Network design can certainly be innovative, and to those of a technical persuasion even considered a thing of beauty. But is it art? That was the question posed by a handful of senior Microsoft folk, the editor of an IT magazine and an Emeritus Professor at an art gallery in London last night.
I was there with the champagne and sushi set, listening to the great and good debate the create genius of IT professionals and the artistic value of their work. Wondering exactly how this Microsoft sponsored DesignIT event could actually achieve its aim of encouraging creativity and innovation within the IT industry, and ensuring these highly-skilled IT professionals receive the recognition they deserve.
The very enthusiastic Microsoft UK Server Business Group director, Bruce Lynn, assured me that the response to the competition had been great and the enthusiasm of those visiting the gallery greater. Phil Cross, Microsoft UK Group Marketing Manager insisted it had been a qualified success and was stirring debate as intended. While Microsoft US Senior Director Christine Betts felt certain it would lead to a greater recognition of IT innovation within the design community. Lynn, who also chaired a judging panel consisting of such luminaries as Microsoft technology evangelist Robert Scoble, said “whether it’s through the PC sat on the office desk or the in-car satellite navigation system that guides you home, the practical ‘nuts and bolts’ contributions of IT professionals are clear, but the creativity they apply is often less appreciated. DesignIT is about giving IT professionals the recognition they deserve for being great designers and innovators.
Receiving that recognition on the night were the winning entries: a remote telemetry data collection system portrayed upon a marine fender (the system enables Plymouth Marine Laboratory to collect data from remote sampling sites in real or near real time by means of a mobile device, eliminating the time-consuming, expensive and potentially dangerous need of collecting them manually) and a system for distributing multimedia for students with autism simply presented in a crude 'DTP gone made diagram' style block cut. You can see all the entries that made it through to the final at TechNet, or at least you can see the technical descriptions and network diagrams. For some strange reason there is no gallery of the artistic interpretations online, and the actual gallery display closes on the 9th June.
But the question remains: is IT art?
Sure, I agree with Chris Green stalwart of UK technology journalism and editor of the soon to launch business magazine IT Pro, when he says that there has been a long history of technology being perceived as art. Chris pointed out the beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, not only in terms of both the materials used and the technology applied but also the physical appearance. However, it's less easy to see the artistic beauty within an interactive television content sharing network diagram, yet this was one of the finalists in the Microsoft DesignIT competition hanging proudly on the walls of the Arndean Gallery in London's swish Cork Street. Or rather an artist’s interpretation of the original network diagram was, involving what to all intents and purposes appeared to be nothing more than a canvas block mounted print cut into three different width blocks. Yet Arthur Miller, Emeritus Professor of the History and Philosophy of Science at University College London, waxed lyrical about the use of triptych as an art form, and the flowing nature of the technical solution. What quickly became apparent, talking to the panel of judges, was the dichotomy between those from purely technical and more creative backgrounds. The techies were more impressed by the innovation of the solution, seeing the 'art' in the creativity of a simple flowing solution from the technology perspective. This being somewhat lost on the creative’s.
I remain unconvinced however, especially given the overall lack of artistic impact of the pieces on display. The use of the ships fender aside (and even then, as Professor Miller suggested, it would have looked better with a flashing light on top) the entries showed a distinct lack of visual experimentation. Perhaps if Damien Hirst had been allowed to sketch a collaborative intranet using Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server (SPS) 2003 on the shaven sides of half a sheep suspended in formaldehyde I would have been more impressed. Somehow, I doubt it. What I don't doubt, and applaud Microsoft for, is that at least it was an opportunity to celebrate the vision and innovation that drives the IT industry forward in a sophisticated and unique fashion. And that is something that is long overdue.