Dana Catona on Wed, 19 Jun 2002 11:18:16 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-ro] FW: <nettime> DEFINING MULTIMEDIA (1/4)

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[mailto:nettime-l-request@bbs.thing.net]On Behalf Of Ken Jordan
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Subject: <nettime> DEFINING MULTIMEDIA (1/4)

Ken Jordan
(1 of 4)

[Note: This paper-in-progress was first presented at the Unforgiving
Memory conference at Banff last year. It grows out of my collaboration
with Randall Packer, Multimedia: From Wagner to Virtual Reality. Some
people had suggested that we expand on the definition of multimedia we
used for the anthology. This is an attempt to do so. Thanks to those who
gave feedback to previous drafts, including: Fred Jordan, Sylvere
Lotringer, Lev Manovich, Randall Packer, and Mark Tribe. Comments and
criticisms are appreciated -- either on this list, or sent to me directly
at ken@kenjordan.tv.]

1. Five Core Characteristics

Recently Randall Packer and I published an anthology of seminal texts from
the history of computer-based multimedia. The book, Multimedia: From
Wagner to Virtual Reality [1], attempts to highlight connections between
the medium's roots in the pre-digital era to its use in the arts today.  
The book is supported by a website on ArtMuseum.net that includes
additional in-depth information.

The book and website are part of an ongoing project that is guided by two
underlying, interrelated objectives. The first is to offer a working
definition of interactive digital media that makes explicit the most
radical, and potentially transformative, aspects of the form. The second
is to suggest that contemporary new media practice should be grounded on
an appreciation of the historical interplay between the arts and sciences
that gave birth to this medium. The book presents the conceptual
development of interactive digital media through the writings of
pioneering figures in both the arts and sciences, dating back to Richard
Wagner and the Futurists on the arts side, and to Vannevar Bush and
Norbert Wiener in the sciences. By proposing a vocabulary and framework
for critical discourse about digital multimedia, and by basing this effort
on the landmark achievements of multimedia's pioneers, we hope to help
digital media achieve its potential.

In the wake of post-modernist practice, computer-based media has resisted
definition -- and for good reason: definitions are confining. They reduce
the range of potential in the object defined by drawing attention away
from what lies outside the wall of definition. This is a particular
concern with new media, because one of its attractions is its fluid,
multifarious character, its permeable walls. Digital media's peculiar
nature challenges traditional categories; this in itself is an aspect of
its radical character. But there is value in proposing and discussing
alternative definitions of digital media -- even if these definitions are
contingent, bracketed by circumstances. In fact, it may be best to regard
them as contingent, because our experience with digital media is so fresh,
and where it leads so unclear. The definitions of today will inevitably be
replaced tomorrow, as new applications for digital media emerge over time.

Definitions are meant to establish a shared vocabulary that can focus
argument -- and often, covertly, to achieve a politically motivated
purpose. The purpose of our project is overt:  If, as Marshall McLuhan
suggests, we literally construct the world we inhabit through the design
and deployment of our media technologies -- because they enable certain
behaviors while discouraging others -- then the social and political
ramifications of how we define and address the emerging digital media are
undeniable. By identifying a subject's key characteristics, we begin to
say what it is and what it is not. For digital media this is particularly
critical; if the digital arts community does not lead the discussion about
how to define digital multimedia, and the types of behaviors it should or
shouldn't encourage, other interests, like governments and corporations,
will force a definition upon us.

The interests of for-profit entities often do not coincide with those of
the creative community. In the case of digital, the multinational media
corporations have made clear that their intent is to maintain the legacy
paradigms of 20th century media (which are hierarchical, broadcast-based,
and author-centered) rather than support the emergence of challenging new
media forms (which are, at their best, rhizomatic, peer-to-peer, and
interactive). It is in their interest to force compromises from the
technology that will protect their traditional businesses -- compromises
that effectively gut the most democratic, and creatively engaging, aspects
of digital media. If it was up to these powerful companies, 21st century
media devices would likely do no more than act as delivery platforms for
the media formats of the last century.

Today's situation is much different from the way new media forms have
emerged in the past. In the days of Guttenberg, the success of moveable
type did not depend on the coordinated acceptance of printing standards
across medieval Europe. Rather, local innovations could emerge and take
hold, and get adopted independently. Regional ecosystems of media practice
could emerge over time; those that best suited the needs of society
spread, establishing forms for personal expression that improved through

The introduction of centralized, industrial forms of communication in the
19th century -- like the telegraph, photography, telephones, audio
recording, and cinema -- required more global efforts at standardization.
If a telegraph operator didn't know Morse code, then the telegraph became
less valuable. The drive to make Morse code a universal standard went hand
in glove with the expansion of the telegraph into increasingly remote
regions. Still, significantly, each media standard of the day was unique
to itself. Standards that emerged for photography paper had no influence
on standards that were set for the telephone. Each medium grew
independently, and so could find its way as a form of expression, before
settling into a relatively rigid system with its own set of rules.

Digital multimedia is a departure from this established model, because it
incorporates traditionally independent media forms into a single system.
So the standards set for digital communications will effect them all,

Moreover, digital multimedia requires an unprecedented level of global
coordination, as well as a massive technical infrastructure and widespread
user base. In most cases, the infrastructure is expensive. It demands
standards agreed to by a broad community. Digital media calls for a far
greater level of planning and deliberate resource commitment than what we
are familiar with from the past.

