- behind the screen with independent designers, developers and others.
A. K. M. Adam
Before the Internet and pixels were words, spoken, carved, printed.
What did you do before the Web?
I worked in computer graphics from 1980 to '83 at a startup my mother and stepfather owned, Slidemaker, which produced business graphics for slides online, printed the slides for your presentation and overnighted them to you. I wrote a few of the templates for slides, oversaw production and shipping of the slides, spent ages producing bitmapped versions of typefaces (I still see 24-point Chelthenham Bold in some of my nightmares) and tried to simulate kerning values and anti-aliasing. When we weren't too active I used the design capacities of our system to make pretty pictures and to program games (a football game, a Hitchhiker's Guide game, and a game wherein the player wandered around our office building trying to avoid the bosses who might have assigned the player more work to do--that was a very popular game until the bosses found out about it).
When 3M bought out Slidemaker, I decided not to follow the company to Minnesota but went to seminary at Yale Divinity School, planning to go into parish ministry. My New Testament professors encouraged me to pursue doctoral work, though, and I went on to Duke University for a Ph.D. While I was studying, my wife and I stayed active with computers; we first bought a Kaypro, then eventually a Mac Plus, on which we published four issues of a tiny-run periodical we called Critical Theology.
After I finished my doctorate, I taught at Eckerd College in Florida, and Princeton Theological Seminary.
During my time at Eckerd, I tried to convince the various sorts of institutions with which I worked to expand into enhanced BBS operations. I saw the train coming--I was just looking down the wrong tracks.
I was an early AOL subscriber, but thought that the real action would be in flexible BBS operations such as FirstClass or Telefinder. I jawboned unimpressed organizations about the benefits of establishing an active and engaged user community through BBSes, but they looked vacant and ignored me. Then the Web exploded, and everything was different.
How did you find the web?
I plugged the Ethernet cable that came with my new office into my Mac, started up Netscape, and there it was. I remember thinking, "Well, this is going to soak up a lot of your time."
Why are you here?
Because I care ardently about community and communication. Because I think best when I think in public, where I'm obliged to make a coherent case for what I say, and where other smarter people set me straight about things.
Because some of the things I care to do can be done vastly more effectively online, and I don't see people in my areas of interest--theology, theological education--understanding and using technology in the richest ways. I'll convene a small conference at the Wabash Center in Indiana this summer, for a handful of theological educators, that I'm calling "Teaching and Technology--Beyond PowerPoint." For many theological educators, for many educators in general as far as I know, PowerPoint and threaded bulletin boards are the two applications of technology for education; but there's so much more to be recognized and brought into play.
Methods of production
What do you use to create your sites?
I'm working now on a Mac PowerBook (the Lombard model, 333 mHz, running OS 9.1), but I've been told that in the new fiscal year I'm eligible for a new computer, so I have a very bad case of Titanium lust. I'm hoping I can get that; Seabury had been an exclusively PC-platform location till I got here.
I'm not a technician any more, just an academic with limited time and an impatient curiosity relative to the documents I produce. I've tried lots of tools for writing HTML for web pages, but none has satisfied my desire for (a) lean code (b) effective interface design and (c) low cost (I pay for most of my own tools). So I just futz around. If I'm overlooking an application that would allow me to write HTML the way I work in a word processor, then please let me know. So far, PageSpinner comes closest to what I want; BBEdit is a little closer to the bare bones than I like. For now, I mostly just type what I want in whatever word processor I'm using at the moment, tags included, then slap it into Explorer or Mozilla to see what it looks like.
Right now I use Blogger for my weblog. I started blogging and right away I reached in to customize my template (I couldn't imagine using a boilerplate template--I mean, come on, this is about "expression," right?). Now, since I write lame HTML, I introduced all sorts of gunk into what I produced, and then I started thinking that someone who cares about the directions in which these tools are going should be standards-compliant and grounded in appropriate CSS and XHTML infrastructure; so I asked about these on my blog, and was deluged by interested observers, who have been following stage by stage Dorothea Salo's patient recreation of my various eccentric design decisions in CSS-based XHTML-compliant code. Once I get the hang of what she's done, what difference all the decisions make, and how to make wiser and more effective use of these, I'll probably scotch the whole of the present design; but I want better to understand what I'm doing, before I start over.
Seabury, the seminary at which I teach, will probably adopt one of the major CMSes over the summer, too--and I'll want to know which direction we're going before I put any energy into a from-scratch redesign.
About the Web
What do you see as the greatest strengths of the web?
I'm with David Weinberger: it's the connections. A few months ago, some of us were batting around metaphors for the Web. Everyone had good ideas, and no single idea came out ahead (which appropriately reflects how extensively the Web defeats our efforts to capture or summarize it). The metaphor that stuck with me was that the Web has enabled us to produce a vast, shared imagination--an imagination whose power is amplified by the fact that now the connections that you see, the associations you make, are available to me, too. That excites me a lot more than storage-and-retrieval, although I love that too.
Now the range of my imagination multiplies itself by the range of your imagination, and their imaginations, and all the imaginations I can tap into through Google.
Our imagination--our capacity to emplot courses of action that haven't happened, possibilities we haven't encountered, visions we haven't seen, sounds we haven't heard, smells and tastes and sensations that we haven't experienced immediately--strikes me as the most exhilarating part of being human. That's especially true when imaginations flow together, fecundate and criticize and encourage and protect each other. We attain these exhilarating confluences when we play music together, when we act together, when we join forces for a design project, when we share lives in ways that deepen the art of our everyday living. In my work as a priest, I've found that the Mass can enact this sort of shared realization of the Christian heart's imagination when all the participants and the gathered community join in thoughtful, harmonious worship. We attain the exhilaration of compound imagination in a different, but integrally related way on the Web.
What do you see as the greatest dangers?
The greatest danger to the Web comes from people who would exercise their coercive authority to domesticate the Web, to render it the reproduction of what we already know, what we've already seen and done, only with a different means of transmission. For education, that means people who treat technology as a way of doing classroom teaching the same way, only with more horsepower (making chat rooms and threaded bulletin board discussions do the work of seminars, substituting online resources for libraries, turning the good old slide lecture into a PowerPoint presentation). In familiar media, that means the movie and recording industry and print media moguls hobbling the Web to deliver only what they want it to, on their terms.
Something is happening, and they don't know what it is. Do they?
The greatest danger to human life comes from exactly the amplifying power of the Web. The Web makes room for any hateful crank to become a highly-visible media center for propounding racist violence, or any sex-starved teenager to become an obsessive downloader of pornography. We can just as readily amplify our imaginations for evil ends as for good ends.
Of course, that no more makes the Web bad than Timothy McVeigh makes fertilizer bad. (I have different reasons for preferring not to support the chemical fertilizer industry.) We can use plenty of neutral or good devices for terrible purposes. Our job isn't to think we can devise the technical answers to eliminate possible evil uses of the Web, but to work together in ways that make cooperation and mutual support more obvious and comfortable than malice and destruction.
There's no way we're going to out-think the dedicated malice of evil-doers. We ought not expect humans to stop behaving as humans long have behaved just because they're on the Web now (as though the Web magically weaves daisies in your hair and plants a beatific smile on your face). We can work together toward making mutually-edifying, constructive uses of the Web more attractive and compelling than destructive uses.
What would you say to folks who want to work the web?
Use it. Use it in ways that don't depend on what other people have told you to use it for; use the infinite chain of hyperlinks to leap site to site, learning from all the brilliant coders and writers and designers who make beauty and wisdom for your screen; use it to strengthen and amplify your imagination, and surprise the rest of us.