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History Table of Contents
1996 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1996
Citizens of the Electronic Village: smartening up or dumbing down?

Prometheus Unbound Again: More Questions than Answers

Director, Perspective Unit, McLuhan Program

I'm honoured to be back. I have only three points today.

I want to say a little bit about some of the amazing things that are happening. I want to talk for a few minutes about dangers and I want to say that what we think of, or talk of, as if it was finished, is really only beginning.

About the revolution. Most of us aren't aware of just how great this is.

The Vatican library, run by a Canadian, Father Boyle, is being scanned in page by page, 20 megabytes a page, 150,000 manuscripts and this is going on. IBM is doing this. It's being paid for, not by IBM, but by a collection of Catholics at the University of Rio de Janeiro.

But IBM has a vision to work on the digital library and so just to be sure they're not just dealing with Catholics, they are also scanning in 50,000 manuscripts of the Luther Library in Wittemberg.

And just to make sure it's not just Eurocentric they've also

scanned in 10 million images of the Edo Museum in Tokyo.

One of the very dramatic things at the G-7 Information Society exhibit last year was that they had a little high definition television that was linked by satellite to Tokyo and another monitor here that was linked by the Internet to the Vatican — to Rio de Janeiro, actually, — and showed those images simultaneously.

IBM is one brilliant example of this global vision. But it's only one.

The Bibliotheque Nationale de la France is in the process of scanning in full text — 400,000 books.

Bibliotheca Nazionale in Florence has already scanned in 1,200,000 pages. The Louvre has scanned in every single one of its paintings. The Uffizi has scanned in every one of its 1,300 paintings and is in the process of scanning them in in high definition — 1.4 gigabytes per square metre. That means you can go right down and check the tiniest of details.

Those who saw my talk three years ago; those pictures were really at about half a megabyte each. So the quality of these images is 2,000 times the quality of the images you saw on the screen a few years ago.

This is part of a global vision. And people think that they can make a lot of money on this.

About three and half years ago a man by name the of Bill Gates walked into the office of Monsieur Mitterrand and offered him $2 billion in American for rights to the whole of French culture. Since copyright in France is an inalienable right, it never occurred to Monsieur Mitterrand that Monsieur l' America could possibly mean that he was going to have exclusive rights. But, of course, that's what Mr. Gates had in mind. And when he discovered that this was not the case, Monsieur Mitterrand picked up the phone, talked to the director of the Musees nationaux de la France and basically had a 'interdiction totale' against this thing.

That could have stopped things, but it didn't. In fact, in late October he [Mr. Gates] was seen walking around in the Parliament in Budapest. A friend of mine from the European Commission, who I happen to be advising on these matters, asked his friend: "What's Mr. Gates doing here?"

"Well, Mr. Gates has just made us a very interesting offer of giving us several thousand copies for educational purposes of his Microsoft Windows in return for which he has made the modest demand of having rights to all of our art.

Two weeks ago London I had a talk with the head of the Moscow Historical Museum and he showed me a contract with Corbis, Mr. Gate's company, unsigned, that had been proposed to him.

The European Commission, worried about this — worried that small museums would get bullied by these tendencies — has created a Memorandum of Understanding. It's a kind of intellectual union, signed now by 250 great museums of Europe. This was signed on the fifth of June of this year.

It basically says that, if I'm a little museum you can bully me, Mr. X or Y, but if you do so I'm going to tell all my other partners and my other partners happen to include the Louvre and the British Library and so on.

This is one way in which the great museums and the great libraries are protecting themselves against these things. The revolution that's going on is in books, in libraries and all these things.

IBM, when it first went to the Vatican, again assumed that they could control this.

One of the problems is that we have a notion of content as something to do with Hollywood. And in Hollywood, you own films and you own videos and you own things.

One of the reasons why the European Commission is so concerned about this whole revolution, and it's one of the things that is driving their tremendous investments in this area — investments in Europe now total $100 billion in the field of new technologies, if you include not just the European Commission but all the things in the research institutes, as well.

There's a feeling — and I'm speaking now on the part of a man like Peter Johnston in DGXIIIB, which is Advance Communications Technologies; there's a feeling that Europe can't really replicate a thing called Hollywood, nor should it. On the other hand, if we think of Hollywood as content only and if we think that content is limited to a few films that have been made the last 100 years, as compared to the thousands of years of things that we have our libraries and our museums — if we don't make that visible then it's our fault that we have such a narrow notion of what content is.

