Interview with Gary Wolf, Wired Digital

Ambient Media or the Social Spaces of the Future

About Consumerist Phantasies

Gary Wolf, executive producer of Wired Digital, who runs Hotwired, Hotbot, Wired News and other services, tells about experimental new channel-techniques based on the metaphor of "Ambient Media".

Gary Wolf is the executive producer of Wired Digital, the recently renamed department of WIRED which is running Hotwired, Hotbot, the Pointcast Push Service and other Wired On-line-activities. Within Wired Digital Gary is supervising a group of 12 people who might best be described as the research department of Wired Digital. Currently they are developing a new service, trying to make use of Active-X and Microsoft's Internet Explorer possibilities - positioning itself near to what Microsoft calls the "Integrated Desktop". This service will soon be launched and is being described by Gary Wolf as an "Ambient Medium". Gary Wolf presented the concept of "Ambient Media" at Siggraph as part of a panel called "Community/Content/Interface - on creative on-line journalism" together with Mark Tribe, Rhizome/Stockobjects, Lev Manovich, Kathy Rae Huffman, and Armin Medosch. The participants of the panel agreed on the success of the event. Given the fact that 'on-line journalism' was only peripheral to Siggraph it was nevertheless situated in a comparably large room which did not quite get filled by the participants. The overall atmosphere was very communicative, the audience did not only raise questions but also profoundly added to the subject. Given the lively debate time passed almost too quickly and everybody agreed - including Gary - it should have gone on for longer. The following interview was conducted in San Francisco at the Wired digital premises, two large floors in a typical San Francisco warehouse in the "SOMA"-district (coincidencially the akronym of "South Of MArket Street"), where most of SFŽs digerati have their studios.

