EDGE 18 May 19, 1997
THE THIRD CULTURE
"ENGINEERING FORMALISM AND ARTISTRY: THE YIN AND YANG OF MULTIMEDIA"
A Talk with Luyen Chou ("The Mandarin")
What we've been struggling with as designers is, what makes
education and scholarship really fun? What we keep coming back to
is that real scholarship is like mystery work. When you're a scholar,
what you're doing is, you're like an archeologist, you're piecing
together clues constituent clues and you're trying
to create a picture that makes sense. You're starting with constituent
pieces and you're trying to construct a story.
THE REALITY CLUB
The End of Horgan: John Horgan's rejoinders to the responses of
Kevin Kelly, George Johnson, Ernest B. Hook, Paul Davies, Lee Smolin,
Jaron Lanier, George Dyson and Oliver Morton
Arnold Trehub & Steven Quartz on "Organs of Computation"
THE THIRD CULTURE
"ENGINEERING FORMALISM AND ARTISTRY: THE YIN AND YANG OF MULTIMEDIA"
A Talk with Luyen Chou ("The Mandarin")
CD-ROM developer and publisher Luyen Chou stopped using the word
multimedia because nobody knows what it means. He is interested
in "interactivity" media that forces an interaction with
your brain or the synapses in your brain. "Most people consider
interactivity to stop at the fingertips, so if you look at what
most people consider interactive, a remote control for a television,
or a light switch in a home, would be considered interactive. That's
not very interesting to me," he says. What interests him is how
we build media that forces an engagement with the mind, and very
little is doing that right now. That's the direction that he's trying
to take interactivity.
His company, Learn Technologies Interactive, produces products
that sell, products which are also both interesting and enlightening.
(Qin has already sold 100,000 copies). In February they received
both recognition and notoriety by winning the Milia D'Or at Milia
in Cannes for the best Culture and Art product. What was the reaction
of the French audience to an American company walking away with
the top award for a CD-ROM based on an art exhibit at the National
Museum of American Art ? They booed him off the stage. C'est dommage,
LUYEN CHOU is President and CEO of Learn Technologies Interactive
in New York City, an interactive media developer and publisher.
"ENGINEERING FORMALISM AND ARTISTRY: THE YIN AND YANG OF MULTIMEDIA"
A Talk with Luyen Chou ("The Mandarin")
JB: Let's go back before the beginning....
CHOU: My father and my mother came from Shanghai during the Second
World War. My mother's father was the Chinese ambassador to Czechoslovakia
in the 1930s. They were reassigned to London in '41, or '40, when
the bombs were falling on London in the Battle of Britain, and then
ended up in California in LA just before Pearl Harbor. My mother's
father was also the first Chinese to get a degree at Harvard University
in philosophy. He had a particular interest in the study of humanism
and the philosophy of media.
My father's side of the family was also very interested in philosophy.
In fact I just found out that my great-grandfather on my father's
side wrote a seminal book in Chinese on Western Philosophy and intellectual
history, back in the mid-19th century. There was a real keen interest
in philosophy from day one, and that's what I grew up in. That and
music, because both my parents ended up being professional musicians.
My mother's parents were diplomats. Father's parents were a whole
variety of different stuff, what in China we call "wen-ren," which
means "culture people." Probably the closest Western translation
is "Renaissance Man." They were extremely erudite scholars who were
able to live in a culture where that was enough to float your boat
The word for "Chinese" is "chung-wen" "chung" is "middle",
"wen" means "culture". So to say someone's Chinese is actually to
say that he is in the center of culture. And "ren" means "person",
so "wen-ren" means cultured person. My father's name is Wen-Chung,
which is Chinese, backwards. It's a wonderful tick of the language,
which really means that culture was not only important to my family,
but is really at the center of what it means to be Chinese.
My father spent about six years running from the Japanese during
the war, and ended up getting a scholarship to Yale, in civil engineering,
in '49, just before the Communist revolution. He took a boat over,
went to Yale for about two months, and realized that that's not
what he wanted to do.What he really wanted to do was play violin.
So he left Yale, much to the chagrin of the Dean of the Engineering
School who told him please never send your son or your daughter
to apply for a scholarship to Yale. He took off for Boston where
his only relative in the U.S.,his brother, was at Harvard at the
time working on military technology. He was working on the timing
system for the guns in the wings of the American fighter planes
that were shooting down Japanese zeros. My father ended up getting
a scholarship to New England Conservatory to play violin and viola,
and then eventually ended up at Columbia University as a composer.
And he's been a composer ever since. My mother came over because
her father had gotten stationed in the United States. She came over
early, she went to Hollywood High School, and grew up in Beverly
Hills 90210. She was a pianist and played at the Hollywood Bowl.
After the Communists took China, there was obviously a tremendous
division in the family. Those who were in the States lost all contact
with those who were in China. My father's parents were in China
and half of his brothers and sisters were in China, the other half
were in the States. The Communists tried very hard to convince my
father to come back to China, as they were trying to do before the
Cultural Revolution. Their aim was to try and bring back all the
intellectuals back to China, particularly Western-trained scholars.
They literally put together a cell of his friends, led by his high
school sweetheart, to write him daily letters to convince him to
come back. They wrote him for months and months and months, and
finally he wrote a letter back, saying, I'm not coming back. I don't
want to have anything to do with you. I renounce everything that
you folks stand for. This was a very painful decision because he
realized that it meant he might never see his parents again. But
he decided that Communism was wrong. And then he lost touch with
everyone, for years and years and years after that.
The irony of it is that my father now goes back to China between
two and ten times a year. In fact he's there right now. He's 74
and still travels there at least twice a year. He runs a cultural
exchange with China, and he's considered a favorite son now in China.
