus two, I suspect) roared.
The postcards distributed at the Disney Imagineering-sponsored lunch. We were asked to write questions on the back side.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss
John Sculley (was he always this thin?), speaking within hours of the 400+ layoffs at Apple, was the next presenter. Standard stuff: the 1987 Knowledge Navigator film, the 1984 Macintosh ad film, various hypercard stacks… You could see he was uncomfortable with the Mac II he was using. We watched as his mouse pointer jumped around the huge projected image on the screen; was it a problem with the program he was using, or was he actually unfamiliar with the concept of double-clicking on icons?
His Mac demos and videodiscs and CD-ROM; nothing new to Pat and I (more about that, i.e., Why All The Hype About MultiMedia?, later). He spoke at length about the Knowledge Navigator, and its implications for the future of personal computing.
The 1987-era Knowledge Navigator concept video shown at TED2 in 1990.
He showed a HyperCard stack which lets you explore the life of Martin Luther King. Or, I should say, explore one collection of film clips of Martin Luther King's life. It's multimedia efforts like these that keep tripping alarm bells in my mind -- alarms asking questions like "Who decides what is history and what is not?" and "Why don't we have the full footage to browse, instead of snippets, blurbs, and factoids?"
A word about the audiovisuals at TED2. Bad, unreliable, and at times amazingly inept. Which is so ironic, this being the T.E.D. conference! For many presentations during TED2, a very large screen (picture a 70mm Cinerama screen maybe 40ft wide) was employed. A black fabric was hung in the center of the screen, in effect creating two projection areas, left and right, each about the ratio of a TV or computer monitor. Which was frustrating. I was hoping someone would do something majestic, something thrilling, something Lawrence-of-Arabia-ish, with all that screen space. Instead they opted for a split screen. Right near the end of Sculley's presentation, the fabric hanging in the center of the screen began to fall. I cheered inside.
I'll have to mention the A/V problems throughout my report because there were A/V problems throughout TED2.
During Sculley's presentation, his microphone pickup would drop out, or the speakers would start to feedback; whenever Sculley clicked on a video window to play a clip from the videodisc, the sound portion of the clip would be either screechingly loud, totally silent, or terribly scratchy. I kept picturing frayed speaker cables with exposed wires sparking away underneath some control panel . . . Someone wake up the A/V people, I kept muttering.
A lack of detail: one thing missing from the various programs Sculley demo'ed was an attention to detail. Pat and I were doing interactive video applications back in 1984. One thing we learned then was that when you start a short video sequence, say frames 30000 through 34117 of the disc, when the sequence stops at 34117, it literally freezes on 34117. Unless you blank out the video window, you're left with a freeze frame. Now, that's fine and dandy, if that's what your design calls for. But when you then later go back to another icon and select another video sequence, you see the video window again, with the frozen 34117 frame still in the video window, then you see a blank screen (while the videodisc controller searches for the new starting frame) and then the new sequence begins. This is awkward and it creates undesired effects.
When Sculley finished the King film clip, he went on lecturing about something else, without noticing what the audience saw behind him: the frozen video frame of Martin Luther King's face. For what seemed ten minutes Sculley continued, unaware that King's face loomed behind him. Poor Martin Luther King, I thought. He's simply software now: reduced to a couple of tens of thousands of video frames, randomly accessible, digitally re-touchable. It may sound like nitpicking, but this is the TED Conference, and you're supposed to do better than this. This is the kind of stuff videodisc developers are faced with every day, and the kind of thing you try to work around to create a higher-quality, more seamless overall effect. Something which was missing from Sculley's material.
My overall impression? Apple's Golden age is over; and if and when the Knowledge Navigator becomes a reality, it won't be an Apple, it'll be a Mattel, or a Sony, or Nintendo, and it'll cost $99 and be disposable when the battery runs out. How Apple will make money on it I don't know. Where's the money gonna be made? In the Knowledge, not in the Navigator.
I was struck by the irony of the 1984 Macintosh ad. Here we are, six years and a month after that famous Super Bowl Sunday ad ran, sitting in an auditorium listening to The Way Things Will Be, According to Apple. More and more I'm finding it's not very different than The Way Things Will Be, According to IBM. More about this 1984 ad below, in my review of Ted Nelson's presentation.
A Colorful Break
The Pantone T-Shirt Photo -- Audience at the TED2 Conference, Feb 1990. Of course I would be front-row center, wearing yellow shirt.
After Sculley we were asked to put on TED2 t-shirts. Every single shirt was a different color of the spectrum. Pantone's spectrum. Pantone, the color people, had arranged for every TED2 participant to wear a different colored shirt. A photographer snapped away shots at the foot of the stage. It was quite a sight -- shades of red, violet, blue, yellow, green, orange . . . A lot of people were uncomfortable putting on the t-shirts. But peer pressure has a way of overcoming resistance. When that magical point had been reached (the point where if you don't put on the shirt, you actually draw more attention to yourself than if you just went with the flow) everyone put their shirts on, save for one person. Patricia Aburdene.
Aaannd here they are, 22 years later, our two Pantone t-shirts. Haven't worn them since the day of the photo shoot at the conference. I wonder how many millions of dollars they're worth now? No? Don't think so? Yeah, you're probably right. Worth a try, though.
