Technologies of Time and Space:

a prehistory of multimedia

Many of us remember when 'multimedia' just meant using different materials within the same creative work -- paintings, for example, were multimedia if they included a few objects stuck onto the canvas as well as paint. During the 70s and 80s, at least within the art world, its usage became narrower and was usually restricted to works which included a temporal and/or performance element. This included, for example, the use of slideshows and film. More recently, since the advent of widespread use of personal computers, its meaning has become further restricted. Cotton and Oliver, in their 1993 publication 'Understanding Hypermedia', define it as "born from the marriage of TV and computer technologies. Its raw ingredients are images, sound, text, animation and video which can be brought together in any combination."(*1). Most commentators include some notion of 'interactivity' within their definitions and, increasingly, reference the growing usage of telecommunications networks to deliver content to users. 'New Media' is an even more vexed concept. There is little agreement in what does or does not constitute it -- although most people think it has something to do with computers.

As with any other creative medium it is impossible to more than subjectively react to 'new media' or 'multimedia' works unless you have some grasp of the history and concepts which have informed its development.

Let's look first at what we mean by 'media': My dictionary doesn't even mention the press or television -- although the use of egg white as a medium in painting does gets a look in. In fact, the closest the dictionary gets is to say; "means or agency". On the other hand when we say media we mean 'communications media' and we probably mean something like SF writer Bruce Sterling did when, in his alternate life as an archivist, he wrote:

"Media is a commodity. Media is something that is sold to us. Media can be something that we are sold to, even. Media is an everyday thing. You can buy bandwidth in job lots. You can watch television, buy books, videos, records, CDs, but that's not it. That's not what's interesting.

·         Media is an extension of the senses.

·         Media is a mode of consciousness.

·         Media is extra-somatic memory. It's a crystallization of human thought that survives the death of the individual.

·         Media generates simulacra. The mechanical reproduction of images is media.

·         Media is a means of social interaction.

·         Media is a means of command and control.

·         Media is statistics, knowledge that is gathered and generated by the state.

·         Media is economics, transactions, records, contracts, money and the records of money.

·         Media is the means of civil society and public opinion. Media is a means of debate and decision and agitpropaganda."

Bruce Sterling "The Life and Death of Media", Speech at Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art ISEA '95Montreal Sept 19 1995

This represents a profound transformation of our understanding of our lives and reality. Media, many have argued, has come to constitute our reality. The advent of each new communications technology increases our ability to reach out and access an ever larger world and, in so doing, changes us and that world. McLuhan's aphorism; 'the medium is the message' has become famous because it sums up this reality. McLuhan goes on to note, "This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium that is, of any extension of ourselves result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology." He points out that a medium does not have to have interpretable content - a message as such, (he uses the example of electric light), and notes that the content of any medium is always another medium - the content of writing is speech, the written word is the content of print etc., whilst its message is the change of scale or pace or pattern or possibilities that it introduces into human affairs.

So technology both alters our picture of the world and fundamentally transforms us as well. Widespread literacy and the advent of printed books changed us from intuitive to analytical thinkers and expanded our ability to generalise and reason about cause and effect. The development of computers in the post-World War 11 era has brought profound and far reaching changes in our social interactions and our concept of the universe -- indeed we have come to think of the building blocks of life as being information and growth as being the result of communication between parts.

What is now known as interactive multimedia grew out of a very wide range of parallel developments in fields as diverse as art, film, television, telecommunications, digital optical storage, psychology and computer science. The major 'hard' technological developments which made interactive multimedia/hypermedia available were the invention and deployment of the telegraph, telephone and cinematography in the 19th century, radio at the turn of the century, the invention of television in the the 1930s, the digital computer in the 40's and 50's and the emergence of the personal computer in the 70's. Each of these 'stepping stones' has had a profound effect on the development of interactive multimedia not just because they were essential enabling technologies (in the sense that we needed to be able to capture, store and transmit or display pictures, sound, and text), but because the communications models that each of these set up have provided the basis for and continue to inform or affect the ways in which we think about, create and consume multimedia. And, of course, there has been a reciprocal effect back on these technologies with, for example, the development of web radio, interactive TV (although we are still waiting for this one to eventuate in any useful form), CGI in cinematic post-production, computer animation, video conferencing, etc. Other technologies have been superseded; for example, the telegraph has been completely replaced, initially and partially by the telephone, then the fax machine and today by email.

