Ecolynx Project: Information Context for Biodiversity Conservation

Multimedia and the World Wide Web - A European Perspective

Ken Friedman, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Leadership and Strategic Design
Norwegian School of Management

Multiple Views of Multimedia

Multimedia involves more than using computer technology to deliver combinations of images and sound. It is a variety of tools for delivering information, education and entertainment in useful and useable forms.

The first recorded citation of multimedia was noted over 35 years ago, in 1962. The original meaning of the term was "using, involving or encompassing several media" (Merriam-Webster’s 1993: 764). It came to encompass many various kinds of technologies used conjointly in differing combinations. The early idea of multimedia were flexible and involved many kinds of technology from the simplest to the most advanced (for examples, see: Albright 1972; Block 1974; Bory 1968; Bush 1945; Cage 1969; Crane and Stofflett 1984; Di Felice 1980, 1984; Friedman 1973: 63; Friedman 1976; Friedman and Gugelberger 1976; Glusberg 1971; Judge 1984; Masters and Houston 1968; Paik 1964; Paik and Moffett 1995; Ravicz 1974).

One of the most striking features about early multimedia experiments was the rich variety of hardware and software put to use. The central issue was the engagement of a variety of media that could address any number of senses. Multimedia ventures included sound technology using phonograph, telephone, tape recorder, radio, public announcement systems, specially created sound devices, experimental instruments for contemporary music and standard musical instruments. The sense of sight was engaged through drawing, printing, printmaking, lithography, silk-screen, photography, silent motion pictures, and video as well as archaic techniques ranging from printing blocks and stones to modern equivalents such as rubber stamps and postage stamps. Text in was presented written, printed and spoken form, as well as text forms delivered by early version of computer on paper or screen. Other senses were also addressed including projects that involved the sense of taste in the form of foods and food-like inventions; smell through perfumes, olfactory broadcast techniques such as scented fogs and sprays; the sense of touch through massage, full-body environments, tactile displays, furniture, clothing and other devices; the sense of motion through active environments that moved around the participant or engaged the participant in unusual motion during transit through the environment; the perception of motion and body-awareness through dance and choreography; and more. In addition, many established media were themselves forms of multimedia, embracing several senses at once, including motion pictures, opera, video, television broadcast and more.

In recent years, however, the term multimedia has been almost exclusively associated with advanced information technology systems. Brockhampton (1994: 363) defines multimedia as a "computer system that combines audio and video components to create an interactive application that uses text, sound and graphics (still, animated and video sequences). For example, a multimedia database of musical instruments may allow a user not only to search and retrieve text, about a particular instrument but also to see pictures of it and hear it play a piece of music."

Even though this view of multimedia is widespread, the original definition is far more powerful. It is more powerful because it emphasizes judgment and skill rather than technology. It is more powerful because it is more flexible. And it is more powerful because it suggests serving users in appropriate ways rather than addressing every problem with expensive systems and ever-increasing support costs. In an era of shrinking budgets, this is a powerful advantage.

The power of multimedia is not determined by hardware. It is determined by the ability to use different applications and effects in appropriate forms for specific purposes.

Defining multimedia as "using, involving or encompassing several media" (Merriam-Webster’s 1993: 764) involves social, scientific and cultural issues as much as it involves technology. This analysis will argue for multiple interpretations of multimedia and its uses.

Understanding Multimedia, Understanding Media

To understand multimedia, it is vital to recognize the difference between what can be done with today’s advanced technologies and what should be done with content for user needs. Few subjects of equal importance to post-industrial society have been subject to the one-dimensional interpretation seen in discussions of multimedia.

The media industry itself recognizes the primacy of content over technological bells and whistles. "Content is king" has become an axiomatic slogan of the multimedia industry. It is true that a great deal of multimedia content involves games, entertainment and special effects. Even so, the need for serious content is driving the mergers and alliances between different and previously separate media firms.

Content and program developers are merging with information delivery organizations. Telephone companies and cable companies are joining with publishing firms and movie production studios. Still-protected national telephone monopolies are launching their own content and information service firms to prepare for deregulation. The world’s largest computer software company is buying rights and royalties for a host of works in different art forms. Newspaper firms and academic journals are building sites on the World Wide Web.

