straight up
"Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned."
– Marshall McLuhan
Title screen from Lynn Hershman's interactive laserdisc, Lorna

It was Vannevar Bush who, in 1945, determined the chief narrative characteristic of multimedia by proposing a mechanical device that operated literally "as we may think." The challenge, as he saw it, was to create a machine that supported the mind's process of free association. Bush noted how ideas tend to evolve in a non-linear, idiosyncratic fashion. His Memex would be a tool that could supplement this aspect of human creativity by organizing its media elements to reflect the dynamics of the mind at play.

Douglas Engelbart expanded on Bush's premise. His quest to "augment human intelligence," as he aptly phrased it, was based on the insight that the open flow of ideas and information between collaborators was as important to creativity as private free association. The personal computer, as he envisioned it, would not only allow for the arrangement of data in idiosyncratic, non-linear formats. By connecting workstations to a data-sharing network and turning them into communications devices, Engelbart's oNLine System allowed for a qualitative leap in the collaboration between individuals -- almost as if colleagues could peer into one another's minds as part of the creative process. In the early 1960s, experiments with networked personal computing promised the non-linear organization of information on a grand scale.

While few recognized this possibility at the time, it inspired a series of influential theoretical writings by the rogue philosopher Ted Nelson. Working outside of the academic and commercial establishments, following his own strongly held convictions, Nelson devised an elaborate system for the sharing of information across computer networks. Called Xanadu, this system would maximize a computer's creative potential. Central to Nelson's approach was the "hyperlink," a term he coined in 1963, inspired by Bush's notion of the Memex's associative trails. Hyperlinks, he proposed, could connect discrete texts in non-linear sequences. Using hyperlinks, Nelson realized, writers could create "hypertexts," which he described as "non-sequential writing" that let the reader make decisions about how the text could be read in other than linear fashion. As he observed in his landmark book from 1974, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, "the structures of ideas are not sequential." With hypertext, and its multimedia counterpart, "hypermedia," writers and artists could create works that encouraged the user to leap from one idea to the next in a series of provocative juxtapositions that presented alternatives to conventional hierarchies.

Nelson's insights were paralleled by experiments in the literary avant-garde that challenged traditional notions of linear narrative. In his book, he refers to Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire and Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch as two novels that use unconventional branching structures to encourage the reader's active collaboration in the construction of the story. As we have already seen, experimental performances inspired by John Cage – including Happenings, interactive installations, and performance art – also gave rise to a variety of non-linear narrative strategies. But perhaps the most prescient explorer of this terrain was the novelist William S. Burroughs.

Like Ted Nelson, Burroughs was deeply suspicious of established hierarchies. He was especially interested in writing techniques that suggest the spontaneous, moment-by-moment movement of the mind, and how non-linear writing might expand the reader's perception of reality. Through his use of the cut-up and fold-in techniques, which he described in his 1964 essay, "The Future of the Novel," Burroughs treated the reading experience as one of entering into a multi-directional web of different voices, ideas, perceptions, and periods of time. He saw the cut-up as a tool that let the writer discover previously undetected connections between things, with potentially enlightening and subversive results. With the cut-up, Burroughs prefigured the essential narrative strategy of hypertext and its ability to allow readers to leap across boundaries in time and space.

Since the invention of the electric telegraph by Samuel Morse in the 1830s, commentators have been noting the transformation of our concepts of space and time by wired technology. From the telegraph to the telephone to television to satellite communications, modern telecommunications has eradicated geographic borders, and made speed a central factor in modern life. This effect was commonly acknowledged as long ago as 1868, when, at a banquet held in honor of Morse's life achievement, he was toasted for having "annihilated both space and time in the transmission of intelligence. The breadth of the Atlantic, with all its waves, is as nothing."

Artists have grappled with the implications of this technology since its inception; the narrative experiments of literary authors reflects this current in modern art. Ted Nelson's concept of hypertext represented a profound effort to put this technology toward the service of personal, idiosyncratic expression. Nelson became an evangelist for hypertext, publishing articles, speaking at conferences, spreading the gospel wherever he could. One of those places was Brown University, which during the 1980s became a hotbed of literary explorations of the form. At Brown, the literary critic George Landow and his colleagues developed hypertext tools, such as Intermedia, which allowed authors with little experience in programming to invent new genres of creative writing. In his own work, Landow applied a trained critical eye to the formal aspects of hypertext, making connections to the post-structural textual analysis of critics like Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. Just as academic theoretical discourse was questioning the centrality of the author in the production of texts, hypermedia suggested that, in a future of networked digital media, responsibility would shift from author to reader, actively encouraging

During this period, media artists whose roots lay in performance and video also began investigating hypermedia as a means of exploring new forms for telling stories. Artists such as Lynn Hershman and Bill Viola were drawn to the computer's ability to break down linear narrative structures. Viola approached the medium as a repository for evocative images that could be projected on screens in installations, "with the viewer wandering through some three-dimensional, possibly life-sized field of prerecorded or simulated scenes evolving in time," as he described it.

