Ellen Rose - Issue 111

Overturning Convictions: An Interrogation of the Latent Meanings of Multimedia

A review of Scott Huelsman's Convictions (Spectrum Multimedia, 1997)

The technological tendency to do more and more with less and less could now be exceeded only by putting the information directly into the human nervous system. If an age of "brain transplants" lies ahead, it may become possible to supply each new generation with "brain prints" taken live and directly from the intellects of the age. Instead of buying the works of Shakespeare or Erasmus,one might well become electroencephatographically imprinted with the actual brain perception and erudition of Shakespeare or Erasmus. The book ... could then be bypassed. (Marshall McLuhan, 1970, Qtd. inEssential McLuhan (1995) 297)

Caught up in the thoughtless whirl of progress, society often attributes to media almost biological properties of propagation, such that it is assumed that any two or more media, conjoining, will spin off into a transcendent new form. Hence the clamor for multimedia, the "multi" connoting not just quantitative value but the fusion of many media into a qualitatively superior phenomenon providing immense benefits for humanity. The notion of bountiful technological progress is not just a fad: it is a conviction which underlies our contemporary understanding of human dignity and freedom.

Perhaps the last place one would expect to find an exploration of the modern myth of technological progress is in one of these emerging forms: an electronic book. But such an exploration can indeed be discovered in Scott Huelsman's Convictions. Convictions is a "MediaNovelTM," described in the introductory "ExperienceMe" file as "the logical next step in the ageless art of storytelling, a perfect blend of the traditional formats (novels, motion pictures, radio drama and even theater) withthe interactivity andthe intimacy of multimediacomputer." Multimedia indeed. Huelsman's MediaNovel is containedon fourCD-ROMs, enormous by any standard (Microsoft's on-line reference library-including encyclopedia, dictionary, thesaurus, and atlas-is contained on one CDROM).

Much current discussion about electronic books centres upon the notion of hypertext, a relatively new form which provides the reader with the capability of following interests and personal associations viahyperlinks rather than being constrained by the traditional linearity of text. Emerging from the union of print and digital capabilities, hypertext provides an interactive, on-line environment which invites the reader to participate in acts of textual intervention, collaboration, and sense-making. Once inviolable boundaries between author and reader dissolve as text becomes context, meaning constructed rather than inscribed.

But there is little evidence in Convictions of such sophisticated experimentation with literary and media forms. In fact, Huelsman's is an ingenuous offering, a simple tale presented in a way which totally under uses the capabilities of the media. The typical screen contains text (often broken up to "keep the reading quick and easy") superimposed on a simple monocolour line drawing related to the text content. Music "perfectly suited the current page" also plays in the background. On each screen, there are several buttons offering additional options. The Listen button, available on many screens, offers snatches of monologue which supposedly provide insights into the thoughts of the characters. For example, after reading that "A distant shout suddenly ripped through the marshland, a human-like cry more of surprise than anything else" (I 16), one can click the Listen button to hear a heart-felt rendition of this cry and then hero Redfern muttering theatrically, "That cry, possibly human, sounded in trouble. But where did it come from? I'd better find out." Similarly, the Watch button brings up snippets of video, in which the main characters do not act out sequences from the story but rather reflect with great feeling upon the events depicted. During a point in the narrative when Redfern is obstructed from entering the Valley of Destiny by an "inorganic creature" (36), one can click the Watch button to view a video clip in which Redfern emotes, "What could I do against a man of stone, something not alive to begin with? I thought I was doomed!"

An additional series of buttons across the top of the screen provides the ability to move from page to page and chapter to chapter in the book. and to insert bookmarks. The Media button offers the option of turning off the background picture, the music, and the video (but not the text).

Convictions is neither great literature nor sophisticated multimedia. In fact, the two people to whom I showed the MediaNovel-a programmer with whom I work and my husband, a professor of English-had the same immediate reaction: they laughed. And I too must admit to an initial sense of disappointment. Having spent the better part of my life both creating multimedia and reading and writing about literature, I had high hopes for finding in Huelsman's MediaNovel evidence of the sort of synthesis between traditional and digital worlds which I have striven for many years to achieve. But upon reflection I realize that it is by virtue of its very artlessness, its utter disharmony and disjointedness, its startling(con)fusion of forms, that Convictions achieves what more sophisticated efforts cannot: a deeply ironic self-commentary and a profound insight on the social reality from which it springs.

To understand Huelsman's achievement, one must abandon one's convictions. It is not meaningful to approach the MediaNovel as a user critiquing the functionality and design of a piece of software, asking such questions such: Is it "user friendly"? Does it abound with state-of-the-art special effects? Are the functions easy to understand? The fact is that this simple program hardly dwells on the leadingedge of multimedia technology - hence the chuckle of my programmer colleague. On the other hand, it is no more productive to critique Convictions solely on the basis of its literary merits. A fantasy tale about levitating wizards and earnest young adventurers searching for a magic stone runs the risk of being judged harshly, and certainly of not being taken seriously-hence my husband's laugh.

No, the only perspective from which to approach Convictions is neither as software user nor as novel reader, but rather as a "mediareader," able to decipher the discursive patterns of media, and willing to delve beyond the obvious to find the true meaning of the MediaNovel in the interstices where form and content merge. And if, in Convictions, the digital and traditional worlds tend to collide like tectonic plates, then itis the mediareader's responsibility to discover, in the rough new continent which emerges, hidden crevices in which the subtleties and complexities of the tale are revealed.