But had he gone back when the cell was trying to convince him to
go back, undoubtedly he would have been at the very least tortured
and probably executed, given his western training.
My relatives who stayed in China had extremely varied experiences.
Some were tortured during the Cultural Revolution. Most endured
extreme suffering. My aunt, my father's sister, interestingly, became
one of the chief negotiators for the Chinese during the Korean War
with the United States. My father found out about it reading a newspaper,
by seeing a picture of her at the bargaining table. She ended up
marrying a fellow who became one of the top military people in China
as well. The two of them were both top ranking military officials.
During the recent Tienanmen incident, he was on the wrong side of
the political divide; he was a liberal in the military, and he was
purged, kicked out. They're fine now, but went through a lot during
that period. They have seen a lot of history on the Chinese side.
I really should be doing with them what you're doing with me, and
find out what really happened between '49 and now.
I've gone to China three times, but I haven't been there for ten
years and I really want to go back. We're selling our software there
now. My father says the country has changed dramatically even in
the last two years, let alone in the last ten years since I've been
There's no question it's the most vital and thriving, and fastest
growing, part of the world right now. Shanghai is one of the greatest
cities in the world. It was when I was there, and certainly it was
when my father grew up there. Now, with all of the development and
growth, it's a very exciting place. I want to go back very badly.
JB: Luyen, you're in the wrong business. How about a multi-generational
novel about a Shanghai Mandarin dynasty which begins with the scion
of the family wearing all black in a Soho office being asked "What
questions are you asking yourself?"
CHOU: There are a number of questions that I'm asking myself right
now. One of them is whether or not there really is a CD-ROM industry?
Another one is, what is the Web going to do to publishing? And probably
the most important one right now, from a business standpoint: is
anyone ever going to make any money off of this crazy interactive
JB: How did you prepare for this?
CHOU: I probably have a typical background for interactive multimedia
namely I come from having done just about everything except
technology. I was a philosophy major; I was interested in history;
I was teaching education and philosophy; and in the meantime I was
a hobbyist in technology, mostly to earn beer money while I was
in college. I was extremely interested in education, and teaching,
and I was extremely interested in technology, but for me there were
two worlds and "never the twain shall meet". I looked at what people
were doing in so-called educational technology, back in the early
80s, and I thought it was such garbage that I didn't want to have
anything to do with it. It really compromised what I loved about
education, and what I loved about technology. When I got out of
Harvard, I started teaching at the Dalton School, my alma mater,
and started to get involved in the project there called Archeotype,
which was a network-based archeological dig simulation on the computer.
It completely transformed my notion of where technology and education
were going to intersect, because all of a sudden it became clear
to me that what we in the educational domain were calling "constructivism"
or "progressive education" was really only possible in a new media
digital environment. Where Dewey and others had failed was that
they had underrated the gravity of the technology that they were
working with paper and chalk, and\textbook. All of a sudden
we found ourselves in the midst of this liberating technology that
was going to allow us to do what we wanted to do as educators. So
I got very involved in educational technology this was around
'89 and to make a long story short, decided that I didn't
just want to do it in the research context, but I really wanted
to start my own company. In '93 my partners, Ludmil Pandeff and
Frank Moretti, and I got funding from Time Warner to start Learn
Learn Technologies is developing what we consider to be the cutting
edge in educational multimedia. This is CD-ROM based as well as
Internet-based. Most of our products to date have been CD-ROM based,
but the idea is to bring the cutting edge in terms of engineering,
and production values typically only associated with games on the
market, with the latest concepts in education and pedagogy. Interestingly,
this is something that no one else is doing. If you look at educational
products out there, they're usually five to ten years old in terms
of the technology and the production values, whereas if you look
at games they're really at the leading edge-or the so called bleeding
edge. Our question was, why couldn't these things be combined? And
if you combine them can't you create something that really is much
more powerful than either games or current educational software.
That's the vision for the company, and we've grown in size tremendously.
We're about 50 people now. We started as two guys in a Wall Street
office cubicle about 3 by 3. We have offices in Bulgaria, Dallas,
Ohio, and New York, with Time Warner, Inc., and Carvajal S.A., the
Milia D'Or at Milia a big Latin American media company, as major
investors, and six products out on the market and five or six major
multimedia awards. We're building a company that everyone involved
in is incredibly excited about because it's different from what
everyone else is doing.
JB: The Bulgarian connection?
CHOU: The biggest problem right now in the software industry is
the cost of development, and if anything is going to kill our business,
particularly on the consumer side, it's that it just takes too much
money to build quality content. We understand that so a fundamental
part of our business plan is how do we reduce costs to the extent
that this makes it feasible as a business. The way that we've done
that is to go offshore for our programming, which is one of the
most important and difficult strategic decisions our company has
made. My partner, Ludmil Pandeff, initiated the transition. He is
of Bulgarian descent, and speaks the language. His father is involved
in high tech venture capital, and has been very involved in emerging
business opportunities in Bulgaria. We took seven guys that we had
in Dallas and reduced it to essentially one, and we started ten
guys in Bulgaria, now there are 17, by the end of the year, 35.
JB: Good work. Six families in Dallas don't eat.
CHOU: We're part of the problem, right. Ross Perot would have
a field day with us. We are the great sucking sound. But the sucking
sound's coming from Bulgaria, not Mexico.
JB: What about Malaysia or India?
CHOU: India is almost too expensive as an alternative now. India,
as far as programming goes, has become the First World rather than
the Third World. The cheapest high-quality engineering is in Eastern
Europe. An interesting story behind why all of this happened, and
this is classic Marxist economics when the Soviets were around,
they parcelled out industries by satellite. Czechoslovakia was heavy
machinery, Poland was whatever, and Bulgaria was software engineering.
