No. 10 • 2020-07-08

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Art, Education, Tech, and Equity

Mid-Summer is normally a time for performances, festivals, and new works spanning all art forms and genres. But right now there’s no clear path in sight for the return of live audiences, especially with COVID-19 cases rising across the country. Conversely, with the start of Fall terms now just 1-2 months off, most in education are consumed with plans for reopening our schools, colleges, and universities for possible in-person instruction, thoughseveral prominent Universities have announced highly scaled back versions of an on-campus experience.

Both the performing arts and education have turned to technology as a partial solution (online classes and streaming performances). At the start of the crisis, most of us accepted the tradeoffs of moving (too) quickly online for classes this past spring. We could be forgiven for making it up as we were going along, because well… we were. When performance venues shut down, any new bit of content or diversion was received by audiences as a gift. And with ticket income essentially going to zero, any opportunity for engagement (and maybe even a tiny bit of revenue) was welcomed by arts organizations.

Technology can be used in amazing ways, enabling us to do and create things that weren’t previously possible. But the use of tech can also further divide us into haves and have nots. Much has been written about the Digital Divide, the inequitable access to high speed internet that hinders education, employment, and economic opportunity. I believe that internet access should be a right and a public utility, but also that the growing divide is about much more than access.

While we rely more and more on technology, it is also clear that the tech industry has an equity problem. The most profitable companies in the world are also some of the least diverse. We all use products and services from Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, while their employees are overwhelmingly white and Asian males. It’s not that I believe there’s ill intent, but when there’s a lack of diversity among the voices involved in the creation of new tech, the outcomes also serve a less diverse audience (and are sometimes downright scary). Racially biased facial recognition systems have led to false arrests. Amazon inadvertently built an AI for human resources biased against women

So, I don’t think about the Digital Divide in terms of devices and connections, but rather the pathway to generate knowledge, creativity, and opportunity. While smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, the software applications (and expertise) to assemble creative collaborations (the kind that I try to highlight in this newsletter) aren’t widespread. I fear that COVID-19 isolation is further increasing the digital access divide into a learning and cultural divide: those with essentially unlimited bandwidth, equipment, and training to participate in creative making and learning vs. those without.

For more information and resources, I spoke about this topic in my
TEDxPhiladelphia 2019 talk, Getting Woke to the Digital Divide.

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • What to My People is the Fourth of July [Daveed Diggs] A powerful video monologue inspired by Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”.
  • 8 Minutes 46 Seconds [Richard Young and friends, including Joseph Conyers of the Philadelphia Orchestra ] A moving collaborative performance by musicians from around the world of the “Albinoni Adagio” (by Remo Giazzoto), in tribute to George Floyd, lasting exactly 8:46.
  • With a Little Help From My Friends [The Muppets & James Corden] Heartwarming socially-distanced performance of the Beatles’ classic tune by our favorite characters.
  • Pipelinefunk [Armin Küpper, via YouTube] An amazing solo saxophone jam using a huge pipeline as a creative partner.
  • WAFM [Greg Chun] Original a cappella song and public service announcement that perfectly captures the current moment, by actor and composer (and Fleet Street alum) Greg Chun.

What I’m creating

Your (semi) weekly Hamilton reference… No way to convey the beginning and ending rhythms of this song with piano (at least not with my meager keyboard skills). So I combined last week’s intro and outro using Minecraft music blocks with piano and vocals. Sorry to make you Wait For It.

No. 4 • 2020-05-27

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Virtual TEDx

Like everything else, conferences have been dramatically reshaped by COVID-19. Some have been cancelled or postponed and others restructured as virtual events. These are interesting experiments and likely to have a lasting impact, since conference travel (and housing) is expensive, tiring, and presents a high barrier to access. Ultimately, it depends a great deal on the particular conference whether it makes sense as a virtual event. One of the biggest experiments will be Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), normally an extremely hot (and expensive) ticket, which is going completely virtual (and free) this summer.

The canonical TED/TEDx Talk is already well established as a video-based medium, so a virtual conference with streaming video presentations makes a lot of sense to me. This Sunday (May 31 at 2pm) is TEDxDrexelU 2020, a free event featuring speakers representing our University and the Philadelphia region:

  • Nancy Volpe-Beringer, Fashion Designer and Project Runway contestant
  • Christopher J. Ferguson, Boeing Test Pilot and former NASA Astronaut
  • Dr. Eric A. Zillmer, Director of Athletics (Go Dragons!) & Professor of Neuropsychology
  • Jane Golden, Executive Director and Founder Mural Arts Philadelphia
  • Nadia Malik, Director of the Porch Light Program, Mural Arts Philadelphia
  • And yours truly.

I’m honored to be presenting alongside such prominent speakers, and I’m excited to hear from all of them. I can’t tell you anything about my presentation, except that it will be a different topic from my TEDxPhiladelphia talk last year. I’ll just say that I’ve thought a lot about how best to utilize the medium of a virtual presentation.

There will be a chance to interact online after each presentation.  I hope to “see” you there!

(Socially) Distant Creations

  • The Virtual Philadelphia Orchestra is a fantastic series of recorded performances and education programs from one of the best orchestras in the world. A recent offering is the April 2018 premiere performance of Philadelphia Voices, a “crowdsourced city symphony” by composer Tod Machover, which the ExCITe Center had a small role in developing.
  • Fill the Walls with Hope, Rage, Resources, and Dreams [The Philadelphia Citizen] An inspiring project, displaying the work of local artists and poets around the city to uplift, educate and provoke. Click here to view some of the exhibitions.
  • Virtual Tours and Town Halls [National Constitution Center] While the Center is closed, they’ve posted 360° virtual tours of four of their exhibits, and the Virtual Town Halls welcome guest speakers on topics related to our nation and its history.
  • Knight Rider for 8 Cellos [YouTube] – London-based cellist/arranger Samara Ginsberg has been posting some awesome 8-part cello videos, including this one released last week. As a child of the ’80s, and a big fan of K.I.T.T., I felt an obligation to share this. Her performance of The Imperial March is also great.
  • 2020 CX Report [formerly Design In Tech] This week, friend of ExCITe John Maeda posted his annual review of computational and consumer experience trends (he usually presents this at SXSW). As always, it’s stuffed full of great insights, and he’s also posted a 13 minute highlight version.

What I’m creating

We have an ExCITe tradition of occasional Friday musical jam sessions at the Center. Truly live collaboration isn’t really possible over the Internet (there’s too much delay to stay in sync), so my Music & Entertainment Technology Lab students and I have been experimenting with “pass the baton” sessions where we add instrument tracks to quickly hear and build upon each other’s work. It’s not ideal, but you can judge for yourself if it worked well enough for this week’s video.

  Johnny B. Goode