by Barry Drogin
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Yesterday, I took my youngest, who turns four in a week, to the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. He apparently has to start his visit by watching the multi-media Big Bang intro (narrated by Maya Angelou) in the new Rose Center for Earth and Space. He then has to proceed to the Meryl Streep-narrated movie about the cladogram layout of the Fossil Halls, which includes its own dramatization of the asteroid strike that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, and ends with an ecological warning about humans’ similar impact on biodiversity. He has no clue as to what any of this means. Uninterested in the enormous Tyrannosaurus rex and Apatosaurus, he rushes over to the computer-screen alcoves to play with the tractor ball and pushbutton. The renovated Blue Whale model in the Milstein Hall of Ocean Life means nothing to him, either. He eats chicken nuggets in the shape of popular dinosaurs, and concludes his visit by piecing together a Prestosuchus skeleton in the Discovery Room. He gets to play with a microscope, a scale, a video camera, a flashlight and a Russian doll collection there as well. The educational value of the four hour visit appears to be about nil.
The next day, I take him to the Chelsea Art Gallery, where we compare some of the painted wood abstractions to Lego builds, and some canvases containing wide swirls of paints of differing colors to the results of a mini-game within his Mario Party 4 Nintendo Gamecube video game. As we pass from painting to painting, he assesses which color seems to cover the greatest area, and declares, “Black wins!” or “Red wins!” The museum has a presentation from musician Pamela Z about her Body Synth and digital loop software. As the only child present, he gets to spell his name into her microphone, which she transforms into the backbeat of an improvised contemporary piece. He figures out how to clap his hands together to make a loud sound, which he continues well past the time for applause is over. He gets to step on one of her footswitches and “play” the empty water cooler bottle she has brought as a percussion instrument. Afterwards, he is eager to return home to play Mario Party 4 with me.
His grandfather’s generation would listen to the radio, and imagine the visuals. They would learn dance steps and look at paintings. My generation would sit passively in front of the television and movie screen, egging on the filmmakers to create ever more exciting visuals. We would improvise and personalize our dance moves, and wander through art installations. My son’s generation wants to control what they are listening to and watching, and in what order, and for how long. They tolerate the electronic babysitter, while live performance, painting and sculpture tend to bore them. They don’t want to learn an instrument, they want the human-machine interface to be intuitive so they can start improvising immediately. They immerse themselves in virtual environments which they explore and affect. They’re an interactive generation.
It is ironic the extent to which the efforts that museums and theaters and clubs are expending on pleasing this new generation, of which my youngest is but a new recruit, are being wasted, as the medium, the act of interactivity, is more important than any message or content that is meant to be conveyed. It’s not that I believe that knowledge, truth, beauty and sensation will completely disappear, it’s just that I think this new generation would rather not be too bothered by it. If they need knowledge, they’d like to access it quickly and effortlessly. If the truth is important, they’d rather it was packaged concisely, preferably in a sound bite, or in a joke about the sound bite. Beauty is okay as long as it does not get in the way of the game. Sensations must be strong, dramatic, and worth the price.
We are social animals, and our culture is important to us. It evolves with each generation. My son has a right to the culture he is born into, and I have no right to deny it to him. I suspect that his generation does not view the myriad webs of connections and networks that they belong to so much as identities as, well, a myriad web of connections and networks, a necessary component of the interactivity they crave. To the extent that anything is interactive, they gravitate towards it. They may learn to queue up to get access to it, to wait their turn, but they’d rather it be simultaneous, or participate as an instructor if that is not possible. If there are two children but one controller, the child who doesn’t hold the controls may tell the other child what to do, or comment upon their performance. The child still interacts.
There was a time when every kid wanted to learn how to play the guitar, be in a rock band, and make a record. Later, every kid wanted to make a music video. Records and music videos will be quaint artifacts to this new generation. They have never known a television without hundreds of channels and a remote. The Internet has always existed. Music-on-demand, video-on-demand, are just the transition. For music, they will want to control the mix. For video, they will want to control the camera angle. And for both, they will want to change the notes, the words, the scenery, the characters, the dialogue, the story. And if the older generation refuses to build it for them, to invent it for them, to create these kinds of interactive environments for them, well, they will simply create them for themselves, while we argue about process and individuality and cultural heritage.
I’m not sure this cultural shift can properly be called a “democratization” of the arts. A collective can be democratic, but not necessarily. And the collective will create a cultural product that allows the individual to customize it and personalize it. But this does not really address the interactivity of the medium. I can order a car in a particular, perhaps even unique, shade of blue, but I do not really interact with the act of creating the car. And the act of defining and choosing that shade of blue is but a single moment in the act of the creation of the car. Interactivity implies a continuous act of recreation, a car whose shape and character and style can be changed from moment to moment. At present, video games allow a player to choose a character at the beginning of the game, but not to morph from character to character as the game progresses. Future games will.
The stagnation of identity, the very idea of identity, is a remnant of the old, non-interactive culture. Jesus, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare - will future generations care to honor these identities which our present culture have awarded iconic status to? In a world of interactive religion and philosophy, interactive musical and visual culture, interactive theater and performance, virtual and real, will identity have a role beyond branding? And as companies merge and split and change names, will even branding hold sway?
I’m talkin’ ‘bout my interactive generation, this new generation, and what it will demand of the world it inherits. For we will not decide how it will view us, how it will consider us, what of ours it will keep and what it will discard. To some extent, it has already decided, and there is nothing we can do about it. Best we wish it godspeed and good luck, and pray for its good fortune.
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