An Apple Reception
After Pantone, Apple threw a reception in the main lobby. The demo rooms were open, and everyone partied. A word about the demo room. We had our COCONET system running in the demo room. One IBM machine amid table after table of beeping, burping, boing-ing Macs. This conference was heavily Mac-oriented, even though it was not a computer conference. Apple employees were everywhere, and sauntered around with an amazing air of arrogance. They would mutter and snicker as they walked by our table, either ignoring our system or tossing their Steve-ish black leather jackets on our table or even on top of our equipment. Kept thinking, they must be BMW drivers . . .
Bran Ferren and the Twelve Foot Man-Eating Plant.
Forgot to include Thursday evening's presentation by Bran Ferren, special effects whiz for movies and Broadway. His credits include staging and special effects for things like Cats, Sunday in the Park with George, Pink Floyd rock concerts, movies like Altered States, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Little Shop of Horrors.
Ferren is a funny guy -- the kind of guy who's very bring and who has fun getting paid torrents of cash to do anything he wants. He spoke about how he constantly gets requests from showbiz types asking for something flashier, more thrilling, more chilling, more grotesque, more stunning than ever before. In the same breath, the showbiz types then add that they'd like three film clips of things he's being asked to create.
We were told he has an incredible kitchen, at his mansion on Long Island. Portions of Little Shop were filmed there. It was interesting to learn that most of the live-plant shots in that movie were filmed in 1/2 speed, with Rick Moranis talking in slow motion and then overdubbing dialog later, at normal speed. This enabled the filmmakers to create the illusion of a moving, living, feisty (and hungry) alien plant. Portions of the film are actually computer graphics embedded in the picture. He challenged the audience to find what was live and what was "memorex."
He showed the rejected final scene from Little Shop: where Rick Moranis is swallowed, in obscene detail, followed by world domination of Godzilla-sized plants destroying cities and crushing frantic citizens. Whether or not one found the "toned down" ending that was ultimately released any better or worse depends on whether or not one found this movie worth thinking about in the first place.
After his talk, we were shown his 81-minute film, FUNNY, a collection of 120 or so jokes told by people around the country. Most of the jokes were on the crude side, the kind of thing you'd hear at a bar just before the right begins over at the pool table. I'm not going to recount the jokes here. I will say that the film had nothing at all to do with technology or design, and whether it was entertaining? That's for you to decide if you ever see the film. The next day I heard many say they found the film offensive (every race, creed, sex was prime target for punch lines); others thought it was hilarious but what did it have to do with TED2; others said they didn't go.
Friday morning, 23 February 1990
"Are You Experienced? Well, I ammmmmm…." - Jimi Hendrix
Jaron Lanier started the day out with a presentation on Virtual Reality. He said that rather than spend the whole hour talking about what VR is, something he'd been doing too often this year at too many conferences and demos, he'd give a brief overview (boy, does that term now have a new meaning) to the concept and then spend the rest of the time taking questions. So he gave his briefing, and took questions. Application? When will it be available on PCs? What about sex? All now-standard questions; Jaron gave the now-standard answers. When asked about the recent Wall Street Journal front-page story, he said that all he could say was that the WSJ reporter must be an expert on LSD . . . Roars from the audience. He argued that VR manipulates objective experience. It creates new worlds to explore. LSD and drugs, on the other hand, manipulate subjective experience. What he didn't say was whether you could manipulate subjective experience using VR devices -- something, I would think, you could do, and, I betcha, people will do.
I kept thinking, why is everyone so bored with the Real World? Jaron spoke of needing only an hour and a half to "create a world", the world attendees could explore in the VR room at the conference. When is a "room" a "world"? I kept thinking, why not virtual exploration of the Real World? Imaginary worlds, sure, but what about Planet Earth? Nature. Bugs, and fish, and mountains, and cities. Imagine becoming a virtual lobster or dolphin in the real ocean. A little robot you could patch into from home and explore the undersea world with. Or imagine a group of students exploring, via eye-phones and earphones, the ruins of the Parthenon, or the streets of remote Perth, or the secrets of Borneo, or the mystery of Mongolia. I'd think there would be practically limitless opportunities for "visiting" real places in the real world. Not that artificial environments wouldn't have their "place" (there we go again). It just seems to me that patching into a VR version of National Geographic might be as interesting as floating around in the neon-lit, Day-Glo virtual home of Pee Wee Herman.
At the end of his session, Jaron was asked to predict two things that he thought would become reality within the next two years (i.e., at TED3, we'd ask, well, did they come true?). How revealing the question was. Two years. So much change is happening now that we look for predictions for just two years from now, never mind ten or twenty or one hundred. Something in my head kept whispering, Vernor Vinge is right: hold on, here comes the Singularity.
His first prediction was easy. So easy, that it had become true within two hours. He said that by 1992, "virtual reality" would be the most overused buzzword in the media. By the mid-morning break, everyone was already talking about virtual this, virtual that. it already is the new buzzword. Anything is better than "multimedia."
He was hard pressed for a second prediction, and I'm hard pressed to recall it. I believe he said that he expected to see medical applications of VR in use within 2 years.
During the break I asked Jaron about virtual exploration of the real world. Was he doing any work in that area? A question he seemed to have been asked many times. Nice idea, and yes, he'd thought of it . . .
