Wheel of Culture

by Ben Howell Davis

from Culture, Technology, Interpretation: The Challange of Multimedia, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland, March, 1993. Included in "Contextual Media: Multimedia and Interpretation", Edward Barrett and Marie Redmond, Editors, MIT Press, Spring, 1995.

Copyright, 1993.

I first came to Ireland in November of 1987 to get far away from my work with multimedia computing technology at MIT. At that time, I was intent on roving the countryside outside of Dublin to find standing stones and other ancient and prehistoric monuments of early Ireland. I wanted to feel something powerful from the past, having lived too much in the future.

One object I was keen on seeing was an Ogham stone. The earliest writing in Ireland is said to have begun around 300 A.D. It is inscribed in the alphabet known as Ogham, after Ogmios, the Celtic god of writing. The alphabet is made up of sets of strokes carved on the edge of a vertical standing stone with the edge acting as the central line of the text. The inscription begins at the bottom of the stone and climbs to the top, sometimes continuing down on the opposite sides. These strokes are like digital encoding of the Old Irish language.

The use of the script continued until the 7th or 8th century. To come upon these stones in a farmer's field in the magic Irish twilight on a cold fall afternoon is a very moving experience. The stones seem like lonely dancers frozen in time with only a secret bar code for identification.

Running your hand over those stones puts human-computer interface theories into perspective. What is an interface but a poetic facade? And how do we think about the thickness of the facade?

Labour is blossoming or dancing where 
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul, 
Nor beauty born out of its own despair, 
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, 
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? 
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
(William Butler Yeats, Among School Children.)



But how can we know the stone from the message, the machine from the culture?

Or for that matter: How can we know merging skills from oil spills, new communities from new vacuums, the bridging of cultures from high-speed bypassing of the past and present? How has this technology of electronic information become like a Wheel of Culture, turning and turning like a widening gyre? The Wheel of Culture that the new multimedia technology creates is constantly spinning, constantly drawing new information and cultural associations into it because it is a global wheel, dependent on global economy, responsive to market pressures. Knowledge is product, speed is of the essence, and speed kills the competitor.


Narrative and simulation, "the most effective human communication(s) since the dawn of time" (Whitbey). Is that a Chinese narrative or Chaucerian narrative? Is that simulation a generic communication or does it come with or without museums? The Virtual Curator (Beardon and Worden)? What is this simulation telling us about curators? Virtuality seems pretty well explored in the modern world, of ten a good deal more than the things it models. The concept of "see what it's like" is the perfect schema for an environmentally troubled world. We can use simulations to predict knowledge and hopefully schedule a technological fix to head off the next disaster.

Inventing the future seems to be about inventing alternative realities, alternative cultures, alternative something new as quickly as possible. The educational possibilities are boundless. I love virtual reality, really I do.

"Building or learning the tools of your trade after you are asked to carry out a task is not business, it is research" (Finney). This quote is in reference to creating soft ware tools after being asked to do a computational task. The old metaphors of tools and work don't actually apply in the post-industrial world. The synthesizer is hardware that allows software tools to be created while the task is at hand. We are most familiar with it as a music generator but what it actually does is create tools (musical structures) while the task is at hand (literally). Synthesizing is building tools in an open-ended task environment. Business is research; research is business in the post-industrial world.

"Instead, users define their own link semantics and icons to be used to anchor the selected links in the multimedia" (Chignell). Hyper-cultural icons for houses, trees, rivers, mountains, tables? How can one person define "link semantics and icons" for someone in a different culture?

"Guided tours can help combat the problem of disorientation" (Dunne and Ver gruggen). "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss"(Townsend). "Inferential links allow the navigation on the basis of contextual knowledge. Such inferential links may be defined declaratively, in a rule-based way"(Eliens). Does context have a culture? Just how many rules are needed here? "The ablitity of the user to interpret information presented to them can be constrained in a variety of different ways, such as cultural background, propensities arising from prior experience, sensory impairment and other factors" (Cameron, Terrins-Rudge).

Please enter: cultural preference, past experience, and how you think you read this.

Multimedia is not a thing, a computer technology. It is the current literacy condi tion of the environment. Film, video, audio, text, and graphics are ubiquitous; they are being created and distributed twenty four hours a day every day. The air is lit erally filled with images. These forms are the mechanisms for industrial design, communication, and resource monitoring. The multimedia computer is a way of revealing this environmental condition.

