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Return to Ralph Lombreglia's introduction, What Happened to Multimedia?

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June 5, 1997

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An e-mail exchange with Michael Nash

Ralph Lombreglia: I regularly hear people express the opinion that "multimedia has failed to live up to its promise." You were on the front lines when that "promise," whatever it was, was first perceived. How do you see it today?

nash pictureMichael Nash: That opinion has become the major theme of the dialogue on new media in 1997; I've heard people like Norman Pearlstine, Time Warner's editor-in-chief, sound almost gleeful about the perceived failure of interactive entertainment and journalism, expressing "comfort that so much of new media doesn't work." Three things: One, call it "The Empire Strikes Back" -- this is basically the old guard cheering the initial casualties among the new media's Young Turks in the inevitable sorting-out process during what will be a generation-long transition into digital culture. Many of the new media's shooting stars -- often placed on pedestals before actually accomplishing anything -- have been obnoxiously vociferous in proclaiming the obsolescence of the old guard's businesses, ideas, and power structures; you can understand why the info-cultural establishment has enjoyed the Young Turks' comeuppance. Two, the proclamation of multimedia's "failure" is being made by many of the very same people who hysterically overpromoted its "promise" earlier in the decade. The idea that culture would be transformed overnight into an immersively interactive version of everything was prominently advanced by the Silicon Valley Venture Capital brain trust, which wanted to close lots of deals and make their fees and percentages, and by infotainment journalists who wanted a compelling story to tell. Multimedia is exciting, and many bitten by the bug have imagined a brave new world, but it never had a chance to fulfill the over-the-rainbow dreams of its biggest boosters. The story of its inevitable "failure" by these unrealistic standards, as told by the same publications, was equally sensational and played into the ever-onward agenda of the same investment community, anxious to anoint a new techno-darling, this time online connectivity, and to profit from a new round of deal making. Three, most multimedia sucks. Thousands of CD-ROM titles were produced for no other reason than a perceived slam-dunk market opportunity, and efforts merely to exploit anticipated demand never result in quality work. With so little good product, the worst of it often bundled with the hardware, multimedia has also let a lot of consumers with reasonable expectations down.

The fulfillment of the new media's promise will take time. Technology can make it happen tomorrow, and the economy can pay for it next year, but the human equation -- what it takes for people to complete the process, alter consumer preferences, and ultimately change their behavior patterns to embrace new cultural experiences -- takes years. This has been true of every new entertainment technology this century, from radio to cinema to television. Multimedia will start to fulfill its promise when a critical mass of quality product has been around for long enough that it enters people's lives and becomes indispensable to their cultural identities.

RL: You founded Inscape in partnership with two very big entities -- Home Box Office and the Warner Music Group -- yet you started working in new media as a museum curator, and you're well-known for trying to make commercial titles (games, that is) with some decidedly artistic dimensions. How do you see that whole issue today? How hospitable can the industry be to artists with something more than commerce on their minds?

MN: When I was working in the art world as a critic and curator I was intrigued by the intersections between high and low that were materializing in the wake of emergent cultural forms and technology. I was very interested in TV innovators like Ernie Kovacs and Andy Kaufman, in the development of music video, and in the work of artists using the computer. These investigations contributed to a belief that opportunities can open up for artists at key times in the evolution of media, and I very much believe that the current window of opportunity is still wide open, that this transition to digital culture is a generation-long project. Marshall McLuhan, one of the prophets of this age, said that artistic vision precedes mainstream views by almost a generation -- artists dream up the kinds of possibilities that push media to envision new things before the significance of these things is generally understood. "Where do you want to go today?" the architects of the new media ask because they don't know. They're waiting for some great visions to make all this abstract possibility into compelling experiences that will provide shape, purpose, and direction. The potential of the new media to express cultural ideas has increased much faster than the development of new cultural ideas, so the opening is there.

