Masthead CMC Magazine October 1, 1995 / Page 3


Listening To The Echo Of Small Voices

by Chris Lapham (

I've always enjoyed those commemorative essays in which photographers--often working from dawn until dusk--attempt to capture on film what a typical day is like for people in the United States. These photo collections are compelling because they offer a sensitive, dramatic, and often romanticized portrayal of humanity with all its grandeur and pain. The people in those photographs feel real and it is easy to identify with them as they go about their daily routines--working, laughing, crying, playing.

I wonder if an online exhibit can do the same. Are the people in the digital images real? And if so, will I relate to anyone in those "one megabyte-max" gif and jpeg files? The upcoming MIT Media Lab's exhibit, A Day in the Life of Cyberspace provides a wonderful opportunity to make this comparison. In many ways, this exhibit--which celebrates the Lab's tenth anniversary--is much more than a portrait of the "inhabitants of the global networked world." It is also an opportunity for the cream of the crop to showcase this new way of communicating and sharing information. MIT's "Day in the Life Portrait" is an opportunity for the wired world to present itself ON ITS OWN TERM--sort of the online world's take on the online world. If you're wondering if technology can enhance our efforts to communicate the human condition, then you may get some interesting answers from this exhibit, (it opens October tenth --a.k.a. 10/10).

The Media Lab, which is directed by Nicholas Negroponte, is asking questions that I believe illustrate the character and potential of online communication. They hope to find out: "How are essential human experiences--such as family, religion, community, sex, ethnicity, childhood, personality--being transformed in the digital era?;" and "What constitutes identity in cyberspace--and how can it be portrayed?" among other things.

The writing, art, and thinking should be fresh and original, and I am waiting to see if traditional mass media outlets report on this event, and if they do, just what they say about it. (Watch and see and let me know what you think.) I'd like to believe that mainstream America is truly interested in what the online world is like, who is out there, and what the implications of this new technology are, and therefore, I expect that we'll see, hear, and read about it on television, radio, and newspapers and magazines. But to be honest, I'm not optimistic about it. I've been disappointed so far in the reporting about the emerging online community and networked world. In my opinion, much of the "news" is about mergers, acquisitions, new products, marketshare, online rapists, deviants, thieves, who has the fastest, cheapest, and best hardware and software and Bill Gates of course. (I often wonder if the dreams of hundreds of "Bill Gates Wannabes" is prompting this kind of coverage?)

The Media Lab's " Day in the Life of Cyberspace" may be just the story editors need to produce coverage that gets beyond the photo-opp level to shed light on the real people and thinking behind this online phenomenon. This is a challenging but not impossible task. Admittedly, it is difficult to describe what the wired world is like, who is there, and what happens online to mass audiences--especially those who don't own or use computers. This obstacle is further complicated because most reporters--even those bravely swimming in this new communication medium--haven't fully shifted their perspective: they're still looking at a new phenomenon through old eyes. I hope that like the in-depth and insightful reporting of National Public Radio in the mainstream media, MIT's "Day in the Life" can be a catalyst that prompts a personal and insightful look at the people who are using this new medium and what that means to the rest of us. If we can see glimmers of humanity in this coverage, it will help erode the wall that now separates the wired and the yet-to-be-wired.

Uniting those two worlds is important because it feels like they're moving further and further apart instead of closer together. Picture this: Joe and Joan America are sitting in their living room watching the nightly news and PERHAPS they're musing about buying a home computer. Meanwhile, John and Jane Earl D'Adopter have just arrived home after attending New York City's Java Day and they're excited about what characteristics to give their avatars (digital actors) as they putter around with the installation of PowWow, Ubique's Virtual Places, Worlds Chat or other communication devices that enable them to interact in real-time (a.k.a. live) with REAL people in cyberspace.

If these two different worlds continue without connecting, it's easy to predict that the wired may become the social, political, and economic elite in this country, which is NOT what the originators of this technology intended. We all need to listen carefully because it is the echo of small voices now being heard in big ways that is the real magic of the technology.

Let's pass the mic along! [CMC TOC]

Chris Lapham, Cheif Correspondent for CMC Magazine, is an online content consultant and freelance writer who lives in the Capital Region of New York. She recently earned a master's degree in communication and rhetoric from Rensselaer in Troy, N.Y.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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