American writer, Harold Innis, has observed that prior to the advent of digital technology, media either extended communication through space or through time. He cites the development of alphabetical writing, movable type printing, musical notation, painting etc as technologies that extend content through time; the telephone and radio as examples that extend content through space. Interactive multimedia is the first media which extends communications through both of these dimensions simultaneously; it allows the extension of communication through time in its role as a storage mechanism, and through space particularly through the Internet. It also overturns previous technologies' relationships with users/audiences. Most communications technologies of the 20th century have been 'one to many' technologies providing fixed programming to mass audiences (think cinema, television, radio), or 'one to one' communications devices (the telephone and the photographic print). Interactive multimedia, and by this we increasingly mean the Internet, allows both of these possibilities as well as everything in-between. Other media, with some minor exceptions and of course the major exception of print, temporally constrain their audiences both in when they will receive their content and by having an unchangeable extension through time -- you can't fast forward through a radio show or flip to the end of a movie or telephone conversation to find out the conclusions. Even print media cannot generally be cross-referenced in real time. The exceptions, of course, are all in individual storage media -- video tapes and various audio recording formats. Digital media, on the other hand, collapses time -- both in storing its content, no matter how linear in display, as an indistinguishable mass of '1s' and '0s', and in displaying its content which can be called up at any time.

For our purposes in examining the roots of digital media, although speech, the alphabet, printing and art are all important enabling technologies, the telegraph and photography are really where it all began. These two constitute a matched pair in that not only were the developed more or less concurrently but each was a major step in the extension of time or space. The photograph allowed the extension of a single visual moment, objectively recorded on a durable surface, into the future; whilst telegraphy was the first technology to bridge spaces greater than the throw of the human voice. It initiated the birth of the 'skin of electric communications' which now wraps the entire globe and is exemplified by the Internet. It was the first electronic medium, the first industrial use of electricity, and the most abstract form of communication ever invented.

A brief history of the Morse Telegraph

Morse's invention of the telegraph in the 1830-40s was also a precursor to our contemporary communications network in that it transmitted its messages as a series of dot and dashes, a binary code, in an almost instantaneous manner. It did this at time in which information had had to be physically carried from one location to another and was therefore limited in its dissemination by the speed of its conveyance irrespective of whether it was via the postal system or carried by private messenger. Time lag for transmitting information was expected and could stretch into months when the source and destination were widely separated geographically. At first the very speed of telegraphic communication was a cause for distrust and this was exacerbated by the sheer abstractness of the medium of communication, dots and dashes, which required training before messages could be encoded or decoded. Trained telegraph operators were a prerequisite and messages could only travel via special telegraph stations connected by cables to each other. It took several years before the public trusted information which had arrived to them via cable -- newspapers, for example refused to print news which had arrived via cable as they doubted its veracity. Reuters, now the largest news agency in the world, had its beginnings in the 1840's and initially became successful because it operated a bio-communications (pigeon post) network in conjunction with its telegraph network. Major newspapers would only print information transmitted via pigeon post or human agency up until 1858, when the London Times consented to print a speech by Napoleon III received by Reuters via the Channel wire -- this despite the fact that the cable had been in place for some seven years.