So Bulgaria is in a unique position, and it is less exploited than
Malaysia and Indonesia and even Singapore and India right now in
terms of programming. Plus there are fewer language issues, and
they are closer. Even the few hours time difference that they're
closer make a big difference.
JB: So you create product and then you go to Milia, which seems
more like a flea market, compared to, say, the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Isn't this a miserable way to market your products?
CHOU: The difference between Milia and Frankfurt is sort of a
microcosm of the difference multimedia software business and the
book business. Over the last 10 or 15 years, multimedia software,
and software in general, has really not become a content business
yet, despite what people will tell you. It's not the book business,
it's not the record business. There is not the economics for the
kind of diversity of content that there is in the book industry.
The cost of development is too high, the market is too small. Unlike
Frankfurt where every year there are tens of thousands of books
and book proposals for people to look at, at Milia you basically
have a rehashing of products that everyone already knows. And even
when there are new titles they are basically rehashing ideas that
everyone already knows, because people are trying to fit their products
into these incredibly narrow vertical market niches, because there
isn't the diversity of interest out there in order to stimulate
real innovation. It's a real problem for the industry. I wouldn't
have said this six months or a year ago, but I think that it seriously
places in jeopardy the concept of being able to turn electronic
media into a content-driven business. It may turn out that it's
not possible, and all this goes by the wayside for another five
years before the next great advancement comes, whether it's DVD
interactive, or it's whatever. The industry is facing a real problem.
That said, Milia is probably, ironically, the best show in the world
right now, for this stuff. That's an indication of where our industry
is right now.
At the recent Milia in February, we won the Award for Best Art
and Culture title, which was an interesting experience. We won it
for a title we developed with the Smithsonian Institution
the National Museum of American Art. Picture this: Milia is in Cannes
and there's literally two thousand, people in auditorium. It's like
the Oscars. Then the announcement of nominees and the winner. We
were up against Microsoft, and Corbis, and several large European
The announcement that we won the award was greeted by a cacophony
of catcalls and boos throughout the hall. This continued as we approached
and walked onto the stage. The French couldn't handle the fact that
an American developer, and an American publisher, won Best Art and
Culture with a title that was about American art. This was my moment,
pissing off the French no end by winning their Best Art and Culture
JB: Little did they know they were up against the Shanghai-Sofia-Cali
content connection. Speaking of content....
CHOU: The use of the word content, and interactivity, and all
these things, indicate the infancy of our industry. I always feel
like a caveman. We talk about things with such large clunky terminology,
but that's where our industry is right now. It's so simplistic that
our business basically divides between engineering and content.
Obviously that has absolutely no meaning or purposefulness in the
book industry or the movie industry. On the other hand, if you think
about the multimedia software industry, it's a little bit like the
movie industry, if it were so early in the movie industry that you
actually had to build your own cameras and film in order to make
your movie. You would make distinctions between content and technology.
One of the big buzz words, along with content, and interactivity,
and multimedia right now is engines. Everyone's talking about engines,
and everyone means something completely different by the word. But
the basic concept behind engines is that the industry is getting
to a point where you cannot reinvent the technology every time you
want to put out a title, whether it's on Leonard Bernstein, or dinosaurs,
or whatever. You've got to figure out a way to standardize the substructure,
so what you're concentrating on is the content. But that is fundamentally
at odds with another one of the benefits of digital interactive
multimedia, which is its unexpectedness. What people pay for is
the fact that when you pop the CD-ROM into the machine, or you call
up a Web page, you can't necessarily anticipate what its architecture
is, what its capabilities are, what its functions are. Depending
on how you look at it, that is considered a value. You would not
consider it a value if every time you bought a book you'd have to
figure out, do I read from left to right, do I read from bottom
up or up down, or upside down, but that's part of what people are
excited about with this new media. The question is how do you reconcile
the desire for unpredictability in interface design, with the need
for consistent underlying engines, so that publishers, like myself,
can concentrate on content rather than technology. Nobody has solved
that problem yet.
JB: Where are we in terms of engines?
CHOU: There are some standardized engines. In a funny way, Hypercard
became a standardized engine, not necessarily because it became
the basis for a lot of products, but because of the metaphors that
it used: the idea of a stack; the idea that you could graphically
see your path that you had taken and used in the program, you could
step back through it. All of these concepts have become standard
concepts within multimedia products in general. But there really
hasn't been an engine which has standardized the publishing model
People are now trying to do that. For instance, Bob Stein is trying
to do that right now, and he's been in the business of trying to
create tool kits that would underlie publishing efforts. But no
one has achieved it yet. I think it's really a Holy Grail, and I
think there's a tremendous opportunity for someone who's able to
figure it out.
If there is something that holds the most promise for being an
engine, it's probably the Web, because the Web has become a highly
standard publishing vehicle that's used as much by someone at home
as it is by a major publisher, and it's fairly finite in terms of
what the possibilities are.
JB: What about Java?
CHOU: I'll go out on a limb here and say that I really think Java
has been dramatically overrated in terms of its ultimate impact
on the industry. Java is so premature and not ready for prime time,
that it would be surprising to me if it isn't overtaken by a lot
of other proprietary technologies at this point. I don't see it
offering enough advantage to people to really be interesting, and
it's too slow and inflexible.
JB: How's life in the start-up lane? We've been talking for half
an hour and you have yet to utter the magic mantra: "IPO."
CHOU: Wait. I was working up to it. Running a startup is a wild
experience. For starters, I'm not a B-School type, my background's
in philosophy, so I've had to do a lot of learning. We're living
in a time where someone like me, who's 29 years old, who has a lifetime's
experience in multimedia, compared to other people, eight years
in the business, you can say, because of where this industry is
right now, which is really at ground zero, I have as good a chance
as anybody else out there. That's the attitude we've taken, and
we've really charged in. In fact we feel like we have an even better
chance because we're not as much in the grip of the older paradigms,
and we're thinking more creatively.
