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Driver education for the information highway

Robert B. Scott
Ryerson Polytechnic University, Canada

For many of us, driving on the multilane information highway is an overwhelming, if not daunting prospect. How do we navigate through traffic which is flowing in such vast quantities and travelling at the speed of light?

Two Canadian media theoreticians of the 1970s the now fabled intellectual Marshall McLuhan and his contemporary Mark Slade of the National Film Board of Canada, have provided us with some advice that might prove helpful to the learning driver. McLuhan, whose ideas have been variously vilified or praised over the years, suggested that, in the electronic environment, boundaries between traditional disciplines, institutions and even nations evaporate. By applying Einsteinian concepts to the media, McLuhan argued that information travelling at the speed of light bypasses borders and re-establishes the ancient notion that all things are inter-related and relative to each other. Essentially nothing exists in isolation; specialisation is a product of the linear age of print. What is necessary for survival in the information age is a flexible and open mind - to "go with the flow" might best sum up the strategy. Such an idea seems unsettling in a world seeking stability, yet despite the continuing attempts of governments to control the flow of information with hard and incontrovertible rules from the past, it is clear that these rules are becoming increasingly difficult to enforce.

How then do users of the information highway avoid crashes and pile ups if everyone is free to "do his or her own thing"? According to McLuhan, we must rely on different human attributes than we did in the pre-electronic age of print, emphasising peripheral more than focal vision, pattern recognition over concentration on one thing at a time, sensory involvement more than reason, cooperation rather than confrontation. In the same way we enter a busy roundabout, we need to negotiate (in the sense of "to navigate" and "to arbitrate") our way through our immediate surroundings by working out on the spot with other drivers when to speed up or slow down or change lanes so that we all can arrive at our destinations safely. In other words, we must become aware of the presence of each other first, and trust that the future will take care of itself.

Mark Slade also realised the impact of the electric age. He anticipated the arrival of the information highway when he employed the metaphor of traffic signals, arguing that older binary modalities such as red = stop and green = go no longer address the reality of traffic travelling light years faster than the horse and buggy. He noted that, as the automobile became capable of increased speed, an amber light was added to the system because traffic began to move too quickly to be governed by simple codes and it could be fatal to step out without first checking for oncoming vehicles. For Slade. the amber light symbolises the increasing need to be wary in the accelerated flow of information and at the same time provides a useful breathing space or zone between stop and go where the traveller is placed in a cautionary position attuned to the moment and aware of other drivers on the road. Like McLuhan, Slade provides a useful strategy for dealing with technological change. Heeding his observations may help us avoid some of the mishaps that might occur on the Infobahn and at the same time may help us to think clearly amid the barrage of promotional hype that has accompanied this new technological development.

Drawing upon McLuhan's and Slade's concepts as part of its rationale for recent curriculum development, the Film and Photography Department at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, the longest established department of its kind in Canada, has designed the New Media four year degree program to provide students with an education that is at once flexible, open and interdisciplinary and that prepares them with the skills necessary to function in the rapidly expanding digital environment, whether in industry, business, science, education or the arts.

Year One is common to the Film, Photography and New Media programs and ensures that all students in the department receive a solid basic grounding in film production, photography, video, digital graphics and sound, as well as introductory courses in culture and media theory, visual and design studies and art history.

Year Two in the New Media program continues the process of study in the five production areas, along with the aforementioned related studies plus a wide range of options in specific professional and theoretical subjects, all directed to examine current advances in digital technologies and their consequent social and artistic implications.

In Year Three, students are able to engage in such inter-related areas as (1) multimedia design and production, (2) Internet and World Wide Web page creation and telecommunications, (3) digital imaging, virtual reality and experimental applications of new media in the arts, science, business and education, (4) participatory communication and media literacy, new and traditional media in education and community development, and (5) cybersound, exploring and creating virtual environments in acoustic space.