Ogham Type

Digital technologies make information creation and movement into a single sub stance that is infinitely transformable. Film, vinyl, magnetic tape, paper, photo graphic paper, ink, graphite, paints -- all converted to the digital domain create a new media unlike anything ever invented. This single digital substance can be transformed by the computer (the means of transmission) into any conceivable form. In other words, digital means that anything can be converted into anything else. Sound data can be made into pictures; pictures can be encoded as sound impulses; text can be linked to any form; any still image can be animated; any graph ic can be morphed into representational images. All media become data types. We have returned to the Ogham stone, encoding all ideas in binary inscription.

In the information age, multimedia computing is both the means for generating new economies and the means to model those economies. Manufactured objects are no longer "things." They are the embodiments of computed information. A car is no longer a car; it is a Toyota. A television is a Sony. These things are hyper media computing products. They are researched, designed, modeled, implement ed, tested, and marketed with computers. The final product is a manifestation of an information molding process. As this process becomes scalable, you will see computers running robots that actually make the objects. This is already done at a small scale with plastics and for components of automobiles. Shifts in information technology reinvent products, make new products that are hyper-designed, hyper- managed, hyper-distributed, hyper-consumed, hyper-recycled.

Mechanisms for exploiting multimedia conditions and mechanisms for modeling these exploitations are knowledge-based tools. Knowledge-based tools are cultural artifacts. How then does this process impact the older industrial perception of culture? How does an industrial economy sponsor the emerging information econ omy, an economy that is based on the free movement of information necessary to create new knowledge when it has always relied on proprietary, secret information for industrial advantage? When does Coca Cola give up its secret formula in order to create new products? And what cultural artifact must be created in order to make this event occur, and occur, and occur? And how do we use the same tool to model possible success?

Current examples of this economic/cultural shift are the sponsoring of multimedia projects by industrial corporations. Public television has been on the leading edge of this for many years: nature programs sponsored by Mobil Oil, controversial drama sponsored by Dow Chemical, arts sponsored by R.J. Reynolds, the list goes on. With the advent of computer-based multimedia technology, we are beginning to see computer manufacturers sponsoring educational experiences, cultural expe riences. We are seeing Japanese consumer electronics corporations buying American film companies as software acquisitions for future multimedia entertainment products.

This new global information economy is packaging culture - - and the package has an Asian/American/European brand name -- and a price.

The MIT Center for Educational Initiatives is a case in point. The current focus of the Center is an internationally sponsored consortium, the AthenaMuse Software Consortium. AthenaMuse is an authoring software for multimedia that is being produced with the influence of Japanese, U.S. and European support. This software is applied to a variety of multimedia experiences.

The design of these materials has been affected by cultural approaches to informa tion structures as diverse as the researchers working with it. These include Japanese, Swiss, Norwegian, Dutch, Colombian, Spanish, Lebanese, and American researchers contributing ideas both to the software and the design of applications. Applications and interface designs are all over the map as well: The Water Resources of Lebanon, Plants and Fruits of Columbia, Media-Literacy in Spain,Tokyo Tanabata Festival.

The design implications are crucial. An effort is being made to "internationalize" software for the production and dissemination of diverse cultural media materials. The intention is to create an open architecture that can be utilized across national boundaries. How does the medium affect the message? How do Eastern concepts of design integrate with Western design considerations?

Multimedia is currently thought of as a process of packaging information. But this process is global and shifts with economic trends and demands. This creates some thing very much like the American television quiz program "Wheel of Fortune," where contestants spin a roulette wheel that allows them to buy letters and solve hidden messages seen only in parts. Depending on their cultural association and education, they can win or lose but they must choose characters that form frag ments of messages quickly and string them together to get at the phrase that wins the prize. Multimedia production is currently in this fragmented guessing game stage of its development where bits and pieces of the technology seem to form a viable product for an emerging global market. Then struggles begin for the best video standard -- Japanese, U.S., European? The "wheel" of multimedia takes a cultural turn.