Another thing hat is a benefit of not being hamstrung with any
of the sort of habits of older business, older industries, and older
technologies, is that we thought about our business being virtual
and global from day one. That was really our mantra. In other words
we don't care where the hell people are, we want to find the best
people, and we want to assemble them. If we have to assemble them
virtually, fine. So we have a company that probably exists more
on the Internet that it exists in physical reality. The Internet
is our office space.
JB: How do handle communication between your groups?
CHOU: All the communications between the offices is over the Internet,
but it's over our own proprietary Lotus Notes databases. You can
access it through the Web, but it's secure, and it's really only
accessible in its full form through our own custom clients. We also
are doing a lot of live telephony, and even video, over the Internet
now. When our lead program designer in New York gets in the office,
he always knows whether the Bulgarian engineer is still in his office
or not because when the engineer in Bulgaria puts his favorite CD
in his PC in Bulgaria, it gets streamed over our Internet connection
and out onto the speakers in our offices. He can literally hear
what's being played on the CD player in the Bulgarian engineer's
machine. We are treating our communications as though we're in one
JB: This gives us all something to look forward to. Can we talk
about business opportunities in China today?
CHOU: One of the products which we developed and own, is a product
called Qin (pronounced "ching"), which is an adventure game
set in the tomb of the first Emperor of China, which is probably
the most famous historical site in China, if not one of the most
important in the world. Talk about selling coals to Newcastle, we
did a deal with an American company, that has set up a localization
shop in Shanghai, and we did a deal for half a million units for
two of our games, Qin and The Robot Club, and sold them to China.
When I was offered this deal I said to the guy "you're crazy, what
are you talking about, they can't have more than 500 computers there,
let alone 500,000." And he told me that the big computer manufacturers
are projecting between six and ten million multimedia PC's units
sold in China over the next year. I've corroborated this independently.
The Chinese growth rate in terms of both disposable income, but
also specifically in terms of consumer demand for computers, which
is right up there now with refrigerators and 32" television sets,
it's just tremendous. What the localizing companies do is t sell
products like ours in bundles with these computers, at relatively
low unit costs, but at incredibly large volume rate. So we're doing
a lot of business there. In fact our first revenues for those products
came from China.
JB: What's happening here? How's business?
CHOU: Try to be delicate and yet meaningful. We took on an investment
from Time Warner they continue to be a strategic partner
and are a very important shareholder in our company. What's happening
now is that we're in a transition period where we were essentially
a developer for Time Warner, and Time Warner was the publisher,
and is the publisher. They distribute and market our titles. The
truth is now that they are downsizing their operations that are
related to publishing and distributing multimedia, and CD-ROMs specifically.
What's happening is that in the meantime we are growing from being
a developer to being a publisher.
We signed the Time Warner partnership about two years ago. Time
Warner has been a fantastic partner, but there was an attitude among
the major media companies that the software business, particularly
in the content-focused software business, was ripe for the taking.
This is the idea that there was a bunch of knucklehead, propeller-head
software guys in there who really didn't understand the business
of publishing and selling real quality material, and the big players
were going to take this business by storm.
The truth is, they've had a hell of a time trying to make it work.
And the guys who are still really making money at it are either
the software guys, who've been in it from day one, for whom this
is a core business; or it's companies like Disney, who see this
business as merchandising as much as publishing. It's putting Goofy,
or Aladdin, on a CD-ROM, as opposed to a sneaker or a sweatshirt.
The big media companies are taking a step back and reassessing the
situation. They spent a lot of money; they didn't get the results
they wanted to; and the smart ones are doing what Time-Warner is
doing with us, which is they are maximizing their investment in
outside companies for whom this is a core business , rather than
spending a tremendous amount of internal overhead on trying to make
this work on their own.
JB: Why do they have this overhead problem?
CHOU: There are a couple of reasons why there's a difference in
the overhead between Time Warner and us. The easiest and probably
most sort of glib answer is they probably pay double per square
foot what we pay for our real estate. Now that's obviously a minor
aspect of it. But also, we don't pay ourselves a lot. We're in it
because we love this business and because we have a piece of the
upside. We're not trying to create salaried positions for ourselves
that we'll live with for the next four years and draw pensions off
of. I'll be frank: we plan to take this company public or to sell
it. We want to make some real money on the upside on this thing.
We have a team of people who have that spirit, and also have an
almost evangelical spirit about what it is that they're building.
That's probably even more importantly than the economics of the
whole thing. So, we don't pay ourselves a lot; we work ridiculous
hours, I'd say 60 70 hours is common people pull hundred
plus hours relatively regularly and there's a real commitment
to getting it done. And we're extremely careful about how we spend
money. When you have money you spend it; when you don't have money
you're real careful about how you spend it. As a result I think
that we're able to be more effective with our dollars than some
of the big guys are. I've watched what some of the big companies
have done and it's just absolutely amazing how they spend their
money. When I think what we could do with the money that's been
wasted by some of these outfits is just mind-boggling. So that's
the spirit that we're trying to attain more with less.
JB: What's your business plan?
CHOU: Whether it's an IPO, or an acquisition, the idea is to create
a company with very high growth potential; very fast growth. We
have doubled our revenues each year, and we want to increase that
rate even more. I can't say what the revenues are now, but I will
say that we should be profitable by this year, and that the revenues
by the end of this year will be substantial. We've gone through
two rounds of financing; we've had a very nice sort of infusion
of capital from two partners, and we've been well-valued, and, I
believe, fairly valued. The key is, as I say, creating a company
that has very high growth potential and very high margins.