This doesn't mean that the most innovative visions will create the most commercially successful products. The coolest stuff is rarely the most commercial, but that doesn't mean interesting work can't make a lot of money. The 1990s have seen the rise of alternative culture on many fronts, from rap and alternative rock to independent film to underground comics, so I believe that attempting to make work anchored in personal expression commercial enough to thrive has a respectable track record. You can't really judge this equation by the results of the CD-ROM business to date, because although innovative titles have struggled in the marketplace, the vast majority of all titles have fizzled, including blatant attempts at commercial exploitation (like most of the Doom clones).

Wordsworth said we create the tastes by which we are appreciated. If you're serious about making meaningful work, you have to stand your ground, keep finding ways to get good work done, and take your chances. That's how a critical mass develops around a body of work that makes it culturally influential, and often also successful in the marketplace. The Warner Music Group and HBO both have track records of backing innovative work, and that's why they formed Inscape with me three years ago. They and other important players will continue to support independent creative vision when the right business propositions come along.

RL: For uncategorizable titles like The Residents' Freak Show at Voyager or their Bad Day on the Midway at Inscape, were you able to do any useful market research, or did you just cross your fingers and hope that high-quality, innovative work would drive the market?

MN: I've seen good and bad results come from market research in multimedia, but I've never seen much benefit in terms of providing feedback on artistic innovation. In fact, even for the most commercially oriented enterprises in this arena, market research has been of limited value to date. There are two reasons. First, with the installed base growing (nearly doubling in some recent years) and the marketplace changing so fast, having a group of people today tell you how your product will be perceived next year is a little bit like driving on the freeway using your rearview mirror. This is a major challenge with one- to two-year production schedules. Trends, expectations, and competitive issues evolve so quickly that you are trying to hit a moving target from a great distance, and that target is typically out of range of such weapons as market research. Product development in the new-media field is a visionary enterprise (in the most general sense) or it is nothing at all. For every product like Duke Nukem or Diablo that everyone knew would be successful, there are just as many or more that came out of the blue like Myst, Command and Conquer, and You Don't Know Jack. Second, on a more practical level, the nature of media-asset rich, code-intensive multimedia production leaves the knitting together of the constituent parts until the very end and puts publishers in the position of not being able to present the interactive experience to focus groups until a few months before the product is completed; without testing the product's interactivity, its game play, you're only dealing with the most general issues. At that point it's usually too late to make major changes; the publishers, who've been out of pocket for so long, rarely have the latitude to delay release dates and increase production expense. With Bad Day we had the benefit of seeing how Freak Show had performed in the market so we made some informed sales projections and came up with a budget we thought we could recoup, and were lucky enough to do so. Sequels and other follow-ups put you in the best position to negotiate the parameters of success -- far better than any market research -- and that's why you see so many sequels in the CD-ROM business. We did some market research to refine the packaging on Bad Day, but when you're working with wholly original innovators like The Residents, who boldly go where no one has gone before, there's not much point in testing the results against conventional expectations.

RL: "New media" doesn't mean merely mixed media in digital form; it implies a significant level of "interactivity." Yet most art forms as we've known them through the ages simply aren't interactive. Fiction, drama, film, painting, music -- none of them (in the West, anyway) involve much direct audience collaboration. How do you view this issue when you think about the fresh opportunities that "new media" may offer artists?

MN: This is a complex question. These traditional media actually are quite "interactive" in terms of how we construct meaning and continuity through juxtaposition, association, and contextualization. I guess you'd call this mentally interactive as opposed to mechanically interactive, but the goal of achieving emotional coherence and meaning is similar. Think of how we construct meaning by piecing together an Eisensteinian montage in an art film, feeling our way through the wild associations in a surrealist poem, imagining the emotional landscape of a symphony. Or, aiming low, think of how minimal split-second cues in a music video imply a rich narrative context to its mass audience, or how the fragmented panels of a comic relate a heroic quest to teenage boys, or how commercials practice nuanced consumer persuasion in thirty- and even fifteen-second intervals. The audience may not collaborate on the content or sequence of the artistic presentations, but they are very much partners in constructing its meanings, which are the cultural product of the work.