Perhaps all the attention and publicity and celebrity and lectures and pressures is reason enough to strap up, jack in, turn on, beam up, and escape. VR was a new concept to many attendees. A profound concept. The stuff of future shock. I kept thinking, Hollywood is here in the audience. The networks are here. How is this new concept hitting them? Is it only a mater of time now before Gibson's Sense/Net arrives? Before HBO subscribers get data-suits?
Dots and Pots: The World of Takenobu Igarashi
Igarashi is a Japanese artist, architect, and designer. He talked about how in his youth, he would admire the cast iron pots (slides of which were shown) covered with a matrix of perfectly-spaced raised dots. Done completely by hand, with techniques learned by the ancients. He wanted them to learn how they were made and how he could make them. Today he works in cast iron, concrete, paper, plastic, wood, and other materials to create tools, calendars, artifacts, and buildings. The dots and lines permeate his work.
He is well-known for his architectural alphabet, a series of letters A to Z which would surely stump even the best optical character readers but somehow remain legible to human perception. He's trying to find, through architecture, sculpture, and design, what Douglas Hofstadter was trying to find in typography: how far can you go before you can't recognize a letter? Igarashi's answer: pretty far. He showed slides of a set of silverware he designed. I loved it. The kind of stuff that, at first glance, you think must be the work of Vulcans or Romulans. The fork: a flat handle with four or five long teeth at one end. The spoons: instead of having elliptical "cubs", his have circles, like ice-cream scoopers. The knife: what knife? Not until he pointed out the object pictured in the center of the slide did you understand his knife. More like a pizza cutter: a long flat handle with a round, spoon-shaped flat bulge at one end. "It doesn't look like a knife," he said, "but it works surprisingly well." When you think about it a minute, you realize he's probably right. You emerge from his presentation wanting to run out and buy a set of his tableware!
Igarashi's design of silverware.
More A/V troubles
Peter Bradford was the next scheduled speaker, but his A/V equipment had other plans. His video projector crashed and burned; the image on the screen looked like the kind of thing you see in a movie theatre when the film gets stuck and burns on the bulb. But this was video-burn. Paisley video. Images reminiscent of a certain Star Trek episode concerning an encounter with a certain 11,000-mile wide organism. Not the kind of images Bradford had in mind, so his presentation was postponed, and we went to lunch.
The certain episode of Star Trek. The projector image melted into something that looked exactly like the 11,000-mile-wide cell in that Trek episode.
Disney and the Box Lunch
Walt Disney Imagineering, the division of the Disney empire responsible for creating the theme park thrills and spills, hosted lunch. The ballroom was full of round tables, seats for seven or eight at each table. We were told to sit at the table whose number matched the number assigned on our admission tickets. So much for networking and sitting with whoever you wanted to sit with. Many simply ignored the scheme and sat where they pleased. We sat down at table 16, with someone from Microsoft, someone from Lucasfilm, someone from an advertising agency . . . an interesting bunch.
Each place-setting had a white cardboard box, perhaps a foot long, a foot wide, and two inches high. While we were filing into the worm, while we opened our boxes, while we ate, while we drank, a Disney man paraded around the room, mike in hand, blurbing and blabbing and trying to entertain us. We were told to full out the postcards, as I already described. The "best looking person" at each table, we were told, was supposed to pass the postcards around the table.
Inside the boxes were two pita-bread egg-salad sandwiches, a fudge cake, a tangerine, and a bag of all-natural potato chips. Each attendee also received a gift -- something I've always wanted, I must confess -- something the Disney man announced with great flourish as "the world's only digital - analog clock!" That is, a liquid crystal clock with hour, minute, and second hands, instead of the expected numeric output. Fun little gadgets, and we've got them on our desks now at work.
(((Literally 24 hours before I discovered this TED2 report printout, I was busy throwing out old stuff, cleaning files, and I came across this Disney clock, and I threw it out, its battery long dead; I suppose I had to throw something out from TED2 to find the TED2 report. - bd 2012)))
After lunch we were told to have "the most intelligent person" at each table reach for a set of square sheets placed under the flower vase at the center of the table, pass one sheet to each person at the table, have each individual then peel off the backing of the sheet and stick it to the top of their box, and then put all the boxes together on the table. Each sticker sheet had a different pattern of curved lines. Everyone caught on quickly -- there was a Mickey Mouse image waiting for everyone. While everyone shifted boxes around, Pat and I stole fudge cakes from the two or three unopened lunches.
It was kindergarten all over again. But it was different, that's for sure.
Amazing, the things you find at YouTube, like the POWER GLOVE commercial that was shown 22 years ago at TED2.
Something I forgot to mention: POWER GLOVE. Jaron Lanier's presentation ended with a 60-second MATTEL spot for the POWER GLOVE. Pretty wild stuff. Cheers from the audience began about 30 seconds into the clip, when the voice-over began describing some new games in which a virtual "hand" (which the player controls with the glove) can be seen in the games TV display. At first glance, it's hard to imagine the new interface actually being superior to the old, but you just don't know until you've tried it. But one couldn't help but be impressed by a mass-market application of such a recent technology.
