COLUMN ONE : The New Cultural Frontier : More publishers, painters and playwrights are moving to the high-tech hubs of the West. This talent migration is changing the way America’s art and ideas are created.
Think encyclopedias and you think of Oxford dons in flowing gowns and the tweedy world of New York publishing.
But what you really should be thinking is: Redmond, Wash. That’s the home of Microsoft Corp., whose Encarta CD-ROM encyclopedia, replete with video and sound, has become the world’s best-selling encyclopedia in its first year on the market.
The sudden ascendance of Encarta is more than just another indication that the electronic information age has arrived. To many, it’s a sign of a changing intellectual landscape, one in which the information-technology outposts of the West are quietly becoming hubs of thought and creativity as well.
“New York used to be the center of the information industry,” says Tom Corddry, one of Microsoft’s multimedia gurus. “But electronic publishing could be based on the West Coast.”
Consider Encarta. The encyclopedia has already made Microsoft a major player in the knowledge business, giving it a pivotal role in deciding just what these essential references contain, how they behave and what they do.
Encarta is so successful that Microsoft, whose forte has been computer programs, doesn’t just create the coding for the CD-ROM. It also hires writers, editors and artists to produce original material, then handles distribution.
In other words, the medium doesn’t only help shape the message. It also helps determine from where the message comes.
Nobody is saying New York is about to disappear as a center of ideas, or that Los Angeles will soon lose its grip on movie and TV production. But there are strong signs that changing technologies are starting to redraw the nation’s cultural map.
“Just like painters had to be in New York in the ‘60s and Paris in the ‘20s, if you want to rub (your) mind with people in these disciplines, you have to be” in the West, says Bob Bell, a professor at San Francisco State University’s multimedia center, which offers courses to thousands of professionals each year.
“You are getting painters, artists, writers, designers moving here because of employment opportunities,” Bell says.
New media technologies are evolving extremely rapidly. Taking advantage of the latest advances requires close interaction among musicians, artists, writers and computer experts. The technical wizards and creative professionals most attuned to the new media tend to be concentrated in the West Coast’s major metropolitan centers--notably the San Francisco Bay Area, the Northwest and Southern California.
“It’s an exciting time and place. We’re shaping something new,” says Amy Satron, who recently left Apple Computer to develop multimedia texts for Wadsworth Publishing, a San Francisco textbook company. The concentration of talent “is leading to outcomes that wouldn’t otherwise be possible,” says Satron, whose husband is working on a multimedia product for Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog group.
Of the 4,500 members of the International Interactive Communications Society, a group of multimedia professionals based in Beaverton, Ore., close to half are in San Francisco or Los Angeles. New York has 357 members.
This melding of the technically literate and the artistically inclined is generating a cultural phenomenon some like to call techno-bohemian--techno-boho, for short. It’s a peculiar amalgam of 1960s hippiedom and 1980s capitalism, suffused with the very 1990s notion that technology is making possible entirely new forms of artistic expression.
Richard Haukom, a San Francisco-based multimedia producer, finds the term techno-boho pretentious. But he sees in the local multimedia community a broad recognition of the new medium’s expressive power. The ability to mix words, sounds and images, and give people the power to control them in novel ways, he says, also has great potential for social good.
“Some see multimedia as a literary genre; some will use it as an art form,” he says. “I think it’s the most phenomenal educational technology ever invented.”
Migrations of talent have occurred throughout history as national fortunes changed and technologies evolved. Driven by the desire for more clear days for shooting, the American movie industry moved west from New York generations ago, dragging a goodly sum of intellectual capital in its wake. Beginning in the 1920s, waves of writers--including Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald--were drawn by the high pay and excitement of Hollywood.
Today, of the 11,000 members of the Writers Guild--the union that covers movies, television and radio--7,500 live on the West Coast, about 5,600 of them in Los Angeles.
And, although publishing and the fine arts remain based in New York City, the rise of universities as patrons of the arts long ago dispersed writers and other creative talent around the country.
By their nature, the newer, more outdoorsy and less densely populated cities of the West do not have the intellectual maturity or intensity of Paris or New York in their heyday. Perhaps they never will.
But they are cultural centers of a different sort, drawing energy from technological innovation and social change rather than from tradition. More like Hollywood than Greenwich Village, these communities are driven as much by a desire for worldly success and a search for a better quality of life as by the yearning for artistic fulfillment.
Multimedia companies find cities in the West have the best selection of people with both technical and artistic talent.
Compton’s NewMedia, formerly a subsidiary of Britannica and now owned by the Chicago Tribune Co., established itself in Carlsbad, north of San Diego, rather than at its parent’s base in Chicago.
“How many people would be willing to move to Chicago?” Tom McGrew, Compton’s vice president of marketing development and product planning, asks rhetorically.
Southern California was ideal, he says, because of the graphic designers, musicians and cartoonists attached to the movie industry. A new multimedia title called “Rescue the Scientist,” for example, will feature a television star to help in the marketing battle for scarce shelf space.
“We want programmers with an aesthetic sense,” says Greg Roach, who recently moved his multimedia company, Hyperbole, to Seattle from Houston. His recent hires in Seattle include a programmer who is also a sculptor and another who is a drummer in a rock band.
A former playwright, Roach began working in new media after he found himself writing plays that involved sets exploding into flames and other fantastic scenes he could not afford to produce. “In the computer I can do all those things,” says Roach, who is widely recognized as a leader in advancing multimedia as an art form.
