March 15, 1996
Digital is a yearly conference sponsored by the National Press Photographers Association. It is a place for photographers, editors and vendors to get together and try to figure out which technologies will be the most useful in converting the photojournalism profession from analog to digital. It is a dicey time. While everyone seems certain that things will change, what form future media will take and which tools will be necessary to get there is anything but certain.
As such, this conference is a real smorgasbord of offerings. It is up to the individual to decide which tidbits will be tasty and filling. The best strategy seems to be to try a little of everything, in hopes of putting together a balanced meal.
While at Digital, I attended the keynote address by Tim Gill, the founder of Quark, as well as a session by Roger Fidler, the proponent of the newspaper tablet, and a mind-bending presentation on Temporal Typography by Yin Yin Wong. These individuals each had very differing visions of future communication. It is not the fact that they have diverse opinions that I found surprising; it is the fact that they have such different opinions about a future that is only a few years away. We are potentially speaking of a profound revolution on our doorsteps that is so complex and has so many variables that no one seems to quite be able to bring into focus a clear picture of it.
For example, Gill, an engineer and toolmaker, was pragmatic. He cited numerous statistics claiming amazing Internet growth, which he thought were unrealistic for the most part. He sent a mixed message to photographers: individual photographs would be worth less in a digital age where so many can fit on a CD-ROM and when photos can be copied and exchanged so easily. However, he thought that the ease in working with digital images would also fuel the demand for them. For Gill, perhaps, photos are nothing more than another graphic element for designers to work with; he might not have realized how passionate his audience was about the intrinsic value of individual photos.
While known for XPress, one of the major tools in the emergence of desktop publishing, Quark obviously sees that it must have a foot in the door of the next generation of publishing. It will soon introduce Immedia, which will allow XPress users to turn their documents into CD-ROM or Web-based multimedia. Gill, while realistic about the growth of the Internet, seems to be banking on a market for this new product and for the infrastructure which would allow delivery of it. He brought up the recent start of ADSL testing by GTE in Dallas. ADSL is a technology which allows much faster transmission of data over conventional copper wires.
Despite the best compression algorithms engineers can cook up, I don't think multimedia online will become practical until one or the other of these high speed technologies becomes commonplace. As someone who has struggled to make CD-ROM based multimedia work, I know that a data rate of even 300 K per second can be restrictive; the Web is optimistically 10 times slower with the average modem. Recent breakthroughs allowing streaming audio, animation and interactive elements on the Web appeal to the pioneering spirit in us, just because we are so used to staring at a static, silent screen. The novelty will soon wear off.
Roger Fidler, once the high-profile leader of a Knight-Ridder research team maintains a vision of future newspapers that depends on a piece of hardware. A number of logical leaps on his part, including the fact that pages are traditionally vertical and that people want to continue to be able to carry their news product with them, led Fidler to the idea of the newspaper tablet. A key to this device would be a large, flat screen, the technology for which is unfortunately lagging behind Fidler's vision. The newspaper page would be presented in a simplified version of print publications, and by touching the screen, the user could access the stories. Fidler sees the user downloading the news product once a day, then carrying the device with them. Another key would be that it could be priced at a reasonable amount so that it would be considered just another household appliance. It would not be a substitute for a laptop computer.
While I find several aspect of Fidler's vision interesting, I see some impracticalities. I think most people would not want to carry around more than one electronic device, and honestly, I believe people value their e-mail more than their newspaper. I think there is probably some ideal blend between the tablet, the laptop computer, the dumb Internet cruiser now being proposed and the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) devices like Apple's Newton.
Yin Yin Wong's presentation on her temporal typography research, while on less of a broad scale, was none-the-less fascinating. Wong, now at the University of Nebraska, is a graphic designer with stints at Apple Computer and MIT's notorious Media Lab. Her research is founded on the premise that while we might witnessing a resurgence of communication through e-mail, we have probably lost the ability to express emotion accurately in the process. Emoticons - those little faces made with type - do a crude job of expressing emotion. Obviously no slouch, Wong wrote an application for a Silicon Graphics machine that could allow her to control characteristics of type over time. She showed examples of an apologetic note with the word "sorry" pulsating in the background while the explanation proceeded in the foreground; the story of Little Red Riding Hood unfolded with animated type silently taking on the voices of the characters. The ability to control every nuance of the type led to other experiments. My favorite was a system of navigating through information in which the user could fly over color coded headlines, slowing down over the international news in blue, and clicking on a story about South Africa, for example.
These three presentations happened to be the ones I attended that I found most thought-provoking. What strikes me most is that none of these visions relied on the World Wide Web for delivery. The Web could just be the medium of the moment, until something better and faster comes along. I think that sometimes we get so immersed in solving the problems of the present that we forget to dream and speculate. While I might have found problems with what these speakers had to say, at least I can't fault them for dreaming.