Summer 1993

From A-Z but not in that order

Understanding Hypermedia, from multimedia to virtual reality

Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver, Phaidon, £19.95

Hypermedia is a glorious encapsulation of other media. It has brought video, computing, design, sound, text and telecommunications under its bright new umbrella. What is does is not new; the way it does it is.

What is becoming accessible through the screen of the personal computer and called hypermedia could be described and achieved in old-fashioned terms as follows. You want to find out something about Napoleon. You go to the library. You want to see what he looked like, so you go to the National Portrait Gallery. You want to see how he was envisaged by film-makers, so you go to the cinema and spend a day watching the great film by Abel Gance. Then you want to find out about Napoleon in poetry and you go to the poetry library and end up with a book of poems by Miroslav Holub in which Napoleon is a dog. Wanting to tell your friend about this new discovery, you go to the telephone and describe what you have been doing during the last few days that you have spent walking around London.

Hypermedia allows you to achieve all this and more by staying at home and putting on earphones, spectacles and perhaps one day even an entire garment that will entertain, inform and transport you as required. To learn about Napoleon may take an hour. Even if hypermedia is an approximation to real experience, what is our learning of history if not an approximation of the real events?

Hypermedia can give you more of this second- and third-hand reality more easily, and since city streets are getting more crowded, time more precious and cinema more expensive, its importance is inestimable. Anyway, real experience to someone playing computer games may be very different from the real experience of someone who isn’t. Universal access to almost everything that can be digitised and then reconstructed, adapted and collaged is one of the most significant technological revolutions of the twentieth century. Variable speed of access is also vital. Hypermedia users can adjust the flow of information to suit their predilections, and even sunsets and seasons in this new reality can be accelerated as the user requires.

Today’s publications extolling digital culture have much in common. Their colourful pages look like a computer screen at the top end of desktop publishing. These characteristics will one day allow historians to date precisely the advent of each book without looking at the colophon. Today it is enough to glance at a composite configuration of a family of images – abstract or iconic, black and white or coloured – to know immediately what the content will be. If a cover design includes a great variety of boxed images, some very small and precise and some out of focus, and frames within frames with bits of text in different typefaces inserted like labels, we can guess that the content is multimedia. If there is a dataglove somewhere or a helmet then it is likely to be virtual reality. The visual attributes of the new media have been turned into icons of popular culture.

Understanding Hypermedia, designed by Malcolm Garrett, is a beautiful square book with good colour, good paper, and animated design. It is pleasant to hold (not too heavy), smooth to the touch and exciting to look through. To read the text according to the authors’ prescription is a process of scanning, backwards and forwards, up and down and even sideways. The linear sequence of a conventional book does not apply. ‘Structural metaphors drawn from landscape gardening, sculpture or architecture seem a far more fruitful way of exploiting the “random access” (start anywhere, go anywhere) nature of this new medium.’ The book already goes as far towards this as it is possible to venture within a conventional format. A significant point is that B does not necessarily follow A.

If the authors sometimes appear lost in their own terminology, this too is a manifestation of the fuzzy nature of their subject and the fact that one premise does not evolve from another. On page 7 we find that hypermedia, interactive media and interactive multimedia are interchangeable. Two pages later, we learn that computer games, interactive video and interactive multimedia are not pure hypermedia. In the context of the project, this does not matter. Approximations are part of parcel of the language this technology attracts. While the technology itself depends on absolute precision, the language used to describe it is loose an evocative, and its acronyms become slogans.

The typographic design of the book is an example of the fragmented, non-linear approach that is an important characteristic of hypermedia itself. The background is filled out with fragments – tiny discreet samples, mentions of evocative names and events suspended like particles of dust in the atmosphere – against which the main theme of hypermedia, like the beat of techno music, propels the reader onwards. The main protagonists of the development towards hypermedia are all there, among them Ted Nelson who coined the term, Alan Kay who made the first model of the system, and William Gibson, whose horrific novel Neuromancer launched the unsuspecting reader for the first time into cyberspace.

The commercial / educational possibilities of hypermedia are endless, and this is why, for all its shortcomings, it must be reckoned with. Bob Cotton and Richard Oliver go so far as to suggest that teachers will become facilitators, leaving hypermedia to do the teaching. This seems unlikely. Hypermedia is essentially a medium of incomplete, washed and ironed information. Incomplete, because peripheral material, such as a small edition of essays by someone unknown, will never find its way onto CD-ROMs. Washed, because the context of yellowing pages and decaying leather would be electronically restored and scale altered. Ironed, because everything must ultimately be flattened or compressed to fit the allotted space. And who will feed its vast memory banks? Is there a contemporary Diderot? And if so, is it a person, a committee, a computer?

As an enthusiast of technological wonders I tolerate conventions of taste and habit to celebrate the new. Even so, some of the authors’ predictions about the role of hypermedia are, to say the least, unnecessary. What would be the use of interactive documentaries, or ‘disintermediation’, which does away with the salesman so that the consumer has to tell the producer that he or she wants something else. These, like much in this book, are speculations. But history is facts, and the research here has been shoddy. I must make one urgent correction: no there was no ‘electronic telegraph’ in 1830 and the term ‘electronic’ was not used until 100 years later.

Jasia Reichardt, art historian, London

First published in Eye no. 9 vol. 3, 1993

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