By Dr.Josie Arnold
Swinburne University of Technology. 1995.
The introduction of multi-media is a constructed need. It is clear that humanity has been established quite successfully for a long time without cruising the electronic superhighway. The engines that are driving us onto this oneway ride are not arising fr om the needs of the people. There is no groundswell of demand, no outcry that we are going to starve if we do not connect ourselves to an electronic umbilicus or disintegrate unless we colonise cyberspace. Yet there is a sense of urgency in committing our culture to the future. The Interim report of the Broadband Services Expert Group July 1994 make this contentious point:Interactive communicative services are necessary to build the clever country. being satisfied with one-way or distributive services is a recipe for the stupid country. (p9)
The engine of electronic technology is driving us at superspeed through the vehicle of convergent technologies to the frontiers of cyberspace. Technology is not problematized or critiqued. It is cruised without consent or negotiation because it is shown to be a cultural imperative: the most important late twentieth century sustai ning myth not only of Australia, but of the whole 'advanced' world.
Yet not all people are convinced of its importance to our personal, human and cultural development as Australians. On the contrary, many people are concerned that we are losing a sense of being truly human, a sense of connectedness with the world of natur e, of humanity's past and of relationships with people, places, and things that do not arise from electronic interactions.
The emergent electronic culture has developed a set of terminlogy of its own. The terms 'cultural industries' and 'cultural tourism', for example, have recently come into common useage. Notice the conjunction of business and creativity. The arts are being seen as an important part of our commercial future in Australia. Involved in a consideration of this are such diverse elements as: the role of business and industry in promoting the arts as a responsibility of the corporate sector; exports; tourism; mult imedia technology; education; promotion; training opprtunities for artists; national heritage and broadband technology.
Until the present time, our society has emphasised print learning. Reading and writing are conventional ways of gaining knowledge. The introduction of movable type began an era of learning that saw knowledge as something that could be dispersed throughout the culture. The old chained libraries in which information was literally as well as metaphorically held in the hands of those privileged through wealth or church might, at first glance, seem inconceivable in the last era of the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, there are interesting points to be made of this relationship. The first is that the renaissance of learning and ideas that moveable type led to is an appropriate image for the introduction of electronic communications. Another is that the in troduction of written texts into the mass or popular culture is imaged again by the computer/video literacy of this contemporary period, when the means of receiving mass electronic communication and of initiating or using the technology privately are in the hands of the masses. More and more people, for example, own or have access to video players and cameras, telephones, radios, computers, televisions, fax machines, photocopiers.
Yet this technological innovation, like the print one, is not without its own powerful inscriptions on how we represent/read/write self and society. Thirdly, like chained books, ownership of media and the ways in which it controls culture are strong and p owerful controls.
The popular media is currently dominated by television, but this medium does not stand alone: it has strong links with, and feeds upon, print, radio and film. If we read these texts in a postmodernist way, we can practice the notion that the reader strugg les against RECEIVED notions/forms of reading, writing and public discourse. The postmodernist position may be put that actuality cannot be represented because there is no rationality, no reality that is not itself a construct. In this way, the imagined t exts of media, literature and film become a good metaphor for all knowledge. They become particularly apt when we see how the electronic world will be a totally new construction providing us with a secondary experience of reality that might be more satisf ying than the 'real' or primary world in which we live.
In a sense, everything is a story. The Indian literary critic, Gayatari Spivak, says that the world actually writes itself like a work of literature. If the everyday world is really a constructed story, then the visual tricks, images experiences and sound s of interactive multimedia may well be closer to 'reality' than any other way of reading or writing our lives.
How is our individual story or Australian cultural representation of mass media served by having monopolistic players like Packer, Murdoch and Conrad Black as major shareholders? How will they enact self-regulation? Clearly, such global commercial influe nces make an impact upon our cultural representation that causes us to inscribe our society and ourselves in certain ways. Powerful figures combined with powerful means of representation could well be seen to have sinister overtones.
Is ideological control intrinsic to mass media? Certainly, when we consider such factors as popularity and the commerciality of broadbased sales, it becomes clear that mass media is not a revolutionary tool in itself and that its use, like its audience, d iscourages anything beyond the accepted and acceptable. Mass media is enacted as middle: as middle of the road; middle-brow; middle-class. Will muti-media be the same?
Can we challenge that particular stereotype and counter some of the anti-technology aspects of the new Luddites or machine-destroyers? Does interactive multi-media pose much less danger to us as an electronic rival to our intellect (that is, as artificia l intelligence) than as another self, another hand, an intimate companion who shares and shapes our everyday life?
