Robert Winter

robert winter head shot

By Ray Sawhill

Robert Winter is not out for a lazy country drive. He’s changing lanes as often as staying in them. He outguns one driver, noses in front of another, rams to a stop, then blasts off again. All the while, this hyperanimated, goateed figure – he has Frank Zappa looks, minus the built-in satire – is babbling excitedly, free-associating, cracking jokes, telling indiscreet stories.

This is a distinguished music professor? A former head of the University of California at Los Angeles music department? A classical music scholar?

Well, certainly not your traditional example. Winter is part of a new generation of scholars who are reinventing music studies. Adoring the tradition of Western music while despising the hierarchical thinking that makes a monument of it, he’s a fire-breathing reformer with scathing opinions about what he calls the “music-appreciation racket.” His head’s as full of Middle Eastern music and Tupac Shakur as it is of Schubert. When he teaches a survey class, “The Art of Listening,” he brings local performers — from rappers to string quartets — into the classroom with him. It’s one of the university’s most popular courses; students not only fill the 565 seats in the hall but also jam the aisles.

At the same time, he’s among the first masters of multimedia. His CD-ROM programs – on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mozart’s “Dissonant” Quartet, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and, most recently, Antonín Dvorák’s From the New World symphony – are knockouts good enough to justify the purchase of a CD-ROM setup. These are some of the most satisfying discs Winter’s publisher, The Voyager Company, has produced.

Recently, Winter decided to make a run at digital mogulhood. He reduced his duties at UCLA and informed Voyager’s Bob Stein that he was splitting to form his own company with Jay Heifetz, the marketing/distribution executive and son of the legendary violinist Jascha. The new company will be called Calliope Media — “We swore we wouldn’t be part of a company with the words ‘digital,’ ‘technology,’ or ‘interactive’ in its name” — after both the Greek muse of epic poetry and the steam-driven, wheezy musical instrument. Their vision for Calliope? “We want to be the premier arts and humanities company in the digital world,” says Winter. “No less. I’ve too often heard Voyager spoken of as appealing to a niche market. We hope to persuade people that the arts and humanities aren’t desserts but main courses.”

Winter and Heifetz anticipate that their first titles will become available in late 1995. Among them: one by Winter on ragtime, and another by Richard Lanham, author of The Electronic Word, on the roots and evolution of multimedia and interactivity, tentatively titled From the Greeks to the Geeks.

beethoven screen bigger

What makes Winter’s CD-ROMs stand out is the way his mind and the technology synchronize. Winter isn’t out to dazzle or show off the technology. (Elegantly designed in black and white, the programs score notably low on the whiz-bang scale; they aren’t out just to make you exclaim, “Cool!”) He uses the technology to convey a new vision of music.

He does so with a teacher’s knowledge of what you need to know and when you need to know it, and a performer’s knack for dramatizing his points. (When’s the last time you met a scholar who cites as influences the Marx Brothers, Truffaut, and Spielberg?) You don’t set his CD-ROMs aside when you’ve exhausted the gimmicks; you keep coming back to them. There always seems to be more intellectual matter — more substance — to uncover.

Winter wants you to see music from a variety of angles – political, social, and historical as well as purely musical. For him, classical music isn’t a matter for lofty connoisseurship; it’s a springboard for exploration and for making connections. “I want to start a discussion,” is what he says when asked what drives him – then later: “I want to transform people.”

Command central for Winter’s campaign is his production studio — the 400-square-foot garage of the small Santa Monica house he shares with his wife, Julia Winter, their daughter, Kelly, and Cairn terrier, Teddy. The studio is crammed with books, CDs, monitors, three different music keyboards, Mac equipment, and a CD-ROM mastering machine. “Of course they’re scared,” he says gleefully of print publishing houses and movie studios. “In multimedia, there’s nothing Paramount or Random House can do with their millions that I can’t do with my US$50,000 worth of equipment.” When people call to ask about how to get started in multimedia, he advises: “Guerrilla teams and no overhead.”

This afternoon, he’s putting finishing touches on the Dvorák piece and thinking about future projects. After the ragtime disc, he wants to do a general musical reference, a disc on Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, and beyond that, The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll that will begin with Robert Johnson and work up to 1954. He envisions 16 songs, dozens of other examples, interviews, printed primary sources, video clips. “The thing I can do that people who write about rock generally can’t is talk about the music. When you hear Chuck Berry do ‘Maybellene,’ there is a certain kind of rhythmic impulse in the way in which the subdominant functions and the melodic apex is reached. That may sound very technical, but it’s not. It’s rooted in performance.”

