MEMORY AND HOPE (1966-2006)_

_Tom Sherman_

[this is a text adaptation of a presentation given under the title,
"Emerging Technologies: options for the near future", at the New York
State Media Festival, held at Syracuse University, Syracuse, New York,
April 1996]

_Sherman:_ We inhabit an increasingly complicated technological world. We
are willing participants in the creation of a second nature. While the
biological world is collapsing, we are busy constructing an elaborate
media environment. As a means of describing and coping with this second
nature, it is useful to apply biological language to our post-biological
cultures. This cross-disciplinary language is everywhere these days. For
example, I'm involved in a think-tank initiated by Ars Electronica in
Linz, Austria--our work is culminating in a symposium called "Memesis: the
Future of Evolution". The way we're using the metaphor of memesis should
be pretty well fleshed out on-line by the time you read this text. Check
out the Ars Electronica Memesis website at: <>


The main idea of Memesis is that the future of evolution will be cultural.
Memes, instead of genes, are and will continue to be the basic building
blocks of our evolution. Memes are ideas or concepts (patterns of
cognitive behavior), or simply the way things look or sound or feel. The
concept of the meme was launched by Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary
biologist at Oxford University. In his book "The Selfish Gene", 1976,
Oxford University Press, he suggests that living organisms are nothing
more than survival machines, subservient to their genes. Genes will or
will not survive depending on the bodies they construct. The genes are in
the driver's seat. We exist to permit them to replicate. They build our
bodies, the vehicles for their mobility and reproduction. These bodies
are phenotypes, the physical presence of the gene as it interacts with the
environment. And these bodies create extended phenotypes: in other
species extended phenotypes are things like birds' nests, beavers' dams;
or in the case of humans, extended phenotypes include architecture, art,
transportation and communication technology... Extended phenotypes are
part of the story of natural selection.

Language springs forth from our bodies as protomemetic soundings. Memes
are cultural building blocks, the message forms and contents at the very
base of our cultures. Video and film and digital media genres are memes
and they too can be said to share the ultimate goal of replication and
survival. We build organizations and networks around these memes to
facilitate their propagation and replication. Media production co-ops,
exhibition sites or distribution systems can be seen as survival
mechanisms for the memes themselves. The memes drive the phenotypes
through languages (protomemes) into extended phenotypes, the cultural
infrastructure of the organizations and the networks.

Memes are also the basic units of cultural inheritance. They are our
thoughts, ideas, images and sounds, carried by our appearances and voices.
Emerging from our meme pools, dominant memes are driving our phenotypes
into a state of hyper-phenotopia. Our extended phenotypes are becoming
more and more extensive and interwoven. The continuous evolution of our
extended phenotypical environment becomes particularly apparent in
emerging technologies.

Emerging technologies are the new 'species' of extended phenotypes. The
development of the phenotypical environment can be seen as a survival
strategy for the dominant memes of our times. Obsolete technologies
falter and fall away as emerging technologies move in and spread. Memes
are altered as they are forced to compete with other memes in the cultural
environment. They adapt, or they disappear.

The protomemetic energy of language stirs the meme pools. Memory is the
essence of who we are: the present and past combined. Memory is order
and certainty. It is controllable through revision. Hope is the future,
the unknown, the dream and/or the nightmare. We hope to envision what the
future will bring. Our extended phenotypes are right in front of us.
Emerging technologies point the way to the future.

Why are we so motivated to find out what tomorrow will bring? Most
technology futures are in the stock markets. People play the future
hoping to make money. If money's not your game, you may simply want to
make sure you're not outflanked, exploited and destroyed. Or more
optimistically, you may wish to seek ways to fulfill your memetic
potential as a person/machine entity. Machines R Us. People look to the
future so they may seize opportunities as they arise.


There are a number of ways of predicting the future. None of them are
foolproof. One good rule of thumb is to look back 30 years for every 10
you try to look ahead. Time is a continuum. If we drop back to 1966 and
trace a somewhat wiggly line to the present, then we should be able to
extend that line 10 years into the future, right around the corner, to the
year 2006.

In 1966 we were living with minimal cable TV and wobbly satellites.
Computers were strictly for calculating, but there were already lots of
cartoons about thinking machines. By 1969 the U.S. Defense Department had
set up its own computer net, ARPA Net. Sony introduced Betamax video in
1972 and VHS emerged shortly after. In 1980 Turner fired up CNN, the
first 24-hour news net. In the early 1980's IBM introduced its first
personal computer (1981) and the U.S. government created NSFnet (National
Science Foundation Net, 1983), the germ of the Internet. In 1989 the
World Wide Web was created in Geneva, Switzerland. In 1993 Bell Core
transmitted full-motion video over standard twisted pair telephone wires.