From Berlingske Tidende, Die Zeit and the Financial Times to Nihon Keizai Shimbun, the International Herald Tribune and the Wall Street Journal, a tour of major international newspapers during any two-week period reveals hundreds of stories on the ways in which the media industry is seeking ways to identify, produce and provide content. Anyone who reads the daily press or weekly magazines such as The Economist, Capital or Business Week is also aware of these developments.

To understand multimedia, therefore it is vital to understand media. This means a consideration of what media contain and the ways in which media to work.

Multimedia Then and Now

Multimedia have existed for centuries. The concept of multimedia is an intellectual construct distinct from the focus on technology that characterize discussions of multimedia today.

There exist many more kinds of multimedia technology than CD-ROM entertainment programs, game simulations or infotainment sites on the World Wide Web. Some of these technologies have existed for hundreds of years.

Consider, for example, drama and pageant. Drama as we known it today goes back at least to ancient Greece. Pageantry has an even more unusual history. In the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, pageantry moved beyond court ceremonial and church ritual to become an event that surrounded, engaged and embraced the audience with appeals to every sense imaginable (Di Felice 1980, 1984). The emblemata of the Middle Ages were another example of a multimedium, bringing images and text to an illiterate population in a way that permitted viewers to see a visual representation of symbolic content along with instructive or religious text presented in memorable verse form so that the illiterate audience could grasp and remember a text that might itself be read by only a few (Friedman and Gugelberger 1976).

Multimedia have always been enriched and multiplied presentations of single media.

A medium, simply put, is a tool for delivering information. Webster’s defines a medium as, among other things, "...2 : a means of effecting or conveying something: as a (l) : a substance regarded as the means of transmission of a force or effect (2) : a surrounding or enveloping substance .... b pl usu media (l) : a channel or system of communication, information or entertainment -- compare -- mass medium (2) : a publication or broadcast that carries advertising (3) : a mode of artistic expression or communication (4) : something (as a magnetic dick) on which information may be stored ..." (Merriam-Webster’s 1993: 72).

The first media were vehicles of communication. The oldest natural media are voice and language. Written media developed reasonably soon afterward in evolutionary terms. They emerged first as painted symbols on walls, much later as abstract marks on rocks or sticks, later still as alphabets or ideograms on clay tablets and papyrus.

Pictorial media remain the oldest media in common use, with paintings, drawings, lithographs, maps and the like surviving still. Pictorial media are primarily used today for entertainment, but they are also used to communicate or to inform. They often add entertainment value to educational or informative products. Text media such as letters or manuscripts remain the oldest standard medium in active use for communication, education and information. Books and newspapers are the next oldest in active use for communication and education while entertainment and infotainment have, for most people, been taken over by pictorial and pictorial-sonic media such as film, television and video. A great amount of information from news to political campaigns is now delivered as a form of infotainment for vast audiences who read little and watch much, as well as for the billions of illiterates who do not read at all.

The most widely used media of the 20th century are vocal and visual. Telegraph is now a highly specialized and little used medium. Telephone is perhaps the most used public medium. Both were developed in the 19th century. The far more recent telefax grew out of these. Photography was also born in the last century, with motion pictures coming only a few decades later as mechanical ingenuity applied to photography made film possible. The contemporary mass media of infotainment, television and motion pictures, with their descendants, video, laser disk and CD-ROM, come closest to the range of effects that people generally think of think of as multimedia.

This view of multimedia is correct as far as it goes, but it is mistaken in broad principle. Multimedia remain what they have always been: any of the dozens of possible media that can be combined in hundreds of ways to communicate, to teach, to inform and to entertain. Those who confuse multimedia with a relatively standardized combination of special effects used primarily by producers of games and entertainment have limited themselves to a flat, one-dimensional understanding of multimedia. This negates the potential power of the multimedia concept. For all practical purposes, those who think of multimedia in this one-dimensional way are limited to an understanding of multimedia defined by the designers of games and infotainment.

