Once upon a time there was a lifeform called typographic man. He told stories, stories that had a
beginning, middle and end. His kind listened to these stories, but had no part to play in their performance.
He evolved into meanderthal man, the nomad, the wanderer. He lives in the waterless ocean of information
society. He no longer tells stories that have beginnings, middles and ends, for he works with a different
form of narrative-- the theorists call it indirect freestyle. His narrative is interactive. He involves others in
the development of interfaces, networks. Instead of sitting and listening to a pre-determined sequence of
events, meanderthal man creates his own terrain, establishes his own connections. Meanderthal man
comes into being with the birth of the personal computer, which provides him with a powerful new form of
reasoning, a hyperlogic.
This is an interesting story, isn't it? My interest in it is twofold. First, like most historical narratives it is very linear; passive typography yields to dynamic electronic text and with a point and a click we've revolutionized all previous concepts of narrative, writing and reading. Secondly, what, or more specifically when is an interface? This story assumes that it only exists in the cybernetic domain, when someone sits in front of a pc and clicks a mouse. An interface, on the contrary, is any act of conjunction which results in a new or unexpected event. A door-handle is an interface. So too is the "chance encounter, on an operating table, of a sewing machine and an umbrella". Joyce didn't write books. Duchamp didn't create works of art. Cage didn't compose music. They created interfaces, instances into which someone intervened to make choices and judgements that they were not willing to make. All three actively promoted chance discovery over any notion of authorial pre-determination; Duchamp's celebrated indifference is their signature. To be indifferent is to encourage indiscrimination; come into this work and feel free to go anywhere you like, do anything you like, and whenever you like. You are empowered, you are in control; cough during a John Cage recital and you are part of the performance. That's an interface.
Given that these features, interface and indeterminacy, are a characteristic of interactive media, a question arises about contexts of use. Joyce, Duchamp and Cage had all been called unintelligible during their careers. However such accusations are firmly premised on the understanding that unintelligibility is to be expected in the experimental arts. It is where transgression and idiosyncracy are played out. Indeed, the links between certain tendencies in modernist art and hypermedia are striking. Surrealist cinema, for instance, was, in Adrian Martin's terms, the search for a hyperlogic, a "dizzying, revelatory version of psychoanalytic free association" (Martin 1993: 194). There's that word again, hyperlogic, that distinctive marker of electronic difference. Similar charges of unintelligibility have also been laid against new media. First time cruisers of Internet frequently complain about its vastness, its lack of pre-determined grids and the ease with which one can get lost, or spend a lot of time wandering aimlessly with little to show for all that URL jumping. Interactive adventures such as Myst or detective comedies such as Sam 'n Max Hit the Road are equally criticised for being frustrating, since so much is left up to the player. You have to navigate an unfamiliar terrain with little internal assistance, find things and learn how to use them, all the time assembling a narrative sense of where it is all ultimately heading. But there is more. You are also required to uncover secret functions, weapons or sources of information so cunningly hidden that an entire culture of cheat codes has developed to aid the hapless gameplayer, who by this stage may be on the verge of flinging his rom into the rubbish bin. Try playing Doom without the aid of IDDQD or IDKFA and see how you like it-- and I'm not talking about Hurt Me Plenty; check out Ultra Violence! Perhaps every interactive gameplayer secretly yearns for our old friend, the pastoral narrator, who does all the work and spares us from such anxiety. Just sit back and enjoy the ride. Of course such interactive features have also been highly praised, for all the the opposing reasons; so much is left up to the player, etc. And as far as vicarious experience is concerned, Doom can't be beat. It gives a whole new dimension of meaning to the concept of catharsis. Indeed, if Aristotle were living in the late twentieth century, I'm sure he would have developed this theory of pity and terror while playing Doom.
Similar feelings of abandonment and disorientation have been raised concerning hypertext. When I first used a multi-media encyclopaedia I was struck by the speed and facility with which I moved from a high resolution image of an African village to plate-tectonics to Geosyncline theory to the Devonian period. It was impressive in that I had pursued a series of unexpected links that opened up an ever-expanding web of information, that was not linear and was not restricted to following a single topic. You can hardly call it a narrative, in any conventional sense of the term, though it observes the important narrative principle of contiguity; the proximity of any given piece of information to something with which it has affinities (the prehistorical evolution of the African continent). And all this, of course, was merely one of many possible paths I could have strolled down. On the other hand, I was troubled by the fact that I had lost interest in returning to my African village. This is the nature of a virtual document, such as a hypertext; you are somewhere doing something (reading screen-text about an African village), and all the time you are being prompted to go somewhere else, to a parallel, linked document. This can have its drawbacks, and feeling lost in the woods is certainly one of them. Disorientation and information overload are the price to be paid for such a powerful medium. But within archival and recreational contexts this is to be expected, and people will be happy to pay such a price in return for the rewards, or simply concede it as an occupational hazard. After all, it is just a matter of degree. You can just as easy feel dazed and confused watching Last Year At Marienbad or cross-referencing a topic in the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia.