The Bulgarian connection is a key, because if we can be seen increasingly
as a gateway to really high-quality, low-cost engineering, we have
a strategic advantage that is extremely valuable.
JB: Engineer in Bulgaria, sell in China, take meetings and have
lunches in New York?
CHOU: Exactly we're only in New York because we like the
restaurants here otherwise we'd be in Sofia or Beijing! But
it's really true: sell globally, and build globally, and set up
your shop wherever you want to be. It's a maxim that my partner
believed in from day one. I was slower to believe, but I've got
the religion now too.
JB: I haven't seen too many software success stories coming out
of New York and "Silicon Alley," have you?
CHOU: To be frank, and I don't think I'm stepping on anyone's
toes by saying this, there's shitty engineering in New York. New
York is not an engineering kind of town. There's great art, there's
great culture, a lot of money is transacted, a lot of deals are
made here in New York, but this is not an engineering town. The
real engineering talent is either in Silicon Valley or it's in Texas,
or it's in Bulgaria. And as much as we call ourselves content people,
this is still a technology-driven business. Frankly, the mistake
that a lot of longtime players in New York have made is trying to
see this as a non-technology-oriented business. This is an engineering
business. It still is, and it's going to be for a long time.
This is where it comes back to my Chinese origin the whole
concept of yin and yang. It's a balancing act. How you create a
culture and a spirit that balances engineering formalism with real
artistry. That's the hardest thing to do. That's where I think we
have our biggest strategic advantage. It's not just, as I said,
the fact that we have access to low-cost engineering, but it's the
fact that we know how to use that engineering for something that's
JB: Talk about products. Let's have more of that yin and yang.
CHOU: It's an interesting topic right now because our strategy
and philosophy is undergoing a transformation, as it has every day
for the last three and a half years. We're trying to combine the
most successful elements from education on the one hand and games
on the other hand. While our products entertain, we try not to use
the word "edutainment". First, it's such a bastardization of the
English language; second, the whole notion of edutainment can be
easily caricatured. What we are not talking about is taking very,
very dry multiple choice-based educational stuff and combine it
with the graphics from an arcade game.
What we've been struggling with as designers is, what makes education
and scholarship really fun? What we keep coming back to is that
real scholarship is like mystery work. When you're a scholar, what
you're doing is, you're like an archeologist, you're piecing together
clues constituent clues and you're trying to create
a picture that makes sense. You're starting with constituent pieces
and you're trying to construct a story. When we teach in schools
we usually do just the opposite. We get kids to memorize a story,
and then sometimes we'll show them the constituent pieces just to
prove that the story is right. This makes education extremely boring.
So throughout all the things that we've been building, the approach
has been to try and figure out, how do you create an experience
where people are interacting with really compelling constituent
elements of information, and trying to construct their own understanding
out of it. In other words, elements of mystery, puzzle-solving,
and game-play are fundamental to educational experiences. And the
opposite is true too. Most good entertainment is intellectualy demanding;
it stimulates thought, interacts with your brain.
The title that probably epitomizes this is this title Qin, which
is an adventure. It's a mystery adventure, set in a highly accurate
3-D reconstruction of a Chinese tomb, a historical tomb. As a game
player you're trying to piece together the clues you need in order
to tell the story what happened in this ancient tomb what
went awry, why am I here, and what do I have to do in order to make
things go right. We designed it with an entire encyclopedia of Chinese
history in the product. In order to solve the puzzles, you need
to find things out about Chinese history, so you go in the encyclopedia,
to find the clues you need to solve the puzzles. What we're trying
to do is create a new symbiosis between reference material and the
narrative impetus of an unfolding game.
That's an interesting and compelling experience to me, because
that is something that is extremely difficult to do in another media.
There's historical fiction, but it doesn't have the same level of
engagement and discovery of something like Qin. What's exciting
to me is that this medium is presenting us with ways to construct
experiences that are compelling, in ways that are completely different
from what the old media was able to provide. But at the same time
there's this sort of irony in what we're doing because as much as
we can create material now that really defies traditional characterization,
the market is driving us increasingly towards traditional characterization.
So how do I sell a box titled Qin, which is not quite a
game, not quite a reference product, not quite an educational product,
but more of each of those, on its own combined, how do I
sell that? Unfortunately there's no shelf for it. The software retail
channel is getting increasingly bifurcated between games on the
one hand, and curriculum software and reference on the other. What
we were excited about was that we were able to sell domestically,
a hundred thousand copies of Qin. In my business that's a hit. That
means that there are people there to buy this thing despite the
fact that the channel doesn't quite know how to deal with it yet.
Body Voyage is another title right now that is of real
personal interest to me, and again is indicative of what the new
technology is providing to people, on a very widespread basis at
a very low cost, and was never available even to professionals until
a few years ago. Body Voyage is based on the work of a friend
of mine, Alexander Tsiaris, a prizewinner medical photojournalist
who's been on the cover of Life Magazine and Time
and so on. He has basically traded his Leica cameras in for Silicon
Graphics and Sun work stations, and for Cat Scan and MRI machines.
In other words, his photography now is digital photography of the
body, rather than traditional optical cameras. What he has been
able to do is to do some of the most compelling reconstruction of
the human body, in 3-D, that has ever been seen.
A couple of years ago, a guy in Texas was sentenced to death,
for killing a man during a robbery. The murderer, Joseph Jernigan,
donated his body to science, and when he was executed, through lethal
injection, his body was frozen and he was flown immediately to an
NIH lab in Boulder, Colorado. Because the guy was in terrific physical
shape his body had absolutely no pathology, except a missing testicle
that was removed due to a noncancerous tumor. And since he was executed
through lethal injection, there was no pathology due to the circumstance
of his death.
