cisler on Fri, 27 Nov 1998 02:59:01 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Communicating Culture conference report

The Foundation as a Cultural Router: 
"Communicating Culture", October 22-23, 1998 
Santa Monica/Los Angeles, California

Conference report by Steve Cisler <>. Copyright 1998. May be
reposted, archived, served by educational and non-profit organizations, as
long as you keep the document free of annoying banner ads. Any newer version
will be at

"The Communicating Culture conference aimed at bringing diverse elements
from museums, the computer industry, foundations, entertainment, government,
new media firms, forecasters , librarians, and newspapers, to discuss the
digital future and how culture might evolve."

Back story

What is a foundation to do in the digital age?  The inner workings of
influential family foundations are as much a mystery to me as the way tribal
councils work or the way Microsoft's legal department functions.  A good
many people in the non-profit world of social service groups, artists,
activists, have learned to dance with foundations if they hope to survive. I
stand at the side and try to tap my foot and hum along with their music. At
the beginning of 1998 I was invited to the Getty Information Institute's
dance that turned out to be a final Senior Prom before the high school was
closed for renovation. During the year, a new CEO made a massive
reorganization, worthy of my old alma mater (Apple) in its most turbulent
times, and the Information Institute was to be shut down, with functions
absorbed into other parts of the Getty.  Some staff, including director
Eleanor Fink were looking for work elsewhere.

The Getty has done a lot of interesting projects (their web site will give
you an excellent flavor) nationally and locally.  Their connections to the
European museum world are growing, and they have close relationships with
Canadian institutions.  Within the museum and library worlds, they have
worked on vocabulary for describing museum objects, worked on image
retrieval engines (Arthur), and they have reached out to the computer and
entertainment industries in Burbank and Hollywood as well as the barrios of
Los Angeles (LA CultureNet should happen in all medium and large cities
around the world).

The Getty Center itself has been praised with a flow of words that has only
recently been eclipsed by the reviews of the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao,
Spain.  I try to approach great buildings by myself, away from crowds. That
is the way I have experienced the Taj Majal, the Alhambra, Versailles,  and
crusader castles in Turkey, but I was with a group of other attendees when I
drove up to the Getty Center, took the tram to the top, and walked around.
The group did not detract from the drama of the place, the setting. This
Center is a good reason to come to Los Angeles, even if you have never
wanted to visit before. The experience of the buildings and terraces and the
hazy views of Los Angeles rival anything I have seen in the U.S.  Everything
in the construction and choice of materials and interior finishes shows what
you can do with money and a vision. However, even more impressive was the
experience of the garden. The clash between the architect of the Center and 
Robert Irwin, the designer of the garden, was covered in a detailed article
in the New Yorker. Visually, all parts of it reminded me of no other
botanical garden or arboretum I have visited, so I was usually surprised by
what I encountered. You are confined to paths, but they offer more choice
once you reach the boxwood labyrinth set in a circular pond at the base of
the hill. There are subtle barriers to keep you on the path, and I saw no
one from the general public striking out across a lawn or hopping over the
stream bed. The exterior views of the  buildings will look the same for a
long time), but this garden is really growing and evolving.

The Getty Information Institute, in whatever form, is facing a world where
the views of culture are either rigid: an edifice to use, enjoy, and
preserve and protect  or more fluid: a garden to cultivate (and use and
enjoy a certain wildness and lack of control). The garden at the Center has
many disparate elements and styles, and Irwin has tried to fit them together
for an experience which will be quite different for each of us. 

The opening reception was at Miramar Sheraton hotel in Santa Monica. It has
a wonderful approach, especially if you are walking in and not sitting in
the back of a cab or van. There is a giant Moreton Bay fig tree  that dwarfs
everything around it, and it gives the place a tropical ambiance, though the
air temperature and humidity were not oppressive. 

I checked in and went to my room which had a great view of the Pacific and
the pool and garden area. In bathroom I encountered my first electronic
toilet.  The Panasonic IntiMist warned me not to use the "unit" before
reading the instructions: children should not use it without adult
supervision-don't spill water on the controls. It provided a heated seat, a
bidet spray, and dryer, but I could not make the controls  work. I'm sure it
even has a cpu, but I could find no SCSI or data ports, so I gave up and
retreated a few steps back from this complete immersion in the electronic
age. I discussed this piece of technology with a few other attendees and
nobody had been able or willing to try out the new functions. However, it
was a gorgeous room, and everything else worked fine.

