Inventing the Digital Medium: An Interview with Janet Murray (Part Two)

You describe the digital as still an "immature medium." What would constitute a mature medium and what steps would still need to take place before the digital can reach this state?

Well, movies are a mature medium - we don't think about the devices by which the story is told - the placement of the camera or the acting style: all of that has become conventionalized and made transparent to the viewer and at the same time it affords the practice of virtuosity, of invention of the new within a stable expressive range of conventions.

And some parts of digital expression are more mature than others - web page design is pretty stable for example. But it is easy to think of changes in the inscription or transmission layer that will make current web design obsolete. For example, if 3D screens become the norm we might enter a period of exploring and refining some of the established film techniques - we can see that happening in Scorsese's Hugo for example, but all within the recognizable conventions of a Hollywood movie. But if 3D screens become the norm for interactive environments, then we will have to develop a whole new set of conventions for navigation along the Z axis, and we will see a rearrangement of archives into 3 dimensions (think of the tables of iTunes songs) and this will inevitably make us more eager to use gestural interfaces to reach in and grab things or send them hurtling back and forth. The disruption in inscription of a 3D screen would not just lead to 3D shooter games but to new genres and formats that would organize information and experience in ways that we cannot predict until we start messing with it. So this openness to disruption is a symptom of an immature medium.

What is the case for seeing the computer as a medium as opposed to a delivery mechanism for a wide array of different kinds of media formats and practices?

That is what I asked myself to prove in Chapter 3 of Hamlet on the Holodeck. It is a medium because it has its own affordances, particularly the procedural and participatory affordances that we recognize as "interactivity." But that does not mean that we can't think about videogames as a medium within the larger digital medium, just as newspapers are a medium within the larger print medium.

As McLuhan pointed out, the content of any new medium is an older medium, and Bolter and Grusin are right to call attention to "remediation" as a cultural phenomenon that is always going on: we are always transposing conventions from one medium to another.

But when we treat the computer as merely a wire for sending down packages of video or print in imitation of legacy formats then we are missing out on new expressive opportunities and often reinscribing the limitations of older physical structures.

For someone trying to make money in the short term from legacy properties then creating a DVD of a movie or streaming a TV show or an electronically delivering a PDF of a "book" seems like a win. But designers should think beyond this: they should ask what we are communicating with these legacy formats - what stories we are telling, what concepts we are explaining -- and then consider whether we can serve the same purposes in more powerful ways by drawing on the affordances of computation. For example, maybe it is time to replace all the physics text books with manipulable system models. Or to go back to a project you and I worked on at MIT some years ago, wouldn't it be better to teach film studies in a digital environment where you could access any film at multiple levels of granularity, comparing multiple examples of the wipe or dissolve? If we think about the digital medium as just a way of reinscribing the print-era text-book or other legacy media formats we will deprive ourselves of new strategies for expressing, sharing, and understanding human experience.

Though you write near the end about the importance of creating "more expressive machines," Hamlet on the Holodeck's concern with expression often takes a back seat here to issues of functionality and transparency. Does this suggest that you think the kinds of debates you used to have with Sven Birkerts and others have been resolved? Are you personally less interested today in the issue of whether the digital can be art or literature?

No, I am still interested in art which is one of the primary ways of exploring the expressive qualities of a new medium - of stretching the clay, so to speak -- and there are many expressive examples in the text, such as Camille Utterback's work, which I admire tremendously as well as a section in the last chapter on playfulness as a design strategy.

But the book does engage the nitty gritty conceptual work of shaping something in digital form: how to abstract experience into coherent procedures and structured documents, how to think about loops and metadata as the raw materials for expressive practice. To my mind, you must understand the specific materiality of the medium - the plasticity of code and data structures - in order to exercise creative power as a designer. That doesn't mean that everyone has to write their own code on every project, but you have to understand how to shape the bits in order to have a wide enough understanding of the design space. If you don't understand how code makes meaning then you can't imagine a wide enough range of possibilities to be a strong designer.