This misunderstanding hampers the production of multimedia for a host of other possibilities. The demand for special effects occasioned by this misunderstanding drives budget costs up and use value down on many multimedia projects that can be more effectively realized by simple techniques than by complicated technologies. Finally, the failure to understand the genuine character and potential of the multimedia era is a failure to realize the fullest and best potential of an exciting tool.

What is multimedia?

The problem of understanding multimedia is the confusion between usefulness and special effects. Marshall McLuhan’s famous probes into the meaning of media explored dozens of different media and their meaning (McLuhan 1962, 1964; 1967; McLuhan and Watson 1970). For McLuhan, a "medium -- while it may be a new technology -- is any extension of our bodies, minds or beings (Gordon 1997: 43). This emphasis was made clear in the subtitle of McLuhan’s (1964) most famous book, Understanding Media: the Extensions of Man.

This broader and more elegant definition had a profound effect on the early innovators of multimedia. Two of the most influential were Korean artist and composer Nam June Paik and American writer and artist Dick Higgins.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Paik lived and worked in Germany (Friedman 1976). During those years, he began to imagine new ways of understanding and working with television. Unable to gain access to expensive studio equipment and even more expensive broadcast time, Paik’s first television experiments involved the use of magnets directly on the early generation television sets to distort the already-broadcast images being shown. In 1964, Paik purchased the first available Sony portable video camera. Within moments of the purchase, he shot about ten minutes of raw, grainy footage and made histyory that evening with a presentation of the world’s first video art at CafÈ a Go-Go in New York. Later, as a professor at the D¸sseldorf Art Academy and the California Institute for the Arts, Paik began to experiment with ever more sophisticated video techniques. Among other things, he invented the world’s first video synthesizer together Japanese inventor Shuya Abe and taught a generation of artists who were later to emerge as the first video artists. Not long after, Paik’s students had also become the first generation of producer-directors on MTV, closing the circle in two decades from experimental art to commercial entertainment (Friedman 1976).

Paik was active in the influential circle of artists known as Fluxus. Several of Paik’s Fluxus colleagues were also important to the birth of video art and other kinds of multimedia and intermedia, including the Germans Wolf Vostell and Joseph Beuys, Japanese artists Takehisa Kosugi and Shigeko Kubota, Lithuanian-born Americans George Maciunas and Jonas Mekas, French artists Jean Dupuy, Robert Filliou and Ben Vautier and others. The interpretations these artists gave to multimedia and intermedia ran from the simplest and most primitive possibilities, typified by the folklore-based projects of Sweden’s Bengt af Klintberg and the poetry performances of American Emmett Williams to Paik’s own technologically dazzling installations and the sophisticated book-print-installation works of American Alison Knowles.

By the mid-60s, there arose an important series of distinctions that differentiated multimedia as media that were presented at the same time from multimedia as multiple media that formed a unitary program. This concept was summed up in the term intermedia, a term coined by Dick Higgins (1966) to represent works of art that were born at the edge of several media working in unison. Higgins, a former student of composer John Cage, published the term in a influential 1966 essay that became a founding document for experimental art. The term itself is now used along with the term multimedia in many similar connections. It is an interesting footnote to the history of multimedia that Higgins later found that this term had previously been coined and used in the late 1700s and early 1800s, used in much the same sense as his own usage by the eminent British poet and critic, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

By the late 1960s, the term was in wide use in Europe and around the world. One of the hallmark projects in its diffusion was a book published in Germany titled Intermedia 1969.

In its reborn sense, intermedia referred to "art forms that draw on the roots of several media, growing into new hybrids." (Friedman 1997: 37). Like film or opera, intermedia can be seen whenever several individual media grow into forms that are effective and convincing media in their own right. This is also an effect definition for multimedia.

Considering Multimedia

In considering multimedia, we must consider three separate and related issues.

First is the issue of media -- any or all kinds of media -- used in combination to deliver information, communication, education or entertainment.

Second is the issue of the kinds of techniques or technology used to translate, store, transmit and deliver those media.

Third is the stereotyped meaning of the term "multimedia, " with all that it has come to imply. It may be premature to dismiss multimedia as so much nonsense it may well be time to entertain what Clifford Stoll (1995) terms "second thoughts on the information superhighway, " multimedia included.

