The question of passing down acquired knowledge as well as storing and managing information is as old as humanity. Remembering is an integral part of the human condition. The question is how to preserve and pass down accumulated knowledge and how to resolve the conflict between the mortal individual prone to forgetting and society institutionalising knowledge. The various groups ranging from families to nations are held together by collective memory (submerged into the collective subconscious). The preservation of memories and the history of thinking are accompanied by the footnotes and reflections linked to them, resembling a timeless and non-linear dialogue spanning history: religious and philosophical knowledge has always been integrated into the web of a culture by way of explanations and commentaries. The life work of Socrates, for example, is known from the (perchance ‘inaccurate’ and subjective) notes of his students. Verba volant, scripta manent – spoken words fly away, written words remain – and sometimes for good. The need to expand the capacity of memory at a systematic level emerged early on in human civilisation: it is for this reason that one of the wonders of the ancient world was the Great Library of Alexandria, which was then destroyed by Caliph Umar I, the nephew of Muhammad, who justified his act by claiming that whatever was in the Koran was unnecessary and whatever was not in it was harmful to preserve. The largest collection of the Hellenic Period was thus obliterated, showing the primary role of the ruling powers in using – i.e. operating – information. Indeed, the art of selection extends from editing all the way to censorship.
The utopia of the Library of Babel – which, not coincidentally, is also an architectural design – indicates the physical limitations of the generally used medium of the book: data in the desired quantity is not only impossible to store but also to access through this medium. The right to access all existing ‘information’ pervades human culture starting from the biblical story of the apple of knowledge to the dilemma of Doctor Faust. The role of contents pages, catalogues, indices and lists of sources facilitating the grasping of physical totality has gained vast importance; memory, which operates hyper-medially by definition, is conserved in the form of linear steps, virtually at the cost of losses, and is then revived again through a process of association.
With some exaggeration, the notion of the hypertext began with the appearance of the second text ever written, when we read and try to understand other people’s ideas. We continue their train of thought, obviously using our own, random associative faculties and way of thinking. The process of translation from the original language to foreign ones began, and even though handwritten, these texts were nevertheless copies. In other words, an idea was not simply preserved but was already able to spread (albeit for a long time virtually only in theory): its inspirational range had the potential to increase. Ideas became infectious. Besides preservation, dissemination and forwarding also assumed crucial importance for those in power. As a result of the inspirational nature of ideas, referential relations began to form between certain works, and while some were sidelined, some became ‘nodes’ because of the references made to them. Quality emerged as a kind of timeless popularity: the web of cross-references actually sustains our individual and collective memories.
Since Eisenstein’s films, it has been known that any two randomly paired images (for that matter, any type of information) have the capacity to generate associations and create a third, which is of course capable of interacting with a fourth, etc. Cross-references are momentary connections between two points – two stations of an idea – that record the path we take in the information labyrinth, which is impossible to be linearly processed.
The Enlightenment eliminated the demand for agreement from thinking, thus creating a secularised specialisation, which served as the background for progress. It might be the case that specialisation, which was a life-saver then, has assumed a life-threatening scale, however, the computer, the essential device that grew out of the process of separation, has created the opportunity to make the complexity of our world comprehensible again. The computer itself – a calculating machine – is the high-tech product of a process that was only made possible by breaking away from cross-references. If interdisciplinary agreement is not mandatory, more time can be allocated to partial problems and it will be the randomness (and not the vision of a utopia) that will shape the direction for the development of a civilisation. The results of scientific, technical and cultural specialisation have become integral elements in our everyday lives, but the lack of cross-references led to increasingly severe crises of communication, such as environmental pollution, wars and economic crises.
The missing cross-referencing matrix can be re-created with computer technology since different types of information are stored in the same way and the high speed of operations enables the management and continued access to incomprehensively vast quantities of complex data.
What is multimedia?
We maintain contact with the outside world primarily by means of seeing and hearing: these are the two basic channels capable of receiving and transmitting the largest amounts of information. If we simultaneously receive information via more than one channel, the verbal-textual thought-transmission will no longer be overburdened and we will be able to accommodate more information. The most efficient information carriers, which are able to absorb the most data and display it in an easily digestible way are images. Our age is blighted by an information overproduction crisis, but processed in the right form, for example via visualisation, i.e. through images, the unmanageable amount of data is easier to take in.
Multimedia could not have come into being without digital storage. To be more exact, like so much else, information is also standardised in our age, i.e. it has found a universal form. After the analogue recording technologies of texts printed on paper, chemically processed images and vinyl records, everything can be universally translated into bytes, into a binary number system, allowing us to digitally disassemble and store any sign, sound, image and text. Everything can be broken down to yes and no, even if it means a massive amount. These mountains of information can be moved and managed by the computer, thanks to its mind-blowing speed of operations. The storage medium (the disc seems to be the best form for storing information) can store any type of data, i.e. we can equally retrieve images, texts and sounds from the same source – in our case the computer memory – in an excellent and non-deteriorating quality. Of course, when we discuss multimedia, there is more than mere storage. The software programmes that handle databases not only provide a simultaneous display of the stored images, sounds and textual information, but also have links and transitions – a road network, if you like – built into them: we can freely move from one user interface into another, then a third and so on; we can embark upon our own digital explorations in the jungle of stored information. In the current state of multimedia, the speed of machines and their memory capacities impose limitations, thus the free journeying through cyberspace resembles something like a bumpy safari, at least among today’s circumstances.
