Shift Magazine
November, 1995
page 30

Who to Know: The Digerati

Sometimes it's now what you know, it's who you know.
Get out your Rolodex for 10 people who are
shaping the digital scene in Canada.

by Rodney Palmer

Cyber-Feminist, Techno-Artist

Nancy Paterson's life has become so digitized she talks in abbreviated Netspeak: "Trees dissolve into each other. Seasons change. Different things happen." This describes one of her latest creations: The Meadow.

[Nancy Patterson] You walk between four large TV monitors and a Polaroid ultrasonic distance detector measures your location within a half-centimetre. As you move, you hear children whispering from behind a tree, "Three, two, one, ready or not here I come!" The piece simulates a walk in a country meadow, and it represents a small departure for one of Canada's leading digital artists and one of very few women in the field.

Paterson is better known for what she calls "cyber-feminist techno-art". Look, for example, down the womb of a '50s wringer washer and witness a TV set with Dr. Henry Morgentaler reciting his philosophy of freedom of choice. Contrasting the "women's technology" of the '50s with women's issues of the '80s and '90s has become Paterson's trademark.

And so has her undying love of video, high tech digital gadgets, and clunky old machinery designed by men to make women work, or be more beautiful. Witness her Stock Market Skirt, slipped over a dressmaker's dummy, connected to a computer, wired to the Internet: the hemline rises and falls with the daily crests and troughs of the TSE.

In 1979 Paterson founded the Artculture Resource Centre on Toronto's trendy Queen West and had Brian Eno lecture as the first guest speaker. She recognizes that techno-art is seeping into the consciousness of popular culture. She's convinced that its true value is its potential to speak to children where other important works like Barnet Newman's Voice of Fire could not.

At 38-years-old, Paterson has been at this game longer than almost anyone in the country, but she says it's too important, and fun, to give up. "I'm an addictive personality", she says. "I like money, drugs, sex, and high technology art. And I know I can't live it all that much longer."

President of Electronic Frontier Canada

When police in Montreal raided local BBSs this year, two of those busted used their phone call to contact David Jones of the EFC. Jones, a computer science professor at McMaster University, is the head of Canada's only electronic rights organization. He's looking out for your civil rights in cyberspace, so you don't have to.

Founder of CulTech and former member of that rockin' band, Lighthouse.

His résumé would make your grandma proud, patenting inventions as diverse as the Midiboost sound system and the Talking Doll. He's also a key designer of Stonehaven West, an experimental über-wired community in Newmarket, Ontario. One of the few people not in the game strictly for dough, he's actually trying to make technology work for people.

Director of ExCITE Centre at Simon Fraser University

While serving as a member of the National Advisory Committee of Canada's Information Highway, Sinclair fought hard for educators to have better electronic resources.

Meanwhile, her centre has just designed a hot new Web browser called NCompass to compete with Netscape. Insiders say NCompass is the real thing and big clients are lining up. Will Sinclair be the first female Internet billionare?

President of Gray Matter

[Chris Gray] Chris Gray's video game development business is doing so well, he's hired a public relations firm to handle calls from the media. He must be learning from Bill Gates, the untouchable who won't talk to reporters except on his own scripted conditions. In fact, Gray has a major contract with Gates' Microsoft to produce a video game for next year. It's the icing on his professional contract cake, one that already includes Sega and Sony. "We only work with the biggest and the best in the industry", says Gray grandly.

After 10 years in business (he started right out of high school at age 17), Gray employs 65 people. But his youth doesn't work against him when dealing with corporate giants. He's been programming video games since he was 13. "I don't know how old you have to be before you stop being called a whiz-kid." If he's not a whiz-kid anymore, he might be described as a shark. His fast-talking, cocksure manner has propelled him to the top of an industry that last year out-grossed movie-making by $1 billion.

Regarding the accusation that he's promoting violence to young customers, Gray declares in an almost rehearsed delivery that he supports rating systems on video games, but that, "Developers like us should have the freedom to create games that are violent or non-violent." And as long as there are children to play games, Gray says there will be a gigantic market for his company. "When fibre optics are the medium of choice", he says, "we'll have 10,000 people playing the same video game."