This latter use of the term is the least interesting, but it has come into common usage for an understandable reason. That reason is the location of the multimedia phenomenon in the hands of any number of high technology companies and organizations who use their ability to combine computers, CD-ROM, World Wide Web sites or other related technologies in the second sense of the word to deliver multimedia content as we have defined it in the first sense of the word. Before considering the future of multimedia, it is worth examining a few historical examples of convincing multimedia.

Multimedia did not begin in the twentieth century, but rather at some time in the earliest stages of prehistory. The difference between our understanding of today’s technology-driven forms of multimedia and early forms is simply that we haven’t seen them or described them under the rubric of multimedia.

The symbolic value of pageantry, the use of symbolism and drama to heighten the effect of a message has always had a role in the effect of information on human beings. As a result of this well known principle, the ability of today’s technology to dress a message in multiple forms and enhance delivery through several channels of reinforcement has affected the growth of multimedia.

Shannon and Weaver’s (1949) mathematical theory of information established a well understood theory of information and the role of media in communicating information from one point to another. Earlier models of multimedia were less precise, but the very ambiguity of earlier multimedia examples gave them a tactile richness that enabled them to communicate on multiple channels.

In some cases, this has been helpful. Dramatizing action, embellishing words with images, rendering images interactive all have their purpose.

Opera is a well known example of an early multimedium, as is drama. Today, the best example of a commonly used historical multimedia is the realization of drama in film. A perfect example is Kenneth Branagh’s (1989) rendition of Shakespeare’s [1599, 1623] (1961, 1991) classic Henry V.

The first performance of Henry V took place in Shakespeare’s London just short of two centuries ago. In those days, there was no way to convincingly render the vast scene that the playwright set before his audience. Shakespeare’s prologue to Henry V beautifully describes the problem of rendering the action of his play on stage:

"... but pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dar’d
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?"
(Henry V, Prologue: 8-14)

In Shakespeare’s day, the technology did not permit the proper rendition of battle scenes. Any attempt at battle was of necessity limited to dueling among few players or descent into to the "brawl ridiculous" (Henry V, IV: Chorus, 51) that failed utterly to capture the reality of the battle field.

Many plays rely as much on the imagination for envisioning their action as books or poetry. Shakespeare appealed to his audience, inviting them to fill in the missing scenes and embellish the sketches of action by engaging their own "imaginary forces" (Henry V, Prologue: 18). "Work, work your thoughts, " the chorus admonishes to "eke out our performance with your mind" (Henry V, III: Chorus, 25, 35). And thus audiences, from Shakespeare’s day, nearly to our own, were obliged to grip each "story; in little room confining mighty men, mangling by starts the full course of their glory" (Henry V, V, II: Chorus: 2-4).

In realizing the grand design of Shakespeare’s historical drama, Branagh’s film was more true to Shakespeare’s intent than any stage-bound realization of the play can be. The director captured the reality of late Medieval battle. In doing so, he elevated a magnificent play into a grand multimedia performance embracing drama, action, choreography, geography, and music to portray an historical event in fruitful rendition.

Audiences are so used to seeing film as an established medium that few recognize multimedia when they see it. This is as it should be. When multimedia are truly effective, the viewer should not so much be aware of the media as be aware of the spectacle revealed.

McLuhan’s dictum, "the medium is the message," comes into play in the unconscious perception -- and the failure to consciously perceive -- media. An effect medium is so much an extension of the witness that the medium itself recedes into background against the foreground of presented content. In short, the way we perceive, the way we communicate and the way in which we interact with our communication media affects the way we think.

The widely accepted Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that language itself affects the way in which human being perceiver their world (Sapir 1973; Whorf 1969). The way human beings give voice to the world -- in other words, media -- shape perception.

These perceptions and the ways in which we perceive what we perceive are no longer subject to conscious inspection. In order to see how we see, we must step back from the subject and consider the act of seeing. In order to hear how we speak, we must step back from what we say and attend to the action of speaking. Our use of multimedia is so prevalent that we no longer realize when we are involved in producing and perceiving multimedia. Thus it is that only the latest and best advertised multimedia have become the focus of our attention. The rest, many of them simple and effective, have disappeared from view precisely because they are simple, effective and so widely used as to become invisible.