Artists during this stretch were busy, desperately engineering their own
kind of memes or at least they were trying to serve, conserve and preserve
the interests and integrity of waves of naturally emerging alternative
memes. After a decade of abstract expressionism by alcoholic men, around
1963 advertising spilled over into fine art with Pop Art and then there
was one last gasp of modernism, an attempt to separate art from the world
at large again: minimalism and conceptual art.


By 1969-72 video art was finding life-support on a growing equipment base
and it rose quickly with the energy of the sixties and the desire for
peace, along with environmental and feminist concerns. By the mid-70's
women made up half of the video and performance artists in the Western
World. Then in the 1980's art became all tangled up in entertainment and
things were so fucked up for a while that painting as a real-estate
business actually made a comeback. First artists were critical of
entertainment, wanting only to inhabit its seductive forms to attract and
subvert an audience. But unfortunately many artists became
indistinguishable from entertainers. This was supposed to be a strategy
for survival, but it has left most artists beached and endangered in the
1990's. In the Information Era, information is a commodity and art is
linked with entertainment. In the emerging information economy, art has
been pigeonholed as nothing more than difficult entertainment.

Dropping back to consider our recent history in more detail, let me say
that I've been tracking the relationships of artists and art to emerging
technologies since the early 1970's. As an artist I hitched a ride on the
emergence of video but couldn't help but notice the digital rhetoric
rising to the surface between 1972-74. I remember how all the
shortcomings of analog video were addressed by a then inevitable but still
inconceivable digital future. There was a lot of speculation about
analog-to-digital conversion, mostly to improve editing and dubbing, and
therefore the reproduction or perhaps more correctly the replication of
our messages.

The socio-political drive during the 70's was to gain access to the means
of production, distribution and exhibition: access to equipment,
distribution systems and exhibition sites (i.e. audiences). Our memes,
which carried different values than the predominant memes of mass or
popular culture, could not survive without a contemporary media
environment of extended phenotypes. Meanwhile, our societies' predominant
array of extended phenotypes were transforming from analog to digital.


By the end of the seventies a minority of artists had made the compromises
necessary to gain access to digital technologies. They had either become
researchers or mascots (creative types, the fashionably hip) for
governments or corporations. They had gained access to the digital
technologies that only governments and corporations could provide. In
1979 I was working on a contract with TV Ontario in Toronto, conducting
research for a television series called "Fast Forward". "Fast Forward"
dealt with how the emergence of digital technologies would affect various
sectors of society. My contract was for the development of the episode on
the arts. After talking to literally hundreds of people on the phone and
examining the video they sent us, the program ended up featuring Steina
and Woody Vasulka, Kit Galloway and Sheri Rabinowitz, Richard Lowenberg,
and Laurie Anderson, among many others. The buzzwords of the day were
_real-time digital_. The visual artists envied the musicians and
composers because digital audio, with its relatively modest bandwidth,
could already be made and shared in real-time. The hope was for real-time
digital multimedia including a _live_ visual, moving image component.

Throughout the eighties I was privileged to watch things develop as an
official in The Canada Council, Canada's national arts funding agency. We
launched the Computer-Integrated Media grant program in 1983, anticipating
the importance of the digital arts. In 1986 I was also involved in
curating digital works for a major exhibition, "Art, Technology and
Informatics", at the Venice Biennale. This show featured an international
network of communications artists, artists who had worked collaboratively
in global networking as an end in itself for years. Real-time digital had
arrived, somewhat lamely in the form of low-resolution slow- scan video,
decent audio (over standard phonelines) and shared-screen text and drawing
experiments. The whole Venice exhibition was organized and held together
by an e-mail network based on a commercial business network called the
I.P.Sharp Associates system that had been used quite extensively, prior to
widespread use of the internet, by telecom artists since the early 80's.

To get a perspective on how much as happened since this Venice show in
1986, fax machines were still relatively rare during this period. Artists
were still going to a lot of trouble organizing collaborative city-to-city
fax exchange shows using donated, then still expensive, fax machines.
This same year the prices of fax machines plunged and there was an
astonishingly rapid assimilation of telefacsimile technology throughout
the telephonic world.

