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U.S. Agencies, Industry, and Academe Team Up to Compute Media’s Future

As risky as predictions are, here’s a fairly safe one: The future of media is bound up with computers. That doesn’t mean that print and other older forms of media will fade away. It does mean that newer media, whatever shape they take, will be created, shared, and used with the help of computers. If it’s not love, it’s apps that will bring us together.

That recognition has brought together the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, three federal agencies whose interests don’t traditionally overlap all that often. The three agencies recently signed a memorandum of understanding that acknowledges their shared interest in supporting computer-enabled research, said Eva Caldera, the humanities endowment’s assistant chairman for partnership and strategic initiatives.

The agreement says that the agencies will “collaboratively leverage research and development (R&D) investments to build an interdisciplinary community of researchers and practitioners who cross over the fields of art, science, humanities, education, and engineering, with a particular awareness of the new possibilities enabled by digital technology,” according to Ms. Caldera. She said by email that staff members at the three agencies “are meeting regularly to study the potential opportunities for collaboration.”

Although it came together before the agencies signed their agreement, the Media Systems project, based at the University of California at Santa Cruz, stands as an example of their joint interest in digital work. All three agencies, along with Microsoft Studios and Microsoft Research, helped support the project financially. This week it released “Envisioning the Future of Computational Media,” a report on more than a year’s worth of conversations among computer scientists, digital artists, and people in the digital humanities about how to support research and experimentation that will shape the future of media.

The term “computational media” pulls together what look at first like very different endeavors. Creating 3D animation tools or digital art or a video game counts; so does writing a new algorithm or studying machine-enabled learning. But all of those activities together are becoming more and more central to society. What the Media Systems conversations revealed, and what the report tries to explain, is that “there’s something consistent and integrated that brings them all together,” said Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an associate professor of computer science at Santa Cruz. “There’s a scholarly consensus that this is an important part of our culture. There’s an industry consensus that this is a driver of the economy.”

Mr. Wardrip-Fruin wrote the report along with Michael Mateas, a professor of computer science at the university; the two scholars also direct Santa Cruz’s Expressive Intelligence Studio, which works on artificial intelligence, art, and design. Their account of the Media Systems conversations explores the “opportunities for economic and cultural impact” of computational-media work in a society permeated by mobile technology, digital art, video games, and so on. But it also points to “the need for sustained basic and applied computational-media research.” The technology industry tends to focus on “the results needed for a specific product,” the report says, while research universities “have a hard time assembling and maintaining interdisciplinary teams” needed to support computational-media efforts.

“The good old-fashioned arts-and-humanities versus engineering divide is everywhere,” Mr. Wardrip-Fruin said. “What we end up with is the big advances in media happening off to the side,” in some researcher’s or designer’s own small creative space. The report encourages big industry players, individual designers and scholars, universities, foundations, and government agencies to create more of a shared space and more collaborative models of how to experiment and support computer-enabled work.

“At least to our assembled experts, it was pretty obvious that the future of media is increasingly computational,” Mr. Wardrip-Fruin said. “And the stakes are pretty high.”

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