PROGRAM FOR THE STANFORD PRESIDENTIAL SYMPOSIUM ON:
ENGINEERING AND THE HUMANITIES
FEBRUARY 11-12, 2000
[Detailed Schedule of Events]
(Department of French and Italian)
(Department of Computer Science)
Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht
Hent de Vries
From Vaucanson's mechanical duck to the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park; from the thrilling space of Italian Renaissance scenografia to the deep space settings of Star Wars; from the advanced hydraulics feeding the fountains at Versailles to the computer-controlled servo mechanisms of Disneyland; from the deus ex machina of classical theater to the mother-ship of Close Encounters, high technology has long been used to generate--amidst a world of ordinary experience--effects of the magical, the spectacular, and the marvelous. Although "special effects" is a technical term for the manipulation of filmed images, this colloquium proposes to use it more generally, as a way of naming the particular intersection of technology and spectacle that has produced throughout history a parallel world of unusual or heightened experience.
What is the nature of this intersection? What can we learn from its history? Because this other reality seems to be increasingly a place of business rather than entertainment, we might also ask if spectacle has reframed the limits of the public sphere. These are some of the general questions we hope this colloquium will address.
Consideration of "special effects" might begin with a history of its means, goals, and material techniques of bedazzlement and the mechanical marvelous: specific technologies (such as robotics, mechanical illusions, and animation) or the use of technology in the production of public spectacle (from traditional theater, dance, visual arts and music to contemporary examples of film, theme parks, and multi-media).
These considerations lead naturally to issues of specialized technical knowledge and research in such areas as interface design, computer-aided product design (CAD) and themed architectures. What drives contemporary research in the engineering labs where the hardware and software of tomorrow are being developed? Do technical researchers reflect on how previous discoveries have been put to use? on their societal effects? on their role as inventors and innovators? During the Cold War it was often said that the designers and fabricators of nuclear weapons had become a new technical elite serving the national interest: does that hold today for the engineers of chip makers and software companies serving private enterprise?
All too often, discussion of high technology spectacle remains circumscribed within the rich, so-called "advanced" cultures where it is most prevalent. But much of the media content made in "rich" cultures is disseminated in "poor" cultures around the world. Does the meaning of television content change when a single receiver is shared by many people, or when a single program airs globally? Does Internet content mean differently when a single computer serves a whole school or district? These are questions that sociologists and anthropologists might ask when discussing globalized "special effects."
Finally, if "special effects" have served to mount public spectacles of the marvelous, the direction of current technological research--the search, for example, for increased bandwidth, faster processors, smaller and cheaper circuitry--fosters a privatization of spectacle never before imagined. Many of us already command on our desktop the machinery for physically isolated experiences in which we can virtually coexist with others dispersed throughout the world. Is this the end of public spectacle as we know it? The emergence of a mass culture without a mass? If so, how should we name it?
Reading The Wizard of Oz as a parable of the power of "special effects," we might recall that even if the Wizard was a fraud, Dorothy and her friends were moved to action by his presence. Self-awareness followed unveiling of the wizard's machinery. Is such an unveiling possible today, or have we become so "immersed" (to borrow a word from digital studies) that we can no longer step back and judge? Must technology always be unveiled, or can reflection and critical consciousness accompany spectacular immersion? Is the user always--in the phraseology of Star Trek--"assimilated" by advanced technology, or can the marvelous become a tool for knowledge and experience?
In short, is there an ethics for "special effects" or do they simply float on the surface of culture?