Animated Gif from HotwiredŽs front door.
Maybe you can tell us something about your personal background.
Gary Wolf: I was on the well in the eighties, which was the center of conversation and exploration of digital media in the bay area, the online center. During that period I got involved in writing a book, which was a guide and description of online culture. I also did some writing for local publications including Mondo 2000 when they first started publishing. And then Wired started and I think Wired was, in this area and nationally and internationally too, an incredible catalyst. It just cristallized the online digital cultural phenomenon. And if you were living here and you were closely involved you couldnŽt help but get pulled into Wired in some way or other. So I did some writing for Wired and I did some fairly interesting stories, in 93, 94 I think. I did a story on Ted NelsonŽs Xanadu project and got very deeply into that and exploring the philosophy of hypertext before the web existed. And I also got to do the story that announced to the Wired audience the invention of the web and the creation of Netscape before they were a company. And through those stories I became involved in WiredŽs very early attempts to build a Web-Site. I was involved in the discussions with the people here who, I think, in a smart way decided right in the beginning that they didnŽt want their website to simply be a version of the magazine online. And when the website came out it really didnŽt look like the magazine at all. Our slogan in the early days was "new thinking for a new medium", trying to figure out what the medium wanted to do. And since then we really tried just about everything. We have tried having mandatory registration and not having registration, we have built a Java-chat system, we have had threaded discussions, we have had navigation by icons and navigation by index-pages, we have tried spreading our contents out over lots and lots of different URLŽs that had an independent existence, we have tried combining all the content under single URL, we built a search-emgine, we built a personalized news agent, we built the Pointcast channel. In that period of time we have also gone down some dead ends. We built a Castanet channel using MarimbaŽs technology.
It didnŽt work?
Gary Wolf: It didnŽt work. The Castanet channel I think was attempting to do too much with Java. One of the things I have always said about Wired is that in every neighbourhood there is a kid that you can count on to go down the biggest hill on its bicycle first. And Wired digital has the role of that kid in the industry. So when people looked at java and said, this is going to be the source of a ubiquitous non platform specific, active web, we thought well, thats great, letŽs start doing it. And we worked very hard and found that Java is not really ready yet, or we are not ready for it. In terms of doing animations and daily productions of content, it is too much work, too hard, breaking all the time, recquires a lot of resources to run. And so we are letting that go, we might always come back to it if it prooves promising.
Can you explain this new term "Wired digital".
Gary Wolf: When we started we were Hotwired, which was a website. And we quickly grew and experimented with different ways of being organized and we have recently decided to change the name of the company to Wired digital. Because the company was called Hotwired but so the website was called Hotwired and it was confusing to people. Hotwired is one of the websites that Wired digital produces, but Wired digital is also responsible for Wired News, which is a daily newsfeed, is also responsible for a Pointcast-channel, is also responsible for Hotbot, which is a search engine, and so Wired digital is the umbrella company. Now what I do, I am executive producer of Wired digital. But my specific responsibilities are to lead a R&D group, pushing forward into new areas where we have not fully explored. So for instance it was my group that first looked at Pointcast and built the Pointcast channel. But for the last six months we had been very focused on IE 4.0 and building a channel and desktop components using the new Microsoft browser technology.
Why are you using Internet Explorer and not Netscape?
Gary Wolf: We have a Netcaster-channel, so we have explored Netscape pretty extensively in fact, I think we are probably one of the most aggressive explorers of the channel capacities inside Netscape. That said there are some things in IE that allow us things to do that we are very interested in. For example IE allows us to build a screensaver thats constantly updated and changing. Also IE 4.0 has an implementation of dynamic HTML which works fairly well and which we are really interested in using und persuing.
At the panel you talked about "ambient media". Can you say something about it?
Gary Wolf: I think thats the driving conceptual insight that is behind our current work. Its trying to be in this phase, honestly about the question "the promise and the threat of ambient media". And when I say ambient media I mean media that speaks to you or that interacts with you in the spaces of your life that would otherwise be unoccupied or that are simultanuous with other tasks that you are doing. So when somebody leaves the television on while they are preparing a meal that would be considered ambient media; listening to the radio while you are driving; looking at a billboard as you go past it; the thing that I just saw in New York on a phone booth, they have been there for years actually, where there is a red LED-display that advertises to you while you are on the phone. These are forms of ambient media. I think ambient media will be a very large force in our lives and I think communicators have to ask the question, is it going to be a negative force or a positive force. And what can we do as communicators to do something in those spaces which will enhance peoples lives and not detract from them. Thats not going to be an easy task. And where it becomes especially relevant on the computer is in a number of specific desktop areas. One, the screensaver which allready people are using to communicate through. Another is, what Microsoft calls desktop components, which are windows that stay open on your screen while you are doing other work and are available to you to do searches on or to give headlines or other sources of information. Another is perhaps your background wallpaper that lives underneath your icons, thats a space that might be a space of communication. We allready have advanced knowledge of what many people will use those spaces for. We have seen it allready, they will use them for newstickers, they use them for search engine fields and they use them for sports and stock information. Now the question I am asking is, do news headlines, sport headlines, stock information fill up the entire space of communication? Is that all people want to talk about or hear about in these ambient spaces? Where are there things that could happen in these ambient spaces which would actually be very interesting and very valuable and are not completely captured by news sports and stocks.
What you showed at siggraph made for me a connection to "ambient" like in ambient music, somehow "stylish", laid back...
Gary Wolf: We are trying to connect with people emotionally but we are trying to do it in a way that does not recquire them to give themselves over a 100 percent to us, because in an ambient space you need your attention available to you to have the thoughts that you are focussed on in that moment. So you cant give yourself over to a presentation the way you would give yourself over to the "Wizard of Oz" on the movie screen. What we would like to do is create an information environment which people find stimulating, interesting, real - I mean intellectually and emotionally real, at the same time leavin them free to modulate their relationship.
As I understood it you offer also the opportunity that, when somebody gets very interested, they can also go deeper into it?
Gary Wolf: Yes, absolutely. And that gets to the other main concept that is driving our work. One is ambient media, the other is expressed visually as an axis from very engaged to very disengaged. What we call very engaged is very inetractive. When your hand is on the mouse and you are clicking than you are very engaged. That recquires you to be closer, to be more focused, to be not doing other things. Disengaged we think of as being a little bit further from the screen, watching maybe not with your full attention and having it kind of just present as an environment. What we would like to do is to design products that move smoothly and easily from very engaged to very disengaged, so that you can keep an eye on it, you can participate in it, you can have it as part of your environment, but your interested is peaked you can zoom in, get closer, start travelling to that space.
So somehow it becomes very tv-like. DonŽt you think that we are moving backwards with a concept like this, towards something that we allready had? Most people actually use tv as an ambient medium.
Gary Wolf: I am not sure about that. The question, "is the web becoming tv" assumes that we understand tv. But I am not sure that we understand tv. When somebody says "oh tv, itŽs clear what tv is, we know how people use, what it means to people" I disagree. I think tv is also moving very quickly and transforming itself very quickly. Although the network television in the United States seems to be stuck in a formulaic pattern. The fact is that more and more viewers are turning away from network television towards all kinds of other television. Television that attracts much smaller audiences for much more specific pruposes and that operates sometimes extremely strangely according to its own laws. And if you look for instance at the Home Shopping Channel, which is not a pretty good wonderful channel, I donŽt think I use it that much, but I am fascinated by it because it speaks a language that is very different than the language that NBC speaks. ItŽs kind of ambient, it goes on and on, it repeats itself a lot, its always showing you kind of the time counting down. That to me indicates the development of some new linguistic possibilities inside television.
Or a show like "Cops", which in the US is a show that is taken from video that is shot on location with the police officers. They put a lot of energy into making Cops as dramatic as possible and as close to a fictional drama as they can. They edit it like crazy, they put music at the beginning and the end, they really try to make it seem like regular television. But it does not. In the end Cops really looks like something very strange and very different. It lets us know that in the future there will be television that is shot by people with their video cameras, and it will only going to be watched by a few people.
Maybe people will walk around with little web-cams and the signal will be transmitted to the net.
Gary Wolf: Or maybe it is like what Bruce Sterling has been suggesting, which is security cameras which allready exist transformed into something that people watch. Or the other day I was talking to somebody at Princeton who was telling me that from his office on the internet he can look out a camera that is in the parking lot. So people who are working late can see if there is anybody hanging out in the parking lot they might be afraid of. This obviously connects with all kinds of issues of surveillance and of privacy and I think thats the direction that we are heading as fast as can be imagined. Its still not visible to a lot of people who think, "oh, tv means a sitcom, tv means an hour long drama, tv means the evening news". If the web is becoming like tv it is not becoming like that kind of tv. ItŽs becoming like the CCTV, or the Home Shopping channel or Cops or something like that.
But isnŽt that all somehow frightening, when you have everywhere cameras, security cameras, cameras carried by people, by broadcasting teams and then you have also ambient media everywhere. So you are surrounded by information, mostly commercial information, you are under surveillance all the time. What do you think about that?
Gary Wolf: I think that we ought to be frightened by that. I think thats extremely frightening and I think thats where we are going. And as communicators I think its our job to have our eyes wide open and to actually experiment and to see how we feel and to show our work to people and to see how they feel and to take responsibility for helping steer that development, steer that technology. Because if we applicate that responsibility that does not mean that we are not still going to go there as a society to a world where cameras are ubiquitous, where media is ubiquitous. We are going there anyway. Its simply a question of how soon will we discover what the meaning of that space is. I think about for instance the highway-system. How there were incredible high hopes for the effect that automobiles and highways would have on society. Ideas that you could have a better relationship with nature, because you could be more distant from the urban center and there were even hopes that that kind of relationship with the natural environment would be very good for democracy. And I think we have seen that the highway system has disappointed us terribly and created a situation of pollution, of congestion, of social isolation and I wonder if a little bit better thinking and a little bit better design could have been helpful in the early stages in transforming the highway system into something that we could live with more easily today. I actually have not given up hope on the highway system either, I think a lot of these early and utopian ideals might not proove to be completely wrong. I mean they were thinking very hard and perhaps its not a question of how good their thinking was, perhaps its simply a question of the commercial forces being so powerful that they drove those phenomenons and I think we will face the very same thing in our industry. Commercial forces are really going to be pushing ambient media in the direction of whatever media will cause people to become the most addict and consume the most.
I think that with this kind of medium you can really mix in a very subtle way content with advertising, so that you donŽt have any borderlines any more.
Gary Wolf: Yes, and I think that that is also closely related to what is going on in our physical environment with commercial communications taking more and more responsibility for the shape of our built environment, the way Disney is taking responsibility for parts of Times Square for instance, the way Nike advertises through its building and its store "Nike Town". I commercial interest will be communicating through the actual structures of communication, the actual spaces, as well as through clearly demarkated advertisments and thats a completely unknown territory. Will we be in danger from the consumerist fantasies that are sold to us via these channels? Absolutely yes, we will be. This is the social space of the future. (Armin Medosch)