Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 90 / NOVEMBER 1987 / PAGE 66

Computers and Society

David D. Thornburg, Associate Editor

Computers And The Left Hand Of Knowledge

I had lunch last week with an artist—let's call her Betty. Betty lives with a friend of mine along with his two dogs, three computers, and 15 music synthesizers. Since Betty is an artist and my friend has a Macintosh, I asked if she had ever done any computer graphic artwork. Her response surprised me. She said she had tried it once but didn't like it, so she never tried it again.

I persisted. Was the problem that she thought computers were doing the actual "creating"? No, that wasn't it. Technophobia wasn't an issue either—she did use the computer for correspondence and articles, but she just wasn't interested in using it for the creation of artwork. The reason she gave was quite simple: The computers she had seen just weren't good enough.

Not Good Enough

Betty isn't a snob and she doesn't make up excuses to hide her real feelings. From her perspective, the quality of computer graphics tools on personal computers are just too poor to be of interest to her as a professional artist. There isn't an aspect of computer art that she seems to like. The input devices are clumsy ("Drawing pictures with the rocklike mouse is a joke"), the display resolution is crude ("You can't even draw a circle without glaring ‘jaggies’ all over the place"), and the interface to the software is so cumbersome as to interfere with the flow of ideas from the mind to the screen.

As a technologist who is interested in the arts, I found her comments to be quite revealing. I realized that she was quite mature and rational in her feelings and that those of us who have trumpeted the benefits of computers have been willing to overlook some limitations of this technology in our excitement over its capabilities.

My First Mac

I remember the joy of setting up my first Macintosh computer complete with its ImageWriter printer. I was liberated from the typeface barriers I had known before. Instead of simple dot-matrix characters or one high-quality daisywheel typeface, I could now mix and match typefaces in my documents. The exhilaration I felt when I could italicize certain words in a document or change typefaces altogether masked one limitation I was to confront later: The quality of the printout really wasn't that good. The ImageWriter printer does a fine job for a dot-matrix impact printer, but the result is hardly typeset quality. Still, I enjoyed this tool so much that I used it for everything—letters, articles, overhead transparencies. I used it for anything requiring marks on paper.

I might not have ever known how poor this tool was if I hadn't gotten a laser printer. Once I made this purchase, my print resolution went from 75 dots per inch to 300. There was no comparison between the two. If the ImageWriter had sensitized me to the limitations of my earlier print capabilities, the laser printer showed that I still had a lot to learn.

The ImageWriter that had been my workhorse was, within one day, relegated to a corner where it is used for printing invoices and labels. The quality of the laser printer was so high that I had to redo all the ImageWriter-produced overhead transparencies whose quality was a sudden embarrassment to me.

A Lesson

This experience taught me a lesson. We accept the quality to which we are sensitized. If we don't know how good things can be, then we are really happy with what we have. As long as I was encountering progressive advances in technology, I was happy. But, with each advance, I was also being sensitized to how far we had come and to how far we still had to go.

Art And Technology

On the surface, many people might say, "So what? The function of your tools is to help you communicate. As long as you are communicating effectively, why worry about some ultimate communication vehicle. Just be happy with what you have."

This view is appropriate for many computer applications. For most of these applications, the meaning of the activity is independent of its representation. For example, the meaning of 3, three, and III is the same, even though the representation differs. Analytical computer applications (including financial calculations and most word processing tasks) involve representation independent of meaning. As a consequence, all we care about is the speed and flexibility with which the computer lets us do our tasks. We don't need fancy fonts, all we need is accuracy and ease of use.

This is not the case for the artist. For the artist, meaning and representation are inseparable—they are intertwined in such a tight manner that one cannot distinguish between the two. If this were not the case, painters would have died out with the invention of photography.

One cannot look at a painting of a pond of water lilies without sensing much more than the physical reality of the depiction. If the painting is any good, the viewer will be transported within himself to view the pond in a multisensory fashion to feel the quiet of the place, to hear the hum of the insects and the splash of the water as a fish jumps, to feel the warmth of the sun, and to experience the transportation of the spirit from the gallery to the heart of the artist who created the picture in the first place.

This is the function of art.

The question is simply this: Why is it that some artists feel capable of creating art of this caliber with a piece of charcoal and a sheet of paper and yet feel that computers just aren't good enough?

Some might argue that today's computers are serial (one step at a time) machines and that the creation of art is a holistic process. The computer belongs to the domain of the right hand, and art to the domain of the left. For this reason, the two will never mesh properly.

My problem with this argument is that it gives the computer too much credit. It suggests that the computer is more than a mere tool for expression when it is, in fact, only an alternative to the paint brush or piece of charcoal. To say that the computer is, at its core, a "left-brained" analytical tool makes as little sense as saying that a sculptor's mallet is a "right-brained" holistic tool.

The reality is that the computer is whatever kind of tool we want it to be. Those of us who want it to be a tool for the arts can turn it into one. We need all the technical help we can get in the realm of display and input technology, but mostly we need the vision to create software that allows artists to capture the soul of a scene along with its picture.

I am reminded of the story of Ansel Adams who decided to give up a career as a pianist to become a photographer. His family complained, saying that the camera couldn't express the soul. "Perhaps," Ansel replied, "but the photographer can,"

Dr. Thornburg welcomes letters from readers and can be reached at P.O. Box 1317, Los Altos, CA 94023.