Winter is exhilarated by digital technology. In the new medium, he finds, he doesn’t have to fight the tedious old cultural-literacy battles. They’re irrelevant, and the results are implicit in the technology, so he’s free to go on and realize his own ideas. Winter calls the computer “the ultimate postmodern machine – intrinsically playful and unstable.” Even so, he’s less of a Utopian than many of the digital futurists and propagandists: “The good guys may not win. I saw what the so-called ‘promise of FM’ turned into – and look at FM radio today. All I’m saying is that in the digital world, talent and brains may have a slightly better chance of rising to the top.”

The son of Florida Republicans — “but really, really lovely people” — Winter grew up with no particular interest in music, and gave no evidence of special musical talents beyond a good ear. He lettered in three sports in high school and briefly considered a career as a professional baseball player before going to Brown University to study science.

“My father was an engineer, and it never occurred to me that boys did anything other than follow in their fathers’ footsteps.” He struggled joylessly his first year, earning Cs. Then, at a mixer one night, a classmate played part of a Mozart concerto. Within the week he switched majors to music; a year later, he says, he was playing a concerto himself in front of the school orchestra. Eventually he earned a master’s of Fine Arts in piano and a doctorate in the history and theory of music.

His next epiphany occurred more recently, in front of a computer screen. Bob Stein of Voyager had met Winter years before in one of Winter’s courses and told him he was a natural multimedia personality. “I had no idea what he meant,” recalls Winter. In 1989, Stein showed up at Winter’s house with a CD-ROM drive, hooked it up to a Macintosh, and demonstrated how the rig could provide onscreen buttons that could take him in less than a second to the exact micro-instant on a CD where he wanted to be.

“I knew then and there that this was my medium,” Winter recalls. Within a couple of months, he and Stein had roughed out a sketch of his Beethoven’s Ninth disc for Voyager and designed the interface. At the high-powered TED conference in 1990, Winter gave a demo of the program before an audience that included Microsoft’s Bill Gates. The crowd reacted ecstatically. “We’ve finally seen what CD-ROM was made for,” said Gates, who has since licensed the Winter programs to produce PC versions.

The Dvorák program is Winter’s richest yet. He takes you into the music’s structure, including a measure-by-measure analysis of the complete score. And he leads you out into the larger world of the era, using the music to “provide a window on cultural history.” Like his other programs, the Dvorák disc is part engaging (if rudimentary) videogame, part major work of scholarship. You click around among historical chapters, a breakdown of the piece’s structure, a glossary that’s really a collection of short essays about music, dozens of demonstrations and examples, and more than 800 pages of original documents – press accounts, reviews, letters. Sitting at your computer, your head buzzing with information, ideas, and music, you feel you’re in a room with records, books, scores, and an exciting teacher — all right there with you — and every bit of it is available to you at the click of a mouse.

The complex Dvorák is an ideal subject for Winter’s multiple-perspectives treatment. Dvorák was a larger-than-life, beer-guzzling fount of creativity who shocked proper New York during his 1890s visit by asserting that America’s greatest musical resources were its African and Native American traditions. It says something about this moment in cultural history that the most valuable work available on a figure as protean as Dvorák should be not a book but rather a computer program.

The press has received Winter’s discs enthusiastically. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote, “It takes us directly up to Beethoven’s worktable, and lays bare the whole creative process.” The New York Times says, “A master teacher is the guide … an ideal musical companion.” MacUser included all three of Winter’s discs then available on its 1993 list of the top 50 CD-ROMs.

Winter calculates that he and the team at Voyager, including then-editor-in-chief Jane Wheeler and programmer Steve Riggins, along with independent designer/programmer Peter Bogdanoff, put 2,500 hours into creating the Dvorák disc. They included an impressive amount of scholarly sleuthing. One standard academic source that Winter consulted stated that a famous Dvorák protégé, Harry T. Burleigh – the black musician who brought gospel into the concert hall – had never been recorded. This claim intrigued Winter, who knew that Burleigh hadn’t died until 1948. Following up on some rumors, he finally located a recording in the possession of a music collector in Connecticut. “How did you ever find me?” the man asked. Winter included the complete recording on the disc.

If Winter’s an immaculately pedigreed academic, he’s also a renegade intellectual in the tradition of Norman O. Brown, Glenn Gould, Paul Goodman, and Pauline Kael – original yet accessible thinkers with a taste for intellectual roughhousing. The only other comparable figure working today may be Camille Paglia, but unlike Paglia, with her kamikaze dives for traditional media celebrity, Winter uses the alternative life of the Internet, bulletin boards on CompuServe, and computer conventions. He addresses crowds at computer shows and carries on monster e-mail correspondences. He’s probably the first major intellectual to have given up traditional print publishing for digital; his CD-ROMs aren’t hobbies, they’re his major works.

dvorak contents

Winter’s live presentations consist of nothing but a guy, his piano, and his mind, but your brain cells light up as bright as they do at any rock concert. He was once coaxed into giving a night school course by UCLA’s extension program. The first week he had 20 students; within a couple of years, the course was attracting hundreds. Eventually these talks were taped and broadcast nationally by American Public Radio. Winter doesn’t bring an outline or note card with him; his preparation consists of a look at the syllabus to see what needs covering. Then he wings it.