Friday Afternoon, 23 February 1990
Disney: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
A team from Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) (from top to bottom in the photo: Marty Sklar, Stanley Silverberg, Tony Baxter, Bob Weis, and Craig Wilson) began the afternoon session. It was a long session, but enjoyable and probably the best demonstration of the integration of technology, entertainment, and design that we would witness at the conference. indeed, one could almost say that Imagineering equals T.E.D. The Disney presentation began with Marty Sklar, President of WDI. Sklar has been with the Disney people since 1956, and many of the exhibits and attractions you may have enjoyed at Disney theme parks were his projects. Sklar showed film clips of Walt Disney and some early animation examples. He spoke about Disney's vision, about his genius, his attention to detail. "It's kind of fun to do the impossible," he used to tell people. (Exactly what Bran Ferren is doing today, I might add.)
Disney would put on a hat and tourist clothes and mingle with regular paying guests around the park. Know your audience, he used to say. Sklar related one story in which Disney, riding on Twain's steamboat, spotted Sklar and a colleague in a car within eyeshot of the guests. Disney later scolded them, asking, "what's a car doing in Frontierland in 1881?" I kept thinking, this is just like in the movie Westworld . . .
We were shown clips of the vast Glendale, CA offices and studios of Walt Disney Imagineering. Fifteen hundred individuals and growing all the time: engineers, programmers, directors, cinematographers, puppeteers, artists. The integrated T.E.D. business exists today, and it is called Walt Disney Imagineering.
What really knocked everyone out was Sklar's surprise: "Imagineers? Give me a castle!" he announced, followed by a click of the fingers, and voila! The Steinbeck Auditorium turned into the inside of a dingy castle, the stage a dungeon with skeletons hanging from the walls. It's all an illusion: various projections onto the various walls around and above the auditorium. But the edges of the projected images are fuzzy, not at all like the rectangle of a photographic slide. So the effect is convincing, although the various paintings on this virtual "set" are slightly abstract. The Disney group seemed to be saying, "hey, folks, we've had Virtual Reality for years, and with our stuff you don't need eye-phones."
Sklar says, "No, that's not what I meant, I mean a castle!" and snaps his fingers again. Voila! The auditorium has suddenly become a medieval, Tudor-style fortress. We marvel at the detail of the projected images: the two small real-life stairways, one extreme stage right, the other extreme stage left, now magically have bannisters along their walls.
Slowly the mind takes it all in. The detail is exquisite: even the real-life double-door exists around the auditorium are now double-doors in a castle wall with watchtowers above. High above the stage appear ornamental frescoes, in the center of which there's a black area, surrounded by ornamental, curved frames. Picture the old MGM roaring lion logo that plays at the beginning of MGM films. Except, without the lion. Other black spots, "windows", I surmise, for other projections yet to come, I suspect, are present above the exit doors.
You feel like you're in Shakespeare's Old Globe. Only, after a while, you feel like you're in Disneyland. Ah. Only then do you start to catch on. But fight the urge to return to the real world, to return to adulthood: set free the child inside you, relax, and enjoy.
The presentation continues. We hear about current Disney projects, the most ambitious of which must be the new "EuroDisney" extravaganza being built outside Paris. A projected image of Sklar suddenly appears in the little black spot high above the stage. He introduces the next speaker in this Disney bunch, one Stanley "Mickey" Steinberg, Executive Vice President of WDI. Stanley can't make it to TED2, Sklar's projected image tells us, as he's busy in Europe working on construction of EuroDisneyland. So we watch a prepared videotape in which Stanley talks about the technical details of creating Disney theme parks. The engineering of crowd flow. The number of feet that walk across a bridge per hour. The concept of landmarks, islands -- centers of gravity -- so essential to Disney's overall plan. Things like Space Mountain, Sleeping Beauty's Castle. The Matterhorn. All large landmarks that give the patrons a better sense of location. Main Street USA: the entrance to DisneyWorld. Direct the audience to the castle in the distance. As these Imagineers revealed their secrets to the TED2 audience, I kept thinking about the huge effort that's undertaken every hour of every day, year in, year out, to keep up the fantasy. Manipulate the environment, manipulate the patrons. Keep 'em happy, and they'll keep on comin'.
Another Imagineer, a theatre director/actor/designer/writer named Craig Wilson, is introduced next (by yet another projected image of Skaler in yet another "window" in our fantasy castle wall). Craig speaks about the actors and entertainers who roam, in character, the "streets" of the new MGM/Disney theme park in Orlando. This theme park is designed to re-create the Hollywood of the '30s and '40s. That is, it's designed to perpetuate the myth of the early Hollywood decades.
What struck me about the new MGM facility is that it pays homage to the film medium by offering various "rides" through various famous scenes in various famous movies But the scenes aren't on screen, they're acted out by a combination of special effects, robots (or as Disney calls them, "animatronics"), and live actors. We were shown several snippets of these new film rides and I must say, I found the whole concept contradictory and an enormous waste. To top it all off, we were shown the new Indiana Jones thrills'n'spills attaction, an outdoor blockbuster which again uses live actors, special effects, music, lights, and action to re-enact various scenes out of the Indy trilogy. They've even got the huge round rock which rolls after an Indy look-alike and in which Indy just barely escapes. Day in, day out. Thousands of guests see this show each day. I believe he quoted something like 5 million attendance for this new theme park in its first year.