The Conference

The "Communicating Culture" conference aimed at bringing diverse elements
from the computer industry, entertainment, government, new media artists,
forecasters, libraries, foundations, and of course the muse community. There
were also video conference links with a public library in Norwalk and the
Museum of Radio and Television.  Foundations liked to call this convening,
but in networking terms they were acting as a cultural router.   

The organizers chose a plenaries-plus-panels format, starting with an
electronic mailing lists for  panels to prepare for each session., but the
participation was minimal, and some speakers at the opening reception said,
"I was just too busy to read and respond" and then would launch into some
anecdote about how email had taken over their life.  There were about 300
people from the U.S., Germany, India, Namibia, the UK, Canada, France, and
Japan, and one of the frequent comments from people outside the museum world
was "I'm not sure why I was invited." Others knew and were quite at home. I
thought it was a novel mix of people, most of whom did not know each other.

The panels ranged in size from four to thirteen. I joked with Janet
Bridgland, one of the organizers, that we in the audience would hold up
score cards for pithiness of the remarks because there were so many on the
stage. One French participant worried that the rhythm, vocabulary, and
substance of a  panel discussion might be dominated by people from a single
country or discipline, but when it came time, he held his own. 

I met a couple from Europe who had worked for some years in Singapore, at
the dawn of their own information age, when Singapore was getting together
its Information Island plan. As we know, the government involves itself
intensively in the lives and business of the residents of Singapore. There
was a successful birth control program ("Two will do") that was almost too
effective. The government was concerned that educated women were not having
enough kids, and worse, they were not marrying until their 30's. In the mid
80s the government surveyed offices for people who wanted to learn about
information technology. Each person or his manager had to fill out a profile
and questionnaire. From this one office a well-educated 24 year old single
woman was chosen.  When she returned from the training, she was furious. The
whole training group turned out to be equal numbers of single, well-educated
men and their female counterparts.  In the computer training they only had
one machine for two people and men and women were paired up on the machines.
In fact, the government matchmakers linked similar profiles for work on the
computers, and while the instruction was adequate, it was just a front to
get educated unmarried elites to link up and begin producing little
technocrats to help make Singapore the info-hub of Asia.  The training
terminated early so that they could attend a "tea-dance" and get to know
their computer-mates a bit better.  I asked the couple if they had kept
track of this young woman (who would be about 38 now) and they had not.  The
Getty organizers had not over planned like the Singapore officials.

Thursday morning, October 22

200 people in two other locations in Los Angeles  took part in the video
conference. Eleanor Fink got a big ovation.  Kathleen McDonnell gave tribute
to all the people who had a hand in making this  happen. 

"We will engage in discussion about the  interworkability  of the different
sections.  We think that the value of art and culture should be recognized 
and not lost in this age of digitization." Like most people there she
thought the benefits of the technology outweighed the dangers.

William Ivey: National  Endowment for the Arts. His background and frame of
reference  is country music.  He is a bit skeptical about the arrival of the
digital age, citing the past to make a point about the present. In 1898 the
phonograph was seen as a business machine at the 1898 sales convention. It
was not seen as an entertainment device.  He talked about the way technology
has profoundly affected the transmission of stories and music.  In the 19th
century you learned to play the Blues by working with an artist, and then in
1937 by listening to Robert Johnson on a 78 rpm record. The real performance
is going to become rare and the virtual performance will be a commodity and
commonplace. " Museums becomes bastions of reality in a fictive age.  " Ivey
wants to make certain our living cultural heritage is preserved.  And it
must be made available to our youth and all Americans.  We must be watchful
that the global Internet does not to come to substitute for the
neighborhood, community and family.   He mentioned a project where there are
mentor web servers in ten cities  for artists to test the web.   There is a
one year study  on how artists can engage the Internet and also keep our
artistic traditions strong. 