Lynn Hershman was among the first to create digital artworks using interactive media, in such pieces as Deep Contact, from 1989. She introduced interactivity into her work to combat the loss of intimacy and control brought about by the dominance of media such as radio and television. Her use of hypermedia allowed the viewer to choose directions inside the artwork's complex branching structure, and shape a personal experience of it.

By the late 1980s, multimedia, which had been at the fringe of the arts and sciences, reached critical mass and went mainstream. Marc Canter, who developed the first commercial multimedia authoring systems, was a chief catalyst. Canter pioneered software tools that artists and designers used to create multimedia on their personal computers. His authoring systems synthesized text, images, animation, video and sound into a single integrated work, using hyperlinks and other hypermedia techniques to connect its various elements.

In 1974, Ted Nelson had declared that "The real dream is for 'everything' to be in the hypertext." It was a proposal that echoed Marshall McLuhan's influential observation that, "after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned." But despite his best efforts, and many advances in the fields of hypermedia and computer-based telecommunications, the global hypermedia library he envisioned remained more dream than reality. Most innovations in hypermedia focused on closed systems, such as the CD-ROM and interactive installations, rather than on open systems using a computer network.

In 1989 Tim Berners-Lee, a young British engineer working at CERN, the particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, circulated a proposal for an in-house on-line document sharing system which he described modestly as "a 'web' of notes with links." After getting a grudging go-ahead from his superiors, Berners-Lee dubbed this system the World Wide Web. The Web, as he designed it, combined the communications language of the Internet with Nelson's hypertext and hypermedia, enabling links between files to extend across a global network. It became possible to link every document, sound file or graphic on the Web in an infinite variety of non-linear paths through the network. And instead of being created by a single author, links could be written by anyone participating in the system. Not only did the open nature of the Web lend itself to a wide array of interactive, multimedia experiences, but by hewing to a non-hierarchical structure and open protocols, Berners-Lee's invention became enormously popular, and led to an explosion in the creation of multimedia. By 1993 the Web had truly become an international phenomenon.

The success of the Web seemed to confirm the intuition of artists engaging in digital media that in the future, a global media database would inspire new forms of expression. Roy Ascott, for example, had already been exploring the creative possibilities of networking since the 1980s. He was interested in the notion of "dataspace," a territory of information in which all data exists in a continual present outside the traditional definitions of time and space available for use in endless juxtapositions. Ascott considers dataspace a new type of Gesamtkunstwerk, or a Gesamtdatenwerk as he calls it, in which networked information is integrated into the artwork. In such an environment, Ascott wrote, "meaning is not something created by the artist, distributed through the network, and received by the observer. Meaning is the product of interaction between the observer and the system, the content of which is in a state of flux, of endless change and transformation."

This notion of the artwork as a territory for interaction, as a locus of communications for a community, echoes the Happenings of a previous generation. On-line role-playing games have become laboratories for exploring this form of interactivity. As the social theorist Sherry Turkle has pointed out, on-line communities, such as Multi-User Dungeons (MUD), "are a new genre of collaborative writing, with things in common with performance art, street theater, improvisation theater, Commedia dell'Arte, and script writing." Pavel Curtis created one of the earliest MUDs, LambdaMOO, in 1990 at Xerox PARC. Though it consisted only of text, its interactive quality, made possible through intricate storytelling devices via the Internet, gave participants the illusion of immersion in a virtual environment. Interaction in the on-line environment, Curtis claimed, creates a kind of social behavior which "in some ways it is a direct mirror of behavior in real life."

Throughout history, art has often been referred to as a mirror of life. But by building upon the concepts of association and collaboration, computer-based multimedia may well become more than a mirror of life. Already we have seen how multimedia blurs the boundaries between life and art, the personal and the mediated, the real and the virtual. The implications of these tendencies we are only now beginning to grasp.