The ultimate in overkill was yet to come. We were then shown clips of the engineering and construction of Catastrophe Canyon, Disney's answer to University City Studios' Earthquake! attraction. Catastrophe Canyon is designed to put patrons in as close to real life danger as possible, without actually putting them in any real-life danger. What does this amount to? Riding in specially-designed rail-cars, patrons are rolled into a vast outside special effects set, with enormous balls of flame (which ignite close enough for you to feel the heat) and seventy-thousand gallons of water crashing down from up high. You, the patron, are supposed to be thrilled at the imminent danger of it all. As we watch filmed reactions of guests during the roaring, blasting, and crashing water sequence, and then see one particular shot of a kid crying in his mother's arms, Wilson confesses to the TED2 assembly, in a rare moment of gritty honesty, the Disney facade removed, "if they cry you get a bonus." Howls and hisses from the audience. The business side of show business rears its ugly head and then subsides, and the Disney facade is facade is back.
The Imagineering presentation gave us a glimpse of what Disney is all about: big thrills, big spills, big smiles, and big bucks.
The Reluctant Architect
Frank O. Gehry, the next presenter, is a world-renowned architect, and winner of last year's Pritzker Prize, the "Nobel Prize" equivalent for architects. Gehry showed slides of his work (and, as was the case throughout the conference, the slide projectors and remote controls Gehry used were embarrassingly unreliable): work ranging from furniture to dynamic buildings (buildings that change their floor-plan every now and then so it's a new experience every time you go down the hall to get a cup of coffee).
In the 60's, Gehry created a series of furniture pieces, among them chairs, which sprung a whole new modern style for furniture. Gehry didn't want to be in the furniture business, and he was shocked by his rising fame for designing chairs and other pieces. It got so out of hand (i.e., he was making so much money) that he deliberately began creating ugly, nonfunctional chairs made out of wooden nail files, corrugated cardboard, and various plastic/metal rubbish from the trash can. Reminded me of a certain "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy wears burlap fabric and to her surprise, it becomes the latest fashion.
Gehry came across as the kind of guy who, like some other presenters before him, is continually amazed by the commissions he receives for creating artifacts which, like Lucy's burlap dress, become the latest craze. He showed slides of his "fish period", during which he designed buildings or walk-through museum structures which give you the feeling you're walking inside of a fish: the bowed ribs to either side of you, the scaly exterior, the curved walls. I kept thinking, this guy's very skeptical of his own work. What does that say about the work?
Perhaps most intriguing was his design for a building covered on the exterior by liquid crystal, so that it could actually change its appearance suddenly. Every time you'd come to work, the building would look different! LCD's have some toxic substances in them, he learned, and the building owners might have to put signs out warning people not to eat the building . . .
(((It turns out that the TED conference website has a single video from TED2. It's Frank Gehry's talk. Here it is, the whole thing. - bd 2012)))
The Schedule Veers Off Path
Because of Peter Bradford's A/V mishaps earlier, the rest of the conference was re-arranged rather abruptly. It was hard to know who was to speak next. We were surprised to learn that Ted Nelson and Nicholas Negroponte were the next two speakers. Both were scheduled for Saturday, but not any more. Two of the most eagerly-awaited speakers were shuffled about apparently without much thought as to how it affected attendee's schedules. At one point, Richard Wurman, speaking at the podium, acknowledged the fact that the schedule changes were inconvenient and confusing, but then announced that TED2 was "our" (the conference chairs') conference, and that "we can do whatever we want." Never mind the fact that attendees had to pay $695 each (that's $1390 for Pat and I, and that didn't include food and lodging) to be here.
(((My oh my, how whiny. And to think I was complaining in 1990 about a TED conference whose admission price was $695. Well, I suppose $695 was a lot then. How far we've come (or is it, how far we've stooped) that the price for attending TED today is what, $8000? It's like a one-percenters-only event now, and they're plenty glad to attend, it seems. - bd 2012)))
Many, Pat and I included, had taken the conference program as gospel. We planned our entire stay around the program: when we could go out to lunch or dinner, when we could meet with people to demo our COCONET system, when one of us could skip a presenter and the other attend to take notes. But from now on, who was next to speak was anyone's guess.
For a conference which prided itself in the quality of design, the scrambled conference program came as a great surprise. Even more surprising was the fact that the conference coordinators never issued revised programs. Remember: this was a conference with every kind of Mac and NeXT and LaserWriter and desktop publishing program you would ever want. Heck, Adobe was there in full force with a roomful of its own Macs and even a QMS color laser printer. The TED2 people should have kept up their image and quickly run off 500 new programs reflecting the new changes in schedule. Alas, it never happened. More about the conference program booklet later.
The Frustrated Hypertect
(((What is really key to appreciating this next section is understanding that there was no World Wide Web in February 1990; Tim Berners-Lee wouldn't announce it until December of that year. And when he did "announce" it, it was to a USENET newsgroup -- it's not like the world stood up and took notice. That wouldn't happen for four years more. So for Ted Nelson's 1990 talk, the context is key. No web. Barely much of an Internet. One of the biggest hopes for something, anything, along the lines of a hypertext future rested with none other than Ted Nelson. A wild and crazy character, as you'll see; he was kind of at his peak right around this time. His Xanadu project was looming and hopeful still. It was all not to be, but he put on quite a show at this TED2 conference. - bd 2012)))
Ted Nelson was next at bat, and I don't think anyone was prepared for what would be an absolutely stunning performance. Wearing black pants, boots, chains, and a bright red shirt with huge baggy sleeves, he looked like a Pirate right out of Penzance.