Year Four, the final year, provides students with the opportunity to work on an internship basis with various media companies or government agencies which agree to monitor their work and participate in the intern's final assessment for graduation. Each graduating student produces a final major work of a scholarly research or creative nature, again exploring digital technologies and their applications and impact.

While the program appears to be relatively conventional in its structure, it is distinctive in several ways. First, it is unusual in offering such a wide array of media for study and production, consequently students acquire the kind of hands on experience and knowledge required to integrate and manage the variety of inputs possible in the new world of multimedia. Dealing constantly with a wide range of media, students become comfortable with technological change and familiar with different systems. They can handle a Ford or a Cadillac with equal ease, whatever the road conditions.

On a practical level. students at Ryerson pay for their own media supplies and production lab time. They therefore quickly learn to be efficient in their work procedures and to face the economic realities of driving on the Infobahn. They also learn to be self reliant and ingenious at an early stage and to recognise that software and hardware problems, like mechanical breakdowns in a car, can often be repaired or circumvented using basic programming and electronics skills. In fact, they are encouraged to adapt or patch together components or jerry build their own systems to meet their needs. At the very least, they learn how to find assistance fast, instead of waiting helplessly stranded by the road side or creating a traffic jam.

Risk taking and experimentation are encouraged but not without careful planning and attention to perceivable consequences and costs, much like setting out on a trip and checking a road map and other data beforehand in order to avoid detours or getting lost. Such planning eliminates wasteful practice and results in more effective methods and procedures. Although production is a special feature of media practice, it does not dominate the program since Ryerson's tripartite system of program balance requires professional, professionally related and liberal studies to be equally distributed in the curriculum. In fact, the program could be thought of as a series of concentric circles with production at the centre encompassed by expanding "rings" of professionally related and liberal studies, a symbol of the inter-relation amongst the three areas and the importance of each part to the others.

The program is also unique not so much for utilising digital technologies in the delivery of courseware (that is being done in many universities), but for addressing these technologies as a legitimate discipline for study in its own right. For example, the Internet and the WWW become tools of research about themselves, as well as a means of accessing and sending information on any other subject. In addition, the program is dedicated to exploring the transforming nature of interactivity in order to determine the possibilities of non-narrative approaches and to understand the extraordinary potential of digital sound and visual imaging. The content of these technologies is not merely an extension of print media, and therefore demands, perhaps, a new aesthetic all its own.

Ryerson's New Media program is singular in its emphasis on design and organisational principles in media practice. Studies in art history and theory also encourage creativity and heighten students' awareness of traditional and current issues in visual and sound works. Of equal interest are forms of art and communication developed by indigenous cultures, for they represent a different sensibility and relation to the world than that expressed by modem technological society. Such studies contribute a global perspective to students' understanding of new media and take them beyond applications which serve only the narrow interests of business and industry. And they raise questions about where the information highway is taking us. Certainly, for most the world's population concerned with simply getting enough to cat from day to day, the Internet seems to be just another remote and useless plaything of the affluent. At the same time, in a McLuhanistic twist, it is possible that these very technologies may in fact make us more aware of the inequities in human society and bring to us the realisation that, as Buckminster Fuller has noted, we are, for better or worse, all together on Spaceship Earth.

The very nature of global communications systems and interactive technologies may automatically promote a greater sense of social and environmental responsibility. Certainly, cooperation, courtesy and respect are essential ingredients in any successful multimedia project. In this sense, the New Media program is unique in the range of cooperative ventures it has carried out with other departments such as Theatre, Fashion, Interior Design and the Faculty of Community Services. Joint undertakings with social agencies, business and government have also proved to be challenging but rewarding experiences for student participants. These ventures have produced some very imaginative and exciting projects which open new avenues for further exploration.