As for Sven Birkerts -- I was happy to see him announce that the journal he was editing was moving to the web just a few years after our debate. He was one of the first to express a kind of nostalgia for print, which I can sympathize with - I'm very fond of books and have just written a very fat one. What I still don't sympathize with is the notion that there is a hierarchy of media, so that anything in print is somehow better than anything on TV or in the digital medium. But Sven was very poetic in evoking the joy of print, which people will likely continue to do as we become more aware of media forms because of the changing landscape.

You rather quickly dismiss the concept of "transmedia" or "crossplatform" storytelling from your focus here. Yet, I know you have been working with the American Film Institute on various projects to think about the computer as a "second screen" in relation to film or television. What insights might you be able to share from this work with my readers who are interested in transmedia issues?

My etv group has been an important focus of my own research since I came to Georgia Tech. It assumes a convergence platform that combines everything we love about TV with all the affordances of the digital medium. This is what I predicted in HoH in 1997, and described in chapter 9. The home TV is converging with the computer, the game platform, and the telephone which is now a video telephone. The tablet has become a useful second screen and is very well positioned to replace the remote control. Our prototypes address these possibilities. For example, we assume that TV series are stored in an archive that is navigable across episodes and across series. Then we ask, what kinds of connections will viewers want to make? So we do prototypes that connect two American history documentaries that explore the Cuban Missile Crisis from Castro's perspective and from Kennedy's. Or we show how a long-form story arc, like Graham Yost's masterfully controlled Justified season, can be made clearer to viewers by scene-specific synchronized visualizations that do not distract them from the unfolding story.

I like your categories of transmedia very much and I know the term has been very energizing within the entertainment industry. I particularly like your calling attention to the need for a consistent storyworld across media instantiations. I have picked a friendly quarrel with the term "transmedia" on my blog and I am taking up the same issue in a keynote at Euro iTV next August, calling for a process of "transcending transmedia. " Instead of interactive environments as separate media from television, I want to encourage people to think about more complex storyworlds that integrate the affordances of the digital medium, such as documentaries that are indexed for multiple paths, or dramatic series that come with the ability to follow a single thread across multiple episodes or seasons, or fantasy dramas that support investigation and sharing of clues to mysterious forces without a sense of leaving one medium and entering another one. I'm more interested in the integration because I think that more complex storytelling is a human resource. It holds the power to make us smarter and more empathetic.

In the interest of continuing this "friendly quarrel," let me add a few thoughts about Janet's arguments about "transmedia" as a purely "additive" concept. She is in some senses rehashing arguments she made two decades ago against the concept of "multimedia," which she argued was like "photoplay" a transitional term which described our limited understanding of how media could be integrated together and that as better design principles emerged, we would see a richer deployment of the affordances of the digital, which included new understandings of the properties of once distinct media. I agreed with her then about multimedia, and still do despite the resurgence of the concept as a result of the iPad's appeals to more integrated media experiences (perhaps, a second stage in the integration process). I am less certain that transmedia is a transitory term in this same sense. Here, I see the gaps between media as a feature and not a bug. For me, transmedia is about creating meaningful layers, where much of the pleasure and agency is in making connections across texts and deploying them as resources in an ongoing social conversation. The gaps between different extensions encourage a more active engagement, accounting for the recurring interest in transmedia across the entertainment industry as Hollywood seeks models for what engagement-based content looks like. I do believe we will see more and more integration of the functions of transmedia as more and more content comes to us through digital platforms, but I also think something vital will be lost if all of the content becomes instantly available to us in a more integrated fashion. This is the moment where transmedia changes back into multimedia (which for me is media across multiple modalities but within the same platform). The result will be to make the layered texts associated with transmedia more popularly accessible, but potentially at the expense of the hunting and gathering (not to mention the social exchange and collective interpretation of content) which has made the transmedia model so effective at mobilizing buzz and participation around media properties. Janet anticipated some aspects of transmedia with her discussion in Hamlet on the Holodeck of the notion of "hyperserial." The key concept here is "serial." Transmedia is a kind of seriality. Serial fictions have a distinct aesthetic and economic function, which would not be achieved by simply integrating all of the elements into a mega-text, and I think the kinds of seriality represented by transmedia will have value even when it becomes technically possible to more fully integrate the extensions. My five cents worth.