Peter Schwartz from the Global Business Network spoke glowingly of the
Iridium network just being turned on. He outlined our hopes and fears about
homogenization and trivialiazation of culture.    Using the new Guggenheim
museum in Spain as an example,  he said  the new Europe is creating a region
of cultures: Basque, Catalan, and  Welch cultures. They are pioneering new
ways for cultures to come together. 

He claims that satellite connectivity will be a historical continuity "we
can't imagine."  In six years time 100% will have broadband access with a
hundred dollar device.  I commented on this claim during my panel.

As for American hegemony, he things  it will not come to pass. "Cultures do
not disappear easily." The new networks will hold off the Yanks and help
sustain the old cultures.  He acknowledges the vision of the future where 
Disney and  Murdoch control culture: a world of  Blade Runner and unequal
access, but he sides with the vision of the world of cheap CDs "where
uniqueness and generosity is the key value." He wants to create a world of
empowered cultures.

Einar Steffanrud

Einar Stefferud made some of the typical  claims about cyberspace: 
geography disappears and sovereignty melts.  He spoke about Internet
culture, as if it were monolithic. It sounded like a view from the early
1990's not the end of the century. He even claimed that the Internet fights
censorship by routing around it as 'damage.' We know the spammers don't
believe John Gilmore's saying.

Chaos was a big theme. "The future is bounded chaos. We have to manage our
affairs in the midst of bounded chaos. It is futile to think of restoring
order. There never was any order. " For more details you can see his
presentation online.

Ismail Sergeldin of the World Bank  deals with poverty issues such as the
Global Water partnership.  For the 1.3 billion on $1/day.  (growing about
the size of Mexico every year) clean water nearby the village is going to be
more meaningful than a T1 connection at the village school 

While he talked about preserving culture, he added that we need to change
some values such as the way women are treated in many countries.  He said
the Bank has adopted a "do no harm" aid and loan policy. The cultural
projects they plan to support must be intrinsically worthwhile, not just to
tourists and the local tour industry.

The projects must:
- be an expression of local culture today that will be the heritage of
-nurture the wellspring of creativity and the foundation of identity

The new technologies must be used to remind ourselves of those who have no
voice.  He mentioned the 19th century activist who fought for the  abolition
of slavery.  We have to become the new abolitionists, he concluded. 

Panel One

The theme of the first panel was that the  globe is shrinking and
information technology is the potion.  This has a lot of implications for
culture which was defined in many ways by the panelists: as communication,
as part of the biosystems, as shared values, food, customs, and traditions. 

Neena Ranjan from India: "We (in India) are trying to put back together a
broken 5000 year heritage of Indian culture."  She tied in the bio-systems
as part of the culture, but much of the conversation was about the flow
rather than the rootedness. As the Internet becomes more important and
certain companies more central, the flows will be more directed. Lyn Elliot
asked if there would be a place for the community channel. Both Ranjan and
E. David Ellington of NetNoir saw the main conversations online taking place
between white elites, but the tools and the spread of the infrastructure
offers more options. Jean-Jacques Van Vlasselaer sees the world torn between
states and markets, but we need a new language to talk about this.

Networked Communities: Tapping the Power of the Internet

Dr. Costis Toregas of Public Technology Incorporated, said that "Culture is
under siege." By culture he means the shared experience that binds people
into a community, tribe, or family. He spoke about the use of networks to
address problems facing chess players of the world, the number of stray dogs
in San Antonio, and crime activity in Oklahoma City. When the people saw a
GIS representation of where crime was taking place, they focused their
demands on the precinct in that area. However, he thought the Net (as a
useful, monolithic benevolent force) won't survive because of the drive to
measure everything.  He said the tradition in local government to provide a
nexus or meeting place for working on local issues is a strong one.

"Information exchange as a new economy" 

The economics panel (13 members!!)  was run by a commentator from CNN named
Bill Press. Unlike the audience, he was so focused on the turgid drama of
Washington that he had to bring up Monica Lewinsky.  Consider that there are
more visitors to museums than to sporting events, and the view of museums as
a 'sector' makes sense.

Some of the panel see the economy as maturing, but I think a lot is lost
when the gift economy is not nurtured. There was an exchange about a
Wilmington, Delaware, museum exhibit  and  Maxwell Anderson (Whitney Museum
of American Art) was disdainful of it because it was outside of his more
established network of East Coast museums. 