This distrust of telegraphic communications was scarcely a lone example of general resistance to change -- it seems that the veracity and/or morality of information stored and/or transmitted by almost every new communications technology has been questioned and for some time refused. Even writing was condemned, most famously by Socrates, when it was first introduced into Greece. He argued that stored words were inherently false, certain to be misinterpreted by the reader without the author there to ensure correct understanding. Telephones were thought to lead to the breakdown of social participation and to encourage dishonesty. Motion pictures were, and continue to be, condemned as a cause of all kinds of social and individual dysfuntions -- in 1910 Professor William A McKeever described them as a 'school for criminals' (*1) and lawyers and conservative social reformers continue to argue that both individual crimes as well as a general social malaise have been 'caused' by exposure to pernicious films. Television has likewise been condemned, whilst more contemporaneously, the Internet has provoked widespread governmental and community concern that it promotes crime and endangers children.

Telegraphy not only made the telephone conceptually possible, it laid the material grounds for its dissemination with the telephone networks extending the cabling already put in place for the telegraphy network. Telephony was an 'accidental' invention. Graham Alexander Bell, was actually trying to develop an hearing aid for his deaf wife. He had seized upon telegraphy as a paradigm, seeking a 'harmonic telegraph' to transform speech into electrical signals which could be written visually as in a telegraph. Telephony, from its patenting in 1876 (just hours before a patent application for an almost identical device was lodged by Elias Grey), was far more publicly popular than the telegraph despite being derided by experts as simply an 'electric toy'. By the turn of the century telephone calls outnumbered telegraph messages by 50:1 and it provided the catalyst for the invention of the radio.

Alexander Graham Bell's Path to the Telephone
Telephone History Series by Tom Farley

Hacker Crackdown: CRASHING THE SYSTEM, by Bruce Sterling

Paul Levinson positions the popularity of the telephone as residing in the fundamental role of speech in the human condition -- a role so central to our understanding of humanity that it seems odd to call speech a medium at all. Speech seems to be 'hardwired' into the human brain -- we learn to speak unconsciously and it is the one communicative act that all undamaged human being partake of. People needed minimal amounts of training to use a telephone and it provided a possibility whose usefulness in the their everyday lives the public could immediately grasp. The telephone is also unique amongst communications media in that it is intrusive -- it makes each of us individually available to other people whether we want contact with them or not (despite answering machines) -- in a very real sense it has made every space a public space, particularly since the advent of cellular phones.

The other aspect of telephony to be noted is that it has remained little changed from its original form -- sure, we now have cordless and cellular phones, but all those other possible developments, and in particular 'picture phones', have failed to transpire. Of course, video conferencing and internet applications such as CUSeeMe are available, but they have not become central to people's communications with each other in the way in which telephones very rapidly did, and they have certainly not superseded or affected telephony in the way in which television did radio.

Marconi originally intended the radio to be a 'telephone without wires for the populace' -- a 'many to many' communications device which has only seen its fulfillment in the Internet He was stymied in this intention by the high cost of transmitters compared with the relatively low cost of receivers which ensured, instead, its development as a 'one to many' mass communications device. Marconi's first trans-Atlantic test took place in 1901 in which he transmitted the simple message 'S' (3 dots in Morse code). It took Sarnoff's notion of a 'radio music box' for a use to be found for radio -- however, once that use was found, the radio, with its potential of transmitting in realtime to millions of receivers, changed the world. Once the radio was understood to be something other than a wireless telephone, its political uses and consequences were quickly grasped by governments. In the States this government interest took the form of control and censorship building on the 1927 Federal Radio Act which insisted that radio was to serve the public convenience, interest and necessity. The 'public interest' came to be judged as whether or not content was obscene or seditious.