One striking aspect of this turning wheel is that there appears to be an integration of form and content including the form of production. In other words, the style of an information product is closely linked to the character of the content as well as the means to produce the product. For instance, if a multimedia package created to teach Irish does not reflect the way in which Irish is learned locally, does not have a visual design that is easily understood as Celtic in origin, and has not been produced by a team of people intimate with living in Ireland, then the product may teach "about the Irish language" but will probably not "teach Irish."

To achieve the goal of teaching Irish, there must be a close relationship between the form of the product (its metaphors, interactive functions, visual design, intui tive navigation, etc.), its content (Irish language with all the implications of cul tural nuance), and the form of production (a team that shares common understandings of things Irish). In short, folk wisdom must prevail in order to have a culturally distinctive product. One must know the dancer from the dance even when they are inextricably mixed.

Because of the global communication technologies that will distribute multimedia products, cultural representation becomes cultural manufacturing. The best anal ogy is the motion picture business. When a film like "In the Name of the Father" is produced as an Irish product and distributed around the world, then the repre sentation of a culture is actually a thing, a movie. Ironically, the film star is British, Daniel Day Lewis, who is supposedly more marketable than an Irish film star. From this condition the juxtaposition of cultures, the segmentation of cultures, and the integration of cultures all go on simultaneously, making the product as lucrative as possible. The irony here is that the seemingly desirable creation of a rela tivistic viewpoint, a balanced view, that no one culture is more important than another has been created by dominant cultures that control and maintain the net works, the means of distribution. So making an Irish movie with a British star about life in Ireland all makes sense in terms of marketing a movie. But does the movie really represent the culture? The wheel spins on.

Museums Without Cultures

At a recent museum conference on digital imagery, a member of the audience complained that companies like Continuum, a media distribution company partially owned by Microsoft and Bill Gates, was committing cultural crimes by trying to buy and distribute digital museum collections. This was seen as cultural exploitation. The moderator of the panel pointed out to the audience member that the terms "culture" and "museum" were not synonymous, that there were many cultures that had no museums. The point being that the creation of digital cultural programming by large centrally organized institutions represents no culture in particular, rather they represent culture in the abstract. They are "about culture" rather than "being culture." The digital museum as a new kind of institution that preserves and promotes cultural literacy has some very ambiguous aspects. In some respects, it is like the culture that has no museum, no institutionalized repos itory, because it does not physically exist. It is digital memory that can be accessed and manipulated. The content of the memory, however, is drawn from materials that do physically exist (currently digitizing existing museum collections as dis tinct from collecting digital imagery created only on the computer).

This condition is further complicated by the fact that digital media types can be equated. Text, graphics, moving and still imagery, and sound are equal data types in this new medium. Being literate no longer means understanding text. Older def initions of literacy return, most notably the language of memory:

Only literates, who could interpret the `shapes indicating voices' (in
John of Salisbury's definition of letters), were going to be convinced
that writing was superior to the symbolic object. Such objects, the
records of the non-literate were therefore preserved along with docu
ments. Another example is the knife by which Thomas of Moulton gave
the church of Weston in Lincolnshire to Spalding priory, which was
deposited in its archives (in secretario) according to the charter
confirm ing the gift. This latter knife is no longer preserved. To
later archivists, knives and other archaic relics meant nothing unless
they had inscrip tions connected with them; such things were thrown
away as medieval rubbish, because the language of memory which they
expressed had no significance to literates.


M.T.Clanchy, From Memory to Written Record in England, 1066-1077.

Cultural material that is digitized can be representations of older physical materi als and once in the digital form can be transformed into new combinations and per mutations, distributed outside the walls of traditional museums over global networks, and remade into multimedia products that are then redistributed over the same networks. What kind of cultural structure can accommodate these possi bilities? Language of Memory If, indeed, we are approaching a "Wheel of Culture" condition driven by information technology, then it is important to look at existing language structures that al low for multi-level understanding. This new computer enhanced "language of memory" seems to rely on a strange new principal of overlapping metaphorical structures.

Metaphorical structures in multimedia are cultural indexes. Critical skills are re quired to understand metaphorical packaging. Never mind for the moment that different cultures have different metaphorical structures. We use the term "for eign" to describe other languages while building a global interactive multimedia networked marketplace that must communicate across borders.

