Profile of a Pioneer: Science Fiction, Software, & 49 Years' Innovating

Having worked in the IT industry for 49 years, Dana Paxson is now marrying his software skills with a love of sci-fi to invent a whole new, fully immersive story experience.

Dana Paxson has worked at the coalface of the IT industry for 49 years. His career has spanned mainframes in the 60s, reading octal numbers in the 70s and building the BT phone directory in the 80s. For the last 20 years he has married his software skills with a love of sci-fi to invent a whole new, fully immersive story experience incorporating audio, visual and text. The final stage is a physical memory stick that delivers the whole lot direct to your desktop. The only stumbling block could be a publishing industry that craves the “next”, not the “new”… and simply isn’t ready for innovation.

In 1879 a postman was taking his usual mail route through the town of Hauterives in Southern France when he tripped over a stone. The then 43 year-old, Ferdinand Cheval, stopped in his tracks, picked it up off the ground and was struck by its weird shape. This was the start of a very long creative journey...

For the next 33 years Cheval collected stones during the day, then at night, alone by oil light, he used them to construct Le Palais idéal. This was a man who had left school at 13, had no formal training yet through an overarching vision and compulsive industriousness he created a work of art so magnificent it inspired Picasso. Fashioned with his bare hands, the building was 78 metres round the perimeter and shimmered with 1,000 intricate miniature sculptures including a medieval castle, a Swiss chalet, crocodiles, deer, pelicans and sheep. His vision was so all encompassing he even festooned the walls with poems and verse inscriptions.

The level of creativity and industry to produce something like this sends your mind spinning. Gazing up at this outstanding achievement, it is virtually impossible to believe that it is the work of just one man. The finished result is so overwhelming that if you’d stumbled on the site say, five years’ into the build, you’d probably have shrugged your shoulders in incomprehension and moved on.  And this is precisely the problem facing visionaries and outsider artists the world over… it is all just a bit too much to take in.

This is the immediate impression you get from Dana Paxson. He has been building his digital creation since 1994. What began as a simple sci-fi novel has developed into a fully immersive sci-fi experience. It is a great sprawling universe that started as text, moved into Second Life and will soon be making an entrance on OpenSim.  “It is easy to overload people,” Paxson explains ruefully “and I don’t want to do that. I want to create something that reaches straight through to connect with people directly. Something that helps people learn more easily, read more easily and uses all these marvellous tools we have, that are unfolding now.”

The problem is Paxson has experienced the computer revolution first hand.  Extremely complex coding which would leave most people gasping for breath is his bread and butter. He has experienced the coalface of innovation over five decades and still appears to sit at the crest of very geeky wave.

His career in IT began in 1964 with Mainframes.  For nine years he worked for Xerox Corporation in New York where he did systems work: “If you can picture a stack of paper about eight inches high,” he says “the old fashioned printer paper, filled with nothing but octal numbers. I was the specialist who used to go reading those things as though they were text.  I could digest the information, find out what was wrong with the computer, and why it had crashed.” After that Paxson moved to Computer Consoles, the organisation which wrote and delivered the big system behind British Telecom’s directory assistance in the 1980s. And then when the company was bought by Nortel he got into spreadsheets… the building block of his Magnum Opus.

“I was reading Tolkien in 1964,” he tells me “I’ve done so many different things from art to mathematics, but it only came together when I started writing science fiction and realised I could put everything into one basket.”  It began with a class with Nebula Award winning author Nancy Kress in 1993. From there Paxson quickly became published in the now disbanded Science Fiction Age Magazine, but it was not long before “I abandoned the traditional publishing industry because they weren’t picking up on the digital side of things at all.”

The intervening time period has seen Paxson developing ideas that epitomise everything at the forefront of the digital revolution.  It may all seem big, expansive and confusing, it may seem easy to lose the big picture in the detail… yet the aims are extremely simple. “Readers who become immersed in work soak it up much faster and much more accurately than people who are distracted,” explains Paxson. “I have been using all the abilities I have to make text and all the associated materials much more immersive for readers.”

Now Paxson’s work could be at a point where his work is becoming truly accessible, because like all aspects of digitisation it feels like we’re on the cusp of an explosion.  “I have a Flash drive which can run the whole book. Plug it into the computer, connect it to a reading device and all of a sudden you have a whole world right there. It is an electric book with all the possibilities. I like the idea of something a person can hold. You could make it in different formats; make it look like a book, a key or even a token from the story…”

Dana Paxson may not be the person who gets in here first. His story may not be the immersive world that people choose to throw themselves into. There could well be someone else who has spent their life quietly creating and will pip him to the post at the last hurdle. I have not chucked myself into his work, have never really been a fan of sci-fi and would not like to pass comment on the actual story. However, one thing is clear; his is exactly the sort of visionary thinking that drives change. And the main stumbling block could well be a publishing industry, which for all its grudging embrace of the eBook, is fundamentally reactionary, because the talk is always about “the next” and never “the new”.

Yet all the ducks are lined up for digital publishing and I believe the next big new idea is waiting to emerge. This could be an inventive IT platform which takes users on a seamless journey into the heart of a narrative story like Paxson’s invention. Or it could be a more community-led creation, which utilises digital technology, gaming and film techniques to present a fully theatrical experience; offering poetry, song and dance in a similar vein to interactive theatre companies like Punchdrunk  or Kneehigh. Whatever it is though, one thing is certain… when something new does get picked up and when it truly resonates, the ripples will last far beyond the lifespan of the creator.

Nearly 100 years ago Ferdinand Cheval dreamed of being buried at the heart of his building "like the pharaohs". Yet when this wish was vetoed by the authorities, he was undeterred and set to work on a tomb in the village cemetery in the same style as his palace.  He died aged 88, about a year after the building was complete. And today his great monument is regarded as one of the best examples of outsider art in the world.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect