The great debate

A colleague of mine is organizing a debate around the question of whether synthetic media will do more harm or more good. Today he sent around the following description to potential participants:

At the intersection of computer generated images, video, text and voice lies a potentially
divergent future for media. From holographic pop stars to new tools to automate workflows, from deep learning techniques to generate media out of whole cloth to highly engaging artificially intelligent characters, the potential is enormous.

And yet, the potential for danger is extraordinary. These same tools can be employed for the purposes of misinformation and propaganda. Their very existence may cause the public to doubt the veracity of documentary evidence. This debate will address the proposition, “synthetic media will do more good than harm,” in order to explore these important issues.

Unable to resist such an opportune moment for expression of technocultural relativity, I immediately replied as follows:

“Awesome! Glad to participate. I think there was a similar debate some time ago. I will try to reconstruct the description of that debate as best I can:

At the intersection of books, periodicals and newspapers lies a potentially divergent future for media. From literary pop stars to new tools to automate workflows, from rapid publishing techniques to generate content out of whole cloth to highly engaging artificially existing characters, the potential is enormous.

And yet, the potential for danger is extraordinary. These same tools can be employed for the purposes of misinformation and propaganda. Their very existence may cause the public to doubt the veracity of documentary evidence. This debate will address the proposition, “printed media will do more good than harm,” in order to explore these important issues.


I recently went to a museum of miniatures. I was delighted by the craftsmanship, the perfect fidelity with which dedicated artists faithfully created the illusion of reality, on an exceedingly small scale.

At one point I saw a life size table and chair. Next to this tableaux, in a little glass case, I was delighted to see a precise reproduction of the full size furniture, perfect down to the tiniest detail. I admit I was vaguely disappointed not to see, within that little glass case, another still smaller case, containing recursively tinier versions of the scene, echoing down to infinity.

In a few years, as mixed reality glasses start to become practical, and then very common, the experience of seeing such miniature worlds might change. We may come to expect them to be inhabited, full of tiny animated people going about their day.

Every once in a while one of those exquisitely formed tiny people will turn to look at us, noticing the presence of giant beings in their midst. I find myself wondering whether that tiny person will turn to one of her companions, and point to us. “You know,” she might say, “until recently we didn’t have the technology to do that.”

Email from the future

I made a dinner reservation for six for some colleagues and myself, and then sent an email to one of my colleagues, who sent out an announcement giving the name and address of the restaurant. So far, so good.

A few minutes later this colleague sent out a second announcement to the group. He explained that I had sent him a second email to tell him that I had meant the restaurant’s other address.

Which was odd for two reasons. For one, the restaurant has no other address. For another, I had never sent him a second email.

After several confused emails back and forth with screen-shot attachments, I figured out that his Outlook program was the culprit. The word “reservation” in my email to him had triggered a bot which took it upon itself to create a calendar invite, including name and address for the restaurant.

The email also said “Accepted on 1/2/29”, which means it thought it was being sent from the future.

Other than that telling detail, the email was worded in such a way that my colleague thought I had generated it. Oh, and also, Outlook got the address of the restaurant wrong. Much hilarity ensued.

I did eventually figure out from a Web search that the wrong address was a long ago former location for this restaurant. The few sites on-line that even still know about that old location (like Yelp) list it as NOW CLOSED.

I wonder how many false automatic notifications are sent out every day by Outlook. And how many people who receive those emails think they were sent by a real person, and act on them accordingly?

At what point does Office become “The Office”?

Maybe this is all a secret plot by Skynet to prepare us for judgement day. After all, that email did come from 2029…


      lonely night
      side street
      feel scattered
      downtown blues

      only sight
      wide feet
      real tattered
      brown clown shoes



Jury duty

Today is my first day of jury duty. Frankly, it’s not even clear that I should be telling you this, because one of the first things they tell you when you start jury duty is that you are not supposed to talk about jury duty.

I guess that makes it like Fight Club. But so far it’s as if in Fight Club absolutely nothing ever happened. Sort of the Zen version of Fight Club.

Imaging Brad Pitt and Edward Norton sitting around all day, doing nothing. Except at one point Brad says “The first rule of jury duty is you don’t talk about jury duty.” And that’s it. For the rest of the day nothing else happens and nobody says anything.

Except maybe at some point Helen Bonham Carter shows up, and gets confused about whether she is talking to Brad Pitt or Edward Norton.
Because, you know, nobody is saying anything.

So far that’s what jury duty is like. Except without the movie stars.

Lenny at 100 and a day

Today is the day after Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday. I didn’t write about it yesterday because everyone else was. I thought it would be nice to wait a day and help give the man a entire birthday weekend.

Like many people, I have been heavily influenced by the musical legacy of Mr. Bernstein. But I also have a memory of a more personal nature.

When I was still a small child, we would be given Scholastic Readers to read in school. The real purpose of these books was to help us improve our reading skills, and the way that was accomplished was quite clever.

Readings were organized into little stories on various topics that would be of interest to a kid. I always looked forward to the next one, but one story in particular has always stayed with me.

