Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 19 / DECEMBER 1981 / PAGE 14

Computers And Society

David D. Thornburg
Los Altos, CA 94022

The Personal Computer As A Tool For Creative Expression …

While machines are probably incapable of what we would call creative thought or invention, there is no question in my mind that the personal computer will become the next major tool for creative expression. In fact, the micro has already become invaluable to many artists whose medium is the written word. The ability of word processing software to simplify the capture and subsequent manipulation of words is of exceptional benefit to many writers, be they poets, essayists, or novelists. Of course, the word processor was not created for this audience—it was created for business users. It is the similarities of the text manipulation needs of both these audiences which has allowed this one tool to be so versatile.

In looking at other fields of expression, the artist is not so fortunate. Software packages for music and graphics are in their infancy. Nonetheless, it is clear that the development of additional software tools can expand the personal computer from a word processor into an idea processor. There is no intrinsic reason why small computers can't provide the means for capturing and editing musical or graphical ideas with any less facility than for "words."

In addition to its role as an idea capturing device, the personal computer is fast becoming an appropriate medium through which artistic ideas can be expressed. The temptation of many people working in this area is to try to make the computer emulate existing media. I think that this is a mistake. The computer should be thought of as a new medium which is as different from other media as the pencil is from oil paints.

Most of the computer generated music I have heard on micros has attempted to copy the sounds of existing instruments. I would guess that, given the choice, most of us would be less impressed by hearing a computer synthesis of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D Minor than we would by hearing this same piece performed on a 6700 pipe Ruffatti organ (for a superb example of the latter, I recommend the direct to disk recording Virgil Fox made for Crystal Clear Records). There is no way that any synthesized sound can accurately model the depth and richness of even the most modest pipe organ.

A New Class Of Instrument

This doesn't mean that composers and musicians should avoid computers—only that they should consider the computer to be a new and different tool for musical expression—a new class of instrument which can double as a composition tool.

Even if the computer had no capabilities to assist in the synthesis of sounds, imagine the tremendous benefit which would come from the existence of a well written music editor. If you have ever composed music, you have undoubtedly noticed the tremendous expenditure of effort required to capture your melody on paper. A well written music editor might let you play at a special keyboard. As you played, each note and duration would be stored in a file for later editing. After the basic melody has been captured, you would then be able to "clean up" the musical score, align chords, repeat melodic phrases, perform transpositions, inversions, etc. The existence of such an editing tool would benefit existing composers as well as those performers who want to create new compositions on their own.

I find it quite heartening, in my ramblings around various college campuses, to see Apples and other personal computers located in music departments. The work, so far, is most crude, but at least some people recognize the potential hidden in these machines.

If music editing and performance are appropriate domains for the personal computer, then these machines are even more appropriate tools for the graphic artist. The resolution and color capabilities of the Atari and Apple computers are extremely poor when compared to lower-cost, familiar tools, such as watercolors or oil paints. But, as with music, it is a mistake to think of the computer as a replacement for existing media. The computer will no more displace the canvas than the pencil replaced the charcoal stick. The artist who uses the computer will be creating works of art which are not expressable in other media. Graphic tools such as realtime animation, dynamic hue or luminance variation, or responsiveness to the viewer, are just not available through media like water colors. Provided that the user interface is appropriate, the artist is able to do any of these things with a computer as inexpensive as the Atari 400.

In order for the personal computer to be useful to the graphic artist, the interface between artist and machine needs to be most carefully crafted. In addition to input devices such as graphics tablets and output devices such as color bit-map printers, the artist needs a graphic idea-capturing and editing tool which does not interfere with the flow of creative expression. Normally, one associates human interaction with a computer keyboard with "left-brained," linear, analytical thinking. The creative flow of ideas, on the other hand, is generated by "right-brained" thought patterns. Somehow, the software through which the artist communicates with the computer must be designed to keep the artist in a creative frame of mind. This will probably make useful graphic editors harder to create than the programs which presently facilitate the generation of "business" graphics (pie charts, bar braphs, etc.).

The Graphics Gathering

It is my pleasure to be part of an informal group, centered around Stanford University, called the Graphics Gathering. This group assembles every month or so to exchange ideas and to show films, slides, or "live" demonstrations of art which has been created with the assistance of technology—primarily computer technology. The most exciting aspect of this group is that artists who are interested in technology converse freely with computer professionals who are interested in graphics. The exchange of ideas benefits everyone.

I recently gave a presentation on Turtle Geometry to this group. (The interested reader is encouraged to explore the "Friends of the Turtle" column which will be a regular feature in COMPUTE!'s sister publication, Home and Educational COMPUTING!). The simple syntax of the graphics command used in user-friendly languages such as Atari PILOT and TI LOGO convinced some artists that the day would soon arrive when they could use personal computers for their own artistic creations.

There are few impediments to the use of computers by artists. Cost is no longer much of a factor, although a full-blown system can cost as much as you want it to. Still, with an entry fee of $400 or so, motivated artists can start experimenting with this medium. The real limitation is simply the absence of appropriate software. Once high quality, user friendly, and versatile editors are generated, we can expect to see many artists adding the computer to their tools of expression. Within a decade we might expect to see a projection display in every major gallery, with artists opening shows in several cities by sending their works over the telephone lines. Art collectors may start collecting disks!

How and when this happens may depend on you. As someone who uses and is interested in personal computers, you might be in a good position to experiment with the creation of some of the tools needed by artists of all types.

Notes From All Over ...

Judging from the letters and phone calls I have received, the September editorial on Artificial Intelligence was of interest to many of you. To all who took the time to contact me, I extend my sincere thanks. Your comments, both pro and con, were most valuable. In light of your interest in this area, I will devote the next column to a few recently published books on this topic, including The Mind's I by Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett, Brainstorms by Daniel Dennett, and Mind Design, edited by John Haugeland. Until then, I extend my wishes for a happy holiday season and a most propserous new year.