The key for me is that the way all these media work is by establishing an experience that the audience can become immersed in through their own mental activity. New media presents a major advance in the kinds of audience interaction and determination that are possible, but mechanical interactivity, in and of itself, is vastly overrated. Making a connection between point "A" and point "B" only matters if the connection between "A" and "B" matters. We long for meaningful connections in culture because of the overwhelming drive we have as thinking creatures to structure the chaos of the universe. It is the immersion we experience in a set of integrated relationships that makes us feel like we are inside of a unique vision, a distinct place with intrinsic laws and truths, another world where we can discover and learn new things. This is the power of artistic vision as expressed in fiction, painting, music, film, and other media. Interactivity is not an all-important end in itself; it is a very powerful way of achieving this quality of immersion. What digitally interactive mixed media offers is the opportunity to make associations among any kind of expression in text, image, or sound and any other expression in any of these media, so it does provide a quantum leap, but this leap is culturally important only if it is used to make experiences that are more densely and dynamically immersive. This is why we named the company Inscape, because we wanted to focus on multimedia's capability to transport us to compelling inner landscapes.

RL: Many smart people are concerned that the "hot" demands of electronic media -- not to mention the "hot" demands of electronic capitalism -- require, or cater to, a consciousness that's not compatible with the sustained reflection needed for serious reading or art. Obviously, you've seen artistic opportunities in the digital realm. Do you see any corresponding antipathies or threats to our intellectual heritage?

MN: I referred to Norman Pearlstine before. At a conference I attended recently Pearlstine said, "Interactivity is the enemy of quality journalism and storytelling." Part of my answer to that is related to the argument above about interactivity and immersion: the artistic goals of various media are not so different, and the fact that there are a lot more great books or paintings than multimedia works is due to the fact that literature and painting have been around for thousands of years. I also think that the sense of crisis in the intellectual community has come from a mistaken notion that the new media and traditional media are in some kind of death match. The history of the proliferation of media in the twentieth century makes it fairly clear that new media are layered into the matrix of existing media based on their specific utility, and don't replace them. Theater, film, live concerts, sporting events, and print media all persist or thrive in the face of electronic and digital media's onslaughts. TV didn't kill radio, though it dramatically altered its use. Movie-theater attendance and home-video rentals are both at all-time highs, so VCRs haven't cannibalized the big screen. Concert and live sporting-event attendance remain at or near all-time highs even though electronic media offers many alternatives. Culture seems to cross-promote culture; as options grow, people learn to get unique, differentiated kinds of experiences from different media. The only evidence of conflict between existing and new media I know of is the findings of some researchers that online activity may be reducing television viewing, especially among children -- and I doubt that is what worries the "smart people."

When it comes to comparing forms of engagement -- print culture's reflecting versus electronic culture's reflexing -- there's also some degree of elitism and fear of the future. What may worry smart people the most is that their cherished notions of what constitutes intellectual activity and privileged culture are under assault. As the Situationists, post-modernists, and post structuralists all anticipated in various ways, the wall between high and low has been obliterated and there's no holding back the philistines now. This is not in my opinion a bad thing -- and it is certainly not the fault of new media. Art is a set of attitudes, approaches, and practices aimed at seeking, finding, and inventing different truths and beauties, and the more it is seen as part of everyone's lives and the less it is seen as the province of a privileged elite, couched in esoteric languages, the better. The people who point to SAT test scores as evidence of declining literacy don't want to consider the awesome advances in visual literacy that I suspect (this is too complex to quantify through testing, as all intelligence really is) are being made by the current generation. The user-interface constructs that are being developed in computer games are absolutely critical to the future of digital culture, as much as it might seem heretical to locate the advancement of civilization in game play. Now, yes, if I thought my worth as a person would be judged in the next century by the body counts I amassed in virtual-fighting games, I guess I'd be worried and dismayed, too. But, if the question is whether a wired world can be serious about art, whether the dynamics of interactive media's engagement can provide a cultural experience, I think it's silly to argue that there are inherent reasons why it cannot.

