Videotex – another panacea that failed
Venue:Stockholm School of Economics
In this paper, I propose a combined contribution to code and platform studies by examining the practices and discourses of the artists, engineers, and theorists working with videotex networks in the 1970s-1980s. I will concentrate on the Canadian scene, drawing attention not only to the unsustainability of the native Telidon system, but also the artistic interests and public policy interventions associated with this “failed” interactive end-user information system. Of particular interest is the role of visionary hybrid engineer-theorists in Canada, in the wake of McLuhan’s influence and the energetic role of public policy in communications and media art culture.
In terms of recent historiography, I will draw on Jonathan Sterne’s sketch of an alternative history of communications media, based on “compression formats” rather than the prevailing teleology of verisimilitude, high-definition, and multi-sensorial immersion. (MP3: The Meaning of a Format, Duke 2012)
I will uncover the reasons why network research and experimentation in the 1970s/1980s failed to solidify a sustainable connection between two strands of activity:
1) The idealistic search for universal picture coding schemes, which were at once an outcome of 60s era techno-utopian ideals for communicative transparency and understanding, and also pragmatically suited to the narrow bandwidth, primitive graphic displays of the era;
2) Industrial policies for interactive bi-directional digital networking, including the Canadian Telidon, the French Minitel and Antiope; British Prestel, parallel to US public investment in the Internet through DARPA and other Government science agencies.
In particular I will reconstruct the role of Gordon B. Thompson a Canadian telecom engineer who worked at Bell Northern Research, Canada’s equivalent to Bell Laboratories. Thompson was a visionary hybrid engineer-humanist somewhat in the mold of other better-known figures who have been incorporated into canonical media arts histories (e.g. Licklider, Kay, Engelbart).
Michael Century, pianist and composer, is Professor of New Media and Music in the Arts Department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which he joined in 2002. Musically at home in classical, contemporary, and improvisational settings, Century has enjoyed a varied career as university teacher, new media researcher, inter-arts producer, and arts policy maker. He studied piano with Reginald Godden in Toronto, and theory/composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Most recently, his musical passion is playing the accordion.
Century is the founding director of The Rensselaer Contemporary Music Ensemble, which performs works largely from the 20th and 21st centuries, and engages with emerging technologies.
His compositional projects deal with the musical –as opposed to the merely technical –challenges of musical-computer interaction, and he states that “the deeply embodied traditions of performance and craft must be maintained even as we confront the sophisticated and ever growing capacities of programmable machines.”His commitment to humanizing technologies in the performing arts is the central theme of his scholarly writing on 20th and 21st century art and technology, which spans studies of collaborations, open-source/free software communities, and his current research on the temporality of media art – an ongoing project on the “times of new media.”
His recently completed work includes an iPad app on the Goldberg Variations, “Extraordinary Freedom Machines: Vignettes in the History of a Multimedia Century,” a three part lecture series on 20th century art and technology at the Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Art Center; a forthcoming chapter in The Emergence of Video Processing Tools titled “Virtuosity as Creative Freedom”; and “Encoding Motion in the Early Computer: Knowledge Transfers Between Studio and Lab”, in Place Studies in Art, Media, Science and Technology: Historical Investigations on the Sites and the Migration of Knowledge.