How might we see and enact the revolutionary possibilies that are inherent in the electronic tools of communication such as Internet, E-mail, the hypertext or cyberspace? In cyberspace you are provided with a complete sensual experience. Rather than, for example, thinking through ideas in print, you will be able to experience the ideas as well as the ability to reflect upon that experience. In this way, thinking-through wi ll become a very different process from its current forms. Your mind will be the computer, as it were, to enable you to exist in any worlds that you wish to construct or to enter.
This apparent freeedom is challenged by critical thinkers who see its downside as human alienation from the natural world. They refer to cyberspace as providing an electronic prison which enfolds its users and confines them in a non-physical constructed s econdary world from which they might find it difficult, if not impossible, to extricate themselves. This line of argument sees technology as being a kind of personal and cultural death. It makes the representation of the world more impactful than what is outside the cyberspace: physical, emotional, relational and personal space, perhaps? The interface becomes the horizon of our imagined and experienced worlds.
How will the capitalist world harness the ontological shift that computers represent? Ontology is the science of birth, the branch of metaphysics that investigates the nature of being; it concerns us with attempting to catch sight of the subtextual, the p eripheral; with deciphering the receding background of the context in which we make meaning. Crossing the electronic frontier introduces us to a very different practice of being from what we have known.
Hypertext breaks linear print order. It invites the body as well as the intellect to play in a computer-simulated immersive environment or virtual world which is multisensory. Yet computerized realities exist because they are part of our human-ness, they arise from the challenge to paradigms that technology enhances. They do not necessitate de-humanisation or the binary opposition of machine and person. Shifts in reality do not transport us outside our human culture: rather, they show us how that culture is an on-going construction.
Yet, if virtual reality only perpetuates constructed social reality, then it offers nothing really new. We need to be able to ask what it offers that will enrich our whole community. Virtual reality provides the opportunity for experiences that have a quality indistinguishable from an experience outside their electronic simulation. It does not exist in a tangible form in physical space and linear time. You sense that you are in that e lectronic world, it encompasses you and permits you to make actions and interactions. Currently, this is done with special goggles and gloves, or all-over suits.
These are attached by cables to the computer and have a network of optic fibres equipped with sensors. These sensors permit the computer to track and represent exactly what movements you are making. The goggles contain a television set for each eye, thus completely blocking any other visual image and presenting to the user's brain a three-dimensional scene. Magnetic sensors in the goggles are monitored by a tracking device. via cables, the images on the television screen are projected on to the computer screen. The wearer is in a wraparound world of virtual reality. Your arms and leg s could be wings. The television world could be in the future, past, or completely imaginary time and place.
Purchasing the electronic technology of the superhighway is an expensive proposition comparable to the early costs of television, radio and cars. To set up a student in 1994 to use dos-based multi-modal materials would cost in the vicinity of four to five thousand dollars. This would provide a computer of 12 mgs ram, 250 mg hard disc, at 66 megahertz, a CDRom, and a sound card along with a modem and inkjet printer. If the user wanted to make multi-modal materials it would cost about another five thousand dollars. You would need to add 20 mgs of ram, 2 removable hard discs of 1 gigabyte each, 500 mg hard disc and pay at least $300 for a CDRom to be burnt and $60 per copy. Obviously, the technology is being updated as you buy: probably before you buy.
The possibility of smaller more book-like computers that will be truly portable is still some time away for the general market, although this is obviously the way they will go. This technology is getting cheaper and cheaper and more and more and more easy to use. It is a huge commercial and consumer field and there is no doubt that the need to place hardware and software into as many homes as possible will drive the speed, time and place in which we enter the electronic superhighway. The capitalist cultur e which has produced the electronic potentiality is not disinterested. The electronic frontier offers a new way of building a need which can be exploited financially. Pay TV, for example, will cost the consumer directly for a blackbox unscrambler and a r eceptor dish or for cable linkup. The cable linkup (currently being supplied underground by Telecom and as strung line by Optus) will cost billions of dollars which will be passed on to the consumer. Clearly, the federal Government believes that this is t he way for us to go so that we are not only the clever country, we are also the creative nation Interactive multi-media has the potential to become a new force in education, art, culture and service and the biggest information business in the world. it will change the way we communicate, the way we learn, the way we do business, the way we create, t he way we live our daily lives. (Creative nation 1994:pp55)
The commercial hype conceals, perhaps, some of these central possibilities and concerns of the emergent electronic cultures. The language of the autobahn should not exclude the understandings and needs of the users, particularly non techno-heads. We do no t, after all, need to know how television or the automatic bank teller actually works in order to use it. It may be that we should concentrate on enabling people to utilise all aspects of interactive multi-media themselves rather than to put it into teena ger's games arcades or virtual reality centres.