They came from all parts of the United States--some came from as far away as Europe and Japan--and holed up for four days in the Monterey Conference Center, ignoring the unseasonably warm weather and the spectacular setting that, in its cannery days, reinforced John Steinbeck's faith in simplicity and his enmity for intellectualism.
There were no anti-intellectuals in this group. They were 500 nerds, to use their own description, and they were in town to soak up information like blank computer discs at something called TED2, a sequel to the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference that was held at the same site six years ago.
TED2 was something of a nerd itself--smart, overstimulated and uncoordinated; the nutty professor, in its own world of ideas, speaking of the impact of new technologies while old technologies failed. Slide projectors didn't project, sound and lighting cues were missed, the program order got so scrambled you never knew who was going to speak when.
But if TED2 wore its glasses askew and had ink stains on its shirt pocket, it also left the unmistakable impression that if the nerds get their act together--if they can make it clear to the rest of us what it is they've discovered--they're going to redesign the world by the year 2000 and we'll all be the better for it.
The subjects at TED2 ranged from such perennials as high-definition TV and desktop publishing to the surreal concept of "virtual reality," an environment created by a computer that allows you in, by way of special goggles, and allows you to move around once you're in, by way of a high-tech glove.
Come along, it's like this. You put on black goggles, about twice the size of a snorkeling mask, and you are suddenly looking around in a programmed three-dimensional world where no earthbound rules apply. In the program being demonstrated at TED2, virtual reality travelers found themselves in a room that seemed to be floating like an unfinished space station in a Smurf-blue sky.
The room had walls, a floor, a table, a filled bathtub and such colorful objects as a ball, a top hat and a cluster of grapes. In front of you at all times was a mechanical hand-- your hand--which moved as you moved. You could pick up objects with the hand, pull them toward you, and--if you liked--push them through a wall and drop them on the other side. You could walk toward objects or turn around and see behind you. Most miraculous of all, you could point your index finger and crumple your thumb, as if firing an imaginary gun, and take off flying! Like a disembodied Peter Pan, you could zip through space, dip inside a cloud and pause to look around, then cock your thumb and follow your index finger back to the floating living room.
Watching people take these trips was as much fun as doing it. Decked out in black goggles and gloves, they crouched and pointed, squeezed the air and twisted their hands in front of them as if examining a rose--which, of course, is just what they were doing.
Its proponents assured the TED2 audience that virtual reality is more than an E ride inside a computer, even if Disney has been experimenting with it and Mattel will soon market a Nintendo game fashioned after it. Virtual reality is already being used for research by NASA, and Jaron Lanier, the concept's 29-year-old pioneer, said that within two years lives will be saved by its applications in medicine.
But if virtual reality was the most entertaining technology on display at TED2, it was far from the most intellectually exciting. While politicians and special interest groups continue to debate crises in education and the environment, the tools most likely to produce quick results in those areas were being demonstrated at TED2, and what the nerds in the audience saw spun even their heads.
Payson Stevens, president of Del Mar-based InterNetwork Inc., drew a standing ovation after demonstrating how his company is using computer animation and satellite images to track trends in the global environment. It's one thing to talk about the impact of diminishing rain forests, or of the warming of the Earth's atmosphere caused by the hole punched in the ozone layer; it's something else to see these things brought home in graphic detail on a screen. At a congressional hearing on the greenhouse effect, Stevens got the pols' attention by programming his computers to show how the rising tides produced by rising temperatures will overflow the Potomac and stretch its banks to the foot of the capital building itself.
Another standing ovation was given to Robert Abel, a former TV commercial film maker, who previewed a teaching aid that could almost overnight revolutionize education. Using a MacIntosh and laser discs, Abel showed how a class could study a painting by Picasso or a poem by Tennyson and with the push of buttons receive layer upon layer of additional information.
Picasso's "Guernica," a painting that captured the horror of the 1937 Nazi bombing of the Spanish city of that name, was supplemented--selectively and instantly--by newsreel footage of the event, by biographical detail on Picasso's relationship to the town and by various interpretations of the art work by scholars. Elements of the painting could be isolated and studied in more detail; zoom in the head of the bull, push a button and there are six choices for studying the animal and its role in Spanish culture.
In analyzing the poem "Ulysses," by Tennyson, the computer offered differing readings of lines by actors, and different interpretations of the poem's meaning by Tennyson scholars. All on screen. The computer can be asked for definitions of difficult words, and the definitions are given in the context of the time in which they were used. Ultimately, "Ulysses" is a poem about heroes and it ends in the Abel demonstration with a montage of photos of heroic figures, the last image being that of the Chinese student who stopped tanks in Tian An Men Square last year.
Abel said that before he demonstrated the "Ulysses" lecture to a group of 11-year-olds on a field trip, he asked them who their heroes were. Most of them answered with names of athletes or rock singers. Afterward, he said, a boy who had named basketball star Michael Jordan as his No. 1 hero volunteered that he had misunderstood the meaning of the word and that he guessed it did take greater courage to stand in front of a tank than to slam-dunk a basketball.
On the surface, TED2 seemed to have a lot to do with technology and education and very little to do with entertainment and design. But for the technology to be useful, it will have to be designed for the masses, and it will have to be entertaining. During the last 20 years, computer technology has been either the toy or the tool of structured personalities, those people who were born to balance a checkbook; the anal retentive, Freud called them. During the next 20 years, those unstructured souls among us who can't even remember where we parked our cars will have to be brought into the computer community.
Virtual reality, or something like it, can help. Instead of standing by helplessly, computer illiterates will be able to don some magic goggles, grab a joy stick and see how it all works from inside--sort of like the movie "Tron," without the bad dialogue.
For children, it may not have to come to that. If education is made more interactive, to borrow a nerd word, neither computers nor Shakespeare need to be intimidating. To get kids to want to push those learning buttons, the information has to be made entertaining.
As most participants at TED2 agreed, the technology revolution has just begun. Innovations in this decade will be more dramatic than all that has gone before. The strongest reaction of the entire conference was to a speech by one-time computer Wunderkind Ted Nelson, who condemned the computer industry--and the electronics industry in general--for building systems that were both too complex and too limited. "The good news is that you can do anything with computers," Nelson said. "The bad news is that it's almost impossible to do anything with them."
Nelson called for a complete rethinking of computer programming and a universal system that everyone can use. The question, given the fact that nerds are better at dreaming things up than they are at explaining them, is whether they can teach themselves how to teach others what they've learned.