RL: Do you draw any conclusions from the fact that two notably ambitious and innovative artists you worked with at Inscape, The Residents and Devo, were actually groups of artists with a long history of collaboration? Will the unprecedented complexities of interactive multimedia prove to be incompatible with the notion of a single "author"?

MN: Since I have probably gone off on too many theoretical ramblings, I'll leave the death of the author out of this and focus on the practical issue. Yes, I definitely think that the complex, multifaceted nature of this new media does tend to demand effective collaboration. I was asked by another interviewer a few years ago where I thought the Spielberg of multimedia would come from, and my response was to dispel the myth of the guy in the ball cap with the bullhorn orchestrating this kind of work. Creating an immersive, media-rich interactive experience that has the depth to provide dozens of hours of user investigation requires highly specialized work in a number of disparate areas; it is simply not possible for one person to dictate everything. Engineers work in extremely technical programming languages; 3-D artists spend years mastering the enormously complex capabilities of specific tools; writing interactive scripts requires orchestration of elaborate databases sometimes specially produced just for a given project by the writer. What is required is a strong, collegial project organization, with generalized schedule management and creative discussions, where people have committed themselves to the final product and are willing to take the project dialogue up to a level of abstraction that can be shared by all the production components and then back down to the level of specific implementation in their area. You never really see the title until it's almost done, so a lot of conceptual collaboration and trust is required. Most excellent titles are the creation of a half-dozen or more people. I think you can still have fewer authors, or "primary ideational content originators," but I don't think you can apply auteurism in the French New Wave sense.

RL: Devo's Adventures of the Smart Patrol was a delightful surprise to me. It's one of the most successful pieces of interactive multimedia I've ever seen -- something like the CD-ROM equivalent of Terry Gilliam's film Brazil. But its success is inseparable from its extreme quirkiness and self-parody. The same could be said of the CD-ROMs you produced with The Residents. Can you imagine an equivalent success with material that was less zany? Or does serious multimedia need to be fairly weird to escape the ever-mounting media clichés?

MN: I guess I've developed something of a reputation for promoting strange visions and warped sensibilities. I've been asked this question a lot, and I like your explanation. I suppose that to some extent it does reflect a personal bias. The answer that I've come up with to defend this bias is that within alienage, we discover a lot about the paradox of our own alienation. The recognition of difference is the way we establish our identity and the uniqueness of our own point of view. We are drawn to extreme kinds of "alien" identity -- freak shows, fanatics, psychotics, serial killers, nightmares, monsters from outer space -- because we are fascinated by absolute otherness, lying as it does at the heart of our own sense of self. We never tire of this paradox because it is so charged by opposites: quirky, eccentric, weird, dark, transgressive vision is so different from our own and yet so full of the very thing that makes us different, that gives our identity its integrity. I think it's a powerful dynamic to draw on in establishing the essential attributes of extraordinary inner realms that distinguish the best work in this field.

RL: What's the next big thing for you? Do you have any personal goals or ventures that you'd like to talk about?

MN: Founding and leading Inscape during the defining lessons of the past three years was an incredible experience for me, but it's been nice to consult Time Warner on new media for the last few months and get a broader perspective. Like a lot of people I think that the coming convergence of television and the Internet will provide some very interesting opportunities, though it's too early for me to say exactly what role I'll assume if that's the arena I enter. In any case, that's certainly where I'll be looking for some exciting new developments in the next several years.

  • Discuss this topic in the Arts & Literature forum of Post & Riposte.

  • Return to Ralph Lombreglia's introduction, What Happened to Multimedia?

  • More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound

  • Have an idea for a future Digital Culture column? Let us know or e-mail Ralph at Lombreglia@aol.com.

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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