In his classroom at UCLA, he’s a flamboyant, ebullient figure in a burgundy silk shirt – “To the hard rock world I’m probably a meek little professorial type; to the musicology world, I’m Mick Jagger,” he says. He paces as he talks, lunging to the piano to illustrate points, or to the Macintosh to play portions of his CD-ROMs. (When he heads to campus he carries bulging canvas sacks containing, among other things, a portable CD-ROM drive and a PowerBook.) He’s charismatic but accessible, making connections not just intellectual but personal. Trying to convey the political content of Beethoven’s Napoleon-besotted Eroica symphony in a class, he realizes he has to make an even more basic point: music can be political. He asks one student whether she thinks Nirvana has any political import. She nods shyly but hopefully. Score! During breaks, the kids mill about, looking dizzied but happy.

A hookup to some invisible energy grid seems to pump an extra megawatt or two into Winter. “He’s always addressing an audience,” laughs one LA music scene old-timer. Winter explains, “I’m a borderline manic-depressive.” But he seems to live almost entirely on the up side of the hyphen and to have no trouble focusing the energy. He roars through breakneck 18- and 19-hour days, pausing occasionally for brief naps that “take all the garbage out.”

His wife, Julia, recalls a party when a stranger asked her if she had “any stuff.” It took her a second to realize he was asking her for drugs. “You know,” the guy urged, “whatever it is your husband’s on.”

Copyright © 1993-2004 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved. Copyright © 1994-2003 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.

Denis Dutton

Denis at UCSB

By Ray Sawhill

Denis Dutton, editor of the popular Web site Arts & Letters Daily, has the kind of damn-the-torpedoes, strapping intellectuality that figures like Camille Paglia, Robert Hughes and John Searle do. Over dinner with him, trying to keep up with his knowledge and ideas about wine, Glenn Gould, Kant and evolutionary psychology, you can feel like Boswell invigorated by the company of Dr. Johnson.

Dutton, 56, grew up in Los Angeles, got his Ph.D. from the University of California at Santa Barbara, spent time in India with the Peace Corps (he still twangs away at his sitar on occasion) and eventually accepted an appointment to the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. A gleeful contrarian, he edits the academic journal Philosophy and Literature, and in 1996 founded the Bad Writing Award. A thinker who prefers to measure his thoughts against what actually exists, he once took time out to live with the wood carvers of the Sepik River region of New Guinea to learn what art, craft and beauty mean to them.

Arts & Letters Daily has been one of the Web’s surprise hits, a text-heavy site that consists of little but one long scrolling page — technologically, it’s about as un-cutting-edge as can be. On it are found no animations or applets, just links to articles and essays published elsewhere, with teaser paragraphs describing the highlighted articles. The site caught on quickly as a kind of unofficial “best of the Web.” (Full disclosure: A few of my Salon pieces have been highlighted by ALD.) For readers interested in ideas and the arts, the site, which was purchased by the journal Lingua Franca in November 1999, is like a daily digest assembled by brainy, freewheeling grad students.

Now Dutton — the scholar as Internet impresario — has struck again, founding the online publishing house Cybereditions, dedicated to making available worthwhile scholarly books that had fallen out of print. Cybereditions offers them up as e-books, HTML downloads and print-on-demand paperbacks. I caught up with Dutton by phone, as he took a break between a meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics and an e-book conference in New York. As always, the conversation hit the ground running.

Denis Dutton sunset

Ray Sawhill: You just attended a conference of estheticians. How is the concept of beauty doing these days?

Denis Dutton: I think the idea of the social construction of beauty — this idea that beauty is simply whatever culture or society says it is — is on the run. Of course, beauty does arise in a cultural context. No one ever denies that. But there’s also a natural response people have to it.

RS: But wouldn’t it be fair to say that an enjoyment of haute cuisine and Bach generally comes only with an education?

DD: Sure. It’s clear on the one hand that an education enriches and informs a response to beauty, even makes it possible in esoteric cases. On the other hand, there’s no question that someone with no musical education whatsoever might wander into a concert hall and be overwhelmed by the Beethoven Pastoral Symphony. Any theory of esthetics that ignores these two sides of the appreciation of beauty is missing something important. I feel that as a young person in the Peace Corps I was too impressed by cultural differences and didn’t look closely enough at similarities. Evolutionary psychology is a terrific corrective to the idea that we’re all purely products of culture.

RS: When did you start Arts & Letters Daily?

DD: I designed it in July of 1998. It first went live on Sept. 28 of that year. The design of the page is based on an 18th century broadsheet.

RS: Why?

DD: The 18th century broadsheet tries to pack the maximum content on the minimum amount of paper. So I took that classically simple idea and turned it into a Web page.

