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by Robbin Murphy

TOPIC #6: Seeing The Forest AND the Trees

Surfing the Internet

is like going through

Yellowstone National Park

in your car.

You see Nature through a window and are directed by the path of the roadway. There's abundant signs of wildness passing by but your experience of it is mediated by the vehicle. On the Internet -- thanks in part to the enthusiasm of Vice President Gore for the metaphor "Information Superhighway" -- we're encouraged to think of the Web browser as a car, one that makes travel safe and comfortable. Even the recent "browser wars" resemble a bar room argument over whose care is superior, has more gadgets.

Other modes of transportation are either for sports enthusiasts or the fanatic. Using basic yet perfectly adequate software such as Telnet is seen as quaint, like an Amish horse and buggy, or even a little subversive or stubborn.

We all want speed and power, on the Internet and in our cars. Or do we?

In "Walking," one of Henry David Thoreau's last essays, he makes a plea for "absolute freedom and wildness" in our lives in contrast to the merely civil. He regards man as an inhabitant and part and parcel of Nature rather than a member of society. To gain this freedom he suggested walking, or, as he preferred, sauntering, off the beaten path.

This may sound like a hacker attitude today and, in some ways, it is. Thoreau met few who understood the art of Walking and felt most of our expeditions on foot were only tours where we retrace our steps in order to get back home. A true Walker, he felt, was willing to get lost in the woods. Society is made from two Walkers joining together on the ground rather than legislation or religion from above.

These Thoreau-like thoughts occur to me as I help organize artnetweb's "PORT: Navigating Digital Culture" at the MIT List Visual Arts Center (January 25 through March 29, 1997) -- an exhibition of networked digital worlds on the Internet.

Our intention is not to present the latest technology as art -- as the many new media conferences seem to do -- but to give those who have made a commitment to networking over the Internet (a la Thoreau) an opportunity to saunter through the institutional art space of the List Center. Each remote participant will agree to rendezvous from their base of operations at a specific time once a week for eight weeks. Participants will use a variety of technologies with the only requirement being that they work over the Internet and be freely available to the public so they, too, can join in.

PORT came about because the List Center is hosting an installation by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth in the larger main gallery and wanted to present younger artists influenced by his concept of the dematerialized art object in a smaller adjoining space.

Kosuth uses language and philosophy to investigate the idea of art and it seems evident that at least some of those involved in what we are now calling "digital art" share his concerns about what makes art. Many investigate not by making physical art objects -- or even digital versions of them meant as stand-ins -- but by sharing virtual space and building virtual worlds on-line. We find a recurring theme among those who use the Internet as a medium of using its interactive potential and its functions as a catalyst, network and social space.

How can this kind of work -- existing primarily in a virtual space -- be effectively presented in the real physical space of the gallery? Who owns it, who is the author? Can we put a price on it, can it be sold or traded?

And the big one: Is it art?

While these are typical questions to ask when putting together an art exhibit they seem, in this case, to be ones that can only be answered by the exhibition itself, if they need to be answered at all.

At the same time as PORT is taking shape The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is meeting in Geneva (December 5 - 20, 1996) to consider similar questions as they debate the draft treaties submitted by the U.S. and other countries for International Copyright protection regulations.

One often-heard criticism about WIPO and other legislative bodies concerned with the future of intellectual property on the Internet is that those making the judgments have little hands-on knowledge of the technology they are regulating. They make judgments based on inappropriate or outmoded technology or, worse, the demands of corporate interests. Some critics claim one treaty concerning the "Protection of Literary and Artistic Works," as it currently stands, could very well make surfing the Web impossible due to overly protective copyright restrictions place on access providers.

The economic concerns of these major copyright holders (particularly of database material) are regularly presented as protection for the individual creator who would not create, according to their reasoning, without absolute guarantee of profit.

But some of these so-called defenseless individuals argue that they are capable of better deciding for themselves how the technology should be used. Mark Pesce, co-creator of the Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML), resigned from the newly formed VRML Consortium because he felt the board of directors has too many names from big companies. The Consortium -- which replaces the VRML Architecture Group that Pesce helped found -- will guide the development of platform-independent specifications for VRML, the language used to create 3-D worlds on-line.

Had those legislators and big companies been paying attention (or even existed) when the HyperText Markup Language was developed we may not have the Web at all. It's all our luck that HTML was able to grow nearly unnoticed until it gained too much popularity among users to be stopped or changed significantly. Those who wanted to control (and charge for) the basic language of the Web were out of luck. VRML isn't so lucky.

While I like to believe our art institutions are still more concerned with our culture objects than profit they have their need to have the final say. Many still have difficulty categorizing photography in their collections as artists have continued to find creative ways to use this not-so-new technology in their work. Some have taken notice of digital art but most seem to be taking their time in deciding what to do with it.

In the meantime I hope the PORT exhibition will give us a chance to see the trees as well as the forest.


Yellowstone National Park
(National Park Service)

PORT: Navigating Digital Culture

Henry David Thoreau

WIPO Background Information

Mark Pesce Interview in MEME

VRML Resources from Pioneer Joel

EnviroLink Community Ecology Connection

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