Should Shakespeare have studied “pen science” or “paper engineering”? Probably not. Similarly, we don’t ask someone who wants to write an essay to first study linguistics. Yet, often, when a student in the arts and humanities looks to express their ideas with computers, they are pointed toward computer science.
In computer science, students are studying the theories of computing and experimenting with the form of computation itself. This can be wonderful work and for some it is the perfect direction, but for most it isn’t the answer. In CS, the focus is on the computer itself — looking at the computer. In CS you are much more likely to study the efficiency of an algorithm than to study the effects of the algorithm on society or how it can be used expressively.
We think it is more productive to look at the world through the computer. To apply the power of computation as a lens to the world rather than to perfect the computer itself. We have coined the term “Computational Media” to describe this approach: to apply the computer and what the computer does to our passions.
Although we would not have sent Shakespeare to the “pen science” program, he did have to master the use of the pen in order to write his plays. Perhaps a better example would be Jackson Pollock. Pollock likely didn’t study the science of making paint but he did master the mixing and thinning of paint in order to express himself in his unique style. His paint had to be just the right thickness for his dripping technique to work. Similarly, those who use computers to express their ideas need to learn to program.
In order to master this, we need to learn how to think with and through the computer, not just think about it. We need to learn how to code but not for the sake of coding for the ability to use the computer to help us do something else, perhaps art, or civics, or literature, or science. Central to this is embracing the human and putting humans first. Start with individuals, groups and their passions; letting that drive the application of technology.
This manner of applying new and emerging technology to passions has been the focus of ITP, a graduate program that we teach in at NYU, for more than 38 years. ITP started out as the Interactive Telecommunication Program in 1979 as part of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In 1979, Red Burns, the founder of ITP realized the power of using new technology to raise awareness and affect change. Early on, she harnessed the power of the recently released Sony Portapak, the first portable video camera show and get issues experienced by everyday New Yorkers resolved. Through the decades the technology has changed from portable video, to video laser discs with telephone interfaces, CDROMs, to the internet and now with machine learning and virtual reality but the mission has remained the same: to humanize new technology and use it to make the world a better place.
The acceptance of new technology in our lives has become the norm. As we have embraced the changes brought on by the internet and the smartphone, we are now turning our collective attention to artificial intelligence or machine learning, virtual reality, and self driving cars. Because of this rapid change brought on by new technology, we have decided that now is the time to bring our ideas to a wider audience, to bring the power of computation as a tool for thinking and expression to bear on problems as they are being understood and discovered anew by college students. We are starting an undergraduate program called Interactive Media Arts (IMA) to engage students’ passions as they are developing as undergrads.
Furthermore, at IMA we don’t believe that computational media should be the sole and perhaps shouldn’t even be the main focus of studies. We are encouraging double majors, minoring, and stressing a liberal arts education along with our courses in media and entertainment, physical computing and new interfaces, computation and data, and art and design.
At the end of the day, while we need computer science to continue to progress the state of art, the real power of computation is in how it is used. Whenever we encounter some exciting new technology, the first question we ask ourselves is how do we use this to make the world a better place?