CYBERSAFARI: Lesson One - Ignore those Engineers.


The "Zippy Cybersafari to Africa" aka Cyber Safari is a good example of what happens when the engineers take over and make a complete mess of things, the artists and producers end up taking the blame for what should be by rights, their artistic prerogative. In fact, if engineers ruled the world nobody would dare walk through a door for fear of getting nailed to a cross, or fly airplanes for want of a slide rule.

What should have been a simple demonstration of interactivity turned into all manner of things as the Unity 95 crew promised everybody the world, including the United Nations. I too succumbed to the eager calls for "education, communication and conflict resolution" and put my arse online for a project that could have turned into something really substantial if only it weren't hamstrung by the need for voluntary donations of time, energy and used technology.

The Modems for Africa project, for instance while a good idea, didn't have any legs as far as the San Francisco computer fraternity was concerned, and while we publicised the cause, networked and tried hard to seem like we were doing something constructive and dare one say "politically correct" the real moral that keeps buzzing around my head as I write these words today is this one "for any project to truly succeed, you have to own it yourself, have a special stake in its success and play a central role  crucial in determining its future."

All I could muster then was a narrow focus on the future of communication. It just wasn't good enough to have interactivity, or to put the Western Cape Schools Network in touch with Unesco and the Parallel University, a project created by Fraser Clark which didn't even have money to print up pamphlets let alone employ a professional like me. So like most volunteer cultural workers I was left dependent upon the graft of huge techno corporations like Bell and AT&T who all consumed an enormous amount of time and energy, promised to donate us the world, including money, but never pulled through in the end.

The only corporates which actually came through for either Unity 95 or the Zippy Cybersafari to Africa were the PictureTel Corp, the manufacturers of the video conferencing system, and Telkom, a South African parastatel which donated a technician and the cost of installing an ISDN line on the Cape Town side.

Then there was a fireman by the name of Mr Manning, who came up with some of his own hard-earned dough to pay for the actual cost of the link which ticked over in units like any normal telephone conversation would, in return I was sworn to include a petition to stop the War in Yugoslavia, and the result turned into something of a WORLD PEACE NOW freak show, what with bongo playing "earthlings" chanting mantras alongside a Tibetan Monk, and well, the rest is history - at least the War in the Balkans stopped, and we have something of a world record.

Which is why I say, leave interactive video art to the artists and stay clear of the engineers at all costs, in fact for all the promises made and broken, the ones that stood steadfast were usually of the most mundane or, esoteric sort. For example we knew we were going to end up with an interactive something and that's precisely what we got, an interactive performance, that included a demonstration of the first use of the technology between the two continents.

The timing precluded anything like an intelligent debate over "the issues", since by the time anybody had arrived at the Fort Mason Centre, the whole thing had been postponed, and our "invited guests" sitting in Cape Town, had then left. What we had then was the After-party to the scheduled "debate"  interacting with the new late arrivals on the San Francisco End, while a scheduled "African Dawn, along with the Venusians" was ditched after the grass smoking incident in which a member of the public (actually a friend of Clark's) lit up a big fat one in front of television cameras and interacted with what turned out to be one fat party happening in Cape Town...sorry.

Mr Manning, then tried to put an end to the show, and the two hours of interactive video art suddenly turned into one.

Enough said, but for those of you who still think history is made via polite panel discussions, or that peace happens because of news readers wearing pink cravats, here is that UNITY 95 manifesto. It sort of reads like an old hokey folk dance and has a nice ting to it even after all these years:
 

Cyber Safari

(from Unity News Issue 6, Summrt 95}

Booth: Center, Behind Main Stage @ Buckminster Fuller Centennial Dome

Intercontinental Video Conference Linking South Africa to San Francisco @ Unity 95 -- International Culture and Technology Exposition. Modems for Africa Campaign Launched.

Unity Foundation in partnership with the Parallel University is producing an international video conference from San Francisco, USA to Johannesburg and Cape Town, South Africa on Saturday June 24, 1995 at 2:00-3:00 pm PST and 10:00-11:00 pm PST. This intercontinental video conference between America and Africa called the Cyber Safari will take place at Unity 95, an international culture and technology exposition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in San Francisco. This unique exposition has been designed to feature presentations of international culture and showcase new technologies employed for education, communication and conflict resolution.

The "Cyber Safari" interactive video conference will bring together citizens, educators and engineers in San Francisco and South Africa to discuss how today's global communications systems can be used to advance education, conflict resolution and social development. Unity Foundation and Parallel University are working with PictureTel Corporation and Silicon Graphics, who are donating the use of their video conferencing equipment both in San Francisco and South Africa. High speed ISDN lines and local phone service from Pacific Bell and Telcom South Africa are being arranged to make the local digital signal connection. International digital signal services from AT&T will connect this interactive video bridge between America and Africa. In addition to the interactive video conference, on-line computers will be accessible throughout the 12 hour exposition, demonstrating how global communications are now available by a local call to the internet.

Unity Foundation and the Parallel University are working with the UNESCO association, USA and the Western Cape Schools Network, SA, to use this video conference to build awareness of how citizens in developed and developing countries can use telecommunication services to exchange information, resources and collaborate in areas of mutual interest. One project that will be promoted is the "Modems for Africa" program of the Parallel University. This program will begin by collecting used computers and modems in the United States and shipping them to the Western Cape Schools Network in South Africa. This equipment will help provide Internet access to South African schools that can not afford the initial expense of this equipment. The video conference will also discuss broader issues of international co-operation to wire Africa in the world, such as reports from the recent African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development conference and AT&T's Africa One project to ring the continent with the region's first high-capacity digital undersea fiber-optic network.

The Cyber Safari video conference will play a key role at the Unity 95 international culture and technology exposition. This unique event will showcase how citizens, educators, cultural workers and communications companies are working together to promote international co-operation and social development. This interactive Indaba (African-style community meeting) will put the call out for a planetary crew to collect many modems for African schools and embrace the spirit of the United Nations.

[Which is pretty much what happens when you take a simple idea like interactivity or communication, add a couple of engineers and attach the whole thing to a bureacracy like UNESCO. One wonders how humankind managed to survive, for so long?]

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