At the lab his body was scanned and digitized in every conceivable
form of technology that is currently available to the medical profession.
And they sliced him in the thinnest cross-sections ever sliced,
millimeter cross-sections and they stuck all of this data
on 8 gigabytes of hard drive space and they put it on the
Web. Because that's what you do with everything now, you stick it
on the Web. But nobody knew what to do with the data, a tremendous
amount of numerical data. You have to have real artistry to turn
that into 3-D and to do something about it.
Along comes my friend Alexander who takes all that data and turns
it into incredibly compelling 3 D imagery of the human body. What
Learn Technologies has done is to take all of that stuff, and create
out of his imagery, a navigable version of a real human body. So
Body Voyage is the first time that a lay person can literally
travel through a real human body, not a Gray's Anatomy drawing,
but a real 3-D photograph of a human body. This is a title that
sells for $49.95, and for $49.95 a person with a PC or a Mac has
the capability to truly explore a frontier that no one has explored
before, that is probably closest to us our own body.
JB: Let's get down to the good stuff. What about money?
CHOU: We began the company by bootstrapping it. We started by
doing a lot of working for Steve Brill at Court TV. We got Time
Warner to sign on board in the fall of '93, and then last spring,
we took on a second round of investment from a Colombian-based media
It's an amazing company. In fact, the first time I flew down there
to negotiate with them, I was picked up at the airport in a new
Toyota Land Cruiser, and we pull out of the airport. I start to
knock on the window, and I realize that you can't lower any of the
windows, and they sound very thick well, they're all inch
and a half thick armor-plated window.
It's about 11 o'clock at night, and we pull into Cali, heading
to the hotel and all of a sudden a white unmarked truck cuts us
off. Our driver, who's one of the board members and the head of
multimedia for this company, stops the car he doesn't know
what to do and out of the back of the van pour six commandoes
with M-16s. They start banging their rifle butts on the windows,
and they signal us to get out. We're standing there my partner
is Italian, and so he understood very vaguely what they were saying,
and he turns to me and says, I think they're saying "Up against
the wall, mother-fuckers." And so we're there, literally an hour
after getting in Colombia, spread-eagled against the wall with M-16s
in our backs. That was our introduction to Colombia.
On the other hand, what we discovered was that Colombia is an
incredibly vital place. Every road was being torn up and fiber-optic
cable is being laid down. Our colleagues have a direct satellite
connection with Miami, so when they make a call to us it's a United
States call, because it's literally hooking up to their Miami office.
These guys want in. They want in on multimedia and high-tech. And
they've been fantastic partners; they've been very active in a positive
sense; they're distributing our products in Latin America and Spain,
and they have funded original titles that we are developing for
them as well.
The key from day one was not to take venture money. Our feeling
was that was the kiss of death. What we wanted to do was take money
from strategic partners, whose own fates were in their minds tied
to our fate and whose dollars counted for more than just dollars.
In other words, we wanted to work with people who were bringing
something more to the table. In both of our partners' cases it was
distribution, it was content, et cetera. Because we knew that if
we raised the same amount of money from the VC's we would have to
raise as much money again to get the distribution and the content.
So we've gone the strategic partnership route, and we'll probably
go through a third round of financing probably before the end of
That's under negotiation right now. We're still in early stages,
we're looking at a couple of different options. We're figuring out
what the next steps are. It may not be IPO since the IPO market
right now has been tough on our industry. It may very well be some
kind of large-scale acquisition. We want to make ourselves as valuable
as possible to other people in the business.
THE REALITY CLUB
The End of Horgan: John Horgan's rejoinders to the responses of
Kevin Kelly, George Johnson, Ernest B. Hook, Paul Davies, Lee Smolin,
Jaron Lanier, George Dyson and Oliver Morton
From: John Horgan
The following is my response to the responses of Kevin Kelly,
George Johnson, Ernest B. Hook, Paul Davies, Lee Smolin, Jaron Lanier,
George Dyson and Oliver Morton to "The End of Horgan."
1. Kevin Kelly, you say you cannot believe certain theories will
never be verified unless I can propose a method for conclusively
demonstrating unverifiability, a priori. See, I think I have such
a method. It's called common sense. Common sense tells me-and the
vast majority of other scientists, by the way-that we will never
have any empirical evidence for the existence of parallel universes.
I therefore conclude that such theories will forever remain mere
Remember the scene in Animal House when Donald Sutherland got
a couple of students high on pot and then started telling them that
our entire universe is just a speck of dust in the pocket of a giant,
and that each atom in our universe is also a universe in its own
right with its own inhabitants (or words to that effect)? Superstring
theory and baby-universe models are pretty much the same thing,
in my mind. But if you want to believe in their potential actuality,
that's cool. By the way, do you also believe that there is a benign
God watching over this vale of tears?
2. George Johnson, you don't give me much to disagree with. You
note that I use different arguments for dispatching different fields
of science. Quite true. You also mention that my book was originally
called "The Ends of Science." Also true. Originally I was worried
that calling it "End of Science" would make it too easy for reviewers
to accuse me of jumping on the end-of something-big bandwagon. "Ends"
was more subtle. It evoked different kinds of endings as well as
the different reasons for doing science. But since the central message
of my book is that pure science has in a certain sense already ended,
and since my years as a journalist have taught me that subtlety
is often lost on the masses, I decided to go with the blunt instrument:
"End of Science." I have no regrets.
By the way, I also agree with you that science is not complete,
and that there are many mysteries left unexplained. You say you
may write about these mysteries in "sequel" to my book called "Loose
Ends of Science." Great idea, but you should know that the afterword
for my book's new paperback edition is called "Loose Ends."
