Engineering Formalism and Artistry: The Yin and Yang of Multimedia
JB: Let's go back before the beginning....
CHOU: My father and my mother came from Shanghai during the Second World War. My mother's father was the Chinese ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the 1930s. They were reassigned to London in '41, or '40, when the bombs were falling on London in the Battle of Britain, and then ended up in California in LA just before Pearl Harbor. My mother's father was also the first Chinese to get a degree at Harvard University in philosophy. He had a particular interest in the study of humanism and the philosophy of media.
My mother's parents were diplomats. Father's parents were a whole variety of different stuff, what in China we call "wen-ren," which means "culture people." Probably the closest Western translation is "Renaissance Man." They were extremely erudite scholars who were able to live in a culture where that was enough to float your boat economically.
The word for "Chinese" is "chung-wen" — "chung" is "middle", "wen" means "culture". So to say someone's Chinese is actually to say that he is in the center of culture. And "ren" means "person", so "wen-ren" means cultured person. My father's name is Wen-Chung, which is Chinese, backwards. It's a wonderful tick of the language, which really means that culture was not only important to my family, but is really at the center of what it means to be Chinese.
My father spent about six years running from the Japanese during the war, and ended up getting a scholarship to Yale, in civil engineering, in '49, just before the Communist revolution. He took a boat over, went to Yale for about two months, and realized that that's not what he wanted to do. What he really wanted to do was play violin. So he left Yale, much to the chagrin of the Dean of the Engineering School who told him please never send your son or your daughter to apply for a scholarship to Yale. He took off for Boston where his only relative in the U.S., his brother, was at Harvard at the time working on military technology. He was working on the timing system for the guns in the wings of the American fighter planes that were shooting down Japanese zeros. My father ended up getting a scholarship to New England Conservatory to play violin and viola, and then eventually ended up at Columbia University as a composer. And he's been a composer ever since. My mother came over because her father had gotten stationed in the United States. She came over early, she went to Hollywood High School, and grew up in Beverly Hills 90210. She was a pianist and played at the Hollywood Bowl.
After the Communists took China, there was obviously a tremendous division in the family. Those who were in the States lost all contact with those who were in China. My father's parents were in China and half of his brothers and sisters were in China, the other half were in the States. The Communists tried very hard to convince my father to come back to China, as they were trying to do before the Cultural Revolution. Their aim was to try and bring back all the intellectuals back to China, particularly Western-trained scholars. They literally put together a cell of his friends, led by his high school sweetheart, to write him daily letters to convince him to come back. They wrote him for months and months and months, and finally he wrote a letter back, saying, I'm not coming back. I don't want to have anything to do with you. I renounce everything that you folks stand for. This was a very painful decision because he realized that it meant he might never see his parents again. But he decided that Communism was wrong. And then he lost touch with everyone, for years and years and years after that.
The irony of it is that my father now goes back to China between two and ten times a year. In fact he's there right now. He's 74 and still travels there at least twice a year. He runs a cultural exchange with China, and he's considered a favorite son now in China. But had he gone back when the cell was trying to convince him to go back, undoubtedly he would have been at the very least tortured and probably executed, given his western training.
My relatives who stayed in China had extremely varied experiences. Some were tortured during the Cultural Revolution. Most endured extreme suffering. My aunt, my father's sister, interestingly, became one of the chief negotiators for the Chinese during the Korean War with the United States. My father found out about it reading a newspaper, by seeing a picture of her at the bargaining table. She ended up marrying a fellow who became one of the top military people in China as well. The two of them were both top ranking military officials. During the recent Tienanmen incident, he was on the wrong side of the political divide; he was a liberal in the military, and he was purged, kicked out. They're fine now, but went through a lot during that period. They have seen a lot of history on the Chinese side. I really should be doing with them what you're doing with me, and find out what really happened between '49 and now.
I've gone to China three times, but I haven't been there for ten years and I really want to go back. We're selling our software there now. My father says the country has changed dramatically even in the last two years, let alone in the last ten years since I've been there.
There's no question it's the most vital and thriving, and fastest growing, part of the world right now. Shanghai is one of the greatest cities in the world. It was when I was there, and certainly it was when my father grew up there. Now, with all of the development and growth, it's a very exciting place. I want to go back very badly. JB: Luyen, you're in the wrong business. How about a multi-generational novel about a Shanghai Mandarin dynasty which begins with the scion of the family wearing all black in a Soho office being asked "What questions are you asking yourself?"
CHOU: There are a number of questions that I'm asking myself right now. One of them is whether or not there really is a CD-ROM industry? Another one is, what is the Web going to do to publishing? And probably the most important one right now, from a business standpoint: is anyone ever going to make any money off of this crazy interactive junk?
JB: How did you prepare for this?
CHOU: I probably have a typical background for interactive multimedia — namely I come from having done just about everything except technology. I was a philosophy major; I was interested in history; I was teaching education and philosophy; and in the meantime I was a hobbyist in technology, mostly to earn beer money while I was in college. I was extremely interested in education, and teaching, and I was extremely interested in technology, but for me there were two worlds and "never the twain shall meet". I looked at what people were doing in so-called educational technology, back in the early 80s, and I thought it was such garbage that I didn't want to have anything to do with it. It really compromised what I loved about education, and what I loved about technology. When I got out of Harvard, I started teaching at the Dalton School, my alma mater, and started to get involved in the project there called Archeotype, which was a network-based archeological dig simulation on the computer. It completely transformed my notion of where technology and education were going to intersect, because all of a sudden it became clear to me that what we in the educational domain were calling "constructivism" or "progressive education" was really only possible in a new media digital environment. Where Dewey and others had failed was that they had underrated the gravity of the technology that they were working with — paper and chalk, and \ textbook. All of a sudden we found ourselves in the midst of this liberating technology that was going to allow us to do what we wanted to do as educators. So I got very involved in educational technology — this was around '89 — and to make a long story short, decided that I didn't just want to do it in the research context, but I really wanted to start my own company. In '93 my partners, Ludmil Pandeff and Frank Moretti, and I got funding from Time Warner to start Learn Technologies Interactive.
Learn Technologies is developing what we consider to be the cutting edge in educational multimedia. This is CD-ROM based as well as Internet-based. Most of our products to date have been CD-ROM based, but the idea is to bring the cutting edge in terms of engineering, and production values typically only associated with games on the market, with the latest concepts in education and pedagogy. Interestingly, this is something that no one else is doing. If you look at educational products out there, they're usually five to ten years old in terms of the technology and the production values, whereas if you look at games they're really at the leading edge—or the so-called bleeding edge. Our question was, why couldn't these things be combined? And if you combine them can't you create something that really is much more powerful than either games or current educational software. That's the vision for the company, and we've grown in size tremendously. We're about 50 people now. We started as two guys in a Wall Street office cubicle about 3 by 3. We have offices in Bulgaria, Dallas, Ohio, and New York, with Time Warner, Inc., and Carvajal S.A., the Milia D'Or at Milia a big Latin American media company, as major investors, and six products out on the market and five or six major multimedia awards. We're building a company that everyone involved in is incredibly excited about because it's different from what everyone else is doing