By the end of the 1980's there had been major advances in personal
computing and networking and remote sensing, optical memory, robotics,
smart systems and artificial intelligence. There was an explosion in the
complexity and power of our extended phenotypes. Primitive forms of
artificial life were beginning to emerge (the first digital technologies
in the form of life-forms). While this was a period of exotic
technological change, artists and arts organizations were becoming very
interested in rather ordinary things, like computer databases. While
building databases appeared pedestrian and hopeless, this was smarter work
than it seemed at the time. Only those whom would get their data
organized would be prepared for the browsing public. To restate the
obvious: art will become difficult entertainment in the Information Era.

Another type of artists were obsessed with inventing new technology to
suit their needs. These were the hands-on inventor types. Digital
tool-making was and still is a popular preoccupation with several artists.
Process has replaced product, except where tools are concerned. This is
an R&D role for creative entrepreneurial types. There are big bucks in
tools: hardware, software and all future in-between-ware. Sophisticated
multi-media emerged integrating light and sound, dance and music and
images, canned and live images simultaneously. Multimedia linked the
statistical and anecdotal, and the virtual and real. Unfortunately the
technologies reinforce, if not create, a class system where the
tool-makers are more often thought of as professionals and the tool-users
as amateurs.


This takes us up to the present, so now we can look out into the future.
I've organized my thinking on the near future by borrowing heavily from
John Pavlik's "New Media and the Information Superhighway", 1996, Allyn
and Bacon. I have of course distorted his ideas to suit my somewhat more
intuitive approach. We are still chasing the dream of real-time digital,
but we are getting closer and closer. While we continue to spend too much
time waiting for files to download and unpack, the gap is closing.
Digital media are beginning to behave like analog media. The next big
breakthrough will be _video dial tone_. We'll just order movies at home
using computers connected by phonelines. Movies will be digitized and
loaded onto video servers and true video-on-demand will be a reality.
This is one major part of the information market the Baby Bells want to
capture. To make video-on-demand work they will have offer full control
on the user-end: play, fast forward, rewind, stop, pause... This, the
Baby Bell executives tell us, will be the era of the 25 cent movies (talk
is cheap while the systems are still just hype). But the message is: do
not buy stock in chains of video-movie rental stores.


With corporations the scale and influence of Microsoft and AT&T involved
in fusing telephone, broadcasting, publishing and cable into one industry,
25 cent movies will eventually compete with 15 cent stock market tips and
5 cent glimpses of our favorite body types. The main challenge for the
information consumer is and will continue to be coping with abundance.
There will be a need for personal informational services, navigational and
preference enforcing tools. Personal digital appliances, multiple
generations beyond the Apple Newton, will become important survival tools.

Besides just coping with abundance and managing to shovel through all the
crap to find useful information, what emerging technologies will be useful
for independent, alternative media producers in the near future? The
answer is that all extended phenotypes are and will be potentially
important for memetic replication and survival. Just survey the media
environment to find a place to play. Look at what's happening on desktops
alone! Desktop publishing. Desktop video. The desktop darkroom, sound
studio, radio station, video performance cabaret... The virtual city and
countryside on a desktop... Network your desktops.

In coping with abundance there is a lot of thought and programming going
into intelligent agents, personal artificially-intelligent assistants that
learn by observation, make decisions, filter incoming information, select
and model data for their owners. Artists could devise agents that
perceive and conceptualize life as art. Artists will create intelligent
agents that control and destroy stereotypical traps and force their owners
to stick to the high road of prototypical and atypical perceptions,
expressions and lifestyles.


Information graphics will continue to be a huge growth area. People will
need to be able to SEE patterns and relationships in complex fields of
data. Sonification, the depiction of visual information in sonic forms,
also has potential, as do 3-D and virtual environments. All kinds of
sensory translations, sensory dimension shifts and perceptual jacking will
be useful in refreshing and rehabilitating the numb and burned out masses
in our societies. Artists will have an edge in transposing, transmutating
and transmorgrifying (to alter radically with humorous or grotesque
effects) data and information.

With the development of computer-network transactional services (home
shopping, travel reservations, banking and bill paying), it is conceivable
that all information transactions will be logged and be subjected to
billing. Cultural, and even eventually perceptual transactions, will be
quantified and metered by time and bandwidth. Art and culture on the Net
will produce income for artists when the value of the information becomes

Encryption, securing the privacy of messages and nature of information
consumption, will be a major area of concern. As people are given the
option of selecting highly personalized information interactively,
personal-info consumption profiles will be very revealing. Privacy issues
will become paramount, especially as the idea of information moves away
from facts and begins to reflect emotional realities. Info-consumers, no
matter how demanding, will not want to flaunt their emotional needs and
desires. Artists, experienced in surviving the expression of emotional
needs and desires, may offer protection for the overly exposed. Aesthetic
coding, as a means of obscuring the explicitness of emotional causality,
may become far more interesting to a broader public as the demand for
privacy and encryption increases.


