writing hypermedia

The secret of the stairs at Aragon

Essentially, hypermedia is a non-linear multi-media document. By its inclusion of data stored by using the more traditional technologies of representation (film and text for example), in a user-directed, non-linear publication, hypermedia creates a fresh, user-driven means for reading and writing culture. [↵Anderson 1999]

So far I agree—but I’d like to amend that ‘a piece of’ hypermedia can contain a linear path, at least there is the possibility to propose one [or more?] linear path[s] to the recipient. Like Astrid Blumstengel did it in her hypertext Entwicklung hypermedialer Lernsysteme [in German].

The non-linear format enables the user to access information from multiple points of entry and navigate through this information by their own directives and particular interests. [↵Anderson 1999]

Now some kind of disagreement starts as “by their own directives and particular interests” makes me feel uncomfortable. Of course a strategy like that helps to deconstruct the ethnographer’s sublimely unquestioned authority, but at the same time it may well make it impossible to convey a message. And conveying messages is an integral part of representing anthropological knowledge. Granted, on the author’s side there still is the choice of which material to include and of how to build the structure of hyperreferences [vulgo: links]. But with no hint at a linear path the danger for the recipient to get lost in hypertext/media grows exponentially. Finally ‘we’ are accustomed to, and socialized into the conventions of linear representations.

Those are the reasons why I am so excited about Matthias Eberl’s invention, a technology called Reader Triggered Multimedia (RTM) [in German]. RTM allows to embed sounds, animated and still pictures into written text while the latter remains the carrier medium. The presentation of sounds and animated elements are dependend on the position of the scroll bar—in other words: correllated with the whereabouts of the readers attention inside the written text. The reader gets ambience sound, background music, snippets from interviews etc. matching the passage she is reading. Evocation at its best is possible here. In all that I sense tremendous potential for ethnographic representation. Have a look at Matthias’ paper on RTM (Eberl 2004) and into his journalistic example Das Geheimnis der Treppe von Aragon [The secret of the stairs at Aragon] demonstrating RTM.

In a way that may sound a little conservative—written text as the leading medium—and I admit that beside this choice there is the possibility of something entirely new, but I have yet to see a working manifestation of the utopia of completely non-linear hypertext/media. In this respect ‘working’ means representing and succesfully mediating knowledge.

What the reader is essentially entering into is a multi-dimensional ethnography that can include fieldnotes, various methodologically-informed analyses, citations, footnotes, film and video sequences, photographs, audio recordings, and recorded music. [↵Anderson 1999]

Exactly that is possible via RTM—without confusing the recipient, without throwing him into a mess of file-formats, popping-up windows, and requests for installing this-and-that hitherto unknown plug-in. And in a format which still resembles current conventions regarding academic representation.

Access to imagery and sound, as well as the ability to read the author’s fieldnotes, analyses, and theoretical goals, may empower the reader/viewer to take a more critical approach in their assessment of the researcher’s methodology and analysis. [↵Anderson 1999]

Completely embraced by yours truly. In my opinion a hypertext-website, offering one or more linear-paths for choice, consisting of smaller linear parts, the latter augmented by RTM has the potential to fullfil the tasks Anderson hints to. Add a weblog and the transparency already starts during the fieldwork itself—I am far from that goal, I know. Alas, by all that the down-to-earth everyday problems of the ethnographer aren’t solved, but indeed start at this point. For example ethical considerations concerning the publication of fieldnotes, and many more.