Katherine Fulton of Global Business Network said that some things can be
done better online than at the museum.   "The more the world heritage sites
are on the net the more people want to visit them (which may degrade the
 Michael Goldhaber spent quite a bit of time talking about the attention
economy (what is most scarce) but the panel was not set up for discourse to 
unfold all of his ideas. It's an interesting concept that some attribute to
Paco Xander Nathan of Fringeware, though Goldhaber is more closely
associated with it. Joichi Ito of Digital Garage says all the attention (in
Japan) is clumped up in in just a few sites, much like TV networks.  So  you
can   have interesting  sites that do not make any money and may not

Will the online sites remain free? Will there be government support? Costis
think you may have a more creative experience  in the online version. l 
Joris Komen, a  museum director from Namibia wants the info be usable by the
slow speed groups, not just those with 56 kb (or faster) connections.

Denise Caruso said to look at the medium for what it is. We can't impose the
values of the old media on the new media.'  And this was seconded by Joshi
Ito. Ito also reminded us that navigation is activity, and that the Internet
is also a medium for expression, not just an electronic billboard to
advertise an exhibit. If any concept was not explored, it was the idea of
the Internet as a place that culture was created, not just conveyed,
consumed, or combined.

Whether the experience of culture mediated by a screen is authentic or not
was debated. One person reminded us that most people see and hear
reproductions of art and music, not the original. 

What about minorities in dominant cultures?  George MacDonald, Canadian
Museum of Civilization, thinks this use is a strong point.  Communities are
recontacting each other.  Scots used the net to do ethnic spam  to raise
money for a heritage network 

The final question: where will we be in ten years? 
" Talking about the same things. access won't be resolved and educational
possibilities won't be solved."
"Ubiquitous access. "
"Companies/universities/onlne/training will all sort of blur ."
"The next meeting will have more Chinese and Africans and Indians and it may
held in Burkina Faso. "

William Wulf, a veteran computer scientist did not think we were being
advanced thinking enough, saying the Internet won't be like it is.   "With a
billion times more bandwidth maybe I could weigh and smell and feel the
objects. Picture a virtual tour  Egypt given by Cleopatra."

Thursday evening we had dinner in the hotel followed by a performance by the
noted British Rapper and star of stage and video screen, James Burke.  Very
smooth delivery, but I took no notes on "The Impact of Technology on Society
and Culture."

Friday morning, October 23, 1998

Paul Saffo agreed with Peter Schwartz that digital technology would be a
force for diversity. The world will be more complex, and we must also beware
of the dark side as evidenced by the Rwandan radio broadcasters on Milles
Colines exhorting the listeners to undertake an ethnic cleansing using
machetes and other low tech tools. Saffo said we may be part of a culture
war without being aware of it. He encouraged the audience to "change your
perspective or you will miss some of the best things." He hopes that the
museum/culture community can act on the cultural trends before Bill Gates

Panel: Imagining the potential of cultural resources online"
William Wulf, Bonnie Nardi, George MacDonald, Steward Brand, Andrew Blau,
Maurice Benayon,  and Paul Saffo.

To the question about the kind of new technology that will be added over
5-20 years, Bonnie Nardi of ATT said the question should be "What are the
new social relationships, and  how do we engage the new technologies and not
have them be intrusive?"

Saffo said that it would be an age of sensors. eyes and  ears all around;
the word of computer information and real world information.  "So far we
have not done anything really important yet, except manipulate symbols. "  

George MacDonald expects that cultural enrichment will come from learning   
the grammars of other cultures. 

Brand said the curatorial process in a museum is to sift the layers of
fashion, commerce, and governance and what passes through all of those is
the culture, which moves slowly and does not change easily.

Andrew Blau, now of the Markle Foundation, noted that in spite of all the
talk about "chaos" people with limited bandwidth won't tolerate it.  The way
people react is to form institutions.  The institutions are the human way we
deal with a certain set of social conditions, and there may be new forms of
institutions to deal with this chaos.

Wulf wondered about the changing culture of museums. "In the Valley of the
Shadow" was a multimedia project where the sponsoring organization lost
control and the users took over and managed this piece on the families of
the Virginia Shenandoah valley who were divided by the Civil War.