The above speculation questions how emerging technologies may be used by
artists for their survival. As artists we have our own memes to replicate
and pretending that we can ignore the digital revolution is useful only
for temporary psychological relief. Emerging technologies are new
territories, frontiers, where the quick will inherit the ground, if only
to hold it temporarily. Remember, the primary goal is to replicate and
adapt to changes in the environment. And to seek new ground when forced
to move on. And don't forget endangered, obsolete and wholely discarded
technologies. Old media territories can be revitalized and used to
sustain endangered ideas and emotions. Territory is territory in the
survival game and technologies seldom become extinct, unlike biological
species. Obsolete technologies decrease in monetary value for a time
until they become the terrain of traditional artforms or simply devolve
into antiques. In other words, obsolescing technologies are also shifting
ground, but they're far less volatile and hostile an environment than that
of emerging technologies.


Everyone is threatened by the speed of change these days. Artists should
count their blessings given their highly refined sense of identities,
finely tuned instincts and real skills. The professional sect that
artists have traditionally depended on are in a far more precarious
position these days. The curators, publishers, programmers and
producers--those operating out of institutions and organizations like
museums, galleries, artist-run centers, clubs--these middlemen and
middlewomen, these are the threatened roles in a digital era characterized
by direct marketing, mail-order distribution and desktop dissemination.
The digital force is ultimately desocializing and cultural match-makers
are particularly at risk.

Most emerging technologies are attractive because they offer new degrees
of interactivity. Interactivity, the immediate control of proximity, is
valued highly in cultures obsessed with speed and instant, perhaps
superficial intimacy. Is it any surprise when contemplation and analysis
are ghettoized in shrinking intellectual circles? Theorists like Roy
Ascott in the UK are declaring that the period of analysis of
representation is over and done with. The post- biological universe, our
second nature in all its glory and horror, is under construction and those
who hesitate to don a construction hat will simply have to inhabit someone
else's world. Critical thinking will, of course, continue. To
contextualize and define one's position is an adaptive strategy and is
essential to social engagement.


In concluding this muse on emerging technologies and their potential for
creative people, it is important to understand that the user is always the
content of any new medium. Marshall McLuhan said this first and
Microsoft, AT&T, the Baby Bells and all the thousands of desktop
meme-replicators should keep this in mind whenever they look to create or
inhabit new or obsolescing phenotypical territory. Until such time as
machines themselves are the primary users of emerging technologies (and
unfortunately this is not unimaginable), human needs and desires will
determine the path of technological development. This forty-year growth
cycle of Memory and Hope can be compressed into one primary objective: to
accomplish real-time digital communication and expression. In other
words, to accomplish analog realities using binary code.

So far we have digital technologies for reproducing and permitting more
interactive access to reproductions of analogic experiences. Symbolic
digital communication and expression, such as text and clearly symbolic
image exchange, is possible in real-time digital. Computer music can be
created and shared with an audience in real time, but the actual nature of
digital music is revealing. When was the last time you experienced
satisfying emotional content in a piece of music created with synthesizers
or rhythm machines? The missing content in emerging digital technologies
is human emotion: outrage, anger, isolation, sadness, frustration, anxie,
affection, love. The missing people in the digital world are emotional
people. Their memes do not flourish in the territories of the emerging
technologies. Not yet.

I came to this realization one night while I was surfing the Net, the
realization that the digital culture, as it exists so far, has an
emotional vacuum that far outstrips the content crisis more commonly
decried. I have a CD player in my PC and I was listening to John Coltrane
at pretty high volume under headphones as I experienced the webness of
some new, fully dressed multi-media publications on the World Wide Web. I
was listening to Coltrane's "Expression", a digitally re-mastered set of
recordings from 1967, towards the end of his life where he takes you
through an emotional terrain in twenty minutes that rivals the emotional
content of most people's entire lives. This is compressed emotion
designed to disturb by its hyper-sensitivity and shear intensity and
density. There is a solo titled "Offering" that is so powerful it creates
an uncomfortably warm zone of emotional memory in my chest everytime I
listen to it. I can never get over how much Coltrane could feel, let
alone how effectively he could share his feelings with me. His sax is an
extended phenotype but the linkage is so essentially analog and direct.
When was the last time you were moved by art originated in digital media?

Emotional tone will naturally fill all digital forms over the next decade.
No matter what permutations of new technologies emerge, emotional people
will eventually flesh out sterile digital territories until now inadequate
for the exchange and appreciation of normal human emotions.