3. I don't know who you are, Ernest P. Hook, but you certainly
have a talent for blurbs. I hope to get "Useless and mildly pernicious!"
on the next printing of my book, along with Lee Smolin's "not silly!"
You say first that my end-of-science thesis is not worthy of consideration
by research scientists, because it has no practical consequences.
You then express concern that students might be discouraged from
entering certain fields because of my arguments. These are of course
If you had been nicer in your posting, I might have told you about
my views on science funding and on science as a career for young
people, both of which you probably had in mind when you raised this
issue of practical consequences. But because you were so snippy,
I'm not going to tell you what I think here. You will have to buy
the paperback edition of my book and read the afterword. Or remain
forever ignorant. Your choice.
4. Paul Davies, you raise a couple of important points in your
usual lucid fashion. If we find life on Mars, that would be very
cool, especially if it employs a genetic mechanism significantly
different than ours. That discovery, which as you say would suggest
that life arose independently on the two planets, would certainly
provide more substance to speculations about the likielihood of
life elsewhere in the cosmos. But I bet reasonable people would
still disagree, as they do now, on whether the universe is "teeming
with life," and settling that issue definitively would still be
extremely difficult. I hope we find a way to do it, but we can't
assume we will.
As for consciousness, I did not mean to imply that I don't think
it's an important or interesting problem. I'd say it's the MOST
important and interesting problem, excepting perhaps the more general
question of why there is something rather than nothing. I just don't
think science can "solve" consciousness in the way that people want
it solved, any more than molecular biology "solved" the mystery
of life. Daniel Dennett recently proposed that the problem of consciousness
is really just a sub-problem of the larger problem of life. That
makes sense to me. There is nothing in the laws of physics or chemistry
that says either life in general or conscious life in particular
must exist (although romantics such as Christian DeDuve and Stu
Kauffman strain to demonstrate otherwise). Thus, even when we have
"explained" them in material terms-with DNA and neurotransmitters
and the like-they will remain profoundly mysterious.
5. Lee Smolin, you've compiled a nice list of questions left for
science to ponder. But some of these questions, such as how cell
differentiation occurs, I would put in the category of filling in
details of pre-existing paradigms. Others, such as why the early
universe was so "symmetric" and how "exactly" life began, I classify
as probably unanswerable in a definitive sense given the dearth
of reliable data.
Lee, you say you are also disturbed by my pessimism, which you
see as part of a larger intellectual trend. Come on. Pessimists
are a vanishingly small group in this gee-whiz, can-do culture,
and especially in the realm of science. Do you really think we'd
all be better off if these few voices of dissent were silenced?
6. Jaron Lanier, like, lighten up, dude. Just because science
is over doesn't mean we can't have fun any more. As the science
editor of the Economist told me recently when I met him in London,
"We still have sex and beer!" And virtual reality, of course.
7. George Dyson, nice quote from Bernal, whose essay on the long-term
evolution of intelligence (humanity is just a stepping stone, we
will eventually turn into really smart clouds of conscious gas)
inspired your father's wonderful musings on the distant future.
I love this stuff, which in my book I call scientific theology,
but you've got to admit it's kind of escapist. Our fate, I suspect,
will be forever tethered to this tiny planet, and these frail bodies.
8. Oliver Morton, I only wish all critics could be as interesting
and witty as you are. On the other hand, you make so many good points
that I really don't know where to begin. I'll just make a few general
observations, in the hopes that someday we'll be able to jaw at
each other further over beers. You offer a list of what-ifs that,
fulfilled, could jumpstart science in the future. All of these things-which
range from discovering evidence for the many-worlds interpretation
to contacting intelligent aliens-are indeed possible. My argument
is just that they are not inevitable or even probable, as most popular
writing about science suggests.
Also, while it's conceivable that general relativity and even
quantum mechanics could yield to even more effective conceptual
and mathematical formalisms-superstring theory, say-I suspect such
a development will ultimately matter only to specialists. We will
still live in the same old material world, made of matter and energy,
particles and forces, time and space. That paradigm, if you will,
is rock solid.
And I very much doubt-and I know you do too, having discussed
the issue with you-that such new-and-improved formalisms would lead
to blazing revelations about consciousness, as Roger Penrose and
others of his ilk have suggested.
You say that superstring theory, while perhaps not confirmable,
is at least falsifiable. No supersymmetric particles, no superstrings.
But remember that Andrei Linde and Alan Guth and others once insisted
that inflation would definitely, positively be falsified if the
cosmic mass density did not equal one. Well, now that it looks like
the mass-density falls well short of that, that prediction has fallen
by the wayside. This kind of thing is rampant in physics and cosmology
these days, and it's one reason why these fields are obviously in
You were right to jump on my remark about post-Darwinian biology
not offering much of philosophical significance. Dolly the sheep
certainly had some interesting implications (although not as interesting
as some overheated commentators suggested). I guess my point is
that the hard core atheism and materialism of a Richard Dawkins
or Steve Gould (I have a theory that these guys only pretend to
disagree about stuff to make their field seem more exciting) could
have been expressed immediately after Darwin, and was, pretty much,
I love talking about Kuhn, as you obviously do, too. I'm rather
fond of the part of my book that deals with Kuhn and his slippery
ideas. If you read that, you'll see that you overestimate the degree
to which I demand that really big scientific advances be Kuhnian
in nature. My view of science is much more straightforward than
Kuhn's. For example, Kuhn would consider it terribly naive to compare
scientific progress to geographical discovery. I don't think it's
really such a bad analogy. We have done a good job mapping out the
universe, and we are now speculating about things that are off the
map, as it were: parallel universes, the Planck realm, extra dimensions
of space and so on. There be dragons.
