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NO STRAW STARS

A colleague at work received two disks as a Christmas present from his 10-year-old daughter. The contents: a web project, an assignment from school, especially prepared for “Daddy.” In this case, Daddy, who had been expecting something more like a star made out of straw or a handmade picture frame, did not even have a web browser installed on his old PC. Some things never change, like making Christmas presents for parents at school, for instance. It seems that in the institutions of education here too, attempts are being made to prepare the younger generation for a digital society. This endeavor is strongly supported by the Prix Ars Electronica, at least since the beginning of the category Cybergeneration / U19 two years ago. Over 800 entries this year—many of them school-related— were welcomed by the Austrian Cultural Service (ÖKS) as well, as co-organizer of the competition.

The U19 category is often regarded as the young talent competition of the Prix Ars Electronica. This is also correct. And yet here it is more than just a matter of familiarizing young people with new technologies and media. A subtitle of the category is “Freestyle Computing.” To begin with, this is an invitation to submit everything that can be done with or on a computer, and this is exactly what happened: from school web pages to a self-made autonomous robot, from a six-year-old’s paintbrush graphics to short animation films, self-coded software, games and music on MP3. Yet “Freestyle Computing” also stands for a very specific approach to computers and all things digital on the part of the “cybergeneration” (another subtitle of the category). For this generation, computers are as commonplace as refrigerators, so they use technology differently from the way adults do. The motif “future” has long been promising a “better tomorrow.” The only prerequisite for us to enter into the digital wonderland is an unconditional faith in the optimism of technological progress. A fear that educational systems may not be compatible with the future may be found around the world. A generation that is unprepared for the grand project “Future” can only lose, according to the parent generation’s greatest fear. Yet it may be that this younger generation, for whom this future is being constructed, views the matter differently.

The 10-year-old girl with her web project for Daddy would probably have made a straw Christmas star with just as much devotedness. The girl who entered the computer graphic Die Nixe scheut das verschmutzte Wasser (Honorary Mention) might have made the picture just the same with the analog technique “now we tear off strips of colored paper and make nice pictures with them” (there is a certain optical similarity). The computer is secondary. Technology is not in the foreground. “Freestyle Computing” describes possibilities for thinking outside the adult realm of technical standards. It is a matter of creativity that takes place outside the conventional production processes.

The large number of entries particularly challenged the U19 category to assemble a representative survey of the different worlds of the children and young people of the “cybergeneration.” Naturally the topic of MP3 came up with the music entries. The jury awarded an Honorary Mention to Alexander Fischl for his collected work, particularly because of his special way of dealing with this coding format: extremely short pieces at a low sampling rate, which do not lose too much quality because of the clever way they are processed, are practically ideal for distribution via downloading. Especially the small scale of Fischl’s self-produced pieces demonstrates an interesting approach to the way music for a networked audience may sound very soon. The resolution of the work itself, small fine pieces rather than the digitally ponderous “song”, makes them ideal for further processing on the part of an Internet music audience that knows how to use cheap or free music programs. This development is much more interesting than the major discussions about copyright, or whether we will buy CD’s in the future in a store or download them from the Internet.

Another example of using the Internet for one’s own community is one of the two Awards of Distinction: the project Cybervoting. Politicians around the world have long paid lip-service to the topic of teledemocracy, but a group of Austrian school students has put this promise into practice. Transregional elections for school representatives can be conducted over a telematic distance using a web page. Here the management of the database, the treatment of the problem of data protection, the impeccably designed web page, and especially the aspect of a democratic self-initiative illustrate the possibilities of social cooperation through networks.

A completely different approach to networked society is evident in the other Award of Distinction. Gerhard Schwoiger is an excellent web designer and programmer. In addition, he is also interested in other people’s rubbish. Netdump is the name of his web art project. A self-coded client links the desktop trashcan with a server. Registered users can dispose of their digital rubbish there. And naturally, anyone can recycle anything in the dump on the server. Gerhard Schwoiger has created an online community that is linked through its common rubbish. This is the theme of privacy from the perspective of a young developer.

Once again this year, the participating girls were a minority. Yet the reason why the Golden Nica went to a group of girls from Lower Austria, was not to improve the quota. Their project Harvey is named after an invisible rabbit from an old black and white film, that speaks to James Stewart out of nowhere. On the whole, it is a computer application that no one needs. However, marketability is not a criterion in the U19 category. In their computer science class, this group of 14-year-old girls was thinking about how one could make the computer speak. The circuitry for a soundcard was soldered onto a beer mat, an old transistor radio served as a loudspeaker. They programmed the corresponding program themselves. Naturally the question arises as to why you would build something that you can buy in any computer shop. Yet perhaps an impossible question should be posed here: why buy something, if you can build it yourself? In a world where technology is sold in inviolable units, the girls practically broke a taboo. They opened up the casing the houses the sacrosanct technology and misused everyday objects for their purposes. Shamelessly uninhibited, they found an unconventional solution that defies all claims of standardization. The predetermined concept of hardware was redefined here in an unusual way.“The thing is charming,” said one of the jury members, a trained technician himself. “If that’s not freestyle computing, then what is?”


 
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