RS: I imagined it had something to do with your enjoyment of clashing points of view.

DD: I do like the idea that there’s a range of views on the page, and all sorts of competing voices.

RS: How quickly did people discover the page?

DD: It took off very fast. These days, we’re often above 20,000 visitors per day. As with most Internet sites, weekends have smaller numbers, and Friday isn’t as big as Monday.

RS: What do you know about your readers?

DD: They’re the kinds of people who subscribe to the New York Review of Books, who read Salon and Slate and the New Republic — people interested in ideas. One of the things that pleases me about the Internet is that people have for a long time idealized the ’50s and 1960s as some kind of golden age of journalism. With three networks and every city having a monopoly morning daily — as if that were a golden age! For diverse points of view and open, robust criticism, things have never been better than they are today.

RS: What has been the most controversial piece you’ve linked to?

DD: A couple of times when we had some pieces that were excellent, sober, scholarly articles from the magazine Christianity Today, these seemed to get up some readers’ noses. People who wouldn’t think twice about something out of Commentary were objecting that we were publishing out of Christianity Today. They seemed to think we were somehow forcing religion down people’s throats.

RS: What have you learned from your readers?

DD: One thing that surprises me is that people are not necessarily looking for short pieces. Many of our most popular items have actually been quite long. This challenges the idea that everything on the Internet ought to be short and sharp. People are also looking for longer, meditative pieces that provide an occasion for thinking.

RS: There is an audience out there for high-end material. You don’t hear much about them.

DD: It’s all supposed to be shallow glitz.

RS: In the media biz it’s taken for granted that magazines have to work a niche market. Yet if your site has a theme, it’s variety.

DD: We’re very conscious of that. The site is intended to expand the reader’s sphere of interest. It’s a grave mistake in publishing, whether you’re talking about Internet or print publication, to try to play to a limited repertoire of established reader interests. A few years ago Bill Gates was boasting that we’ll soon have sensors which will turn on the music that we like or show on the walls the paintings we like when we walk into a room. How boring! The hell with our preexisting likes; let’s expand ourselves intellectually.

RS: I know people who love your site but scratch their chins, because they can’t figure out your point of view. They want to know your agenda.

DD: [laughs heartily] I heard recently about a British Marxist who finds that the site enrages him. But he can’t help but look at it every day. We’re reacting against cant and clichés wherever we find them. Whatever’s prevalent in the universities and among the chattering classes is sometimes something that needs exploding. And we’re willing to throw the dynamite. On the other hand, there are certainly many items on Arts & Letters Daily that present a fairly standard line that educated people take on many issues. A vegetarian gun-control advocate who opposes capital punishment is fine. But what pricks my interest more is the vegetarian anti-capital punishment cowboy who carries three shotguns displayed in the back window of the cab of his truck.

RS: Let’s talk about Cybereditions. Book publishing is such a nutty field. Why would a professor of philosophy want to get involved?

DD: My parents were in the book business, my brothers still run the Dutton bookstores in Los Angeles and I’ve been interested in editing books and journals all of my life.

RS: When did Cybereditions go up?

DD: It’s been selling books off its site since the middle of this year. We have about 30 titles in process right now, and we’re hoping to raise that number to over 100 in a couple of months. Books have been going out of print at the rate of 30-40,000 a year for the last 40 years. So Cybereditions takes high-quality, out-of-print books that the authors have the rights to and does a new edition where possible. Some of our books are unchanged from the original edition, but most are in some way updated.

RS: What are your bestsellers?

DD: Frederick Crews’ book “Skeptical Engagements” has been selling, Norman Holland’s book “Poems in Persons” has been selling. And Mark Turner’s “Death Is the Mother of Beauty” has been popular. We recently acquired Ihad Hassan’s “The Postmodern Turn,” and Brian Boyd’s first book on Nabokov’s “Ada.”

RS: As successful computer people are beginning to kick back a little, are they becoming more interested in the cultural applications of the technology and the money?

DD: A couple of years ago it was impossible to interest people in the computer world in anything that used the dreaded word “content.” If it wasn’t a switch that made something go faster or some kind of whizbang program, they weren’t interested. Cybereditions is an application of computer technologies to a very traditional business. Book publishing is and always was, as Jason Epstein has said, a cottage industry. It’s a matter of authors working with editors to produce books that are useful to readers. There’s no way to mass-produce good editorial work. And good books are no more going out of fashion than good stories or good food. We have found backing in Silicon Valley, though it’s very modest.

RS: Authors tell me that, now that publishing houses are aware of electronic publishing, they won’t let rights revert to authors anymore. The publishers are refusing to admit that books have gone out of print.