It had been written many years earlier by a piano teacher. She talked about a little boy who would come to lessons fresh from baseball practice. He’d show up at the lesson wearing his baseball uniform, carrying his bat and baseball mitt.

Then he would sit down and play, like nobody she had ever heard. That little boy was, of course, a young Leonard Bernstein.

I remember as a ten year old reading that, thinking about the famous musical legend. Before then I had only known of him as a gray haired man, the composer of the music for West Side Story (which I already loved by age ten).

But after reading that, I could also see him as that little boy Lenny, showing up for his piano lesson with dirt still on his pants from sliding into first base. And that change in perspective fundamentally changed my view about a number of things.

I thought to myself “that kid could be anybody, he could be me.” Reading about Leonard Bernstein as a boy dissolved the imaginary wall in my head between “famous person” and “real person”. We can’t all grow up to be Leonard Bernstein, but we can each grow up to do something unique and wonderful, something the world has never before seen.

It was a pretty good lesson.

When the story world contradicts itself

I just saw Christopher Robin, the new live action Winnie the Pooh movie from Walt Disney Productions. In its way it is a very daring movie, because it violates conventional wisdom about how to tell a fanciful tale.

Story worlds like the ones of Harry Potter or Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings play it safe: They take place in a magical alternate universe, but in a self-consistent magical alternate universe.

In those story worlds, readers or viewers are asked to accept a reality that operates by a different set of rules from our own. Yet once that contract has been made, those rules become inviolable. The underlying reality of such story worlds remains very consistent.

Christopher Robin, on the other hand, is all about messing with our sense of reality, by forcing opposing and mutually inconsistent story worlds to clash head on. We’re not just talking about differing attitudes or moral codes here — we’re talking full-on incompatibility between fundamentally inconsistent Universes.

Which means the story becomes about its own metaphysical inconsistency. The audience is never permitted to forget the deep schism that lies within the very heart of the tale.

To my delight, I felt the filmmakers made it work beautifully. They took a deep risk (particularly given that this is a family movie), and they pulled it off.

You’ve got to admire people who can do something like that.

Minds, bodies and airports

Sitting in an airport early this morning, waiting for my flight, I am struck by how much an airport is a place of absence. Nobody is here because they want to be in an airport. They are here because they want to be someplace else.

Unlike, say, a train station, the place we want to be when we are waiting for a flight is invariably very far from where we currently are. Our minds are focused on that far off destination, which means our minds are very distant from our bodies.

Also, given the nature of air travel these days, we often spend much more time waiting for a flight than we do waiting for a train. So those of us who need to travel by air can find ourselves spending a lot of time with our minds and our bodies far away from each other.

Fortunately, rather than passively waiting to be somewhere else, our minds can also choose to spend some of this strange liminal time in places that do not even have a physical existence, doing things that are far more pleasant. Like posting to a blog. 🙂

The best frame is the one you forget is there

We let ourselves cry at a movie because we know it’s not real. We allow ourselves to absorb the tragedy of Hamlet because we know those are just actors on a stage. We give ourselves over to the world of a book because we know it’s all just words on a page.

We use make-believe to allow ourselves access to emotional landscapes that we would find treacherous in real life. Once the frame around the narrative has been established, we are then safe to explore the complex emotions within.

This need to establish a clear frame is crucial. One of the things I have not liked about much VR content over the last several years is that the frame has not been worked out with sufficient clarity.

The idea of a “movie for an audience of one” just doesn’t sit right with me. When an entire narrative is so insistently focused on you the individual viewer, it’s hard for you to create and maintain the proper frame in your mind.

I am hoping that as more creators experiment with other approaches to VR storytelling, such as the “theater on the Holodeck” approach we took for CAVE, we will all get better at constructing the necessary frame — one that is so effective, audiences will simply forget it is there.

The process of discovering best practices for creating that frame will not happen overnight. It will require learning an appropriate visual language for telling stories in VR.

And that’s ok. After all, it took cinema quite a few years to work out its own visual language.

There’s no place like phone

Mere hours before my flight was scheduled to depart for the SIGGRAPH conference in Vancouver, my wonderful Google Pixel Phone decided to stop recharging. Which left me without a viable phone during a major professional conference.

Fortunately several trusty students helped me transfer all of my data to a different Android phone. Once I put my SIM card into the new phone, the identity swap was complete. So for more than a week I have been using a different phone and a very different version of the Android operating system.

And every second of it was utter misery.

In the immortal words of Joni Mitchell, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Using the substitute phone felt bad, really bad. Like they’d paved Paradise and put up a snarky bot.

I have now located a USBC cable that connects properly with my original Google Pixel Phone (apparently those USBC connectors are finicky). The Pixel Phone now recharges properly, and I have happily moved my SIM card back into its rightful home.

Today a friend asked me what it had been like to be stuck with a substitute phone for a week. I replied right off the top of my head, without really thinking. Yet on reflection I think my description was eerily accurate.

“It was,” I had said, “like sleeping with a total stranger. Everything felt wrong.”