Reflections of a ModemJunkie

Multimedia Interactive Multitasking

by Leonard Grossman

A few years ago I thought multitasking was rubbing your stomach while patting your head, but Gerald Ford was defeated and since then we have all had to learn to do more than one thing at a time.

The other night I walked into my study to find my daughter sitting at my desk, telephone pressed between her shoulder and her cocked head, keyboard clattering as she chatted with strangers on America On Line. The radio was on. I think she was listening, I am not sure. She was also chewing gum. What an example of multimedia interactive multitasking. These three words have become the watchwords of the web: multimedia, interactivity, multitasking.

I confess, the addition of 16 meg of RAM has made it possible for me to keep a number of applications open which makes editing my web pages much easier. I can keep open the HTML editor, Netscape and my FTP client. I can also keep Eudora running in the background. So I have at last been dragged into the era of multitasking. I no longer question the utility of being able to do all of these things at once.

I also recognize the joy of hearing chimes on the hour or downloading a few bars of a new piece of music. Indeed, listening the sound track on the Myst CD is a wonderful way to relax, so much so, that I've never managed to play for more than 15 or 20 minutes without falling asleep.

I guess my computer qualifies as multimedia, although there are those who would snub their noses at the garage sale boom box connected to my sound card -- the quality is greater than that on most speakers designed for use with computers. . . and for $15, how could I resist?

It's the term "interactive" to which I draw my attention today. It seems to me that the more interactive our media become the more passive we really are. For the interactivity hyped by the media is not true engagement but involves primarily choices among entertainments -- soporifics to lull us.

Learning is interactive. A good argument is interactive. Watching television is passive. With all the emphasis on interactivity, the real effect is to convert the interactivity that used to exist between the hacker and the computer into passivity of the couch potato.

As web pages become filled with animation and scripted activity, the creative energy that used to be associated with the online experience becomes just one more form of passive entertainment. Yes, we may be able to give input and interact with the screens but to what end?

I lean back and click on link after link. My mouse scrolls around the pad as I bounce from site to site. What a pain if there is a field to fill in. I have to sit up at the keyboard...maybe even find my glasses. I might even have to think.

No, better the clicking interactivity. Pop up an *.avi file, watch an animated banner. Listen to the opening bars of Beethoven or the Grateful Dead. Watch a slide show. It becomes lulling and deadening.

As developments in flat screen technology increase I visualize families sitting in the living room, gazing dully at the large screen before them.. Who will control the infra-red mouse? Who will get up and get another bowl of popcorn. Sega and Atari writ large. These screens will be interactive. But will they stimulate or merely sedate.

I don't doubt that interactive computing can be more than that. But the web is becoming commercialized, if for no other reason than to pay for the massive increases in infrastructure that will be necessary to provide the bandwidth to handle the transfer of multimedia entertainments to hundreds of millions of homes impatient with server delays and pipeline bottlenecks. Mae West doesn't just want us to come up and see her some time, she wants a new structure to handle the load. And with commercialization comes the need to reach larger and larger audiences.

I am thrilled my home page has had some 10,000 hits but that only happened because it became known as a source to download a free HTML editor. It is great that my community resource pages may have four or five hits a day or a week. But if I had to rely on advertising, who would sponsor an in depth treatment of a set of stained glass windows? Who would pay to list the activities of a community interfaith counsel or a combined adult studies program? I could place banner advertising on the page, but could they hold their own in the marketplace.

Just as the Oprahs and Renaldos and sitcoms have driven out drama and real news, will the common denominator drive out the creative, informative uses of the web? In mid October I heard for the first time serious discussion of the creation of an alternative high speed Internet for serious scientific purposes. How many nets will be necessary? Will there be gateways between them? Will there be second class users? Will we have to pay for access to the basic informational sites that dominate the web only two years ago.

I try to keep my web pages as simple as possible, so that they load quickly and are accessible by the widest possible audience. But as my equipment improves, slowly and imperceptibly I "improve" my pages with features I no longer realize won't play on older equipment.

Slowly, I was tempted into adding colored backgrounds to some of my pages and, horrors, a tiled background on another. They look great on my machine. While I am careful to use ALT= statements for all of my images (I have a friend who can only view my pages through a text browser), i t never dawned on me that there are thousands of users who don't have the latest video cards, who can't really appreciate my pages.

Indeed, the other day I tried to look at my pages on a machine in a government office. Although these machines are Pentiums, with 16 meg of RAM, they have cheap monitors and video cards. My pages were almost illegible. The backgrounds obscured the text. My magnificent images were reduced to little more than monochrome. I care. But do I want to go back. Probably not. Heck, government workers shouldn't be spending work time looking at my pages any way.

My point is that I, too, have been seduced into increasing the non-informational content of my pages. One more drop in the flood filling that pipeline to overflowing. But I digress.

I don't really object to true interactivity -- to interaction which simulates the mind. My objection is to pseudo-interactivity -- the interactivity which says "Click here and let me entertain you." The "feelies" of the nineties. I listen to AOL say "Hello" and "Good Bye," to my daughter (I may get rid of the boom box x, after all. My mother's car says "A door is ajar." I can never resist responding, "No a door is a door, a jar is a jar." But no one laughs any more.)

My favorite interactive tool has become the search engine. There my input results in something new -- not someone's pre-scripted response to my stimulus. HotBot leads me to new sites and new discoveries. Or answers my daughter's homework questions or leads me to discover the geniuses who have linked my pages.

But real interactivity is quieter. It is pen on paper (or fingers to keyboard). The creation of something new. I have mentioned before that I have taken to staring at my navel -- that is looking at my own web pages. At first it was just to see how many hits I have had. But then I dropped the counters and substituted htmlZine a sophisticated logging tool which lets me know where my viewers are coming from and how they got there. But eventually I wanted more.

Eventually, I wanted to improve my pages. Not make them glitzier.. but make them more useful. My original home page doesn't get much attention. It is the pages I have done for local community organizations which give me the most pleasure. For there the interactivity is real. <

/P> There are people out there who benefit from those pages or at least are affected thereby. Some leave notes of appreciation in my guest books. Some leave complaints. Some ask stimulating questions about what I have done or about something my page made them think about. I have also heard from strangers who were once part of our community and from the grandsons of people whose work is featured on my pages. Linking the generations. Closing the circle. That is a meaningful form of interactivity.

Pass the mouse please.

Copyright 1996 Leonard Grossman

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10/20/96 4:45:04 PM