An International Conference
October 8-10, 1999
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Digital Books, Digital Teaching

New Media Design
Speaker: John Maeda, MIT Media Lab

[This is an edited summary not a complete transcript.]
John Maeda: I had the good fortune to attend art school in Japan where there were no computers, and so I had the opportunity to get in touch with traditional drawing. I remember that when I made a mistake, I would reach for the undo in my mind. It was a phantom reflex. Of course, I realized I couldn't undo things in the real world. But I also realized that drawing on the computer is different from drawing by hand. In the computer, with the same effort, you have a strange freedom to draw a single line or a million lines, and you can tell them all to be blue or green. You can tell them to go away or pop up on someone else's computer. At first, when I tried to explain to colleagues how the medium was different, I waved my hands and they would blow me off. So I decided I needed to make contextualized examples. 

One early piece I did was designed to look like the drawing program Adobe Illustrator, but in my program I could make a point on a curve become magical and tell it to move forever. People would see that demo and ask me to make it stop, but the point wasn't to make it stop. The point was that the computational medium inherently has no beginning or end, so it can keep on changing forever. This is different from anything we've ever known. 

In my book Design Machines, each page was a printed postscript created with a rendering program. It was really about how our hands are the primary obstacle to advancement in the digital arts. This is because we must think through them, even thought the computer has meta-mechanical hands that never get tired.

Much of my work has been about reconciling the frightening conflict we feel over this extremely modernist black box that appears to do absolutely nothing, but actually does absolutely everything. I believe we don't like the computer because we think of it as this cold thing. However, what if we thought of it as a happy place populated with a society of people running around? In my Human Powered Computer project, I formalized this as an actual working system. I made a computer out of living parts. From watching a video of this, you get the impression that your computer is this happy society of agents that fly around in the machine. This animated world with living beings is a huge distance from how we usually think about the computer. If you think of the computer as a giant hive of activity, it is more of a daunting thing. 


I've tried to think about how the computer could be programmed in a different way. Programming is usually a linear stream of text.  But what if there were a visual language where the ink was intelligent and had some notion of what to do?  I formalized this idea in a visual language called Design by Number where I experimented with what happens if you program inks based upon their properties, so it is possible to tell magenta ink to change every second, or tell it to have a certain behavior when it interacts with cyan. The examples I created that are on the website represented two issues. One was that things can happen infinitely if you don't turn the computer off. Second, things can happen in infinite space. If I tell something to grow, it can do that, and if it moves off the screen, you might think it has gone, but actually it is there inside the computer. Things in the computer can actually move and grow over an infinite plane. So I spent time looking at how the properties of infinite time and space are items you can model or explore  in a computer as you cannot with regular materials. 

The theme of simplicity has been a central focus of my work. When I first left MIT, I was shocked by not having my fancy Connection Machine or high end Silicon Graphics, so I had to reinvent how I thought on low end machines. My experience with Design by Numbers pointed to the fact that a very complex interaction could be derived with a very simple piece of software. Many people like to talk about how they have 1000 images, 1500 sounds, or that something takes up 600 megabytes. The reality is that you didn't need such magnitudes. While everyone else is always talking about using expensive machines, my work has come to be about cheap machines. I think out some of the things I do over a year's worth of sketches on paper, but then I program them on the computer in about a week. 

I have also focused on getting more people who are in the act of designing things to think creatively in the medium. I had an opportunity at the Tokyo Type Directors Club to make a different kind of interactive exhibit. I noticed was that older designers really loved this.  They'd say, "Oh, this is great, it moves around so lightly." Then they would ask if they could stop it somehow. I said they couldn't stop it because it's not supposed to stop. Most people want to stop it; to kill it. For some reason, our natural instincts to have things stop come in conflict with the visual world. 

When Java first came out, I learned it and began to make online services. The president of Shiseido had a long-term interest in orchids, so he supported my development of the Cyber Orchid web service. It allowed a digital version of a flower to be delivered as part of a personalized greeting. I played with the theme of growth there. Everything unfolds in time automatically. 

It used to bother me that some people imagined themselves to be masters of the computer. No one is a master of a computer. It is an illusion. This computer I am using could crash at any minute. So, I thought, What if you put the computer  in charge instead of the person driving it? I formalized this theme in a series of books called Reactive Books. Each of these represent a different way of interacting with the computer.

 [Movies may take awhile to download and require QuickTime 3.]

  • Reactive Squares description | movie (1.5MB)
  • Flying Letters description | movie (800K) 
  • 12 O'Clocks description | movie (864K)
  • Tap Type Write description | movie (896K)
  • People who viewed these examples would say they would make great screen savers. I would explain, "No, I don't make screen savers. These take over your machine and nothing can run, because I want to control the machine." 

    Much of what I do is about the notion that there is no limit to how you can approach the rich material that is available through the computer. It is a magical drawing substrate to experiment upon. But unfortunately, the sad reality is that the starting point with the computer is usually paper or some material we know.


    Ron Burnett: I've found the notion of the computer as a tool actually creates impediments. The environment interests me more than the tool aspect in digital technology, but the tool aspect makes it appear that you apply the same principles in the computer as you do with pen to paper. How do you balance that tendency to override the richness of the computer and its potential with the more reductive notion of the tool?

    Maeda: Any great tradition of creation is always about the selection of materials. Our materials in the computer have been tools in some strange way, so most people cannot see the materials as something more. Today, the sad state of things is that the material is something called a program, and it is a horrible material right now. It is also invisible. If you are a painter and make a painting, that's a great thing. If you're a writer and write a novel, that's a great thing too. But if you write a program to do some neat thing, that's different. The fact that it is a creative act is not recognized. 

    In Design by Numbers, we learned from our tests that the system is not so important. What turned out to be important was the courseware we designed around it. For the first time, it allowed an instructor in a class to look at ten examples at the same time, and walk through them in a normal critique environment. This is because our environment is so controlled and simple that students who are super hackers can't do the things they are used to doing. They are actually stopped. This makes an even playing field that can be very valuable. I believe having that an even playing field is the most important part of the education.

    Digital Books, Digital Teaching
    Bob Stein, Empowering Authors in the Digital Age

    media in transition   agenda   speakers   summaries   papers   dialogue