The collision itself is effected through a combination of seemingly artless devices, beginning with an intrusive screen design. Whereas most computer text scrolls, this text appears on a scroll, a square of ancient parchment covered with primitive sienna drawings. Against this background, the media effects appear incongruous, and the Media button itself, represented as a fragment of parchment at the top of the screen, seems only to add to this jarring juxtaposition of traditional and digital formats. The heightened sense of irony is perpetuated by the deliberate theatricality of the video and sound clips. Unlike most multimedia presentations, which strive for a filmic super-reality, which strive in fact to be more real than reality itself,Convictions deliberately offers actors dressed in elaborate costumes of furs and flowing gowns, delivering the kinds of emotional soliloquies one might expect to find on the stage. This constructed artificiality is apparently designed to prevent mediareaders from becoming immersed in forgetfulness, and to encourage contemplation of the very artifice of the on-line environment presented.

Through disharmony and rupture, then, Convictions seeks to wake mediareaders from what Marshall McLuhan terms "somnambulism"-a numb obedience to the imperatives of media and technology. With remarkable subtlety and irony, Huelsman subverts the technological imperative, the perpetual striving to use more and more technology wherever it can possibly be used, by his skillful (con)fusion of media forms. The end result makes it quite clear that, contrary to popular thought, not all such mergings produce additive results: in some cases, the outcome can be distinctly subtractive, involving a loss of both the intimacy of literature and the immediacy of media.

Against the background of this uneasy blending of media, Huelsman's simple tale gains new significance. For Convictions is the story of Mairiga (pronounced "Merica"), a utopian world, a "virtual" world in a long forgotten sense of the word, in which people live in unprecedented peace and harmony with themselves and their environment, their lives largely governed by an ancient Code based upon an absolute abhorrence for anything "technikky." Mairiga rejected the technological imperative many years before, during the Purge, when all foul technikky things were eliminated from the land. Now even the most basic tools-bows, arrows, and oars-are reviled. Nor is credence given to the naive belief that a technology is only good or bad in accordance with how it is used: Mairiga rejects in its totality what Jacques Ellul calls the technological system, the autonomous force which is created when, in the name of power and efficiency, the technological means become society's ends. Thus a wizard of Mairiga proclaims, "Technikky is evil, a curse of the land, a slayer of basic living things. It is something expressly forbidden here" (31 1).

Ellen, a contemporary woman caught in the wrong dimension because she is "a victim of something technikky" (207), replies to this condemnation of technology that "Where I come from, technology is quite needed. It's who we are" (31 1). Which is indeed the point: contemporary society not only relies upon technology for its daily existence, but defines itself in terms of social values devolving from technology: values like efficiency, material worth, and professionalism. Mairiga represents the very antithesis of modem technological society: it is a world which refuses to renounce religion and myth, tradition and virtue, for the elusive technological dream. Ironically, the modem notion of progress is also founded upon visions of a utopian order-not the primitive harmony of Mairiga, but rather the kind of technological utopia promised by the scientists at MIT's Media Lab, who foresee a time when humanity will be released, through the intelligence of machines and the diligent attentions of computerized agents, into a life of perpetual ease. Convictions foregrounds such fixed beliefs with an alternate vision, a possibility of peaceful relationship with one's surroundings, unmediated by technology.

Despite its depiction of a world without things technikky, one need not probe far to see in Convictions another level of meaning in which Mairiga is presented as an allegory of the modern technical state. For there are artifacts inmairiga, such as lyfestone, which contain natural concentrates of a great power called majika. This power can only be invoked by great wizards, "those possessing intense faith and conviction, for only the strongest of hearts could mentally will the living energy from the lyfestone, and transform their own innerbeliefs into genuine reality"(81). Thecentral theme of the MediaNovel is the threat upon the utopian state from two camps wishing to harness that power for their own ends: From one side, the Ultimates in Chegoria-wizards whose souls are corrupted and destroyed from ingesting the baneful nemefruit, and from the other side, the benzars of Josephine, mindless animates who manage to seize the majika-laden Shard of Lyfe. Is it going too far to see the corrupted wizards as technicians, who understand the esoteric secrets of technology and are tempted by this knowledge to exploit it? Or to equate the mindless benzars with mass humanity, the inevitable mob created by a technology which reduces humanity to its lowest worth-the cellular component of the machine-and demands unthinking obedience to its imperatives and rhythms?

Iwould argue that, given the congruence between the MediaNovel's narrative and narrative form, it is not. Convictions offers through both content andform a self-reflexive subversion of the technological imperative. Huelsman clearly recognizes that, for a society intent on achieving progress through a multiplicity of media, the MediaNovel represents the inevitable and "logical next step in the ageless art of storytelling." But at the same time, he wams that mediareaders should not take the step like mindless benzars, intent only on seizing a power they do not understand.

This said, I must make two admissions which may have the effect of undermining my interpretation. The first is thatl did not finishConvictions, and therefore can not know whether the narrative in its entirety bears out my claims' about the congruence of content and form. I can admit this because I believe that the fact that I would review Convictions without having finished it relates less to my own temerity than to the nature of the form itself. Both the cover and introductory text file stipulate that the MediaNovel is not meant to be read but"experienced"; and after completing six of the fifteen chapters, I felt that I had certainly experienced it completely and need go no farther.

The second admission is that there is evidence thathuelsman (AKA Spectrum Multimedia) hopes to make and sell many more MediaNovels, a fact which seems to indicate that his goal is not as I have argued to simultaneously exploit and expose the technological imperative, but rather only to exploit it. However, until I see firm evidence that this is the case, I will persist in my interpretation of the MediaNovel as a most unexpected and effective critical inversion of the modem hunger for novel media.