Laurie Spiegel

"When you're writing the software for yourself, you get something that really thinks like you."
Interview by Dena Yago
Portrait by Peter Schmideg
Photography by Laurie Spiegel

How did that space work?
Each little shared studio was a community of people interacting with each other and collaborating in ways that I think were a big factor in making the '70s in New York the art scene that it was. You had people running into each other and synergistically collaborating and influencing each other's work in ways that you probably don't get now that everybody has a powerful computer studio right at home, and they work alone in their bedrooms. It’s not the same as being in a shared space, and in the middle of working on something somebody comes in to your studio and says, "Oh, but what if you did this!"
Was that outlook present with programming and shared computers, was that a lot more open source, too?
Music was the big thing. The software was only a tool. We were in it as artists, and the goal of the software was to make music and art. People helped each other. Don't forget software wasn't patentable yet. What we really were trying to do was to get some sound that we hear inside our heads out into the air where other people could hear it. We wanted to make it possible to communicate stuff that we saw only in our inner imaginations.
That’s interesting.
Imagination is something else I worry about a lot these days. I think it might be getting lost. Everybody is so bombarded and overloaded with media coming at us that we don't have the same access to our imaginations as we used to. Back when I made The Expanding Universe, I would go through my record collection and flip back and forth through my LPs. There was something I wanted to listen to that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, something that would sustain and keep moving in a certain way, and I found that I didn't have anything like it. I could picture the sound in my mind, but I couldn’t find it on a record. So I was led by my internal auditory imagination. There was a piece developing there, taking form, and it was something I wanted to hear. If I'd had a record with something like it, I would have just played the record, but instead, I had to make it.

Sounds kind of like a do-it-yourself mentality.
Right, there was a lot more of that mentality toward making artistic and musical stuff, experiences that didn't exist yet. It was like there were new empty worlds that had yet to be populated. A lot of these newer musical forms that are popular now are more like editing- and processing-based stuff like remixes, mash-ups, collages, and montages—new works made out of pre-existing works. I'm not against any of these new forms, but a lot of pretty wonderful music and art came out of staring at the blank canvas. Sometimes it’s pure silence that lets you listen to what happens inside your own head. I'm not advocating meditation or anything drastic, but I think an occasional media fast is probably a really good idea for people in the arts.

How’d you end up with an email address That’s Ted Nelson’s project; the original blueprints for hypertext and the web.
Having been somewhat involved in computer graphics but not officially doing computer graphics, I decided to to go to SIGGRAPH, which is the special interest group on computer graphics and interactive techniques for computer professionals. I don't remember who gave me Marvin Minsky's number, probably Maryanne Amacher, but they said “Call him. He loves music." So I did, and said I was a composer, and Marvin said to come over right away. I went to Marvin Minsky's house, and found him out on his unmowed front lawn in a T-shirt, throwing something like hubcaps to see if he could decapitate dandelions. We went inside and messed around on the piano and we hit it off well. Then he took me over to the Artificial Intelligence Lab where I first met Ted Nelson. 
This was at MIT?
Yes, Ted and I became good friends. I wasn't part of the team that worked on Xanadu when they actually had a team working on the software. At one point Ted told me that I didn't ever want to lose my email address, so he would give me one on his server and, that way, he would always be able to reach me. 

Were you, or was anyone, ever really using Xanadu? Was there a point where it was functioning?
“Functioning” is kind of a relative term. By most people’s standards I don’t think it ever really got to the point where people were really able to use it, except maybe Ted. It was more a proof-of-concept level of function for a model and a set of standards and rules. Ted published a paper called The Hypertext in 1965, and it was so far ahead of its time. It was based on an evolution of Vannevar Bush's Memex concept, which goes back to 1945 when computers were still just analytical engines. The thinking was: the human mind doesn't just go in one line sequentially in the way text is written. You have all these streams and parallels and branches when you think, and sometimes they interact with each other in your mind, and sometimes they go their own way. Ted always wanted to write the way his mind worked, to be able to really express how he thought. Vannevar Bush's Memex model is really an associative linkage of ideas, and bits of information that are connected by association. The hypertext idea connected bodies of text with direct links in a way that a computer actually could. With Ted's model, everything was bi-directionally linked. The web, as it has evolved, is much closer to a paper with footnotes, where you click on the footnote and you get the reference. With Xanadu you could have all kinds of variations on things, trace-back lineages, and links that go forwards and backward, and then cross-links between documents on many levels and ways. It was a much more complex and fluid model of how different documents could be organized in relation to each other. Ted really feels like we’ve all been duped by something inferior with the way that the web has turned out. When I think about what my expectations were for computer music—compared to what happened after all these companies moved in and started trying to create products for the music software market—I realize that those two divisions of labor, technology creators and users, hadn't been separated from each other yet back then.

