Xerox executives had good reason to feel beleaguered. During what Hiltzik calls the company’s “lost decade,” its patent on the selenium-alloy photoreceptor at the heart of its copiers expired; it faced unexpectedly strong competition in the copier market from IBM and Japanese firms; and its purchase of a moribund computer company, Scientific Data Systems, turned out to be an expensive flop. These distractions, while hardly exculpatory, have been overlooked by most previous chroniclers of how the company “fumbled the future.”
Ultimately, Hiltzik’s book suggests, innovation is inherently anti-establishment, and can’t always be channeled for commercial gain-at least not by the organization that sponsors it.
Xerox’s commitment to hard copy has recently resulted in another, albeit minor, misapprehension. This is the idea that documentation is always good and that paper can be an effective medium for any message. Art and Innovation, a disappointing collection of essays, jottings and transcripts by participants in the Xerox PARC Artist-In-Residence (PAIR) Program, demonstrates the futility of using the printed page alone to distill the creative process or the meaning in experimental art.
PAIR pairs select San Francisco Bayarea artists working in new media with Xerox researchers for free-form collaborations lasting a year or more. Today’s PARC, it should be understood, is on a much shorter leash than its first incarnation. The emphasis is on understanding how knowledge workers use documents and on bringing new office technologies to market; the current director of Xerox PARC, John Seely Brown, defines innovation as “invention implemented” (see “Field Work in the Tribal Office,” TR May/June 1998). It’s no surprise to read in Art and Innovation, then, that at PAIR’s outset in 1993, “the researchers felt that their projects did not lend themselves to artistic interaction and that pairing would therefore be a time sink.”
Much of the the book-the intent of which, according to editor Craig Harris, is “to reflect the process of the collaborations and to provide insights into the cultural setting”-records the artists’ challenges and anxieties as they connected with researchers and learned to use PARC’s technologies. The “PAIRings” did apparently result in some intriguing work, but in print the artists’ notes on their videos, multimedia installations and performance art pieces inevitably come off as breathless, self-indulgent and overintellectual-in a word, “artsy.” I imagine, for example, that on a computer screen “Forward Anywhere,” an “interactive hypernarrative” documenting an extended email correspondence between novelist Judy Malloy and PARC scientist Cathy Marshall, is fun to explore. On paper, the interactivity is lost, and the authors’ attempts to explain how interactivity molded the project and the process quickly grow wearisome.
When you put smart, creative people together in a hothouse atmosphere, interesting ideas happen almost automatically, as these two new books on Xerox PARC demonstrate. Exporting these ideas, they also show, is a far trickier proposition.