DD: That’s exactly right. This is going to enrich a lot of lawyers. Ask the publishers for the rights, and they’ll dawdle and claim a book is simply out of stock. At the same time, there are thousands of authors who, before all this, when they were told their books were out of print, simply took the rights back. So there’s a huge field that Cybereditions can work with even if the current publishing scene is not entirely friendly to a new entrant.

RS: What rate do you pay?

DD: We pay up to 40 percent of what we net, and with electronic downloads that can be done.

RS: Does Cybereditions have a physical location somewhere?

DD: The server’s in Santa Clara, Calif. The company doing the editing is in Christchurch, New Zealand. The technical people are there too. We’ll be using contract editors all over the world. Our authors will certainly come from everywhere. It is a New Zealand corporation, but with international investment. And the print-on-demand books will be done, mostly, in the U.S.

RS: How do you react to the new Gemstar e-book readers?

DD: The quality of the devices is excellent. But Gemstar is intent on controlling and licensing what the devices can actually be used for. Rather than using an open format, which allows you to use any file of your own, you can only read what you download either through their site, or what is licensed by them.

RS: A lot of commercial publishers are high on Gemstar’s approach.

DD: If this is the future of electronic publishing, I think you can count most readers out. Who would have bought a television set in 1955 if it turned out that the television-set manufacturer controlled what programs you could watch?

RS: What kinds of opportunities does electronic publishing offer someone interested in scholarly publishing?

DD: For one thing, it changes the concept of the book. Normally a book comes out in a final finished edition. Perhaps years later a second edition follows. But an electronic book can be continually revised, more like a computer program than a printed book. You can have an initial edition, then make some corrections — that’s edition 1.01. Some more and you have edition 1.02. Right up to a really new edition, and that’s version 2.0.

RS: Everything becomes software.

DD: We can continually update. Another thing: Traditionally, the book is published and sits out there alone and undefended while the critics pick it apart. With e-publishing, a scholar who’s worked for years on a book can now come out with a revised edition answering critics. We think that the idea that writers can now answer their critics is very important. That’s why we’ve registered the domain name

RS: So much of what gets said about electronic publishing is about how the floodgates will finally be opened and the native genius of the people will finally be released.

DD: I sing the praises of the many contrary points of view that are available on the Web. The downside is that much of the material that’s available on the Web is unedited and self-indulgent. More than ever, the Web demands good editors who can knock writing into line and make it serve readers rather than the egos of writers.

RS: Internet utopians tend to use the term “gatekeeper” as a synonym for “devil.” As a publisher, what’s your view of the role of gatekeepers in the Internet world?

DD: The old libertarian paranoia about gatekeepers is passé. Gatekeeping is impossible on the Internet anyway. What we do need, as much today as ever in the past, are intelligent editors and publishers who can be relied on to select the best material.

RS: We need guidance.

DD: And guidance of that sort isn’t manipulation. It’s entirely rational, and an economic use of time.

RS: In a way that’s what the canon is — guidance.

DD: The classical canon is a great way to begin an open-ended reading list. It was never intended as a straitjacket, nor should it be.

RS: You’re an egghead who has created an intriguing business. What have you learned about the business world?

DD: Many of the people I’ve encountered, particularly in the computer industry in California, are some of the smartest and most imaginative people I’ve ever met. And one has to laugh a bit sadly at academics who look down their noses at people who happen to have done well in the computer industry.

RS: I’ve always been amazed by the way some academics seem to think that they’re smarter than everyone else.

DD: I once read that people with Ph.D.s in fact have slightly lower IQs than people with M.A.s. Apparently, a lot of really smart people feel, once they’ve got the M.A., enough of this, I’m out of here. And some people who go on to get the Ph.D. have a kind of stupid doggedness. As a Ph.D. myself, I suppose I might admit it takes one to know one! Even so, you also find some of the best minds in the world in academia.

RS: Are there assumptions academics make about businesspeople you’d like to shake them out of?

DD: The usual leftoid malarkey — that the business people are only interested in profit, really, while we academics worry about the good of the world, and whether our four-month vacations might be reduced to three and a half.

RS: I left academia in the late ’70s. Bring me up to date.

DD: There’s a very serious divide that’s developed in the academic community. The science departments have remained strong. And those departments such as psychology or economics that have tried to give an empirical base to their research and teachings have remained lively and productive.

The sad story is over in the English department. English as a discipline has been reduced to a laughingstock by its adoption of cultural studies as its central focus. In a sense you can see how it happened. The students don’t want to read long, hard, old books. And many faculty members find it unrewarding to teach classic literature to recalcitrant students. But to rescue the situation by turning to politicized readings of comic books, soap operas and the media has been a big mistake. Of course, there are still holdouts for real quality — Bard College is a notable example. But increasingly they’re an embattled minority.

RS: The radicalism of the cult-studies approach seems to go hand in hand with a complete caving-in to commercialism.