A CD-ROM is a compact disc used as a read-only optical memory device. This data carrier with its storage capacity of more than half a gigabyte (many were introduced to the notion of this measurement when the CD-ROM appeared) was received with true admiration when it entered computer technology, and it was instantly suitable for storing and distributing memory-intensive multimedia programmes, making them easy to sell and disseminate. Multimedia programmes are based on a software which is like an empty shelving system that can be loaded in a later phase of production. This software construction creates the storing hierarchy most suitable for a given theme, while also determining the system of connections between the types of information, each requiring a different amount of space. As a result, going to and fro between the different types of information is made possible, so users are free to check what they are most interested in at any time. The concrete information – still or moving images, sound and text – is later built onto this arranging software. The user, viewer-reader handles a visual surface (graphic interface) at some points of which there are buttons that can be mostly activated using a mouse and allow the user to go on to other options during their discovery of the stored material. There must be (a limited amount of) interaction between the user and the stored material, but there is no access granted to users into the software programme that operates all this: no door leads into the control panel.
Multimedia operates with a large body of associations. By default, the vast storage capacity tolerates (demands?) redundant information, subplots, copiousness and everything else that a traditional medium definitely does not require. Multimedia can afford to draw from a large pool as it does not need to economise, or be restricted to what is ‘essential’, which, of course, is a relative term. Due to its ‘verboseness’, multimedia multiplies the number of possible associations and increases the level of randomness, thus allowing users a greater chance to come upon something of interest to them here and now. The earlier system of isolated knowledge sections is replaced in CD-ROMs with larger and more complexly interconnected knowledge-bundles. For example, instead of the presentation of specific information, CD-ROMs uniquely provide the experience of a network of connections, and instead of granting the utopia of knowing all, they allow users to journey through the space of knowledge. Indeed, a multimedially stored set of data is transformed into a spatial construction thanks to the various passages, bridges and windows, while knowledge acquisition can be compared to a free movement within a 2D labyrinth.
In hypermedia, where image, text and sound are / can be simultaneously present, everybody is a hacker, an explorer and a post-modern man groping around in the darkness of cyberspace trying to define his or her world by arranging already existing quotes into a new order. The worldview mediated by this cognitive synaesthesia, the metaphor of hypermedia, is that only alternative sequences, truths and individual paths in subjective time exist. The utopia of linear thinking and direct cognizance (dissecting, disassembling, interrogating, etc.) must give way to associative thinking and interactive dialogue. Hypermedia provides a holistic model of the world and knowledge since it ultimately contains everything – the whole – and everything in it is intrinsically linked to everything. Specialisation, which was once a lifesaver for civilisation has now become a life threat because the parts do not communicate with each other and we forget to reckon with the consequences. However, thanks to its storage capacity and speed of operations, the computer allows humanity to approach the world in a complex and unified way once again. Hypermedia presents a worldview fundamentally at variance with that of the past: the accumulated knowledge can solely be obtained via individual paths. There are no main and side routes but each step is dictated by the user’s (reader’s, viewer’s) needs at any given moment. There is no single ‘correct’ order of finding information, since the programme does not force anything on anybody: we ourselves are the links between the stored pieces of information. The acquisition of information is anthropomorphised, and abstract knowledge is again becoming personal and sensual. Because of its great complexity the information space cannot be fully discovered only experienced; the acquisition of larger bodies of information comes through a mixture of knowledge and feelings.
Technology has just reached the minimum level required for the implementation of multimedia. At the moment, only the basis and not the final form of multimedia exists. With some exaggeration we could say that we are at the testing phase, but what does it amount to? Games for children and hi-tech for travellers, a total encyclopaedia of background knowledge, a practical form of lonely knowledge acquisition, literature, art, communication? And what will come of it?
The ever-faster and smaller, portable computers allow us to have multimedia at our fingertips at any time. The ever-more unified standards, the improving image preservation technology are all making multimedia an intrinsic part of households and everyday life. It does not take a genius to create multimedia solutions so the genre of techno folk art may even appear one day. The fundamental shift was the emergence of the multimedia network. What is a CD for if I can retrieve the same or any other multimedia programme via a phone line or from the World Wide Web and it will appear on my computer just the same and if I can send my own and make it available to all – for free. Also, the increase in data transmission speed and the global network make vast multimedia databases easily accessible. The other quantum leap is anticipated in the area of interfaces; in other words, users’ communication with machines will be carried out with more varied apparatuses more closely tailored to the given themes. One day we might open the windows, press the buttons and give commands ‘by hand’, i.e. we will be physically present in a database.
Reality is pointing in the direction of a totally self-reflective social medium shaped by the dynamics of an uncontrollably vast amount of communication links. The hypermedium will be the second public sphere of our existence, as if duplicating real society. Instead of the utopia of a common Babelian language able to manage the accumulated knowledge, will the age of customised interfaces + a global database become reality?