Designing the Future


You wouldn’t expect revelation from the pages of PCs for Dummies and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Creating an HTML Web Page. But for Terrell Johnson, a 15-year-old at Chelsea Vocational High School, the two foolproof guides to Web development “changed [his] life.” “[PCs for Dummies] introduced me to a world that is more complicated than school,” he writes on his new Web site, Terrell’s World. “It taught me things that I just couldn’t learn in a classroom.”

Last Thursday, Johnson and 10 other students from New York City public schools launched their home pages for the final session of “Exposed: Inside and Out,” a digital day camp for high school students organized by Alley nonprofit Eyebeam Atelier. Unlike other kids’ programs that just turn the computer into a bigger PlayStation, “Exposed” wasn’t about learning to surf the Net, toss off e-mail, or saw through bodies in Quake, say the organizers, but about how to work in new media. “This is really a way of bringing this industry and technology to kids who have no idea what it is,” says Gabrielle Shannon, an Alley-elder who designed the program and founded the site Urban Desires.

For three days a week during July, the students used the computers at the Digital Clubhouse Network at 55 Broad, a publicly available education lab. The program corralled designers from local Alley companies like and The Chopping Block to lead classes. Each student received $20 a day, which likely encouraged participation.

The kids took to the tools immediately, says Shannon, specifically key software applications like Adobe Photoshop and the Web page-template utility NetObjects. “Once we introduced Photoshop, they lost complete interest in surfing and wanted nothing to do but play in [it].” Johnson got so involved in learning that he bought himself the books, dumped the NetObjects designs, and wrote the code entirely on his own. Most of the kids stuck around after the classes concluded at six.

Judging from the 11 home pages that went up last week, many of the kids are already ripe for paying gigs. Johnson’s page includes an impressive number of Java applets, sound files, and video, and Alejandro Lopez, from the High School for Graphic Communication Arts, showcases his photography, deftly doctored in Photoshop. The exuberant sense of their arrival online is clear, and nowhere more so than on anime-fan Crystal Twitty’s site Star’s Animation: a Java-ticker runs across the screen, declaring “You’ve made it to Crystal’s Website!”

Sure, there are pages like this sprouting up daily on the free-homesteading sites like GeoCities, Tripod, or The Globe. But the achievement in this case is more than just technical. Eyebeam, which plans to open the city’s first digital museum in spring 2000 under director John Johnson, began the program by showing slides of artwork by Frida Kahlo, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring–all artists who were masters of self-portraiture. “We wanted students to explore their own identity through the use of the new media,” says Eyebeam’s education director, Beth Rosenberg (who spent 10 years at the Guggenheim’s education program). The photos on Darwin Lopez’s site are easy evidence that the teaching methods worked. Lopez, a student from the High School for the Humanities, scanned in shots from his life, like the last party he attended with his cousins before leaving the Dominican Republic, and the first time he saw snow. The site’s name alone is poignant enough: “Darwin’s Evolution.”

Brain Prom

A champagne fountain of flat, hot cider burbled in the foyer. Food rolled out at regular intervals: sushi, gelato, caramelized apple crisps (“Nutritious and delicious!” beamed’s Richard Metzger). Execs coupled in the hall of the New-York Historical Society, but the more sophisticated preferred their intercourse back at the home office.

You know something’s up when the folks behind the editorially ascendant Silicon Alley Reporter start quoting Homer and Alfred North Whitehead (?!) in the promotional materials. Part cotillion and part daylong seminar, last Monday’s $500-per-person Rising TideSummit, organized by SAR‘s Jason Calacanis and Gordon Gould (the Alley’s newest power couple), may have been one of the classiest New York new media events of the year, expressly because “New York new media” was nowhere on the agenda. Pitched as an examination of “power in an increasingly networked world,” the conference attempted to take new media concerns and extend them to the rest of the world.

Guests included DJ Spooky, author George Dyson (brother to Esther), pie-chucker Noel Godin (the Belgian who smeared Bill Gates), and f-star Sean Gullette. Just what the hell does all this have to do with the Alley? Little, says Gould. “We were frustrated by the myopia in the industry,” he says about his choice of guests. “It’s great. Nobody has mentioned the word portal once.”

The quality of the speakers was inversely proportional to their knowledge of new media. “How do we love all the children? That is the design challenge,” said William McDonough, dean of the architecture school at the University of Virgina and known for his stunning, “eco-effective” buildings for Nike and others. Godin, speaking in French, promised that Demi Moore would be pied next for her “fascist films like G.I. Jane.” After showing footage of scientists ferreting bullets from corpses, a forensic anthropologist for the UN in Bosnia and Rwanda suggested that “perhaps something like the JenniCam [an infamous live camera feed of a woman’s bedroom] could be set up at mass grave sites.” Though it’s not clear if the venture capitalists and lawyers who paid the fee cared much for the references and abstraction, the constant espresso breaks and free cell phones made the glad-handing easy.

Like any real prom, you had to wait until the end for the fun to start to fray. With the notable exception of McDonough, the speakers simply trumpeted the benefits of technology. But in a slightly rambling, aggressive talk, Gullette threw the question of the conference back to the audience. “Will the ‘rising tide’ elevate us or drown us? Has anybody here actually asked that?” said Gullette. For the time at least, it’s all just entertainment.

Signal and Noise

Harry even cried at Armageddon: “This movie [Saving Private Ryan] should be required viewing for everyone in a position of power in the world, no, every adult in the world. Wait, make that everyone in the world. If it tromatizes [sic] children, good, maybe they will be less likely to follow some zealot off to some insane misadventure like my generation was lead [sic] on,” wrote the father of Harry Knowles, the one man-blurb artist of Ain’t It Cool News, in a cameo at his son’s site. Good to know that Troma Pictures is now a verb. Thanks to Danny O’Brien of the NTK newsletter for the tip…

  • Food Chains: I’m the journalist and even I can’t keep track. With Rare Medium’s purchase of local design shop I/O 360 and Razorfish’s acquisition of the LA-based media, the map of Silicon Alley should be easier to read, but it ain’t. To ease navigation of the bigger and questionably better local industry, @NY has put out an “Agency Rollup Scorecard”. It’s straightforward and a great crib sheet–particularly if you’re trying to send out résumés (check @NY’s job board for help)…
  • From 8 to 100: In response to the testosterone-laden Modern Library picks for best books of the 20th century, SF Web zine feminista! polled women’s online forums for their own impressive list of 100 great works by women. Unlike the original list, this time each author only gets one slot and–even better–there’s no ranking.E-mail:

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