For this reason, there is a need for a definition of digital media that
brings attention to its most radical characteristics. If a television
network trumpets the claim that click-to-buy TV shopping expresses digital
media's greatest potential, we need a clear way to say why that is not the

Much has been written about narrow aspects of the digital media
experience. However, little critical work has been done to show how these
separate aspects combine into a whole. We wondered if we could identify
the core principles that, when bound together, articulate the inherent
capabilities in digital media that lead toward new forms of personal
expression. Our intent is to draw a line between the mainstream media
forms of the past, and a possible future. Though the formal
implementations of digital media are still in development (and will
continue to be, relentlessly, given the freedom to do so), we set out to
identify basic concepts that persist, regardless of the technologies being
used by an artist or engineer in a specific situation. Could these
concepts suggest a trajectory for future development, and provide a way to
measure if digital media is achieving what it is capable of?

We focused on five characteristics of new media that, in aggregate, define
it as a medium distinct from all others. These concepts set the scope of
the form's capabilities for personal expression; they establish its full

* Integration: The combining of artistic forms and technology into a
hybrid form of expression.

* Interactivity: The ability of the user to manipulate and affect her
experience of media directly, and to communicate with others through

* Hypermedia: The linking of separate media elements to one another to
create a trail of personal association.

* Immersion: The experience of entering into the simulation or suggestion
of a three-dimensional environment.

* Narrativity:  Esthetic and formal strategies that derive from the above
concepts, which result in nonlinear story forms and media presentation.

Together, these five concepts offer a definition of digital media that
pushes toward the technical and esthetic frontiers of the form.

Integration, of course, is the backbone of multimedia; the combining of
different media into a single work is intrinsic to multimedia practice.
While technology has always played a role in the development of forms of
expression (since all media are technologies in their own right),
beginning in the mid-twentieth century there was a deliberate effort to
incorporate technology as material, as a thing in itself, into artistic
practice. This work, championed most visibly by Bell Labs engineer Billy
Kluver, made technology an explicit aspect of the creation of art. This
led, in turn, to artists exploring the formal properties of electronic
media and computers, in order to make an art that is computer-specific.
Because computer output can mimic traditional media, it lends itself to
artworks that blur the lines between media and between disciplines, just
as in consciousness the distinctions between different media forms (image,
text, sound, movement) are less than absolute.

Interactivity is an overused word that is in danger of losing its meaning.
However, as originally conceived by Norbert Wiener, Douglas Engelbart, and
others, interactivity has extraordinary promise. The term needs to be
reclaimed from those who abuse it (by using it to describe home shopping
TV channels, for instance). By interactivity we specifically mean: the
ability of the user to alter media she comes in contact with, either alone
or in collaboration with others. Reading a text is not an interactive
experience; interactivity implies changing the words of the text in some
way -- adding to them, reorganizing them, engaging with them in a way that
effects their appearance on the screen. Digital media is inherently
dynamic, changeable. Interactivity exploits this quality, and encourages a
creative engagement by the user that leaves its mark on the artwork. Just
as a conversation is a two-way experience that effects both parties,
interactivity is an extension of our instinct to communicate, and to shape
our environment through communication.

Hypermedia may prove to be the most profound contribution that the
computer has made to aesthetics. By making a persistent link between media
objects, the user can now easily share her private path through them.
Never before has it been so simple to make your own non-linear method of
navigating through ideas and information available to others. At the same
time, using hypermedia, all traditional media forms tend to have the same
weight. By writing links you decide how to place emphasis on one media
object in relationship to another; context determines relative importance.
Text leads to image leads to sound in just the way the mind works.

But while hypermedia is potent in and of itself, without interactivity
hypermedia would be limited to a way of browsing extant items, rather than
engaging directly with them. Interactivity is what empowers hypermedia,
making it more like the experience of consciousness encountering the
world. In life, one thought leads to another, which leads you to your
notebook, where you reread a line of text, then cross out one word and
replace it with a different one. Without interactivity, hypermedia would
place you in a state of continual passivity, frustrating your impulse to
engage with what you encounter.

Like hypermedia, immersion is a digitally enabled method for mimicking an
aspect of consciousness. The arts have long been concerned with accurately
reflecting private sensory perceptions. The history of each art form is
replete with movements that claim this as their objective; similarly,
integration has been led by the desire to combine art forms in a way that
reflects our sensual apprehension of the world. Digital technology allows
us to pursue this impulse further through the creation of fully realized
virtual environments. It is also true that, in cases when digital media
does not suggest a convincing three dimensional virtual space, it
encourages the use of spatial metaphors for the arrangement of
information. One obvious example is the Web, which lends itself to
architectural or geographic methods of "navigation," rather than adhering
to linear forms of organization.

The inter-reliance between these key characteristics culminates in the
wide range of non-linear narrative forms that digital media lends itself
to. Our methods for self expression grow out of an ongoing collaboration
with the tools we use to give that expression a recognizable shape.
Working with these tools, we find ways to capture nuances of personal
experience so that we can share them with others. Before digital
technology, our tools led us toward linear modes of expression. However,
the dynamic nature of databases and telecommunications networks open up
possibilities for alternative narrative structures that come closer to
replicating the internal associative tendencies of the mind. Artists like
Lynn Hershmann, Roy Ascott, and Bill Viola saw this potential early on,
and have explored approaches to narrativity that make full use of
integration, interactivity, hypermedia, and immersion in their digital
artworks. The narrative forms pioneered by these artists, and the many
others who share their interests, are effectively blueprints for digital
communications in the coming century.


[1] Randall Packer and Ken Jordan, eds., Multimedia: From Wagner to
Virtual Reality (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001)

[END, PART 1 OF 4]

Ken Jordan

"Be as if." - Andrew Boyd 

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