DD: Yes. There’s an odd way in the which the left, by trying to remain avant-garde, has gleefully adopted commercialism as the only reality — playing perfectly into the hands of the philistine right. Realistically, we have to understand that there’s always a considerable percentage of students who are not given to independent thought, and who rather enjoy being told how to talk about their favorite soap operas in deconstuctionist jargon. In any society there are people who are easily led.

RS: I’ve run into a syndrome among some younger people recently. At about the age of 30, they start to realize they were brainwashed instead of given an education. And only then do they start to wake up from it.

DD: So long as you have contrarian sources of news and information, hope is not lost for intellectual independence. And we’d love Arts & Letters Daily to be the meeting place for critical thinkers from all over the map.

RS: A novelist who has also taught at colleges told me that the people who are really interested in reading and writing are leaving English departments and going into creative-writing departments instead.

DD: So the abiding classical interest in great prose and how it gets made will persist. It will just be reborn in another department.

RS: You aren’t a pundit bemoaning the end of culture!

DD: All of these interests can go only temporarily into eclipse, because they’re permanent human concerns. I’m a democratic optimist — I live in the belief that the more information people have, the more they can be trusted to make the right choices.

  • Arts & Letters Daily.
  • I’m sad to report that Denis died near the end of 2010. Here’s the obit of Denis that the New York Times ran.
  • At Denis Dutton’s personal website you’ll find a rich selection of essays and links.
  • In 2008, Dutton pulled his thoughts about art, culture, and Darwinism together in “The Art Instinct.” Buy a copy of this influential and thought-provoking book.

©2000 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in Salon magazine.



Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: “Voyeur” is a video game with sex-thriller and “Dynasty”-like narrative elements. It’s played on your TV, meant to be enjoyed by grown-ups, and to turn them on.

Polly Frost: Computers, multimedia, pornography … Why do I have to share your enthusiasms?

RS: I don’t care if you share them. I only want to know how you react to them.

PF: I really went for Masa, the Japanese eco-terrorist. He’s one Pacific-Rim hunk! You seemed to like the scene where that major cocktease Chloe, in skimpy undies, interrupts Masa’s martial arts work-out and gets him to rub her shoulders. You interacted your way every single time to her cute little blonde-girl butt.

RS: Only because it reminded me of yours.

PF: Hah. And you liked the line Chloe says to her cousin’s uptight wife Lara, “The bra has to go.” Would you like to say that to your woman?

RS: Actually, I liked hearing a woman say it to a woman.

PF: How passive of you. “Voyeur” is about as effective a marital aid as getting a flat when you’re on vacation, and one of you has to read the instructions while the other one changes the tire.

RS: An erotic suspense story should have an I’m-on-a-waterslide excitement. In a movie it can be arousing that you can’t re-run a favorite scene — narrative does have its purposes. I never experienced linearity as the horrible thing some theorists make it out to be. Did you?

PF: I grew up on the LA freeways. I wouldn’t know what linearity is.

RS: Now that digital media give us the ability to bring up our favorite movie and video bits instantly, and run them past over and over, I wonder what new frustrations and yearnings we’ll discover. How did the partial point-of-view work for you?

PF: It was like a Christmas advent calendar. You’re in an apartment, looking through a video camera. Across the way is the mansion of a powerful, sinister family. You’re peering into their windows, at pieces of a story. Some are video segments with actual actors, some are audio clips, some are clues you zoom in and pick out. You have a limited amount of time to solve the mystery. Then you warn the character in danger, or you contact the police. When I heard the words “interactive multimedia” I was afraid I was going to have to do a lot more than that.

RS: “Voyeur” is halfway between a movie and a video game, and it isn’t a satisfying mesh.

PF: If you play a typical video game, you enter into it as a character, like Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s your id set free. “Voyeur” would be more fun if you could be Reed, who wants to be President and tries to bury his dirty secrets, or Chantal, the dominatrix who really runs his empire.

RS: It seems to have been made by entrepreneurs rather than entertainers.

PF: It didn’t lead to great sex; it led to weird dreams when we conked out instead.

RS: And different kinds of dreams than the ones movies stir up.

PF: Death or sex should be the catharsis of interaction. In “Voyeur” I never even got to see anyone killed. It might work if my prurient interests were being more expertly catered to.

RS: Inept game-players like us need more payoffs along the way. Maybe what’s supposed to be adult about “Voyeur” is the endlessly postponed pleasure.

PF: Interactive multimedia makes me feel like I’m in one of those restaurants where they tell you to create your own omelet. I say, show me what your chef can do. Then let me bitch about it. I don’t want to be the one who decides whether Anna Karenina jumps in front of that train! Is it the technology itself that turns you on?

RS: It’s like watching the birth of a new medium. Imagine being in on the first days of movies, when people were trying things out that had never been seen before.

PF: Film seems far richer than multimedia.