And so Europe is trying to get its act together to make that content, that extraordinary content, visible. So, there's a great amount of politics involved this.

And this links up also then with the G-7, because the G-7 now has 11 pilot projects. Number five is specifically culture, while three is education, four is bibliotheca universalis, the notion of a universal library and five is multi-media access to world cultural heritage, or museums. And that started just with the G-7 countries.

But in May in Midrand, just north of Johannesburg, there was a meeting of the Information Society and Developing Countries (ISAD) and 42 countries from around the world were there to see how this could affect not just the Europeans, or Japan or North America, but the vast other countries.

While there I became aware that there are technologies most of us don't know about.

There's a company called World Space. At the moment all the rage is about the $500 computer that's soon going to come and make us be able to plug into things without having everything there. But World Space is working on another gadget. It's about the size of a transistor radio, but in the centre there's a little screen and you're going to be able to plug into a satellite. The initial cost will be $100, but by the end of 1998 this instrument will cost $20.

Expected market? Four billion people. And this is another dimension of the revolution. Most of us are just aren't aware of how extraordinary the implications of that $20 gadget could be.

The dangers are that people are trying to create consortia and assume that they're going to control everything.

When the G-7 discussions got under way, France Telecom put a proposal about how much it was going to cost to browse through information. It would have cost so much that nobody would have been able to do serious study, and to write a book would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars — if you were doing a scholarly book with lots of images. That's one of the reasons France was moved out of the cultural side and this responsibility was moved over to Italy.

This is not a three hour lecture, so I'll talk now about some of the challenges.

People seem to talk often about the revolution as if it's just a matter of getting this book here, scanning it and then I've got it on the Internet. What I want to leave you with is a sense that the real revolution hasn't in a sense begun yet.

One of the four projects that were connected with G-7 pilot project five on museums is a new capture instrument produced by the National Research Council of this country. It's a new camera. This allows you to take an image in 3-D and look at it and turn it around on your screen. But this instrument also allows you to take a picture of a painting and actually see the brush strokes and actually see the cracks and look at what we think of as a two dimensional surface of a painting as a three dimensional surface. This completely changes what it means to have a photograph.

There are new developments in terms of autostereoscopic display, so that you can see objects 3-D without even needing glasses, or these big head-mounted displays.

There are new methods — new breakthroughs now — in virtual reality. One was made about six weeks ago in Rome, which is now the world centre for virtual reality with a little company called InfoByte working with ENEL, the second largest hydro company in the world. They have a new technique where you can zoom right to within one centimetre of a painting and get totally clear resolution. So they are reconstructing the School of Athens by Raphael, in fact all the Stanze of Raphael in the Vatican, and you're going to be able to go right up there, then enter the painting and have a discussion with Aristotle, Plato, or Euclid or any of the other figures in that painting.

We're trying to get ENEL and Infobyte to work with IBM, because they're scanning in the whole thing so you go into a virtual Vatican, walk to the library book, touch it and then use the IBM technology to actually read it.

But once you scan the book in that's only the beginning. You need to translate it. Not many people are talking about that. I cope somewhat with 15 languages, but there are 340 major languages India alone. The library of the Vatican is mainly in Latin and Greek, but there's Ethiopian and Assyrian and many other languages.

We need not only to translate, but to reconstruct. We need to interpret what these things mean.

We need to recontexturalize and we need to see whole new patterns. I would say these are the real new industries that are coming ahead.

But, I'd say the revolution that we think of has perhaps not even begun.

We're very excited about modems. We have before us one of the great pioneers that's helping to make these things possible, but in a sense when you think of it to get the kind of virtual reality that we're talking — that's being done in Rome at the moment — you'd need al least OC12 — 622 megabits a second. To do IMAX online takes 80 gigabytes a second. This is not science fiction any more. It's possible.

There are demonstrated examples that have gone into the terabyte level. But all I'm saying is that the revolution is only starting and all of these things, translation, reconstruction, interpretation, recontexturalization, seeing patterns — these are all human based things.

The computer cannot fully replace the humane dimension and we need to protect our vision of the value of that, because that is really where the true content, the true collective memory of our society is.