One recent morning, Roach was in a small studio on the edge of the city directing three actors through his next interactive movie, a futuristic story in which the Earth’s survival depends on mining of a rare material that would require destroying the native tribe of a faraway planet. The only set was a backdrop painted cobalt blue. A sci-fi city would be “created"--programmed in later--using computer modeling tools.
The setup may look amateurish and the script is sometimes hackneyed, but Roach is convinced that the new medium will find a major place in the pantheon of high culture. “It’s a ‘B’ interactive movie,” Roach admits. “But we are positioning ourselves; we are learning the craft.”
Artists are not the only ones moving to where the action is. East Coast publishers, afraid of being left behind, are testing the waters by buying up or pairing up with technology companies in the West. Random House and Novato, Calif.-based Broderbund Software are in a joint venture to publish interactive children’s books.
The venture combines Broderbund’s production skills with Random House’s library, which includes the Dr. Seuss, “Berenstain Bears” and “Babar” series of children’s books. The Washington Post Co. recently purchased Mammoth Micro Productions, the Seattle firm that helped put together a quarterly version of the Post’s Newsweek magazine on CD-ROM.
With their control over what’s known in the trade as “content,” publishers still have the potential of pulling the focus of multimedia development back to their home base in New York. But their success depends on their ability to translate print-based products into the electronic medium.
So far, the New York publishers have been largely unsuccessful, criticized instead for producing “shovelware” that does little more than dump printed words onto CD-ROM discs with the addition of a few pictures. Books such as Michael Crichton’s “Jurassic Park” that are put on CD-ROM with added pictures and sound--or “repurposed"--have not sold well.
“If you can buy (Dr. Seuss’) ‘One Fish, Two Fish’ for $6.99 (in print), would you pay $49.95 for the CD-ROM?” asks Shelley Day, chief executive at Humongous Entertainment, a Seattle company that produces a successful series of original children’s titles.
Tradition-bound publishers--many still insist that writers submit manuscripts on paper instead of on computer disk--tend to be slow to adapt to new technology, putting them at a disadvantage.
“It used to take them two years to get a book out,” recalls Rick Smolan, a former Time photographer, who used to publish his “Day in the Life” coffee table picture books from an office in New York.
When Smolan approached his New York publishers years ago about developing CD-ROMs, they gave him a blank look. “They all have directors of multimedia, but few are doing anything,” he says.
Now, Smolan uses the latest in computer equipment to publish his books in five months. They are accompanied by CD-ROM titles that allow readers to more fully explore the themes.
Some people still find New York alluring. “There’s a greater concentration of writers, artists and musicians; it’s a richer soup,” says Robert Stein, development director at Voyager, a multimedia company that recently moved to New York from Santa Monica. “San Francisco is all hardware and money.”
And as new technology makes it easier for non-technical people to develop multimedia titles, the multimedia business may become more dispersed.
In the long run, the staying power of these new multimedia centers depends on the future of the technology and society’s ultimate desire to adapt to a new way of projecting ideas.
Some are skeptical. “Books have been around for 400 to 500 years for a good reason,” says Michael Powell, owner of Powell’s in Portland, Ore., the nation’s largest bookstore. “They are hard to improve upon.”
Alvin Kernan, a Princeton professor and author of “The Death of Literature,” believes that multimedia will prove to be an extension of television, computers and the other electronic media that have gradually replaced books as sources of information and entertainment--and he mourns the trend.
Although CD-ROMs may evolve into an art form with more intellectual content than movies or TV, Kernan says, “it won’t be literature.”
“Sitting and reading encourages a complex sense of truth and reality.” With greater use of images in TV, movies and CD-ROMs, he says, “you don’t need so much thought to understand what is in front of you.”
But others see multimedia’s ability to transmit ideas and information through the use of interactive programs as an important advantage over print in areas such as educational texts, reference works and documentary-style nonfiction.
For whatever reason, Americans are turning to the new medium in huge numbers. Last year, 5.5 million families owned multimedia computers. Simba Information Inc., a market research and publishing company in Wilton, Conn., predicts the number will rise to 17 million by the end of 1995. CD-ROM title sales, excluding games, quadrupled to $300 million last year, according to Dataquest, a San Jose market research firm. It expects sales to triple this year.
As multimedia titles become available not only on CD-ROM but also through on-line computer services and eventually interactive television, the number of potential customers for new titles will soar.
Economics also favor electronic publishing in important areas. The Encarta encyclopedia, which sells for $70, costs $2 per copy to manufacture. A set of the World Book Encyclopedia costs $150 to print and huge sums to market and distribute. That means, over time, Microsoft will have more money than its print counterparts to spend on commissioning fresh work from artists and writers. Microsoft has long been buying up rights to artwork around the world to use with its products.
So far, new media titles haven’t made money for most developers. The average multimedia firm has up to three people and brings in revenues under $50,000 a year, according to a Dataquest survey. Many depend on corporate presentations for their bread and butter.
“It’s like having to waiter to support yourself as an actor,” says Bruce Ryon, principal in charge of multimedia research at Dataquest.
Microsoft, however, has gone straight for the starring role. The company has pledged to produce 100 consumer titles by next year and is investing big money in the business. Programmers accustomed to discipline and logical clarity are paired with ethno-musicologists and designers who deal in the intangible.
“You have to go back and forth between what is desirable and what is possible,” says Corddry, who has found himself mediating between these disparate worlds.
“If I were a publishing executive, I would look at Microsoft and be shaking in my boots,” says Paul Saffo, director of the Menlo Park-based Institute for the Future think tank. “They have piles of money; they are motivated to do something in this market, and they are ruthless.”