An Effective Concept for European Multimedia Development

There is nothing wrong with the fancy multimedia when they work. The problem is that much of what is done in the form of multimedia is not merely unnecessary, but contrary to the effective use of media. Stoll (1995: 142) relates the story of five-year-old Emma whose parents gave her a series of CD-ROM books. She "reacted to the disconnected sound and text, as well as to the painfully slow paging: ‘Pop, I hate this.’ Even more telling, Emma reads her printed books over and over, but has read each electronic book only once."

In every transmission of information, it is vital to consider the simple as well as the complex. Complexity theory does not deal with entities that are complicated beyond necessity. Rather, complexity theory seeks to understand the ways in which simple elements give rise to self-organizing forms of order (Casti 1994; Cohen and Stewart 1995; Kauffman 1995; Lewin 1993; Waldrop 1992).

Too many multimedia projects move into the kinds of disconnected effects that make it impossible for the development of those natural forms of simplicity that promote effective use. This is a technologically mediated version of the representation problem, an ostentatious violation of the law of parsimony. Before the current growth of multimedia venture become usefully mature, the multimedia concept must be trimmed back through the effective use of Occam’s Razor. Solving this problem can be compared to the ways in which Edward Tufte treats problems in information design (Tufte 1983, 1990, 1997).

A first approach to distinguishing those forms of multimedia that deserve rich and thoughtful consideration involves the issue of content. Developing new approaches to multimedia requires considering the difference between long-term content and short-term content. Long term content includes any information of durable value. This may be formatting immediate information that will be archived, as, for example, on-line newspapers or scientific reports. This may be information which will likely have lasting value for other reasons, including cultural artifacts, classical entertainment, literature and the like. It is my assertion that there is no need to consider other forms of multimedia.

There is a simple economic reason for this assertion. It is true that the largest amount of multimedia involves games and entertainment. These not only account for the largest part of the multimedia market, but the largest volume. Despite the size of this market, however, multimedia games and special effects projects become dated too rapidly to be worth developing for any firms other than the special interest firms now dominating the market. The development of an appropriate European multimedia industry requires considering the long-term potential of investment.

At this moment, film and video are dominated by American firms. Games are dominated by Japanese firms with some American rivals. In moving toward the development of the European multimedia industry, one must look to the open niches. It is an interesting facts that Europe has, in fact, several major areas of multimedia open to development, areas that were first pioneered by Europeans. The most visible of these is the world’s largest and most effective multimedia forum, the World Wide Web.

The Web is the multimedium par excellence. It is an open platform that allows for nearly every kind of interaction required for projects "using, involving or encompassing several media" (Merriam-Webster’s 1993: 764). The Web is rooted in the history and development of European scientific research and technology, created, in essence by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee during his years at CERN.

One can compare involvement of CERN in birth of the World Wide Web with the involvement of DARPA for the earlier forms of Internet and email communication that are among the most valuable service products of the information age. CD-ROMs and other media will retain their value and will not go away any time soon. Neither, for that matter will books. Even so, the future of multimedia lies in the development and management of the World Wide Web.

The Web as it is today is still in its infancy. The Web through Internet applications and intranet applications will change the way that individuals and organizations conduct their affairs. "New ways of solving problems, new ways of accessing and organizing information, new structures that emerge from the flow of information in organizations should, in theory, permit organizations to address and use the power of questions more effectively. At the same time, the ability to work with more kinds of information across broader ranges of time and space -- and the opportunity to seek information from more sources -- is making it possible for individual information users to work in different ways than were previously possible, some more effective, some less" (Friedman 1996: 260).

While the challenges outlined in the next few paragraphs only scratch the surface, they will indicate some of the areas in which there exists a major demand for improvements in the Web. Since these improvements will render the Web increasingly fruitful for commerce as well as for education and entertainment, I suggest that developments meeting challenges such as these will be the kinds of development that naturally bring the European multimedia industry to a mature state. The ownership of rich content is the key to the future of multimedia. Durable back list and solid reputation are the underpinnings of every publishing firm. So, too, in an era which will see the Web become a dominant center of multimedia activity, a solid approach to Web management will be the foundation of long-term multimedia development with durable, long-term pay-back possibilities.

