A Force for Good

Presentation by Janey Fritsche
Given for: Fujitsu Research HARP Symposium
Oct. 8, 1991 Tokyo, Japan

Thank you for inviting me to participate in this distinquished symposium. It is an honor for me to be here.

I have been developing software professionally for a number of years, but my real excitement in computer work began when I started working with interactive media at Apple's Multimedia Lab in San Francisco. It fulfilled a long time dream of mine to develop projects that combine art, music, and computers. The combining of media and computer technology is still rather new and one of the ways that I would like to see it used is to truly enhance our lives. I would like to see it used as a force for good.

I'll be showing a video of excerpts from an interactive project I developed in Macromedia's Director. It was an experiment to see if this technology is useful as an educational and political tool for raising popular awareness of social and environmental issues. The name of the prototype is "Blowpipes and Bulldozers". The program is designed to inform and involve its audience on issues of deforestation, cultural survival and possible global consequences of our current actions. It is the story of the Penan, a unique tribe of nomadic hunters and gatherers whose culture and native habitat are being destroyed by the timber industry. Their rainforest homeland is in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on northern Borneo.

Here are some excerpts from it. The first part is in Japanese and was taken from an NHK TV special, "The Network Frontier", that featured this project.

(Play short video and keep the final frame showing the diminished tribe on the screen, with the quiet haunting music playing in the background during rest of presentation.)

The Penan are a gentle and shy people. Until the last 20 years, they had lived as hunters and gatherers for thousands of years in the abundant rainforests of Borneo. Now only a few hundred of the Penan still manage to live in this traditional way; the rest are living in poverty in shabby longhouses and are suffering from malnutrition and disease. There is not enough rainforest left to sustain them. Logging continues at a more rapid pace here than any other place on the planet. Estimates are that 70% of the rainforest has been logged; the rest will be gone in 7 to 10 years. This type of devastation has dramatic consequences for us all.

*** WE ARE AT AN HISTORICAL TURNING POINT. The world as it has been shaped by technology is no longer viable. We have chosen to dominate nature, rather than live in harmony with it on a sustainable basis. We feel that the world is somehow ours to dispose of -- as income, rather than as a capital asset that needs to be nurtured. What good is money going to be when there is no clean air to breathe and no suitable water to drink? What kind of future is in store for our children and their children?

The necessary changes will come if and when we regain respect for the reverence for Life in all its forms; when we learn to look at Planet Earth again the way most so called "primitive" people saw it, as a living entity.

Is there a place for technology to do this? Our challenge is to figure out ways to make it happen. My recent work has included several experiments to explore this. You just saw one example.

I THINK IT'S NECESSARY to reach people on a feeling level to evoke an effective change. I see hope in the potential of interactive media because it reaches different parts of awareness than just the analytical. It is capable of addressing people's hearts and intuition through color, motion, sound and content. And it holds the promise of directly engaging them because it is interactive. There is strong power invested in images and sounds that we don't understand yet. And when this technology is tied into a network, it has the potential to become even more powerful because people are talking to other people and sharing dynamic experiences together. Will all of this make a difference? Maybe yes, and maybe no.

WE NEED TO BE SMART about how we approach designing these experiences. Having the right hardware is just the beginning. And by the way, we don't have the right hardware yet. And then we can get on to the really hard part. Designing compelling experiences. So much of the success of a design depends on sensory reaction as opposed to analytical stimulation. It is important that designers include artistic sensibilities that are well honed. Artists are needed to bring this technology to life. Most of the impact of interactive media is a "feeling thing". Each project is a work of art. Just as each piece of stone speaks to the sculptor, each project speaks to the designer. It has a life of its own. We need to listen and be guided in the design process.

BUT THIS ISN'T EASY. Technology has been taking us away from our natural processes and we are no longer connected to our rhythms nor to the rhythms of the planet. We have been forging blindly ahead and in so doing have sacrificed the life we hold so dear. We look at technology as an end towards artificial goals. Now is the time to realign the focus of technology as a means to bring true harmony into our lives. The humanitarian goal of technology is to enhance the quality of life .... of ALL life.

The United States and Japan are environmental bad guys. We want to be good guys but we're not. We consume way more of the natural resources than is sustainable. At the same time, we are also looked upon as world leaders because we are so technologically advanced. It's time we assume the role of true leaders. True leaders serve. This is our real business at hand. How best can we serve by using technology as a force for good? Maybe we don't have to address it this year and maybe not next year, but soon. There is no avoiding it. Our children and grandchildren can't wait much longer. Let's face the challenge now and come up with some inventive solutions. Technology for its own sake, to gain money and power without regard for its consequences is a deadend. We need to look for solutions where technology satisfies true human needs that are in harmony with Nature.

In the state of Sarawak on the island of Borneo, it has been estimated that all remaining primary rainforests will be logged out in seven to 10 years, causing immense suffering for the 200,000 indigenous people who depend directly on these forests. These people have been living in harmony with nature for thousands of years. They have ancient knowledge that may be the key to our future hope. We need to act now to stop this cultural and biological genocide. "Their loss is our loss. Their future our own."