A multimedia product can be for education, entertainment, decision making, ref erence, skill training, and/or communication. Can we think of an automobile as a communication device that lets information -- me or you -- get from point A to point B? It may help to think of the automobile with a mobile phone in it. Maybe license plates should be phone numbers. If these metaphors are mixed, what is the resulting "thing?" Is it for getting an education in entertainment or for getting an entertaining education? Is driving a car that is computer enhanced really driving a computer with wheels? Is the car really a kind of architecture?

Multimedia products are built out of familiar structural metaphors. The metaphor that is used for structure is what we usually encounter as the presentation materi als. These materials can be represented as a book, a movie, an architecture (a library, museum, theater, maze, vehicle), or an environment (specific geography, worlds).When a new multimedia "object" is made that combines two or more of these metaphors, something else is created. Is it a "hyperthing?"

Interactive metaphors are for knowledge creation and acquisition. You can be giv en notebooks, calculators, timelines, maps, image albums, steering wheels, etc. so that you can do simulated research, go on a quest, solve a mystery, compete in a game, do an experiment, make juxtapositions, decide on storyline. If you have to do something to get the information, it might be helpful to have a clue how to start which is why the interactive metaphors used are familiar tools that exist outside the computer.

How are the metaphors mixed? You could be taking notes on a mystery novel, a quest in an environment, a a game in a maze, a movie of a story, a library of juxtapositions, a world of experiments -- some of the above, all of the above.

The interface must make the mix of metaphors understandable, challenging, and exciting. Does the design move from the familiar to the exotic in an intuitive way? Does the design itself teach you how to navigate?

Add to this list the questions:

How is the media integrated? Is an appropriate video/film style used? Is the mix of text, graphics, and sound effective? Is the color good? Finally we must also ask: What culture is this multimedia product coming from? Is it produced primarily by people from that culture? Are the materials and design from that culture? Is it used in that culture? How does it travel?

The language of memory represented by multimedia is a complex interplay of ref erence, metaphorical structures both for presentation and interaction, and a senso ry recollection that relies on form, access, content, and emotion. As different cultures discover this medium it will be obvious that the use of the adjective "for eign" should be removed from language learning. There are no foreign languages, there are only different languages of memory. Conclusion I raised these issues of culture and information technology for many reasons. Some of them are the same reasons I went to Ireland to look at those Ogham stones. There is a sense of unease about living and working in the future. The production of these media types and the resultant economies are not trivial, marginal events. They are central to the way, given that electricity doesn't seem to be going out of style, that we will be communicating and generating a living.

Up until very recently, the technologies for editing and combining media were very distinct, analog systems that were distinguishable. A great deal of cultural in formation is preserved in analog systems. When these systems are converted to digital systems, cultural forms are endangered because they can be converted into any other culture very easily. Things may "look" like they are from another cul ture, but they may not actually "be" from that culture.

As someone involved in the production and distribution of these kinds of condi tions, I have begun to wonder what we are gaining and what we are giving up. I have also realized that the theories and visions of those who do not build these things are very much like the architects who don't know that a two by four inch piece of wood (the standard 2x4) is now 1 3/8 by 3 3/8 inches in reality. There is a great deal of very intricate and difficult work involved in making multimedia be cause of the high number of variables involved in digital information. What seems like a simple binary, on and off, technology is in reality in the realm of infinite permutations and combinations.

Making an interactive CD ROM, for instance, is a very complicated technical composition problem because of the variety of image resolutions, motion image frame rates, color depth variations, number of aspect ratios, file transfer rates, file compression options, navigation software, etc. -- not to mention the design of interfaces.

What the technology is doing that is very positive is making us ask all these ques tions -- some would say too many questions to process in any useful way. But the questions persist. Digital technology allows us to have a very explicit look at the analog world we actually live in and have only recently begun to see as a finite resource. The digital technology is creating both a dialog and a mechanism for discussing itself.

If we are creating a hyperculture that utilizes Ogham type to structure a language of memory, perhaps the condition is more analogous to the Catherine wheel. Orig inally the wheel of torture for Catherine of Aragon, the term is now associated with a fireworks display that whirls and spins, throwing out dancing lights -- the kind of strange multi-colored light that defies naming.


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Cameron, Eric and Deirdre Terrins-Rudge. (1993). An Epistemological Approach to the Interpretation and Represetnation of Objects in a Distributed Multimedia Environment, Abstract: Culture, Technology, Interpretation: The Challenge of Multimedia, Conference, Dublin, Ireland.

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