RS: I think that’s because only a few people have begun learning how to do more with multimedia than show off the technology. Lousy as “Voyeur” is, look at how complicated even it gets. When we cut in close to gather evidence we sometimes wind up looking at someone’s computer — we’re watching our TV, which is portraying an image seen through a video camera that shows us a message on a computer screen. For 25 years, worlds-within-worlds self-referentiality was an aspect of art that baby boomers were obsessed by. Who knows why? But for better or worse multimedia is the recently-hatched culmination of that obsession. And people are still mostly just fumbling around with it.

PF: It gave me a headache.

RS: Humanizing the computer world and learning how to interact with it are two of the great intellectual/aesthetic challenges of our day. Can I make some other fast points?

PF: Only if you number them. I love it when you make lists.

RS: 1) When you’re using it with interactive programs, your TV becomes a different device than the one that’s discussed by critics of TV like Neil Postman. It’s no idiot box. Imagine: all that theorizing disproved, just like that. 2) Videocam style is entirely different from the classic visual language of the movies, and may be obliterating it. 3) The home entertainment center — the stereo/TV/computer rig — is today’s cathedral, museum and theater. 3a) Don’t do that.

PF: Don’t do what?

RS: Don’t scratch your back yourself. Think interactive, baby. Tell me how you want it scratched.

PF: Down up down right there yes not there do it right aaaahhhh. This is exactly why I find “Voyeur” boring — if I’m going to boss someone around I want to do it in person.

©1992 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

“Multimedia Beethoven,” by Robert Winter


By Ray Sawhill

Playing with CD-ROMs, it’s hard not to succumb — for a while — to the Whoopee! Factor. You’re dizzied by techno-euphoria. But most of the programs come to feel thin so fast that they’re most useful as lessons in the perils of digital.

A label has been developed for CD-ROMs that try to do everything: Shovelware. Designers, technicians and marketers of CD-ROMs often don’t know how to stop; since anything’s possible, everything must be included. The ironic result is that, if all you’ve played with are dud CD-ROMs, you wind up convinced that the medium doesn’t yet have the oomph it needs. Although a present-day CD-ROM can store a staggering amount of information — about 250,000 double-spaced, typed pages — that doesn’t seem so infinite when you compare it to infinity, which is what shovelware programs essentially ask you to do. My hunch is that even when the programs and machines are 10 times more powerful than they are now, they’ll still leave you hungry for horsepower. Shovelware programs, like drugs, will always fall short of delivering the Cosmic All that they promise.

In digital, everything simply does connect with everything else — that’s given. In other words, what’s often taken as the ultimate message of the arts has now become technology’s starting point. That explains part of the Whoopee! Factor. You feel freed, if only for a moment, to entertain such notions as: With machines like these, who needs to think? Who needs to imagine?

Giving in to temptation, designers and marketers have created vast numbers of CD-ROMs that are, at least from a user’s point of view, essentially thought-free and imagination-free. They’re games, or reference works with some multimedia gimmicks woven in — animations and timelines and links between highlighted words and subjects. Once the Whoopee! Factor exhausts itself, you crash down to earth, right down to such basic gripings as: After all, it’s not as easy to read from a cathode-ray screen as from a well-printed book. And if all you want is to look something up, it’s much faster to pull a book off the shelf than to turn on your computer and load a CD-ROM. Given the effort it takes, you need to spend some time (an hour, maybe) clicking around inside a reference program to make the effort feel worthwhile. You quit that hour having encountered no personality, and no point of view. You’ve just found out a bunch of things.

In the past what distinguished a medium was the limits it imposed on you. What digital imposes on you is boundlessness. (Digital has already begun to blur the boundaries between the publishing, movie, television and software businesses.) The designer or artist isn’t sweating to shape something into an A-B-B-A form, or to wrest life from inert matter; he’s confronted with the fact that his medium allows him — encourages him — to do most anything.

Of the CD-ROMs I’ve played with the ones that have any elegance in their design have invariably come from among the more modest packages, such as “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” designed by the Dorling Kindersley team. What these designers have discovered is that digital tends to explode from every point in three dimensions. (And from those new points to explode yet further …) The team has been smart enough not to succumb to the promise of everything-included, and to be ruthless about focus, exclusion and simplicity.

I’ve only been able to sample programs that can be run on an IBM-compatible computer. But the standout by far has been “Multimedia Beethoven,” a look at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony put together by the UCLA music scholar Robert Winter and a team of people associated with Voyager, a small media company. (Winter and Voyager have put together four CD-ROMs for the Macintosh; I’d bet all are worth a look. “Multimedia Beethoven” is the first to appear for the IBM; the rest will follow later this year.)

It’s the only CD-ROM I’ve found that’s a vehicle for a point of view. You don’t feel you’re drowning in information soup. You sense a mind and an imagination at work using the (multi)medium to make you see, hear, and understand things. It was common in the Eighties to deplore the way movies were turning into video games; “Multimedia Beethoven” suggests a video game with the depth and intelligence of a good movie.