Hyperlogic, or thinking electronically, is not actually confined to hypermedia. It is a form of thinking based on association, on accident, on suggestion. It is exactly the kind of logic usually implied by the term brainstorming. In other words, the kind of electronic thinking made available by interactive media, rapid linking and lateral jumps, unexpected fusions of ideas, indeed, the invention of ideas, is something we are all familiar with in pre-electronic forms. Just think of Surrealism. Or think of how much accident plays a part in writing an essay or a TV script. In terms of the question, "What has interactive media given us that we didn't have before?", I suppose it is a heightened, very powerful extension of this mode of thought. My observations have largely been confined to ready-made multi-media. Authoring software, on the other hand, is what interactivity is really all about. Instead of a mental image of The Large Glass when I read Joyce on the screen, I can import one, and if a piece of John Cage comes to mind, I can blend it into the entire ensemble. My matrix of ideas has become a multi-media "docuverse".
The term "enabling technology" is used a lot these days. I think it is fairly accurate. Interactive media don't necessarily offer us anything new, but rather enable us to improve the creative potential of things we are already doing. Multi-media brings together or converges different, previously discrete media forms; for instance, video, or quick-time movies can accompany text, a picture of a Fender Strat can be enhanced by sampled sound.
But does hyperlogic have a function beyond the archival and recreational contexts I have referred to? What happens when you shift context? Claims have been made that the non-linearity of interactive media offers us a new form of communication. But is anything communicated in the interactive environment? Given that so much emphasis is placed on navigation and discovery, or role play and problem-solving, it seems to me that nothing is actually being communicated. Communication assumes an end point, something being transported, re-located from one context to another. In this sense, it is a transitive form of language use; an activity that takes an object, which gives meaning to the activity. The activity, the process of communication (be it a news broadcast or a recipe in a cookbook) completes itself by delivering its message. The academic lecture is typical in this respect. My own experiments with introducing interactivity into the lecture format reveal that students have very deep, expectations about the verbal presentation of information: the lecture is linear and has an endpoint outside itself. It is ultimately going somewhere. Multi- media lecture presentations, accordingly, run the risk of being unreceivable; there is too much information, not all of it verbal, and it has no clear endpoint. Such presentations demand reciprocal activity in a context in which students expect narrative guidance. Rather than being told a story, they have to negotiate various informational sources, determine in what ways such information is to be linked, and then work out how it relates to the topic at hand, whatever that may be. As with the example of my African village, purposive action (the exchange of knowledge) is frustrated by purposeless distraction. Some lectures have been more succesful than others, and as a style it can be very useful in drawing students into the productive nature of the learning process. But when they don't work, you'll be told in no uncertain terms that the lecturer has lost the plot. This situation reveals both the trouble with, and the attraction of interactivity: it is intransitive. It is activity that does not lead to a point, or give up an object. And being intransitive it is all-consuming and self-absorbing. Think of the San Fransisco lawyer who stayed back all night playing Myst after a hard day at the office: "The only problem was when I began clicking on things in real life. I'd see a manhole cover and think, 'Hmmm, that looks pretty interesting', and my forefinger would start to twitch. And then I'd realize, 'No, it's real life. Real life is the thing that happens in between Myst'" (Carroll 1984: 70). Cage talked of a purposeful purposelessness, Joyce demanded an ideal, insomniac reader doing nothing but read Finnegans Wake, Duchamp wanted the experience of his work to be "indefinite". Communication or absorption, that is the question.
This is for me the most fascinating aspect of interactive media. They share with the experimental arts the desire to sustain the creative act, the act of engagement, and the pleasure of feeling that you don't have to go somewhere, but are simply going. You are as much interested in what you are doing as any reason you might be doing it for. I am listening to John Cage, I am playing Doom. Please don't ask me why. The concept of communication as a transitive act holds no truck here. I've got another inter word to add to the list: "interplication". Unlike explication, which opens outward to arrive at a meaning, interplication, to quote Stephen Heath, is a "folding and unfolding in which every element becomes always the fold of another in a series that knows no point of rest". Although he was referring to Finnegans Wake, (Heath 1984: 39) Heath's term is a nice description of electronic thinking, and it neatly focuses the emphasis on doing, on process, on making and discovering that interactive media offer us. No one I know has found the out door of Internet, because they are not interested in trying, and there isn't one anyway. I gave up trying to get through Sam 'n Max a long time ago. The longer I can keep putting off completing it, all the better.