Remarks of Assistant Secretary Irving at the Rocky Mountain Arts & Technology Conference

Capitalizing on the Power and Promise of Technological Innovations
Denver, CO
February 04, 1999
"Capitalizing on the Power and Promise of Technological Innovations"
Remarks by Larry Irving
Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information
National Telecommunications and Information Administration
U.S. Department of Commerce

at the

Rocky Mountain Arts & Technology Conference
Denver, Colorado

February 4, 1999

 



Good morning. I'd like to thank Elaine Mariner, the Colorado Council on the Arts, the University of Colorado, the Benton Foundation, and NEH for inviting me to your 1999 Rocky Mountain Arts and Technology Conference.

I am delighted to lead off a conference on the convergence of art and technology. At NTIA, we track new developments in the technology field, and there is no doubt that new technologies are having an impact on most people and professions. The role that new technologies can play in the arts is -- in my mind -- one of the most exciting outgrowths of this technological revolution.

And, indeed, it has been a revolution: the technological developments that we have witnessed in the last five years alone boggle the imagination. HDTV has arrived; dozens of stations are broadcasting digitally as I speak. Those of us with a satellite box now have more processing power in our living room than exists in a ten-year-old mainframe computer. And we have access to 350 or 400 channels of video, virtually anywhere and any time.

And, of course, who would have imagined the incredible growth of the Internet? Five years ago, there were less than 100,000 online; today, there are over 150 million online worldwide. On any given day, there are 22 million adults logging on to the Net, and an additional 52,000 Americans logging on for their first time. Americans now spend as much time online as they do watching rented videos. Twenty years ago, Gil Scott Heron said that the revolution would not be televised. It is, however, being digitized and carried on the Net.

The Clinton-Gore Administration has resisted regulation of the Internet because we believe that innovation will arise only through unfettered experimentation and investment. And this theory has paid off. In the last few years alone, we have seen rapid growth of infrastructure and the rise of innovative services, such as Internet telephony, electronic books, and online audio capabilities and video streaming. Net radio is competing with broadcasting radio, and online news is competing with traditional news services. And with MP3, and now MP4, many kids today are downloading their favorite music so they can listen to it offline. (My nephew already thinks it's anachronistic to buy a CD from Amazon.com. He's cutting out the middleman and creating his own CDs by downloading music to his CD Rom drive.)

Obviously, these technological changes are impacting other fields. Wall Street firms are undergoing a transformation as a growing number of Americans are handling trades online. Last year, Charles Schwab estimated that it handled 60,000 e-trades a day. The airline industry is now encouraging customers to purchase tickets online; one airline considered even adding a charge for tickets purchased off-line. And, as we all know, Americans are changing the way they shop and seek information. This past Christmas may not have been a White Christmas for all Americans; but it certainly was a "Web Christmas": over $8 billion in goods were purchased online, three times the amount anticipated before the holiday season.

But I worry about the focus on commerce regarding the Net. Puff Daddy was wrong. It is not "all about the Benjamins." I worry that we are focused on price and profits, but not on the values that we can promote through new technologies. I worry that we are following the old adage: "we know the price of everything, but the value of nothing." That is why it is important to remember the impact that technology is also having on the arts by opening new paths for expression and creativity -- and that is what I want to talk about today.

The impact of technology on the arts is particularly exciting and significant because it is opening new opportunities for artists, and for those who love the arts. Artists are able to use new technologies to expose their work to the world, often at just the click of a key. New technologies are also enabling artists to market directly to galleries or buyers -- not only in remote communities in America, but in Milan, Morocco, or Mauritius. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, artists are using new technologies to engage with people and communities that have not previously had exposure to, or involvement with, the arts. New technologies are allowing children to view the Da Vinci's works (other than the Mona Lisa!) for their first time, and are enabling tribal communities in the Southwest to preserve and promote their own native crafts. As a result, arts are now more accessible and more central to the lives of Americans.
 

A New Forum for Artists

I mentioned that new technologies are creating a new forum for artists. Some have gone so far as to say that they are allowing artists to become "self-publishers." It used to be the case, for example, that the only way to publish a book was to write a manuscript, send it to agents and publishers, wait for the responses, and - if you were lucky - find one acceptance letter amidst the rejections. Now, anyone can publish a book by writing a manuscript and hitting "upload." We're no longer seeking our fifteen minutes, but our fifteen megahertz, of fame.

