Looking to the Future

UT's 21st Century Project founder and Digital Nation columnist Gary Chapman
UT's 21st Century Project founder and "Digital Nation" columnist Gary Chapman
Photo By Todd V. Wolfson

Gary Chapman: 21st Century Digital Man

In the virtual era, a Famous Intellectual can live anywhere, but he has to live somewhere, and for Gary Chapman, Austin is the best of all possible somewheres. "Austin is home to me," says the director of the 21st Century Project at UT's LBJ School of Public Affairs. "It's the only place I feel really at home, which is odd in that it took me so long to get here."

So far, the still-nascent virtual era hasn't produced all that many Famous Intellectuals, given the emphasis in our Digital Nation on doing rather than thinking. Chapman -- whose syndicated column for the Los Angeles Times is itself called "Digital Nation" -- is one of the few professional brains telling the digiteers what it all means.

And what they should do next. The purpose of the 21st Century Project, based at UT since 1994, is "to research and explore alternatives for science and technology policy in the post-Cold War era," Chapman says. "We have an emphasis and focus on the Internet and telecommunications policy. Another central focus of the Project is how to bring citizens to the table when policymaking involves complex technical issues."

Anyone who's sat in on one of Chapman's LBJ School seminars can attest to the complexity of the policy issues on the table. But Chapman is not averse to having a good time. He'll be appearing at the SXSW Interactive Conference on a panel examining how toys and games are driving technology, anchored by University of Southern California prof Mark Pesce, author of The Playful World, a book about how toys and games are driving technological innovation.

Looking to the Future

"A lot of technologies that eventually find their way into mainstream adult products seem to show up in toys first," Chapman notes. "Like LCD displays and low-res cameras in handheld Game Boys; spectacular graphics chips in Sony PlayStations; some kind of strange [artificial intelligence]-based speech recognition algorithms in the Sony Aibo (the firm's new robot dog); and so on. These days it seems like gamers are driving much of the PC market because only gamers really need the power of the chips in each new generation of CPU, or in peripherals like graphics cards and so on. And gaming seems to be driving 3D and virtual reality programming. But gaming is an immense market."

Well, talk of gaming and playing and toys sure seems Austin-appropriate. But Chapman's winding road from West Coast to East Coast to Third Coast was not driven entirely by conceptual considerations. Chapman met his wife, author and journalist Carol Flake, in Boston, where the 21st Century Project got its start in 1991. "Carol is from Lake Jackson and wanted to come back (to Texas) to be closer to her family, and I was ready to leave the Northeast -- it was too cold for me, in both senses of that word."

The LBJ School was "generous," in Chapman's view, to allow him to hook the 21st Century Project with UT, but Chapman was already a big name in the small world of tech-and-policy studies. Before Boston, the L.A. native and Vietnam-era Green Beret ("which people always seem to find interesting") spent a dozen years in Silicon Valley as the founding executive director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility.

That means Chapman was in on the ground floor as technology became a force to accommodate in modern life. There has, of course, been no shortage of futurists and innovators in Digital Nation, but before CPSR little attention was paid to the social and policy implications of what technology was actually doing right now. So it's because of people like Chapman and his colleagues, of whom there were not many, that we have a conceptual framework for talking about things like electronic privacy, or the digital divide, or "virtual community."

Now he's ours, and as the Austin tech community goes through its endemic mood swings, conceptual clarity is at a premium. As long as that remains the case, Chapman has a presence. "Austin has a wonderful mix of the informal and the intelligent, natural beauty and valuable culture, and the people are just incredibly friendly and interesting," he says. "Austin is also in this fascinating time of a change in the economy and in the region's leadership, and it feels like what Austin decides to become will have an impact all over the rest of the U.S., if we do it right. That's exciting and inspiring."

And what will Chapman be doing to help those decisions get made? "To speculate on that would be monstrously immodest. I'm just glad to be here and be part of whatever dialogue is going on, and to have the opportunity to be sitting in a pretty good seat at the LBJ School and writing about this whole unfolding story in my column."

Besides, Chapman feels, we're in plenty good hands already. "In terms of sheer leadership, I think Austin is in a kind of golden era. It's hard to see if you're really up close to it and amidst it every day, but compared to most other metropolitan areas, we're the renaissance Florence of the U.S., believe me. I'm proud to be here, to call myself an Austin citizen, because of that."

Gary Chapman will moderate "Toys, Gadgets, and Gizmos of Tomorrow," Tuesday, March 13, 11am.
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