One example is an interactive interpersonal skills training program developed for the Faculty of Community Services and the Ontario Ministry of Labour using New Media students' multimedia skills in its design and production. The program is based on the notion that each of us leads a double life, the one which we present to the world, the other which we hide. The educational objective is to train managers to recognise this duality, and as a consequence to deal more effectively with personnel in their charge. On the video screen, the user/trainee is presented with a simulated conference of a medical team discussing a particular patient. By touching any one of a series of still portraits of team members provided below the window, the trainee is able to view the inner responses of that team member to other colleagues at any point in the meeting. The trainee can then compare that individual's outward behaviour and real feelings, and examine how these responses effect the flow of the conference. Besides providing a dramatic introduction into the way people manoeuvre their outward behaviour to hide their inward thoughts, the program encourages further interaction by having the trainee select from a number of possible scenarios which one would make the team function more effectively. The success of the program has led to the production of additional segments, some even invoking the patient's personal responses to each team member. The collective experiences of previous users provide further insights which the designers can incorporate into possible directions to take in the future. Proposed developments include transferring the program to CD ROM and also exploiting the capabilities of online delivery for distance education purposes.

Another project involves the creation of an interactive theatre performance data base providing a daily calendar of professional theatre performances over fifty years (1914-1967) for twenty-eight cities and towns in the province of Ontario. In this case, the design of the database itself, as well as the presentation template, present major difficulties because of the amount of information (over 40,000 records), the number of fields per record (35) and the variety of information (text - cast lists, reviews, gate receipts, as well as photographs of performers and productions, stage and costume designs, posters, programs, even sound and video recordings of performances). As it stands at the moment, the program awaits the completion of some final linkages which will allow the user to bring together complete information for any production which is selected, including stage biographies of each performer and any other materials pertinent to the specific performance. Universities, libraries and archives both in and out of the province have expressed interest in assisting in this project which provides a useful tool for both the professional theatre history researcher and for members of the general public interested in our cultural past.

A project of special interest, given the venue of this conference, has recently been proposed to the New Media program but would require joint Canadian-Australian cooperation to bring it to fruition. The idea sprang originally from a reading of Robert Hughes' The Fatal Shore in which a reference occurs to the fact that in the 1840s a number of French Canadian political dissidents were transported to an Australian prison by British officials in Lower Canada. Fortunately, a diary kept by one of the patriot convicts is extant and is being translated into English. In fact, excerpts from the diary form the basis for the project which proposes to re-create life in an early Australian prison as a virtual environment through the marvels of new surround sound technology. Of course, it would be ideal to mount the sound piece in the actual prison as an additional attraction for tourists. Because it is not site specific, the program could easily be transferred to compact disc for individual listening.

These projects illustrate the diversity of subjects and materials that students with a background in multimedia and digital technologies can become involved in.

Some important challenges still lie ahead in the area of design, more effective use of format and colour enhancement. These elements will make communication more effective for the majority of users but the even greater challenge is to open the Net to those who are physically challenged. The next advancement to a system which is not dominated by visual data will demand that we carry out more experimentation in the area of sound to create a complementary voice oriented Internet, as one might call it. Yet another challenge will be to extend the Internet to reach out to those millions who need a voice and need our attention. Their message to us will affect the course of history. An ongoing challenge for all users concerns the nature of content and the values which we spread over the Net. Although there are no hard and fast rules which users are bound by, the dilemma is to keep the Net free and open while somehow implementing ethical policies which will ensure that we protect the dignity of others, that is to say, that racist creeds and hate literature must not be permitted to devalue human life. The diminution of violence must also be a priority. A free Net means the right to access, not the right to say hateful things or exploit those who most need protection. Driving on the information highway brings with it a responsibility for our actions and a concern for the safety and well being of others.

Author: Professor Robert Scott
Program Director, Media Arts
Department of Film and Photography
Ryerson Polytechnic University, 350 Victoria Street
Toronto, Ontario M5B 2K3, Canada
(416) 979 5167, bscott@acs.ryerson.ca

Please cite as: Scott, R. (1996). Driver education for the information highway. In C. McBeath and R. Atkinson (Eds), Proceedings of the Third International Interactive Multimedia Symposium, 381-383. Perth, Western Australia, 21-25 January. Promaco Conventions. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/iims/1996/ry/scott.html

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