Co-Founder of The Vivid Group

Vincent John Vincent falls somewhere between a computer programmer and a visual artist. He's co-created revolutionary virtual reality software known as Mandala which doesn't demand those clumsy VR helmets. Vincent uses the system in virtual music and entertainment performances around the world. His company, The Vivid Group, has designed over 200 entertainment systems, including everything from advanced video games to simulators. There's nothing virtual about Vincent's success.

7. University of Waterloo
Computer Science and Computer Engineering Graduates

Doug Coupland rated Waterloo as one of the top 10 cool geek schools. Silicon Valley recruits heavily from their ranks. Many turn into millionaires. If that's not enough, not a single one of them plays on the football team.

President of Digital Renaissance

Keith Kocho has been called the 27-year-old child prodigy, but he's working in an industry where 27 is middle-aged. Oh sure, Digital Renaissance is one of those gross success stories: A young Kocho started authoring multimedia programs out of his apartment five years ago and now employs a dozen people in his Toronto studio. Yeah, he recently landed a major contract with Digital Equipment Corp. So what? Some 19-year-olds are making more money than their parents programming video games! What makes Kocho interesting is not his business acumen, but the maturity displayed in his social conscience.

[Keith Kocho] He's turned down two major contracts with nuclear weapons manufacturers. "As an industry we're not thinking about the impacts of technology", he says. "We're too busy worrying about the bull-market." Kocho recently accosted the marketing director of Sega at a new media conference in Banff and asked why Sega didn't program something less violent and more educational for the captive audience of young males. "I practically got stoned", he recalls. "But if I have to get to the next level of Doom in order to kill more people, why not make me learn a few words in Portuguese in order to do it?"

He's not exactly trying to relive David and Goliath. Kocho is a shrewd capitalist. But he's also served on a couple of government committees addressing the future of technology. His company designed the multimedia kiosks for the Heritage Moments to promote Canadian history and he's taught at the Ontario College of Art.

But Kocho is careful not to jump on business bandwagons like slapping information on CD-ROMs. Success Kocho-style lies in selling people something that's useful. "Don't forget", he says, more earnest than boastful, "almost everything digital except for email can be replaced by something that already exists."

Digital Artist and Inventor

David Rokeby is as close to a household name as you get in the world of high tech art, but it's his lesser known role as inventor that defines him as a true renaissance man.

For the sake of his art, he taught a computer to recognize a fraction of movement within a video screen and incorporated this into his most famous art installations, The Very Nervous System.

[David Rokeby] For the sake of humanity, he adapted this system to enable a totally paralyzed woman to write. The camera focuses on the only part of her body that she can move voluntarily: her eyelid. In fact, it focuses past the involuntary wandering of her blind eyes, and reads only the subtlety of her flicking eyelash. When she blinks, a computer recognizes a series of codes and deciphers them into the alphabet. This incredible technique allows her to write about 15 words per minute on a computer screen. "The invention side is not so far from the creation side of an artist", says Rokeby.

In his early 30s, Rokeby has positioned himself as a world leader in artistic technological innovation, but his lifestyle is hardly world-class. A digitally-manipulated camera pokes out the dingy window of his second-floor apartment. The camera projects images of only moving objects only onto his TV set. The people, the buses, the cyclists can be seen. Anything that's static is blurred into oblivion.

His most famous project, the Very Nervous System, has been evolving over a decade and can now mimic the movement of a human body to create music. Rokeby is now experimenting with the next wave of machine intelligence called Learning Systems. He's trying to program intuition into computers. "McLuhan said artists are the antennae of society", he says. "I don't want people to think technology is wonderful. I want people to think it's an incredible thing, but to think critically about it."

President of Softimage

Canadians are good at three things: hockey, referendums, and computer graphics. Foregoing the first two, Langlois mortgaged his home to found Softimage. His animation software has been used to create everything from Sega games to Hollywood movies like Jurassic Park. His products are so good, Bill Gates bought the company.

Copyright © 1995 by Shift Magazine, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.