The Emperor's New Clothes
. . . introduction

Multimedia is a term and a product which appears to have managed to monopolise the public, corporate, institutional, and political high ground in the debate about new media. Variously characterised as a synergy between existing media, a combination of text and visual data into a revolutionary recombination, or as an interactive and emancipatory text, multimedia has been promoted in terms that bring it dangerously close to an object that has more to do with Utopian projections about the next millennium than with what any of its fundamental claims might entail.

Within this debate hypertext and hypermedia have been relegated to the role of bridesmaid, and while this essay does not want to remove multimedia from its current position of seductive, but fickle lover, its consideration of the role and use of hypertext and hypermedia will hopefully problematise the almost naive preeminence of multimedia in current debates.

Within the Australian context multimedia is characterised as 'the digital combination of two or more media elements - text, graphics, audio and video-presented in an interactive format. The interactive vision has individual communication as its essential element.' (AME 1995.) Much more significant are the general sentiments associated with multimedia, where the 'thing' itself is understood to offer '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, the way we live our daily lives.' (Creative Nation 1995.)

Hypertext, on the other hand, is generally considered as a text based authoring and reading environment, and hypermedia is probably what some would regard as a poor person's multimedia - it is generally text based, but can include digitised images, video, and sound. While such differences may appear minor, in the institutional discourses that are currently enveloping multimedia the understanding of what multimedia is, and its relations to users (what this article will insist on describing as readers), relies upon the idea of a technologically intensive object.

Hence, multimedia is generally considered to be significantly more than the definition provided by AME and Creative Nation, as a telephone conversation in combination with shared television viewing probably isn't something that the AME is going to fund.

While the distinction between hypertext and hypermedia has been useful in the past, in general these terms have become synonymous. This reflects recent technological change and the convergence in digital media towards composite documents that contain various media elements. However, within this essay hypertext will refer to predominantly text based reading and writing environments that incorporate multimedia elements, and multimedia will refer to a reading environment exemplified by an effort at integrating media elements into a single discursive object.

Hypertext shares with multimedia an ability to construct nonlinear, random access, digital documents but can be distinguished by its relatively low technology requirements, the possibility of small scale textual objects and what could almost be characterised as an intimate writing environment. It is these features of a hypertext writing and reading environment that make it a different object to multimedia, and which provide not only an alternative and critical paradigm to current multimedia theory but also a possible critique of multimedia practice. Furthermore, it is the relationship established between reader and writer in hypertext that distinguishes it so strongly from multimedia, for if, as Landow (1992, p. 33) argues

Electronic linking shifts the boundaries between one text and another as well as between the author and the reader and between the teacher and the student. . . . it also has radical effects upon our experience of author, text, and work, redefining each. Its effects are so basic, so radical, that it reveals many of our most cherished, most commonplace ideas and attitudes toward literature and literary production turn out to be the result of that particular form of information technology and technology of cultural memory that has provided the setting for them. This technology . . . engenders certain notions of authorial property, authorial uniqueness, and a physically isolated text that hypertext makes untenable.
Then multimedia is, at best, marginal to this transformation.

introduction | convergences | divergences | rhizomes | bibliography