Surf's up on media beach

November 10, 1995

There are lies, damned lies and great big whoppers about multimedia - ask Stephen Boyd Davies and Janet Street Porter.

Mr Boyd Davies, principal lecturer at the centre for electronic arts at Middlesex University, entertainingly pulled together the past and future of a young culture on the last day of a diffuse and sometimes confusing Media Waves event in Brighton.

Ms Street Porter, fresh from her triumphant debagging of media men, opened the final day of the event with a tirade against the culture of the Internet.

"The Internet soaks up all the sads in society," she said.

It was rather like the adherents of religious sects she had met where, cut off from the outside world, they could interbreed and propagate ideas, doing little or no harm to the rest of society.

"But the language of the Internet replaces human contact," she suggested. Email, for example, was a victory of quantity over useful content. "Ease of use does not make for quality. A consequence of email is that your vocabulary shrinks," she said.

Mr Boyd Davies was in a similarly iconoclastic mood. He exposed ten lies of multimedia (right), the tenth in the list offering a banner (virtually, of course) for the present generation of developers and critics: "We know what we are doing".

"Of course we don't," he said. "No one does. There are no rules." One in the eye for the growing number of dirigistes forcing their way into a still fresh and open multimedia environment with a destructive energy.

But they can still use a hastily assembled bridge that crosses the gap between multimedia's potential and its realisation. At one side, according to Roger Silverstone of Sussex University, stand those nurturing utopian dreams fed by the true information technology revolution of the 1970s and 1980s. On the other stand those beset by dystopian nightmares of a soulless, asocial multimedia future.

"The closer technology gets to human beings, the more trouble it causes," Professor Silverstone said in opening a first-day discussion on Electronic Hearths and Virtual Communities. The utopians, in the realist guise of Karl Chapman, chief executive of CRT education technology, rallied. Paraphrasing President Clinton's hustings battle cry, Mr Chapman defended multimedia in all its forms. "It's about people, stupid!" The multimedia debate has been hijacked, according to Mr Chapman, by precisely the wrong types: politicians, who feel they ought to say something; academics, who promote their academic interests; and technology companies, who want to sell things to people.

But an alternative narrative might promote a future defined by people's needs. In this future, PCs are all but given away to become as ubiquitous as the car, providing a conduit for sophisticated online and offline content in the home. The rise of info elites, the haves and have-nots needs to be halted, Mr Chapman believes, by the rapid sharing of new knowledge in the present intermediate stage of multimedia development, using school and post-school education resources for out-of-hours learning to the dispossessed adult.

But any feelgood factor he might have generated was swiftly banished by Juliet Webster, lecturer in innovation at East London University.

Dr Webster returned the audience to a more mundane vista, reminding us that IT was actively hostile to women. The industries conducting the process ensured that centuries of practice and culture excluded women from the design and production of these technologies a worldwide social division of labour.

Male inadequacy also drives some men into IT, according to Dr Webster, and helps to make it the type of work that is deeply unattractive to women. "Maybe women would produce different technologies," she suggested.

Dr Webster's defensive view often seemed to find an echo at the three-day Media Waves event, devised and produced by David Furnham, reader in media arts at Middlesex University. Even the keynote speech from Alex Chowdhury, managing director of MAI New Media emphasised the fearfulness of the emerging culture.

He foresaw an active/passive divide between the young generation who would participate and the older cohorts who would be left out. And this was swiftly underlined in the most visually arresting multimedia demonstration of the event. Helen Sargan and the young Sapour group of Middlesex University students challenged more conservative ideas of what constitutes multimedia.

"We are not dominated by technology. We know how to use it. We have developed ways of using it for our own needs. And the next generation will learn from us," she declaimed from the podium as the group mixed dance, theatre, light, sound in a provocative statement of intent. "We are taking the club experience and culture into areas of high culture," she said.

The group's Destination Post-Human construction also served to focus on perhaps the key to the disparate nature of the Brighton event - that multimedia is not only information on a CD-Rom, not only hyper theatre, and not only IT technologies.

It is this and more and is still unsure whether it actually needs a definition - as the ten lies of multimedia reveal.

TEN LIES OF MULTIMEDIA

1. The computer is a tool 2. Multimedia is about CD-Rom 3. CD-Roms are the right size 4. Books are a good model 5. It's a whole new ballgame 6. It's about putting the user in control 7. We need 3-D interfaces 8. Need to imitate best stuff on the market 9. Design is about making things look nice 10. We know what we are doing

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