Winter makes the symphony take form as a geodesic dome-like, floating mental object; it seems available to you all at once, to examine at your own speed. “Multimedia Beethoven” has the form of nested modules that enable you to step back for an overview or to move in close for measure-by-measure commentary; it also supplies historical context (in casual essays) and dissects the elements of classical music.

It really does seem like magic to have any part of this program, and any part of the symphony itself, only a few mouse-clicks away from any other; the mouse starts to feel like a magic wand. It’s like having slides, essays (Winter is a gracefully colloquial writer), musical examples and every bit of the entire symphony all in one room — with all of it instantly available. (If you have ears that balk a little at Western art music, using this program is an ideal way to coax them along.) This is the rare example of the computer behaving like the ideal slave you imagine it should be. Like “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” “Multimedia Beethoven” has a design that can leave you convinced that the best computer interfaces ought to be included on any list of the great creations of the Eighties and Nineties. The program is so head-clearing that it makes you imagine a future moment when — despite all the shovelware — a shelf of CD-ROMs will have been created that will more than equal the best possible college education.

But even Winter occasionally succumbs to another Digital Peril — that of spoon-feeding the user. Winter gets beyond the usual browsing-and-grazing method, but when he presents a screen of text saying how if he’s sparked you into seeing things your own way, he will have done his job, he’s like a teacher anxious not to offend his touchy, spoiled charges.

Life among digital artifacts, like life under multiculturalism, can starve you of argument, disagreement, forceful assertion — everything that provides sting and contrast. (You can sometimes suspect that the drive towards digital stems in part from a fear of being offended, turned on or upset.) The never-ending encouragement and playfulness that digital promotes can make you reflect that, if digital has provided an escape from authoritarian family horrors, it has done so only to place us in day care. And much like shopping malls, digital encourages the fantasy that in window-shopping you’re expressing yourself.

“Beethoven” centers on a hyper-dramatic, hyperlinear piece of the highest 19th-century heroic art. You keep rocketing off from it into all sorts of connections, and returning to it from new directions. But it’s the music that provides the program’s center of gravity; for the moment, what digital, the medium of the coming information age, seems to do best is let us examine artifacts of the period we’re leaving, what has now come to be known (semi-nostalgically and semi-contemptuously) as the industrial age. Winter may genuinely believe that all he’s doing is making his knowledge and perceptions available — scattering a few more drops into the sea. But part of what makes his work arresting is his commitment to his way of seeing, and his eagerness to drive home his points. You can’t keep your focus in a wilderness, even a user-friendly digital wilderness, without some force and determination.

  • The history of HyperCard. HyperCard was an early Apple application for building nonlinear multimedia presentations. It foreshadowed the Web, and was the program “Multimedia Beethoven” was built on.
  • Even before Wikipedia, CD-ROMs killed the paper encyclopedia.
  • I wrote a profile of Robert Winter for Wired magazine.
  • I haven’t explored Robert Winter’s latest project but it looks brilliant.

©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Guest Choice

By Ray Sawhill

I have experienced “video on demand” and I’m spoiled for good. Ordering up what you want when you want it — that’s what video on demand means. At any time of the day — late, early, 13 minutes before the hour or 21 minutes after — you can point the remote control, click a few times, and start the program you choose.

Although video on demand won’t be generally available for five or ten years, you can get a taste of it now if you spend a night in one of the 125,000 hotel rooms that have been wired up to Guest Choice, a service devised by the visionaries at Spectradyne, the Dallas company that pioneered cable and pay-per-view movies in hotel rooms. Offering only a hundred or so programs — movies, sports features, “classic TV” — and working not via fiber-optic wires and computers but a videocassette jukebox, Guest Choice is a modest and quaintly low-tech version of the service.

Still, making use of it, you know that your relationship with the television has changed forever. It takes a moment or two to get used to the fact that your TV wants you to tell it what programming to deliver. Then it seems natural; after all, isn’t this the direction the human/television exchange was meant to take from the beginning? Within minutes, it becomes impossible to conceive of going out to a movie, or renting a videocassette, or waiting around for a program to begin.

Video on demand is obscenely pleasing — like having Rebecca de Mornay appear at your door and say, “Hi, I’m yours, do with me what you will.” It’s the ultimate in room service, and it’s instantly and completely corrupting. Now that it has arrived, it’s time to agree once and for all that television is the most seductive and versatile of all appliance/media/toys. Like de Mornay’s character in “Risky Business,” video on demand costs. But when it becomes available at home, the only reason you’ll have to go out will be to earn the money you need to afford to stay in.

    • Wikipedia offers a good entry on the topic of video on demand.
    • The industry’s early days were driven by a demand for — surprise, surprise — porn.

©1994 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.