If you saw the movie "Henry Fool" last year, you'll know what I'm talking about. This movie portrayed a janitor who wrote lengthy, and apparently bawdy, poetry. No publisher would accept his material. But, one day his sister put his poetry online, and he became an overnight sensation. At the risk of spoiling the conclusion for those of you who haven't seen the movie, the online poet ends up winning the Nobel Prize for literature. After the movie's release, we actually saw life imitate art: among last year's nominations for the Booker Prize, England's highest literary honor, was an online novel! This nominee had never been published on paper, but many had read it on the Net.

The Internet, and video and audio streaming technologies, are also opening doors for other types of artists. The New York Times recently reported, for example, that video streaming is opening up a whole new industry for online film-makers. Victoria's Secret and John Glenn pulled millions to the Net. But what will happen when an undiscovered play by Tennessee Williams or Amiri Baraka premieres on the Net? We used to think that satellite TV, Bravo, A&E, BET, and Sundance gave new visibility to the arts; think about how many more millions will now be able to access arts and film by going online.

And it's not just the artists and film makers who will benefit; RealAudio has also opened up a whole new forum for musicians. Today, there are more than 5,000 Net radio stations, broadcasting everything from techno pop to ska to Latin jazz. A new musical group, or new form of music, might not get play on the local radio station, but it can find its way to an audience online. Hip hop actually gained its following through Web. And, along with Net radio and performers' web sites, we are also beginning to see online performances. "WWW.All about Jazz.com," for example, is honoring the 60th Anniversary of Blue Note productions with live web casts from around NYC. Soon, we may see collaborative performances, where performers can join in a jam session occurring on the Net.
 

E-Commerce Opportunties

In addition to raising visibility, new technologies will also yield real economic opportunities for artists. One of the significant outgrowths of the Internet, as I mentioned, is electronic commerce. The Internet is utterly transforming commercial transactions -- the sales of all types of goods and services. Vice President Gore noted that "[i]n this emerging digital marketplace, anyone with a good idea and a little software can set up shop, and become the corner store for the entire planet." For the first time, we can contact rug weavers in Morocco, basket weavers from Botswana, or coffee growers in Columbia - within seconds. We have created a virtual shopping mall, open every day, 24 hours a day, around the world. Imagine what will happen once broadband applications become ubiquitous.

The artistic community has much to gain from e-commerce developments. No longer is it necessary to show a sculpture at an exhibit or hire an agent. Now, artisans can show their work online. A potential buyer can view a painting clearly, examine all sides of sculpture through video streaming and 3-D technologies, or listen to a new release through Real Audio and purchase the CD directly from the musician.

NTIA is excited about the opportunities open to arts communities through technology, and we have worked with a number of arts groups through our Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP). TIIAP is part of the vision of President Clinton and Vice President Gore to ensure that all Americans become part of the burgeoning Information Society. During these past four years, TIIAP has been committed to supporting innovative and exemplary projects that help bring new technologies to underserved areas. We believe that -like new forms of music or art -- the best ideas arise from people who are using and understand new technologies. These projects serve as models for using information infrastructure and information technology in the public and nonprofit sectors.

Many of TIIAP's projects have involved the medical community, the community development sector, or the public safety community. Nevertheless, the arts community -- which has traditionally lacked technological resources -- is vital to this mix, and provides the "spice" to an already rich bouillabaisse of projects. One of our TIIAP grantees - the University of Colorado at Boulder and its partner, the Colorado Council on the Arts -- is even participating in this conference today.

A number of our most successful projects have helped artisans use new technologies to promote their arts. The non-profit Public WebMarket, for example, links potential buyers to websites for hand-crafted Navajo clothing, cherrywood baskets, Hawaiian pareos, miniature vases and other types of regional crafts and local products. This project demonstrates that technologies can bring economic benefits, while promoting traditional arts at the same time.
 

Engaging Communities

TIIAP is also focusing on a third way that artists can use new technologies - that is, by engaging with communities that have not been exposed to the arts. A significant portion of Americans are still not connected to the National Information Infrastructure (NII). Back in 1994, NTIA released one of the first comprehensive measures of national connectivity in a report called Falling Through the Net. Last July, working in partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau, we took another look in Falling Through the Net II. We found that, while more Americans have become connected to the Information Superhighway, some segments of our society are still purchasing and using computers more than others. In particular, low-income Americans, minorities, and young families in rural America and central cities are falling further behind.