So how do you feel about that separation, since you’ve created so many of your own tools?
I have really weird mixed feelings about it. For a long time, I felt it was really illegitimate even to use pre-fabricated sounds, and now there are all these people out there just selling pre-fab sounds. I mean, everybody should create their own sounds. That’s part of why we're in the medium, so we can create our own sounds, and the nature of the sound is part of the vision of the music that you're trying to realize. Sure I use other people's software, but I've gotten a lot further musically with my own stuff. My CD Unseen Worlds was done mostly with the software Music Mouse, which I wrote for my own use, and that a lot of other people used later on, too. When you're writing the software for yourself, you get something that really thinks like you. I don't think I've either produced the same quality of results or had the same level of excitement and involvement in the creative process using software by other people. But making software has gotten a lot more complicated. The systems have gotten a lot more complicated. It's much more time-consuming to create software than when the systems were simpler. They also keep changing a lot faster than they used to, and I haven't managed to keep up.  
Do you write much software now?
I would love to get back to writing software again. I miss that level of total immersion, getting down inside the sounds, as opposed to just looking at them from outside, through an editor or something. There's a level of detachment that's built into that whole model of music software. The concept of an editor is completely different from the concept of a musical instrument. A lot of it has to do with the nature of time and how time is experienced. And, in music, it's really easy to fall into representing time as a bunch of equal points across a line, the way you see notes on a score or points on a timeline. But that's not how you experience it if you pick up a guitar, or you sit down at a keyboard or you’re making up music from your head. You're inside of it, and the perspective is that you are riding the timeline, rather than looking at the timeline. It's the difference between looking at a road from up in an airplane, versus being in a car racing down the highway. There’s a deeper level of involvement when you’re in the car, when you don't know what's coming up next or how the flow of traffic is going to change the way you’re moving. That’s the feeling I like to have.

Like you’re deep in traffic?
Yes, like I'm down there on the highway, moving along, rather than just looking at it from above. That's really stretching the metaphor, but that's about as close as I can probably get right now to what I miss in most software I’ve used that I didn’t write myself. As for visual art, I don't know. I'm trying to think of what might be analogous. You’re always outside the canvas, or the image, or the frame—looking into it—but you can also be completely inside the frame when you’re working, you can let it become your world.
That's sort of sentimental…
A lot of software introduces a certain distance between you and the material. I would love to do more software, if I could catch up with the technology in terms of my own programming skills, which are from the dark ages. I mean, I started as an old-fashioned procedural language programmer. And object-oriented languages? I just don't think that way. It’s a different paradigm for how things connect, how information interconnects and is structured and processed. It's like a foreign language that I have to translate, whereas old-fashioned procedural code comes natural for me. With object-oriented code, there are a lot of common practices that have to do with objects sending messages to other objects, which to me is a completely unnecessary abstraction that interferes with my thinking. Yet that’s the way everything is conceptualized now. A procedural language is more like, "I do this, and then I do this, and then depending on this thing, I might do this or I might do that." It's like one decision at a time, moving through a creative process. It feels more similar to being a person. If I'm sitting here with a pencil, writing down a piece of music on paper, that’s how I think. Improvising and composing music is just plain procedural to me. There are no objects or abstractions about communicating entities in my experience . Does that make sense?

Yeah, it does.
In a way, I’m hanging on to things that have worked for me in the past. I still have a Mac Plus in my studio and I still use it at times. I still have haven't upgraded to the latest OSX. I just don't want to get rid of some of my old software for earlier Macs that has to run in the Rosetta emulator. And I also keep a G4 that runs Classic or OS 9 for even earlier software. Not everything is ported forward to a new version that is compatible with the latest operating systems. There's a lot of really good old stuff out there that’s worth keeping.
It's important to keep the good old stuff.
There should be the ability to emulate earlier computers in every new computer. I think it's a mistake not to do that. Musical instruments have always been cumulative. The piano coming along didn't wipe out the harpsichord. Acoustic instruments didn't die out when we got electronic instruments. We have both, and we're really glad to have both. And it should be the same with computer systems. What they let us do should be cumulative. Every new generation of computers should make more things possible but not wipe out the older stuff we could do. But sometimes newer systems can’t run the older software. Older hardware, meanwhile, breaks down. Connectors get corroded, and you can't get replacement parts for old technology. There also may be no way to connect old gear to modern networks. The rate of turnover just gets faster and faster, too. I'm not saying this from nostalgia because the old times were better, because there is a lot that is so much easier to do now. God it’s wonderful what technology can do today! But we didn’t lose the paintbrush when we developed computer graphics. The paintbrush is really important, and it still can do incredible things that probably only a paintbrush can do, no matter how good a graphics tablet gets. You know, there's nothing like a pencil. I love pencils. What would it be like if, because we have keyboards to type on now, we could no longer have pencils or pens?

From Sex Magazine #2 Winter 2012
Labelled Technology