He took no time to get right to the heart of the matter. Grasping the cordless mike with the showbiz confidence of a televangelist, he walked away from the podium, out onto the stage, and began: "You know," he said, "I would have preferred to speak after Nicholas Negroponte so I could rebut him." The audience roared. He continued, now and then smoothing his back his whiff of bright yellow hair, saying how pissed he was with the way things were going so far with this conference. How he'd had to sit through some of the most "self-referential" crap he'd ever heard.
Only thirty seconds into his lecture and already the audience was his. Under his complete control. Scold us, Ted. Tell us what we need to hear. What no-one else will have the guts (gall?) to say.
Nelson described his upbringing. The child of show business parents, he confessed his frustration in getting encouragement and support from his father: "My father asked me, 'what do you want to do with your life? You seem to have interests in lots of different areas.' To which I replied, 'I want to do it all.' My father looked at me, and said, 'Fuck you.'" After which, Nelson asked the audience to please love their children, encourage them.
He described his introduction to computers. Prior to that introduction, he'd thought of entering show business. But when he saw what one could do with a computer combined with output on a screen, aha!, he told us, he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
Ted Nelson is a frustrated man. As the minutes raced by, and as he paced back and forth across the stage, his hands waving, his voice now shouting, now speaking softly, the swashbuckling, the Shakespeare . . . you knew this man was angry. The idea for hypertext begun in 1960 -- yet even 30 years later his ideas have had little impact.
He openly complained at the industry's embracing Alan Kay's ideas and Nicholas Negroponte's ideas, compared to the relative failure of his own ideas to catch on.
In contrast to every other TED2 presenter, both previous and subsequent, Ted used hand-drawn illustrations. His slides were like overhead transparencies: simple phrases written with magic markers in various colors to emphasize points. It was cheap but it worked.
He described his encounters at a 1964 IEEE meeting where he urged the computer people to incorporate lower-case letters into their systems. "Lower case? Why would anyone ever want lower case?" they told him.
He complained about WYSIWYG (see his book Computer Lib/Dream Machines for the complete argument); he complained about the Macintosh; he complained about the Desktop metaphor; he complained about Sculley's Knowledge Navigator (lamenting that the yuppie professor in the film clip was a real imbecile); he complained about integrated software packages like Framework, Enable, Symphony; calling them combinations of hamburger, fries, and a milkshake -- fast-food software, not cuisine.
He expressed his confusion as to why anyone would pay more for a car than a computer. He repeated his oft-cited point about manual transmissions versus automatics (how can you call yourself an interface designer if you drive a manual-shift car?).
He complained about CD-ROM: that now, companies were releasing 650 megabytes of information that you could browse and retrieve freely. His complaint: information isn't free, so you aren't. That the CD-ROM publisher controls what gets put on the CD-ROM. That it's one point of view, no matter how easily you can browse and dissect the information on the CD. His solution? Xanadu. Multiple inputs, multiple outputs, multiple points of view, more learned users, more educated societies, more safe world.
Rushed for time, he hurriedly explained his Xanadu project, illustrating points on a tear-sheet (again, the only presenter to use such a "primitive" A/V device, but at least it worked: another subtle comment from Nelson, perhaps?) and summarizing his original "zipper" theory, described in full detail in his Literary Machines and Computer Lib/Dream Machines book. Read his books; a brief description could not begin to explain his hypertext concept clearly.
Nelson spoke of his hope for getting Xanadu released in the next year or two. He spoke as if AutoDesk, which is the current backer of Xanadu, was fully confident in his dream. His concept is exciting, but exotic. It remains to be seen if it will work.
He ended with a plea: that the planet needs us, that the planet is not well. That we're not going to get anywhere with this technology if all we care about is getting rich and lusting after BMWs. That democracy will fail unless pluralistic, multiple-points-of-view systems such as Xanadu are implemented. He begged us to help him realize his dream, or, alluding to the Wizard of Oz, we won't be able to get back to Kansas.
The audience (minus Negroponte) gave him a long standing ovation. The first at TED2, and, as first, probably the most important and most deserving.
On Thursday, John Sculley had played a videotape of Apple's famous "1984" Macintosh commercial. I could now see Sculley in a different light: I could see him as the propagandist in the commercial, as the demagogue at the pulpit, proclaiming The Way It Will Be, According To Apple. the corporate behemoth that the Apple ad intended to ridicule was still there. It wasn't just IBM, it was Apple too.
I could now see that Ted Nelson was the new athlete running into the hall, his words his hammer, now hurled at the Mac, at Multi-Media, at Technology as the solver of all problems, at interactive video, at CD-ROM. The Message? "On February 23, Tel Nelson introduced Xanadu. So that the 1990s won't be like the 1980s."
