The Ground Plan
The Browser Day is made up of three elements, the most important being a competition of fast presentations of student demos. This is punctuated by more developed presentations from established professionals and finally a keynote lecture by a leading journalist or critic on the subject that is making the most waves in the industry that particular year. But the essential thing is that everything revolves around the competition and the work of students. And it is this that gives the event its freshness as well as making it an enjoyable spectator sport.
The heart of the event is the competition in which nearly a hundred media art and design students are challenged to create demos for new forms of browser or interfaces for alternative operating systems. The large number of participants meant that they had to present their ideas quickly, in fact very quickly, three minutes precisely. To lend the event some style and gravitas it was presided over by the (former) director of the Dutch Design Institute, John Thackera who entered into the spirit of the proceedings in flamboyant game-show host style. On the stage of the Paradiso he stood beside each nervous competitor with a gong which he struck when their time was up.
As there was no time for elaborate arguments and extended presentations the approach could be characterized as "demo aesthetics." But in this competition speed was no alibi for sloppiness or superficiality. On the contrary, like the best pop songs the “demo aesthetic” must be capable of compressing complex ideas and emotions into three minute sound bites that can lodge in your brain and heart and last a lifetime. The whole strategy of the Browser day (and by the way, a good reason for it to be held in a leading pop music venue) is to enable participants and audience to experience design for digital communications not as some elite zone for techies but as part of popular culture.
Theory and Context
To say that the Browser Day should be part of Pop culture should not be mistaken for lack of seriousness. The greatest challenge in all the arts is to express serious ideas and deep feelings in simple language and popular forms. But to make this a reality the ideas, or the theoretical dimension has to be present, helping to sharpen practice, and creating the new conceptual spaces that allow us to step outside our usual ways of seeing the world.
One of the main reasons for the success of The First International Browser Day was the fact that it emerged during the so called “browser wars” which were raging in 1997, when Browsers themselves appeared to be the issue. In those days Microsoft’s explorer and Netscape were “slugging it out” for the attention of the worlds internet users. It all looked as trivial as the difference between Pepsi and Coke. The organizers succeeded in creating the right environment to look beyond the frame and use art and design to investigate the relationship between commercial power and the creation of standards. Who would have thought that three years later a fortuitous outcome of that idiotic rivalry would be the American state action that threatens to break up the Microsoft Empire.
A year later and the Second International Browser Day coincided with the moment when the open source movement and its most successful product Linux went from being valued and understood only by the rarefied world of programmers and hackers into something approaching an alternative popular ideology for the digital age.
For the first time the profound differences of political culture and values at the heart of the technical community became widely visible. Even those of us who are not programmers were able to see how those in the technical community are not culture-free technocrats waiting for artists and designers to come and add the magic ingredient called “culture” or “content.” No, they already have a powerful and sophisticated culture of their own. They had even developed effective legal and ethical standards which made the global collaborations that made Linux possible.
Browser Day 2000
Three years later the basic formula remains potent. A day of “demo aesthetics” by students, artists and theorists confronting new and old forces raging on the net and finding ways to preserve the net as a space of the imagination, a space of freedom.
The “browser wars” are now a distant memory. In the new era we no longer have wars, we have mergers. Mergers between old and new media, between 20th century content providers and 21st century delivery systems. And its all there in the BIG DEAL. The deal of the century. Time Warner + AOL. As is often the case a complex situation is in danger of being reduced to a false dichotomy. To many the “deal of the Century” represents the gateway to the fulfillment of the multimedia promise. But to many who had utopian expectations of the net it was the moment the dream of the net as an emancipatory space was finally snuffed out.
We are often hypnotized by scale and it may all turn out that the big deal is something that changes very little in our media realities and digital cultures. In other words the dystopianists and the boosterists will as usual be equally wrong. But the deal does signal the movement (how fast no one can agree on) towards a solution to the bandwidth problems that have kept the internet primarily a text dominant medium. This makes conservatives out of many progressive ideologists whose predominantly middle class, educated background often give them a bias towards the preservation of the phonetic alphabet as the dominant mode of discourse. But with the opening of the net to sound and moving image we will witness, for the first time in history, the integration “of the written, oral and audio-visual modalities of human communication.” Those of us who are fighting to preserve the net as a zone of freedom must find ways of not working against the grain of these transformations simply because of our educational backgrounds.
Learning the Lessons
In its short life the Browser Day has succeeded for reasons too complex to develop in this short piece, but of central importance was the fact that, although the project worked with art colleges, it was initiated outside of any conventional educational institution. An example of "tactical education" in practice. This was important because the educational establishment is largely defined and confined by the classical dichotomy of the humanities on one side of the fence and science and technology on the other. But anyone who visits, even a few, of the numerous new media conferences, festivals and exhibitions, will discover that this is one area in our culture in which the humanities vs. science dichotomy is plainly false. The society that C.P. Snow, writing in the 1950’s, described as based on two cultures is rapidly becoming one culture.
At the World Economic Forum in Davos, a frustrated CEO in his late 50s declared angrily that “people don’t watch technology or the media, they watch what is ON the media.” In other words content is king. Statements like this which sound so reassuringly like common sense demonstrate a profound generational difference. The past decades (the post Mcluhan decades) have produced a generation that is intensely fascinated by the nature and power of media tools, not simply as carriers of data, but as conceptual frameworks (brainframes). Each of which creates distinctive forms of culture and awareness. Recent generations (with their passion for science fiction) instinctively recognize that we cannot separate ourselves from our technologies, including our media. Technologies are not simply an add on, they are part of who (or what) we are. We make our tools, then they make us. This is not a description of a simple technological determinism but of an infinitely complex feedback system.
The 4th International Browserday will take place on March 29th, 2001 at the Great Hall, Cooper Union in New York City.
The Browser day succeeded because it recognized that new media do not just provide access to culture they ARE culture. A new form of, “techno culture,” a distinctive discourse which has emerged over the last four decades. As yet it has limited legitimation in the educational and cultural establishment, but its impact, economically, politically and culturally is already being seen as defining our age.
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