Visualize World PCs

By John Gehl

Sequence: Volume 32, Number 4

Release Date: July/August 1997

In 1944, at the end of his life, the legendary and innovative silent film director D.W. Griffith (no longer wanted in Hollywood because he wasn't "box office" anymore) learned that his old friend Billy Bitzer had begun working with a new technology: motion pictures with color. An embittered man, Griffith predicted: "They'll never go, Billy. Color will take people's minds from the story."

Well, like most technological prophets, Griffith was partly wrong and partly right. He was, of course, wrong to say that color wouldn't "go." It went - and it is still going. But he was right when he suggested that color would take people's minds away from the story - though a more accurate prediction would have been that color would replace story entirely. Most current movies are not based on stories, they are based on car crashes and shootouts, in glorious color. Color and sound and "special effects" no longer distract from the story; they have become the story.

Now this development may be good or bad (or both), but it's largely true. We go to movies now not for the story but for the experience - as we might go to a rock concert, or an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical (is that an oxymoron?), or Spring Break at the beach.

Griffith's insight was really about tradeoffs: there's no free lunch. Know that there's a price to be paid, and that color will cost. It is not free. It will cost in terms of story, logic and meaning!

Of course, Griffith's prediction that it wouldn't "go" was comically wrong, but only because he couldn't imagine an audience willing to discard story, logic and meaning. "Who would sacrifice story, logic and meaning?" Talk about clueless. Give me my MTV!

Well, that was then (movies), and this is now (PCs). PCs everywhere!!! Like ball point pens!!! Visualize World PCs!!!

And surely that great day is not far off. In a few years, there will be throwaway PCs - and instead of sending you disks, America Online will be sending you whole PCs with color monitors. There will also be PCs for your shirt pockets and your wallets and your shoes (inner soles that will determine whether they are running shoes or walking shoes or slippers). Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. And all these things will be INTERACTIVE.

Billy, you're going to have to help us out here! What do you think of all this? Do you think it will go, Billy?

Billy would say: "Frankly, I think it will go, Mr. Griffith."

And Billy would be right. It will go. The other day a trash can in the food court of an Atlanta shopping mall thanked me in a hearty mid-western voice when I discarded my cold, uneaten French fries. I found it an unsettling experience. Of course, like you, I've been talking for years now to inanimate objects that are my own inanimate objects (such as cheerful microwave ovens that chirped "Enjoy Your Meal!" after heating up water for tea) or borrowed inanimate objects (such as Japanese rental cars that told me just about everything I might want to know in life - except how to turn on the windshield wipers in a sudden thunderstorm). But this was my very first social encounter with a trash can, toward which I felt (let me admit it) alienated and yet slightly superior.

No doubt, next year at this time we will be conversing happily with trash cans about . . . well, I don't know . . . about this, that and the other thing . . . about the great old books and the new animated movies . . . about the historic man/machine chess games that were played until computers sent humans back to the bush leagues.

Hey, this will all be fun. I'm sure of it. However, I have to admit that, for the moment, I continue to be nervous about the prospect of "ubiquitous computing" and "interaction-to-go" (my name, trademarked here, stay away from it!). Ubiquitous computing is just something we'll need to get used to, no matter what it does to our spirits to be constantly engaged in conversation by our chattering, gossipy trash cans, stoves, sinks, toilets.

After losing a six-game chess match to the computer system "Deep Blue," world chess champion Garry Kasparov said, "I lost my fighting spirit. I was not in the mood of playing at all. . . . I'm a human being. When I see something that is well beyond my understanding, I'm afraid." Kasparov put his finger on it. I feel the same way. I am often not in the mood of playing at all. And I am even more often not in the mood of conversing with household fixtures - particularly in the morning, when I am not very sociable.

Is there a way out? Probably not. And then there's the more general question: how do you stop anything these Happy Interactive Days, when we are under relentless attack by inter- and hyper-active info-pushers (who quite brazenly brag about their "push" technologies that will spew the news at us with the force of a fire hose)? Theoretically, this info-fire hose problem should be confined to the bad "old media" (such as movies, TV, radio and other purveyors of information to the masses), and not to the supposedly more personal "new media" represented by Internet and World Wide Web. In the old media, information delivery by fire hose is expressed in the canonical form as: "We interrupt this program to bring you a special bulletin"; CNN is a master of this kind of show biz, and routinely distracts viewers by scrunching up the window on a news program to run pseudo and/or trivial "bulletins" across what's left of the screen. The point, presumably, is to demonstrate that CNN never sits still - and will never let you concentrate on just one thing at a time. What they're telling us is: "Parallel-process or fall by the wayside!" Pretty pushy. And their pushy new cousins in Web-based push-technology may become just as obnoxious and the Web will rival television as The Great Distractor. New media, indeed! It seems disingenuous for people to keep claiming that the Net is completely different from TV when those same people are working as hard as they can to make the Web as much like TV as they possibly can.

[We pause now to bring you this important commercial message. See our banner. See our banner in Java. See our banner run. Back now to our programming, which was about . . . it was about . . . wait, give us a second . . . it was about education!]

Well, we're back now in the studio, all right, but are we really back to education? Back to the "story"? Is it possible that Griffith was right? That when we added color we sacrificed some measure of story, logic and meaning?

Billy, I frankly don't know the answers to these questions. All I know is, at the computer store last Wednesday, I saw a certain high-speed laptop with this incredible, amazing 13.3 inch active-matrix color display.

And I want it, Billy!

I want it bad.

John Gehl is editor and publisher of Educom Review. [email protected]

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