The Man from the Media Lab
(((A quick note. This is about Nicholas Negroponte, the founding director of the MIT Media Lab. In 1987, Stewart Brand published a book called "The Media Lab", which I vividly remember picking up at a Palo Alto bookstore a few hours before I was to interview John Seeley Brown at Xerox PARC for my book. In the parking lot I had a few minutes to start reading Brand's book and I found it unbelievably exciting. Only two other technology-related things had gotten me this excited before: PLATO and the Mac. Now Brand's book comes out and I can't believe how cool all the things the Media Lab are doing. I was all fired up when I went into the interview. Anyways, I don't really explain much about the book below because Stewart Brand was known to all WELL users and was a WELL user himself, and they all knew what I was talking about. - bd 2012)))
Two-parter: first a brief summary of what TML is doing these days. Having read "The Media Lab," which was published in 1987, I didn't hear much that was new. More advances in holography, more work being done with machines that try to listen and write music, more video work. But nothing revolutionary. Perhaps I've expected too much from the Media Lab. or perhaps I fell for the "demos," thinking they were the Real Thing.
Indeed, I found Negroponte's nothing-new Media Lab summary rather surprising. Where did the future go? It is already here? Hmm. Did I miss something? It can't be already here, because all the "stuff" ain't working yet. Perhaps the book spoiled me. Perhaps it's no longer exciting because it's no longer novel. Perhaps, I kept thinking, we've reached the hard part -- of getting all of TML's nifty concepts and projects implemented in the world in such a way as to beneficially change people's lives. The ideas are out on the table, and now it's a matter of finding money and talent and support for getting them implemented.
He chose to concentrate on the future of television, specifically, HDTV. It was clear that he and his cohorts at TML think HDTV is a Very Bad Thing. And that TML has a Better Idea, but can't seem to find sufficient money, talent, and support to make their idea acceptable in Congress and to TV makers in Tokyo.
He showed a slide depicting the trend that everything that is now cabled over land will move underground, and everything that is now cabled underground, will be transmitted over land. Telephone, broadcast television, cable TV, radio, etc.
He described one project that TML has been working on. One that, backed with gobs of computing horsepower, "watches" the TV program, sense changes in the image contents, compresses the images where necessary, and sends information to the viewer's TV (which, of course, is also equipped with gobs of computing horsepower) to decode the image and present it on the screen. Sounds great, and I'm sure it would work. But I am not so sure that the industry and the politicians will go along with it. Maybe it's too far-fetched to some. Let's see a working example, Media Labbers.
On a side note, Sony had a conference suite at TED2, continuously demonstrating HDTV. Unfortunately, they brought a red-green-blue projection-based system with a reflective screen, rather than bringing their single, solid-state unit that was demonstrated at Hackers 5.0 conference and elsewhere. The TED2 machine didn't impress me at all, whereas the Hackers machine blew me away. Enough said.
Well, one more thing: it's interesting that Sony doesn't have anything interesting in the way of programming to demo. I saw the same tape of nature landscapes and closeups that was shown at Hackers. Crystal clear, sure, but boring. Even if the machine blew wind in your face when you saw pictures of grassland meadows, it still wouldn't be interesting. Come on, Sony, show something more interesting. How about an HDTV tape of 2001?
Negroponte complained about the poor choice of words for naming the next generation of TV: particularly, "high definition". What does "definition" mean, in this context, he wanted to know.
Negroponte tried to explain that the HDTV issue is a political one and not a rational one. That it is trying to define an American standard and combat a perceived Japanese economic threat. At one point, he told us a short story, one which I found quite educational and revealing. He found that at a recent get-together of American corporate representatives and politicians, meeting to discuss the HDTV issue, this preoccupation with foreign competition (Japanese competition in particular) was distracting everyone from the real issue: what to do with TV programming. He described how he was struck by the irony of seeing this group of American businessmen and politicians sit around talking about how we've got to keep building and buying American, all the while seeing them drinking from bottles of imported Evian water! He complained that the problem with TV is not one of display resolution, but program quality. A complaint, it seemed to me, that was being ignored by the industry and by the politicians. He asserted that the current NTSC standard is fine, and that most people are amazed when submitted to the video equivalent of Coke vs. Pepsi test: "true NTSC," when placed side-by-side with "street NTSC" (my term, for lack of a better one: I mean here the video quality you see on the average TV set) is still viable and of surprisingly high quality. Can people really tell the difference between "true NTSC" and HDTV, assuming you ignore the aspect ratio difference? Negroponte would argue that most people cannot. (I certainly can, despite what Negroponte says: I want 70mm cinemascope super-hi resolution crystal-clear sensurround quadrophonic television and until I get it I won't be happy. Of course, I must concede that it would be nice to have some decent programming on such a TV. However, if someone made -- or if I could make -- digitally remastered, stereo versions of the seventy-odd original episodes of Star Trek, I'd be happy!)
I left Negroponte's presentation thinking: I'm glad Negroponte's taking the stand he's taking. I agree with his concern that the future of TV from an engineering side. I'm glad to know someone in his position, someone with his visibility, is trying to explain to the industry and to Congress that we have to be very careful with how we move television into the twenty-first century: that if we're not careful, if we go with HDTV, America may very well severely jeopardize, perhaps lose, that which it is trying to save.
The MIDI Magician.