Guglielmo Marconi 1874 - 1937

More influential, however, was the potential that radio embodied as a propaganda tool. Radio brought public 'theatrical' entertainment into the home. Previously theatrical entertainments were only accessible in the public sphere -- the cinema, concert hall, or theatre. Radio, as did television later, brought the world into the home -- and gave political leaders a hitherto unimagined access to entire populations. Radio, and later, television, were technologies for an increasingly 'antisocial' society. Changes in industrial production, a distinct rise in the general standard of living, and the mass embrace of the motor car was changing the landscape of society. Workers could own their own homes and suburbs sprung up. An increasingly large management class was expected to relocate at the whim of their employers and workers were also increasingly mobile as they changed jobs or were fired in response to economic cycles. The extended family, which had persisted in an attenuated form through the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, disappeared and the nuclear family became the standard social unit. People no longer lived their entire lives within walking distance of their birthplaces and with people they had known their entire lives; suburbs were communities of strangers whose major relationship was that of similarity of income and lifestyle. Competition between print media 'barons' led to the sensationalisation of the news, with newspapers seizing on each and any lurid assault, rape or murder in their attempts to boost circulation. The serial killer became a media phenomena. Mass migration after both world wars tended to further cut traditional community ties and people retreated into their homes, exhausted by their workaday world and increasingly fearful of that outside their doors. Individual social space shrunk to a narrow orbit; workplace, home, shop, designated entertainment area -- and as space shrunk so too did social contacts. Radio, and later television, provided a substitute community -- but without demands or stress of personal involvement. Consumed within family settings, media took the family as its main subject, replacing direct involvement in the local community with an ersatz intimacy with glamorized fictional families.

'Mother Listens In': Winner of 3LO's Photo Contest, 1925
Source: Archives of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Social education used the popularity of the continuing narratives of radio 'soaps' -- so called because their popularity ensured their sponsorship by soap manufactures -- the BBC series The Archers, for example, was funded by the British Government to educate the rural population regarding new and more efficient agricultural techniques. In 1934 Lewis Mumford warned that ...the secondary personal contact with voice...may increase the amount of mass regimentation., he noted that overcoming the tyranny of distance has ...mobilised and hastened mass-reactions. Political leaders were not slow to use this to their party's advantage. In Russia, a huge country with low literacy rates and a highly oral culture, radio provided the Communists with an extremely effective means to mobilise the population in favour of their policies -- perhaps most influentially Stalin's July 1941 appeal to 'scorch the earth' in resistance to the German invaders. In America Roosevelt used radio to project an image of action and strength, despite his confinement to wheelchair. His 'fireside chats' were so effective that he was returned to power 3 times. It was Hitler however whose regime was most dependent on the power of radio. He had always had a strong belief in the superior power of the spoken word, writing in Mein Kampf that all great, world-shaking events have been brought about, not by written matter, but by the spoken word. (*3) More importantly, given that he espoused a doctrine of Aryan superiority whilst looking anything but, radio allowed people to focus on what he said rather than how he looked.

It is important to remember that radio was essentially a live medium until the 50s --indeed, playing recorded material was anathema to broadcasters. In addition, radio was a hugely profitable business generating huge amounts of advertising revenue by virtue of its ability to reach into every home and compel listeners to hear sponsors' messages if they wanted to hear the programs. Television, invented early in the century but not commercially viable until the 50's, changed all that by compellingly combining the intimacy of radio with visual images. The invention of television can be traced to early mechanical devices such as Nipkow's scanning disk for transmitting images (1884), but the complete development of a functioning television system is credited to both Philo T. Farnsworth and Vladimir Zworykin in the 1920's. The rise of the television paralleled the development of radio with the sponsor firmly in control of programming. Some have suggested that television's 'Golden Age' was, in fact, primarily a strategy to market television sets -- 'sell-o-vision', using programs with beautiful or spectacular scenic locations. Advertisers quickly realized that TV presented an unparalleled opportunity to reach consumer markets which could be used to create 'needs' for new products. "In the 'American system of broadcasting', television has become far more that a commercial enterprise, it is a marketplace of far reaching social, political and economic consequences -- a 'technology of cultural domination'." (*4).