Benayoun of Z.A. Production in Paris went beyond words and showed some of
his 3D and VR work (as a video clip). I realized how word heavy the
conference had been, almost like a swimming or diving competition where we
just discuss our swimming styles or form and rarely enter the water. 

Goldhaber said we have neglected the tension between the artist and the
institutions. Many artists feel an ambivalence and even hostility. Artists
may use the Internet to shortcut institutions.

Blau of Markle: what is the problem in the future that new institutions will
need to solve? What is the new radio?

Exploring an Agenda for Culture in a Networked Environment

James Bower,  Getty Information Institute

John E. Cox, Jr., Founder and President, Foundation for American
Kimber Craine,National Assembly of State Arts Agencies; 
Rachel Dixon, Founder, Handshake Media; 
Gerd Schwandner, Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsrühe; 
Robert Wedgeworth, University Librarian, University of Illinois 
Steve Cisler, Tachyon, Inc.

Our panel was scheduled for 90 minutes which was cut to 45 minutes, and we
started late, ending up with about 35 minutes to touch upon a few themes, 
but were not able to get to the future agenda for attendees to pursue after
the conference. 

I agreed with Peter Schwartz. I'd like to see this technology empower
cultures, people without a voice in the dominant societies. I believe it
will be much harder and take much longer than he imagines. I cited some
figures from the TelAspera report for the European Space Agency project on
Internet connectivity -- 20-30% among the rich, and .02 to .1 % for the 4.1
billion poor people by 2010. It's going to go more slowly because of the
choices people and governments and foundations make: that clean water in a
village is more important than a small telecenter. As one Indian said to me
at the World Bank conference last year, "We don't have running water, why
should we have running data?"  and no, you cannot always have both. Many
have neither.

I asked, What is the expertise or suite of services that can be provided by
large institutions to new ones getting online? How can the Getty help a
small county museum in rural Montana? What can a multimedia company in Paris
offer a new team in Abidjan or Ouagadougou? And it is not just one way: how
can we enable the museums in he UK to learn from one in Namibia?

Transcending our Differences

Carlos Fuentes, escorted by Edward James Olmos, concluded the guest speakers
for the conference. He recited a litany of the crises, "the new reality
which lack no legality."  "The future has a past and holds many lessons to
temper our conscience."
"One jet for a Latin American air force costs 80 million text books. "

This world is divided into "the global village of Bill Gates and the local
village of Emiliano Zapata...with the new nomads of the local village moving
toward the global village." He's optimistic about the ability of the
so-called Third World to respond creativity: "The empire writes back."   He
reminds us there are no pure cultures and that " We are being watched by the
protagonists of the next century: children. " Fuentes rejected manichean
simplification, saying the challenge is to   integrate the global and the
local through the arts.


The strength of this conference was the mix of people who might not
ordinarily meet one another. A year from now will the contacts I have
maintained will be as important as the ideas from the conference that are
still simmering in my head? While not all conference organizers have the
resources of the Getty, the main function should be to act as a cultural
router. Bringing us together at such a dramatic place was a critical step.
Few of us chose to make use of the very medium to discuss the conference
topics, and I wonder if the public (even the young) ever will either.  Or
will it be used by a dedicated minority? We waited until we could meet over
a meal, a drink, or a presentation to exchange our views. Proximity, place,
and unmediated contact are critical in our understanding of cultural
exchange, even if the Internet, as well as the older film and radio and
print act as super lubricants to speed up the flow across town, age
divisions, and borders. As others have observed,  the airlines are doing
quite well in this age of virtual communities, and author Frances Cairncross
probably has more frequent flier miles than before the publication of "The
Death of Distance."
Conference Ratings (1-5 scale with 5 being the best): 
Value to Cost 5 
Presenters: 4
Demos 1 (almost none, but that might be a 5 for some people!)
Facilities & Food: 5 
Convenience: 5 
Conference format: 3 (not enough time for audience input. panels too large) 

There was talk of a plan to have an online forum to discuss the issues
raised at the conference. Check the web site  for a
good, less impressionistic summary in .pdf and .rtf formats

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