Examples of Web Development Challenges

In the spring of 1995, I conducted a series of conversations with scholars and professionals in different fields to examine the kinds of challenges they face in finding and using information, especially in using information on the Internet. These interviews results suggested important professional issues and opportunities for information science in terms of user needs (Friedman, 1995). This list is a brief selection of six representative issues that have yet to be addressed on a world-wide basis (Friedman 1996: 265-266).

  • It is extremely difficult to locate information on the Web. Search engines often yield far too much information or far too little. This is in part because the engines themselves are not yet fully functional. It is also because much available material is not structured for easy search. The information technology that permits direct access to the products of the information explosion mean that indexing, abstracting and key-word notations are increasingly important. Further, a common series of standards that enable all information to be sought in any of several ways will help the process.
  • Information suppliers are eager to deliver their material to as wide an audience as possible. There is no clear, readily available set of instructions that explains to information suppliers how to prepare, annotate and register offerings so that the information they contain is easy to locate by the different means available.
  • A great many documents that are now available on Internet were prepared using more primitive technologies than are available today. As a result, they are poorly designed in physical terms, poorly designed in comparison with books in terms of typography, spacing, placement of information or physical structure. Since typography and design affect legibility and ease of management, these documents would be far more useful if they were reorganized and redesigned using the technology now available.
  • The world’s libraries and archives are filled with documents and texts that were formerly protected by copyright and on which copyright has now expired. Many of these are valuable texts from the viewpoint of research, often scarce and hard to find, generally long out of print. A systematic program to make these available would be a major service to scientists and scholars in all fields.
  • Many journals and scientific documents are copyright protected but still out of print and inaccessible. A general convention makes it possible for libraries to make copies of articles and contents, but the process is expensive and often results in some materials being copies many times. Transferring the contents of such out-of-print materials to electronic media would make it possible for libraries to make better use of the time and institutional budgets now used to copy and provide documents on demand.
  • Cognitive authority, the credibility of an author or research group or document, is one of the key bases on which scholars decide how to invest their time in acquiring information. Outside of one’s own field or nation, it is often difficult to determine which authors one should know about. It is sometimes difficult to keep track of work in one’s field in another nation, particularly the work of younger or less known scholars. This remains a problem, even though the work of unknown authors may be profoundly useful.

The next phase of our research will be an exploration of ways to solve these and similar problems. At this point, suffice it to say that an industry that solves genuine problems and perceived user needs is an industry that attracts long-term development funding and builds profitable, durable markets.

It may be premature to suggest, but I believe that the skills born in a mature approach to Web development will also cascade into every other area of the multimedia industry, yielding functional experience and solid profit as they reshape the public imagination.

Informated Structures

In the largest sense, multimedia are examples of informated structures. While short-term issues often attract public attention and function as the focal point of vast amounts of short-term profits, they rarely last. For every durable rock and roll group, there are hundreds of thousands that launch one record and vanish -- and tens of thousands that record two or three records, perhaps even a hit or two before disappearing again. These kinds of projects are well suited to well capitalized companies with vast resources and huge marketing organizations. They are not easily amenable to long-term developmental planning.

An approach to informated structures based on games and dysfunctional tools is a risky arena for long-term development.

Instead, it is vital to consider the opportunity to shape informated structures that will themselves shape an environment for further development. This is a slow and more mature form of information and multimedia management. It is similar to the rich orchestration of simple elements that give rise to effective, durable complex systems. This is the approach that I believe will pave the way for an effective multimedia industry in Europe.


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Major International Newspapers

Berlingske Tidende.
Dagens Nyheter.
Die Zeit.
The European.
The Financial Times.
International Herald Tribune.
New York Times.
Nihon Keizai Shimbun.
Straits Times.
Wall Street Journal.

Major International News Weeklies

Business Week.
The Economist.