I think more in terms of big questions than of Kuhnian revolutions
and incommensurability (a concept whose usefulness has been greatly
exaggerated). The biggest questions now are what I identified in
my essay as "inevitability questions." How inevitable was the universe,
the laws of nature, life and so on? Most of us want to believe that
we were inevitable; religion is a manifestation of this longing,
and so are all our "scientific" speculations about other universes
and other biosystems. My own feeling is that, even if we transform
the entire universe into an omniscient cosmic computer, it will
still be stumped by the brute fact of its own existence-proving
once again that AI can't live up to its hype. But remember, we still
have sex and beer.-
JOHN HORGAN, senior writer for Scientific American, has
also written freelance articles for The New York Times, The New
Republic, Slate, The London Times, Discover, The Sciences and
other publications. Horgan is the author of The End Of Science
: Facing The Limits Of Knowledge In The Twilight Of The Scientific
Age (Helix Books, 1966; paperback: Broadway Books, May, 1997).
Arnold Trehub & Steven Quartz on "Organs of Computation"
From: Arnold Trehub
re: "Organs of Computation"
Steven Quartz says "When we look inside the brain what we find
is something far more interesting, a self-organizing system in which
structure is generated from the interaction between a structured
world (which we ourselves structure with culture) and a brain with
its own intrinsic constraints." He then says parenthetically "(incidentally,
contemporary brain science provides no evidence for innate organs
of computations)." I wonder if we substitute the word "mechanisms"
for "organs" if he believes that brain science provides no evidence
for innate mechanisms of computation.
In The Cognitive Brain (MIT Press, 1991), I described and
simulated a number of biologically plausible brain mechanisms which
could account for many of our basic cognitive capacities. At the
conclusion of the book I wrote:
"Reasonable models of the human brain can provide a physical account
of the mechanisms and processes of cognition. Interactions among
such models in simulated social and physical contexts can provide
an account of the evolution of the various contents of cognition.
It is the total specific content of cognition, the current physical
state of specialized mechanisms in an individual brain shaped by
encounters in a world both real and imagined, that constitutes a
It should be clear from the above statement that I agree that
the brain is a self-organizing system which constructs (generates
structure) in interaction with the world. But if Quartz does not
allow innate computational neuronal mechanisms, then what constraints
does the brain use to construct a mind?-
ARNOLD TREHUB is adjunct professor of psychology, University of
Massachusetts at Amherst, 1972 and the author of The Cognitive
Brain, MIT Press, 1991.
From: Steven Quartz
Arnold Trehub asks, "I wonder if we substitute the word 'mechanisms'
for "organs" if he (Quartz) believes that brain science provides
no evidence for innate mechanisms of computation."
The notion that the brain is a collection of "mental organs,"
or in more computational language, a set of functionally-dedicated
computers, has its modern origin in Chomsky's view of language acquisition.
He argued that the structure of the environment is so impoverished
that the only way a child could acquire a language was if its principles
were built into the brain. This claim took a very specific form:
a universal grammar, capable of representing any possible human
language, was somehow encoded in the structure of the brain.
When Chomsky first made this claim little was known about the
brain's development. So little was known that Chomsky could freely
ask us to think of the brain on a par with the liver or heart. Thirty
years or so later, though, a rapidly maturing brain science reveals
a very different picture.. A liver will never become a heart, no
matter how sophisticated the transplant. On the other hand, cortical
areas are capable of assuming each other's role. Indeed, children
who lose the language dominant left hemisphere nonetheless typically
become normal language users, provided the insult was early enough.
So, where are these organs? Does the brain somehow redundantly represent
universal grammar everywhere in the brain? The brain's plasticity
coupled with the basic science of developmental neurobiology suggest
that the organ metaphor no longer plays a useful role as an item
of scientific explanation.
The challenge left for the "organ hypothesis" is to answer Sandra
Blakeslee's query in this thread what does it mean in neural terms
to say there are organs of computation? Without an answer, organs
of computation are like pulling a rabbit out of a hat-they don't
tell you where the rabbit comes from, but only push explanation
back another step. What we'd like to know is, how does the rabbit
get into the hat?
To answer Trehub's question and to suggest where to look for the
rabbit, abandoning organs doesn't lead to an unconstrained brain.
I think the brain is richly constrained. These include mechanisms,
such as certain receptor types, and also initial cortical circuitry,
conduction velocities, subcortical organization, learning rates,
and hierarchical development. But nowhere do any of these entail
that domain-specific knowledge of cognitive skills is somehow embedded
in the cortex. Even at the level of mechanism, there is no hard
line in the sand separation between intrinsic and extrinsic. Activity-dependent
gene expression, which acts on regulatory genes, for example, suggests
that these interactions go all the way down.
I think these constraints lead to a much more interesting research
program than did the nativist proposal. The question confronting
us is how these constraints interact with structured environmental
information (which recent work demonstrates is much richer than
Chomsky's poverty of the stimulus arguments allow) to construct
the brain through a process of self organization. Trehub's interesting
quotation from The Cognitive Brain resonates with such a
program, which is fast becoming the standard model in developmental
cognitive neuroscience (e.g., the excellent book, Rethinking
Innateness). If this program turns out to be correct, then uncovering
where the rabbit comes from will trace back to Piaget's constructivism,
not Chomsky's nativism.-
STEVEN R. QUARTZ, a fellow of the Sloan Center for Theoretical
Neurobiology at the Salk Institute, has also been a member of the
Computational Neurobiology Laboratory since 1988. He has advised
the National Science Foundation on computational neurobiology-the
use of parallel simulations to study development of the brain. Dr.
Quartz is the coauthor (with Terrence Sejnowski) of The Intelligent
Brain: Shattering The Myth Of Fixed Iq With The Mind's Newest Science