Sunday, September 27, 2009

Real-Time Web and Street Dance: Memory, Artificial Intelligence, and History

The real-time web is one of the most talked-about topics in technology circles today. We're moving towards real-time sharing of video, audio, still images, status updates, and personal experiences via Twitter, Ustream, and the upcoming Google Wave. For street dancers, we can either choose to embrace this technology or to reject it, especially in the areas of memory, artificial intelligence, and history.

Either way, there may be advantages and disadvantages. Previously, we viewed dance videos on Youtube, shared pictures on Flicker, or caught up on reviews of stage shows via We experienced the content of these sites after the event occurred. Now, with real-time web tools, what will it mean to have the constantly streaming material as part of our social dialogue? There will be so much more content online that we'll need to find ways to extract material that's relevant to us. Otherwise, we'll drown in the digital deluge.

For memory purposes, it may mean that we'll have even more unedited audio-visual content of hip hop culture in large quantities. We'll no longer be limited to videos of a short length depending on how much our camera's memory card can hold. Imagine witnessing an entire bboy competition from start to finish - every moment either compelling or boring. You'll have a window into that event, witnessing it from one angle or many angles edited together. Somehow, we'll have to figure out how to edit our experience of the event otherwise our memory will overload. We'll need editors, filmmakers, and narrative guides to help us experience the event in a concise way that's still bearable to watch. Any film or TV editor can tell you how draining it can be to watch through thousands of hours of dailies on a production.

However, it could make a person's daily life more visually personal. We can follow media celebrities and new Internet celebrities via their Twitter updates. Imagine following constant video streams or snippets of your favorite dancer if they strapped a small camera to their body. Would that be compelling or would it bore you to death? Privacy issues would be redefined, that's for sure. We would see more of an individual dancer's lifestyle if they chose to broadcast themselves. This was the case with a few years ago when the creator of the website broadcasted his life 24/7 using a small webcam and wireless feed.

As the amount of digital content increases through streaming, we may also see the rise of artificial intelligence online. Now, this is all hypothetical and it borders on the boundaries of science fiction. But what if we could collect a library of performances and dance moves from an established dancer via advanced motion capture technology? Could all that data be translated into a sentient being that would be like an A.I. version of that dancer? Would this "bot" be considered a legitimate teaching model of that dancer's style? Or as human street dancers, would we start to interact with dancing A.I. online especially with the rise of virtual worlds like Second Life? The heart and soul of dance is so inherently human that it's hard to imagine a future where we can interact real-time with robot dance partners. It's similar to classic arguments about robots being able to dream or being capable of creative acts like humans. Some of the greatest science fiction films and stories from Isaac Asimov to Phillip K. Dick have touched on these themes. But this is a future that may be coming soon.

History is a final area where we can see the real-time web having a significant impact. Actually, how we interpret history is the more relevant issue. With greater streaming of content comes greater quantities of historical records to interpret. We'll need scholars and documentarians with distinct viewpoints to share their perspectives on our times. As we moved out of the 20th century, we've seen documentary filmmakers like Ken Burns give us his spin on baseball, World War II, and American Jazz. We've seen photographers like Robert Frank give us his vision of a mournful, haunted America in his book "The Americans." History is often described as the narratives of those who wrote it. Our street dance history will be no different.

But one difference with the real-time web is that we all can play a role as those historians. Each one of us can choose to be the next Ken Burns or Robert Frank for our street dance culture. With the constant streaming of video, images, audio, and status update texts; the historical material is available for all of us to make useful for our specific purposes. We don't need to go to the Library of Congress to dig up old records on an event or to hunt down a personal source who has old photographs. We can track our own documentation of our culture. This is very empowering, considering that historical preservation is a hugely debated topic within hip hop culture.

Hopefully, history won't be given less value in our culture with the rise of the real-time web. Our attention span may be drawn to what's happening "right now" versus what happened days or years ago. In a faster paced world, we still need the passage of time to process our memories, feelings, and experiences in order to grow as individuals and a community. Real-time web and streaming technology can't do that for us.

So the rise of the real-time web could mean a more constant collection of personal experiences via media online. Think of it as a "collective consciousness" that's evolving. While it may not immediately change they way we dance, it could affect the way others experience our dance in visual, audio, and text form. Ultimately, it's a tool that we can either choose to use or to relinquish. It may make it harder for any developing underground dance culture to be "underground" as long as someone is documenting it. But it can also open up a culture to new voices who want to participate. With that in mind, the future is truly wide open.

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