Whatever, the immediate effect of television was that radio seemed a dead duck. Its lifeblood, advertising revenues, dropped alarmingly as sponsors deserted for the glamorous new medium and radio seemed fated to go the way of the telegraph until it found a new raison d'ętre through parallel technological development. Ever smaller portable radios broke the tyranny of the living room and allowed people to listen in the car, at work, at the beach... and incidentally shifted radio listening from a communal familial activity with its concomitant of control by parents, to being an individual and self-determined activity. Advances in audio recording and storage technologies, including multi-tracking and over-dubbing, allowed recorded material to approach live-broadcasts in terms of quality of sound at a fraction of the cost. And social and economic changes created the concept of 'youth' as a distinct socio-economic market symbolised by the fiercely partisan positions taken vis-‡-vis rock and roll. Radio survived because it transformed itself into a promotional tool for the new music industry and because it could be listened to anywhere and whilst doing something else -- that is, it allowed multitasking in a way in which no other medium did.

Audio recording and storage technologies had developed more or less independently of audio transmission. The phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. He initially saw its chief commercial potential as being a telephone recording device. However, despite improvements in recorded sound quality due to improvements in storage medium (from wax cylinder to wire to Bakelite disc), the phonograph remained essentially unchanged for 70 years in that once a series of sounds were recorded they could not be reconfigured. It was not until the 40s that audio tape, invented in 1928, became available and allowed editing first via splicing, and then multitracking and overdubbing. Nothing much changed until the 70s when the audio cassette sparked a home recording boom which, at the time, seemed to threaten the dominance of the record companies.

Thomas Alva Edison 1847-1931

Audio recordings' greatest effect was in relation to cinema, itself an outgrowth of photography. Humans have always tried to record the appearance of things but until photography was invented in the 19th century such representations were intrinsically subjective and dependent on the skill of the artist. The 16th century saw a huge outburst of scientific interest and research following the invention of the movable type press in the mid-15th century. Optics was one of the hottest topics as concurrent advances in glass-production and lens grinding technology allowed the production of ever more precise and flawless lens. Camera obscuras and camera lucidas were common as both artists' tools and as amusements. The magic lantern, a simple device consisting of a box containing a light source and a curved mirror, was invented in 1645 by a Jesuit scholar and was an essential technological and conceptual step towards cinema. It was not until the 19th century that a means was found to fix reflections of reality onto a surface. Photography's ability to record, in seemingly objective and complete detail, real images, at once threatened arts primary purpose -- recording the world. Painting retaliated by finding a new purpose in stressing and celebrating the subjectivity of the artist, accusing photography of being g incapable of ever being more than a record of reality. Despite almost immediate use of the medium as a creative tool, photography still is considered by many to be a minor art at best.

The ability to fix images to a durable surface afforded by photography, in conjunction with the independent development of moving pictures through the 'philosophical toys' such as the zoetrope and praxinoscope of the 19th century led to cinema, via Edison's Kinetiscope, at the end of the century. Credit for its invention usually goes to the Lumiere brothers. The most important technological innovations include the development by Eastman of celluloid film, the introduction of synced sound in 1927, and Technicolour film in 1935. What perhaps has been more significant innovation in cinema have come from developments in concept and practice -- how cinema has been thought about and made.

Commentators, and bureaucrats, have often used cinema as a model for multimedia, comparing its current state of development to that of the early days of cinema. By this they mean two things: firstly that the technology is still at ar relatively primitive stage -- display and storage is still very limited and clumsy whilst improvements such as virtual reality and reality engines are extremely expensive. More i importantly the second similarity that they are drawing attention to is the way that we think about multimedia. And the use of the cinema metaphor is part of the problem. We are making and thinking about multimedia as though it is simply a superior kind of cinema or television, just as in the early days of film its major creative use was as a means of recording staged entertainments. Once over the sheer excitement of seeing moving images of real people early cinematographers quickly realized that to sustain their audiences they needed to appeal to them with stories. And the theatre was the obvious source of previous content and experience in staging fictional entertainments. So early narrative cinema tended to be made as though the camera was a theatre audience member. Long unmoving takes operating through time in a linear manner -- telling the story from the beginning to end. However film is not theatre and in those early days it suffered from a variety of technical limitations including shortness of film stock, and lack of sound and colour.