Herbie Hancock started late. He was supposed to start at 8:00pm, but things didn't begin until some two hours later. Problems with the technology, of course. Evidently Hancock's 1984 presentation at TED-1 also began late. When the crowd was finally allowed in, there was Herbie, up on stage, surrounded by MIDI keyboards, samplers, audio mixers, amplifiers, aural exciters, equalizers, and lots of other 'ers. And they weren't all working.
Herbie and an assistant were stuck with a bug somewhere in their complex electronic rig. Tonight he was running his MIDI equipment with fiber optic cables. For the first time. Brand new stuff. Very fast, he would tell us.
For about five minutes it was interesting to watch Hancock and his assistant trying to figure out what was wrong with the machines. After that it was no longer interesting, but it was refreshing. Refreshing to see that world-class musicians of Hancock's caliber have to struggle with debugging their equipment the same as the rest of us.
After many more minutes of waiting, the lights were dimmed, and Hancock left the stage, then re-emerged, after a warm introduction by Harry Marks, to begin his presentation. He sat on his swivel chair behind a bunker of electronic gadgetry.
Behind him were an IBM AT and an Apple Macintosh. To his right stodd a six-foot-high equipment rack full of extremely expensive digital music computers. To his left stodd a smaller rack with more equipment.
The thing I like about MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is that it's Christmastime all year round: MIDI stuff has more flashing, beeping, boinging, burping, blinking LEDs, LCDs, and other lights and indicators than any other kind of electronic gadget I'm aware of, save, perhaps the instrument panels on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.
Don't get me wrong: I like all the beeping, blinking, and flashing that comes out of these boxes. So what that they've got very little to do with the music. Once you get these boxes debugged -- once they're hummin' -- you really don't care what the lights are doing. You rely on your ears. You're supposed to be making music, after all. So why not just have racks full of black boxes, each simply featuring an on/off switch in front? My response: where's the fun in that?
Herbie is cool. Dresses cool. Makes cool music. He's enthusiastic about the technology. The kind of enthusiasm that's catchy: here's an extremely creative and talented musician who has, whether he likes it or not, become the Test Pilot of the Electronic Music Age. The Chuck Yeager of MIDI. He spends his fortunes on the latest MIDI equipment. Says that to keep up with the new tech, he's got to update his equipment every three months. He clearly loves MIDI, and he's trying to find out how these new devices can expand his musical horizons -- how they can make ideas into sounds.
He'd just come from LA, where a couple of days earlier he'd been at the Grammys ceremony. Hancock had won an Oscar last year for best soundtrack, for the movie Round Midnight. During his presentation, he showed a clip from a more recent film he scored, Harlem Nights. Working with the Mac, he called up some musical commands which instructed the MIDI devices to boom, bop, beep, and sing. MIDI sequencing software, this stuff is called. The computer equivalent of player-piano paper scrolls: bits and bytes replacing the punched holes. Send a stream of commands to your MIDI gadgets, and they come to life, creating sounds or beats or tempos with super-human perfection and accuracy.
Perfection and accuracy -- when machines are in charge of these things, you've got to be careful: you can ruin music. Music is organized sound. When the organization gets too perfect, you lose something vital. Herbie clearly knows this, and he's trying to figure out how to keep the music alive after it passes through a million miles of wire. And he's succeeding.
Herbie's presentation was mostly extemporaneous. He wanted to give us an idea as to what can be done musically with MIDI. After all, almost all of the music you hear on the radio, and more and more of the music you hear in movies, comes from MIDI equipment. There's a revolution taking place in music, and MIDI is taking over, and that's that. So what can we do creatively with this stuff?
Some people in the audience were not happy with the way things were going. Herbie made it clear at the outset that tonight's presentation was exactly that -- a presentation, a demonstration -- not a performance. Some people could not deal with that. At one point a heckler in the audience rudely yelled out "PLAY THAT FUNKY MUSIC!" It made Pat and I and others in the seats around us angry. Who let this jerk in? Too much wine at dinner or something?
Herbie handled the heckler quickly and firmly: this is not a concert. I'm not here to play songs. If you want to see me in concert, come see me in concert. I do concerts all the time. Tonight is for talking about MIDI and what we can do with this technology. We cheered.
For a few more minutes, Herbie continued talking about the equipment, describing what each device does, and how it creates or affects the sounds you hear. Again out of the blue someone from the audience interrupted him, this time asking a technical question about MIDI. Someone in the audience groaned at how things were starting to fall apart. And in a way, they did; Herbie tried to answer the guy's question, but then was faced with more questions. After that, the presentation turned into a question-and-answer session for pretty much the rest of the night.
Thinking back on it, it was probably best that it could have happened. It's hard to talk about music, MIDI, and technology, to an audience of several hundred people, all of whom come from different musical tastes, and so on. So the audience took over, and for much of the rest of the evening, led the way.
Thinking of posting a comment to this blog entry? That's nice. But please note: As of January 19. 2014, I no longer review comments. So they will never appear. So don't bother. If you want to comment on something you read here, go to twitter and write your comment there and just include "@brianstorms" in the tweet. I am no longer moderating the comments here; I just assume everything is spam and Intense Debate seems to have abandoned support for its product.
Copyright © 2002-2014 Birdrock Digital. brianstorms is a trademark of Birdrock Digital.