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Motley (*) media: beyond words?

There is an all-embracing understanding that does not rely on words, or books, or television, or the press, or the Internet, or experts, or teachers, or universities, or schools. There is also an associated form of communication that requires no words nor any outward signs to reach its goal. It is present in all of our exchanges with others, although it generally falls on deaf "ears". For the vast majority of people, words and some body-language are the means by which they exchange with others and sort out everyday problems in face to face situations.

The fact that the written word is seen as the privileged vehicle of communication owes a lot to the generalisation of the printing press. Wide-spread use of the printed word has focused attention on words to the detriment of other forms of expression, creating and maintaining the illusion that the written word is the sole repository of knowledge. Words are ambiguous, slow to adapt, coloured with a multitude of connotations. It is for this reason that bending them to suit our needs is far more difficult than is generally thought. Yet words have an inherent economy that allows them to communicate meaning sufficiently precisely for everyday use, quickly and with little effort.

The solution to all our woes?

When the operatic form was first developed in the late 16th century, bringing together theatre, music and words, it was seen as an attempt to re-create a "complete" art form such as people imagined the Greeks had invented it. No such pretension is made about multimedia. Yet its advocates tacitly see it as an all-embracing form of expression. "Multimedia is good for everything - the solution to all our woes". Here lies the problem. It is true that our culture has evolved making the presence of pictures with text the norm. Younger generations often find it difficult to read text if it is not accompanied with pictures. However, there are a lot of situations in which the use of mixed forms with text and images are not appropriate.

Much of so-called "multimedia" is little more than illustrated text. Attempts to break with the traditional relationship between text and images in which the two were kept separate - a heritage from the days when text and images needed to be processed and printed separately - might lead to a heightened aesthetic experience but generally do not enhance the functional meaning. Those artists who have played with the forms of letters, remind us that letters are no more than geometric forms. When they shift the forms of the letters in a word too far from recognised conventions, the meaning of the word becomes secondary and the play of geometric forms takes over. The same is true in contemporary music when syllables of words are modified, they cease to form words and become music. You might recognise the age-old tension between form and content.

Many so-called artists feel obliged to hasten in the pursuit of the latest technology, pretexting that it is up to them to open the way and to show how best to use these innovations as a form of expression. Are all roads good to follow? Imagine the future genetic artist who takes it on himself to create new living forms by playing around with the genetic code...

Our age is characterised by a general blurring of traditional borders and distinctions. When it comes to the divide between words and pictures, the current specifications of HTML, which give predominance to the written word, allow for little promiscuity between words and graphic elements. There are, however, some precursors in the press on-line and off-line.

This blurring of the frontier between words and images is only one of the directions taken by multimedia and it is not the most promising. Another, more far-reaching avenue is the use of words and images to trigger actions. Initially called hyperlinks, they enable the structuring of sounds, pictures, video, animation and words by creating links between them. However, linking is only one of the possibilities that can be associated with an element on the page. With the appropriate programming, clicking on that element could produce a series of actions.

In this restructuring of information, only available on the screen and the result of the reader's trajectory through the material, there is shortlivedness and an intangibility about the result. To what extent does this modify our perception of knowledge as equally ephemeral, short lived, modifiable and intangible.

Is there not an arrogance in vaunting the merits of multimedia as the future world-wide form of expression - the multimedia miracle-worker - when most people find expressing themselves in writing (or even orally) extremely difficult? It is said that multimedia will at last enable those millions who can neither read nor write to profit from recorded forms of knowledge. For all its good intentions, is not such a claim wishful thinking, if not blatant dishonesty?

What is currently needed in society is not the motley media: an ill thought-out mixture of words, pictures, sounds and video but rather clear ideas and the ability of people to deal with those ideas in exchange with others.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise

(*) Motley: a mixture of many colours, blurred together; heterogeneous; jester like. [top] Share or comment
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Created: August 25th, 1997 - Last up-dated: August 25th, 1997