TIIAP projects are extending our information infrastructure. And we are seeing particularly exciting applications when arts groups use technologies to involve rural communities, disabled communities, or schools and community centers. The University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, is using multimedia technologies, including audio and video streaming, to make performing arts content available online. As a result, many schoolchildren, disabled people, and isolated communities are viewing such performances for the first time.

The Zeum is another TIIAP project that is also using exciting technological applications to engage schoolchildren. This project, in the heart of downtown San Francisco, engages public schools in low-income neighborhoods to teach children about high-tech art. The children are working together to find content online and to use that content in their own videos. High-speed connections allow different schools to work together, and to share their creations. These children are learning what it means both to create and to collaborate.

Projects like these are exciting on many levels. To begin with, they are making new technologies available to segments of America that might otherwise miss out on the Information Revolution. And they are exposing such communities to new art forms.

But the ramifications of these projects go deeper. Many of these projects also are at the forefront of technological innovation. Throughout the centuries, we have seen artists "push the envelop" by creating new tools and new media. While the medical profession now relies on x-rays, for example, we must remember that it was the artist Daguerre who first came up with the concept of the photograph.

It takes people like you to explore new frontiers -- people who understand both the art and the technology. Amazon.com provides a good model. That company has succeeded, not because it was the first online book seller, but because it understands what the book purchaser wants and what technology can do. They are not just book sellers; they are technologists who understand how to use technology to make the purchasing process seamless.

You are also threading art and technology in a seamless web. Now, once again, we are seeing arts projects pushing the frontiers of new technologies, particularly those with interactive capabilities. One of our museum projects, for example, is using interactive technologies and portable video systems. This allows schoolchildren to virtually tour the museum and chat with curators before actually visiting the museum.

This coming year, TIIAP will be looking closely for projects like these, which make innovative uses of new technologies and have cross-cutting applications in other fields. Innovative applications - particularly of interactive technologies - provide models, not only for other arts projects, but also for interactive medical programs, community networking programs, or public safety projects.

Arts programs are also significant -- again, the "spice" of the TIIAP bouillabaise -- because they tap into what is truly essential and human. As Romare Bearden once remarked, "art is the soul of a people." You know how thrilling it is to view your favorite piece of art on the Net, or hear your favorite song on Real Audio. I know I still remember my joy when I first discovered the Louvre online in 1993, or when I first heard Miles Davis or Beethoven through an audio file.

Imagine the excitement of schoolchildren when they see real-life depictions of the pyramids on the Net, or visit the Vatican library. I grew up in New York City. For $0.50 in subway fare, I could visit the Metropolitan, MOMA, and the New York Public Library. But for many school kids, these technologies are providing their first exposure to art. Now, they can look at Corot, Monet, or Seurat any time they want. It's not the same as being there, but in some ways it's better. The Internet lets you focus on the history of the work, or get a closeup of the painting to examine the brush strokes. Technology allows you to see what's underneath the paint, to examine the painting's essence.

The Internet and multimedia technologies can also provide the means for self-expression. Last year, I visited a school in Newark, New Jersey, and talked to one little girl who was using the Internet for her very first time. She was excited by what she could do online and exclaimed that the Internet was a "window." It both provided her a window to view the world, and it also allowed her to open that window and shout out her story.

Our communities are also "shouting out" their stories with the help of new technologies. In New Mexico, for example, Native Americans are learning how to create their own web-based museum exhibits. This is giving them the opportunity to interpret their own culture, rather than have it interpreted by outsiders. The Blues Foundation has also started a "Blues in the Schools" program to help reinvigorate a classic American art form and to use the blues as a tool to get at-risk students more engaged in school. These programs are helping our communities learn about their cultural heritage and define themselves, while also learning technological skills.
 

Conclusion

I've listed just a few of the productive collaborations between the arts and new technologies: new technologies are providing new fora for artists, new economic opportunities for artists, and new ways to engage communities. In the days ahead, I am sure that you will have your own experiences and examples to share.

Of course, science and technology will never be able to replace the arts. I have heard it said that:

"Science will never be able to reduce the value of a sunset to arithmetic. Nor can it reduce friendship to a formula. Laughter and love, pain and loneliness, the challenge of accomplishment in living, and the depth of insight into beauty and truth: these will always surpass the scientific mastery of nature."

Only art can capture these feelings and these truths. But science and technology can help broadcast these artistic expressions to the world and engage more Americans in creative activity. And that, I believe, is one of the greatest benefits of our Information Revolution.