Janet Murray’s 1998 TED Talk talk

[Versão em português ainda não disponível para este post.]

An interesting 1998 TED Talk by Janet Murray is now available online (video above, or click here). For those who follow her work most of this is already known, but I think it is still worth it to check it out.

Here is Murray’s introduction to it from this post on her blog:

The folks at TED have kindly dug up for me my 1998 talk which I still stand behind and which predicts the future well, but is also still timely. It is longer than the current crop, and more spontaneous. It falls into 4 segments and it references other talks, some of which are on the TED website but most of which are not.

Creation Myths

It is interesting how Murray compares the “creation myth” of cinema – the showing of the film of a train arriving at a station in a movie theater in Paris – to that of digital media – with the humorous anecdote about MIT’s virtual therapist Eliza.

I do disagree, however, that either could be described as “works of art” – to me they seem to be mostly technical experiments (relevant and interesting, but with no expressive purpose).

It also bothers me a little that Murray emphasizes the fact that in both cases the representation aims to emulate “the real world”, or physical reality (at the time, the train is mistaken for a real one by the audience; similarly, Eliza is mistaken as a programmer working from home). Imitation is indeed one possible application for these languages and mediums, but in my opinion it can be misleading to use these examples to describe them in general terms.


In this quote from the video Murray explains the primacy of procedurality in digital media:

What made [Eliza] come alive was the intrinsic property of the computer which is that it works by rules. That the writing was procedural. The wit was in writing the rules by which she would behave, and in shaping the participation of the user (…). (10:40) [1]

Murray also explains how the understanding of this “new” medium can benefit from investigating how (and when) traditional, more established and mature, languages push the limits of their forms (this is one of the approaches I take in my own research).

How do you teach an artform that doesn’t exist yet? One of the solutions is: you take works of art in more mature media that are [?] of this form. That you can see almost as if they were two-dimensional pictures that are trying to be sculptures – they pushed their linear media as far as they could. (19:10) [2]

In the end of the talk, Murray briefly presents an interesting prototype for a non-linear video story-telling system. Note that, in this particular case, the emphasis is on the encyclopedic and interactive aspects of digital media (the expressive contribution of procedural strategies is not as significant).

I also recommend reading Murray’s summary of her own talk, available in her blog.

PS: Here is a post I did about another talk by Murray, from 2010.

  1. Although she also mentions interactivity (or participation of the user), it is clearly secondary to procedurality, which is essential for the existence of any of the other three aspects of digital media, according to Murray (encyclopedic, interactive and spatial). []
  2. In this quote there is a word that I couldn’t understand by listening to the video. []

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