Of course it did not take long for someone to notice that film could do something that live performance could not -- it could be edited. The French animator/vaudeville artist, Melies, Melies is credited with having invented stop-motion cinematography, and in-camera editing, when, in 1898, his camera jammed whilst he was filming passer-bys on the Place de l'Opera in Paris. He fixed his camera and resumed shooting but was astonished to discover, when he had developed and was projecting the film, that it seemed to show men magically turning into women, children into adults and, most portentously, a bus into a hearse. He quickly grasped the potential of his discovery and used it in many of his subsequent films including 'A Trip to the Moon' (1902), the first science fiction movie.

However, stopping and starting the film inside the camera was cumbersome entailing that each shot was set up in sequence and any mistakes could mean starting over from scratch. Luckily the rolled celluloid film patented by George Eastman for still cameras in 1889 proved to be an ideal medium for motion pictures and allowed for mechanical splicing. This allowed film to be more than a copy of life in action; scenes that followed one another in real life could be separated on film, and scenes that had no connection to each other in real life could be brought together. American filmmaker, Edwin Porter saw the creative possibilities of Melies discovery and added to them by physically cutting and splicing film together in 'The Life of the American Fireman' and ' The Great Train Robbery', both produced in 1903. Despite arguments that such editing went against natural order and audiences would not be able to follow them, viewers loved the innovation and had no trouble following the narratives as they jumped from place to place and back and forward in time. DW Griffith built on these innovations as well as inventing a whole host of new cinematic tricks including the moving camera and variable focal length shots a decade or so later, whilst the advent of Soviet montage, particularly through its most famous exponent, Eisenstein, completed the transformation of film from being a passive copier of the real to being an active creator of cinematic realities.

Soviet Montage

In a famous 1919 experiment, Lev Kuleshov edited footage of an actor's face before three other images; a bowl of hot soup, a woman lying dead in a coffin, and a little girl playing with a toy bear. Each sequence was shown to a separate audience, and each audience saw three very different emotions -- hunger, horror, parental love -- expressed by identical images of the actor. Kuleshov had demonstrated that editing, the concatenation of separate shots, was more powerful than the content. Eisenstein went on to further explicate that narrative is created not by the content of the individual shots in a film but by their interaction. This was really the birth of cinema as we know it and the basis of comparisons between film history and contemporary multimedia. It took three decades for cinema to find its own unique identity, what it was good at, and to stop trying to apply the conventions of earlier media.

Many think that it still remains for multimedia to do the same thing. Jay David Bolter and Richard Guarin in their recent book, 'Remediation' disagree. For them no media can be as purist as formalist critics like Harold Greenberg would have it -- they see each succeeding media 'enfolding' the styles, techniques and content of earlier media, 're-mediating' them and forming a new identity from old components. This process has become increasingly rapid as digital technologies transform the production and transmission of all media.

N E X T : Computers and the development of Interactivity

On-line Sources (not credited within the text)

The Life and Death of Media; Bruce Sterling

KISS of the Panopticon

Dead Media Project

Griffin University Dead Media Project

The Media History Project

Persistence of Vision: Animation Technologies and concepts

A D V E N T U R E S in C Y B E R S O U N D

Radio 4's - The Archers, as Postmodern Drama. by Linda Tame

Lewis Mumford; Art and Technology 1934 - Writings and Theories

Make a Thomas Edison Phonograph

The silent feature: 1910-27

Footnoted Books

*1 p. 8, Bob Cotton & Richard Oliver, Understanding Hypermedia: From multimedia to virtual reality, Phaidon, London, 1993.

*2 p 56, Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution, Routledge, London and New York, 1997

*3 p. 469, Paul Levinson, The Soft Edge: A natural history and future of the information revolution, Routledge, London and New York, 1997

*4 p. 3 Peter D'Agostino, 'Transmission: Theory and practice for a new television aesthetics', 1985

*5 Jay David Bolter & Richard Guarin, Remediations, 1999


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Shiralee Saul: Originally authored 1998, last updated January 2001