Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Futur...
... Chapter 3 From Additive to Expressive Form Beyond "Multimedia" T he birth of cinema has long been assigned to a single night: De- cember 28, 1895. A group of Parisians, so the legend goes, were gathered in a darkened basement room of the Grand Cafe on the Boulevard des Capucines when suddenly the lifelike image of a mighty locomotive began moving inexorably, astonishingly toward them. There was a moment of paralyzed horror, and then the audi- ence ran screaming from the room, as if in fear of being crushed by an actual train. This no doubt exaggerated account is based on an actual event, the first public showing of a group of short films that included ''Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station" by the Lumiere brothers, who (like Edison in America) had just invented a reliable form of motion picture photography and projection. Film scholars have recently questioned whether the novelty-seeking crowd really panicked at all. 1 Perhaps it was only later storytellers who imagined that the first projected film image, the novelty attraction of 1895, could have car- ried with it the tremendous emotional force of the many thrilling films that followed after it. The legend of the Paris cafe is satisfying to us now because it falsely conflates the arrival of the representational 65
tech nolo~')' with the arrival of the artistic medium, ftl tf thr manufac�� ture of the camera alone gave us the movies. As in the case of the printing press, the invention of the camera led to a period of incunabula, of "cradle films." In the first three decades of the twentieth century, filmmakers collectively invented the medium by inventing all the major elements of filmic storytelling, including the close-up, the chase scene, and the standard feature length. The key to this development was seizing on the unique physi�� . cal properties of film: the way the camera could be mo~d the way the lens could open, close, and change focus the way the celluloid processed light the way the strips of film could be cut up and re- assembled. By aggressively exploring and exploiting these physical properties, filmmakers changed a mere recording technology into an expressive medium. Narrative films were originally called photoplays and were at first thought of as a merely additive art form (photography plus theater) created by pointing a static camera at a stagelike set. Photoplays gave way to movies when filmmakers learned, for example, to create sus- pense by cutting between two separate actions (the child in the burn- ing building and the firemen coming to the rescue) to create character and mood by visual means (the menacing villain backlit and seen from a low angle) to use a "montage" of discontinuous shots to establish a larger action (the impending massacre visible in a line of marching soldiers, an old man's frightened face, a baby carriage totter- ing on the brink of a stone stairway). After thirty years of energetic in- vention, films captured the world with such persuasive power and told such coherent and compelling stories that some critics passionately opposed the addition of sound and color as superfluous distractions. Now, one hundred years after the arrival of the motion picture camera, we have the arrival of the modern computer, capable of hooking up to a global internet, of processing text, images, sound, and moving pictures, and of controlling a laptop display or a hundred-foot screen. Can we imagine the future of electronic narra- tive any more easily than Gutenberg's contemporaries could have lm"wlned Wclr and Peace or than the Parisian novelty seekers of 1895 &:ould have ima~incJ High Noon? ( )nt��� of the lessons we can learn from the history of film is that ad- dltlw tmnulations like "photo-play" or the contemporary catchall "multimedia" are a sign that the medium is in an early stage of de- Vt���h 1pment and is still depending on formats derived from earlier trdmologies instead of exploiting its own expressive power. Today tlw derivative mind-set is apparent in the conception of cyberspace 11s a place to view "pages" of print or "clips" of moving video and of l :1 )-ROMs as offering "extended books." The equivalent of the filmed play of the early 1900s is the multimedia scrapbook (on CD- I\( )Moras a "site" on the World Wide Web), which takes advantage nf the novelty of computer delivery without utilizing its intrinsic pn 1perties. For example, one early version of a Web soap about a group of friends living in New York offers diary pages of text spiced with sexu- ally suggestive photos. The wordiness of the journal keeps us con- stantly scrolling through the screens, impatient for something to happen in the narrated story or for something to do, like clicking on a link to get something new. There are, in fact, clickable buttons in the journal, but instead of offering new information they merely allow us to hear (after time delays for downloading the sound clip and for in- stalling the necessary software to play the sound file if we do not al- ready have it) actors speaking exactly the same dialog printed on the screen. The audio snippets are amusing novelties at best, and at worst they work like so many small apologies for the limits of the printed text. Just as the photographed plays of early filmmakers were less in- teresting than live theater, this early Web soap continually reminds us of how much less vivid it is than the romance novels and television dramas it draws upon. A more digitally sophisticated Web soap would exploit the archiv- ing functions of the computer by salting each day's new episode with allusions (in the form of hot word links) to exciting previous install- ments. Our clicking would then be motivated not by curiosity about
the media objects (show me a video clip) but by curiosity about the plot (why does she say that about him?). The computer presen- tation would thereby allow pleasures that are unattainable in broad- cast soaps. For example, we could follow a single appealing subplot while ignoring the companion plots that may drive us crazy, or we could come in at any time in the story and review important past events in all their dramatic richness. Instead of using audio redun- dantly to act out dialogue in a diary entry, a sophisticated Web soap might provide the audio as an integral part of the plotline- perhaps as the wiretap of a murder threat or a political negotiation or as a phone message that carries information of hidden romantic liaisons. Some Web stories are already using such techniques, and no doubt all of them will in time. Their adoption is part of the inevitable process of moving away from the formats of older media and toward new conventions in order to satisfy the desires aroused by the digital environment. We are now engaged in thousands of such discoveries in all the subgenres of electronic narrative, the result of which will be the development of narrative pleasures intrinsic to cyberspace itsel�� Therefore, if we want to see beyond the current horizon of scrapbook multimedia, it is important first to identify the essential properties of digital environments, that is, the qualities comparable to the variabil- ity of the lens, the movability of the camera, and the editability of film, that will determine the distinctive power and form of a mature electronic narrative art. ELIZA Comes to Life Well before the advent of multimedia, there was a moment in the his- tory of the computer that demonstrated its representational and nar- rative power with the same startling immediacy as the Lumieres' train did for the motion picture camera. This is the famous but often mis- understood moment in which the first completely computer-based character was created. In 1966, Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor of computer science at MIT, created, as an experiment in natural language processing, a computer program called ELIZA that carried on a conversation by replying to typed-in statements with printed words. Since this was before the wiclespread use of computer screens, the program used a form of teletype device connected to one of the first time-sharing computer networks. The resulting persona, Eliza, was that of a Roger- ian therapist, the kind of clinician who echoes back the concerns of the patient without interpretation. She also displayed a narrowly Freudian interest in topics like sex and the family. In a research paper describing the program, Weizenbaum included this remarkably co- herent sample conversation: Patient: Well, my boyfriend made me come here. Eliza: YOUR BOYFRIEND MADE YOU COME HERE. Patient: He says I'm depressed much of the time. Eliza: I AM SORRY TO HEAR YOU ARE DEPRESSED. Patient: It's true. I am unhappy. Eliza: DO YOU THINK COMING HERE WILL HELP YOU NOT TO BE UN- HAPPY? Patient: I need help, that much seems certain. Eliza: WHAT WOULD IT MEAN TO YOU IF YOU GOT SOME HELP? Patient: Perhaps I could learn to get along with my mother. 2 Eliza: TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR FAMILY. Eliza proved astonishingly persuasive. Soon a creation legend started to circulate that was based on an incident involving a re- searcher at a Cambridge think tank who left an early version of ELIZA running on his computer, which a vice president of the com- pany thought was typing out a communication being transmitted by his colleague from home. (Just as the Lumiere train story is a staple of film history, the Eliza story in its several versions appears in many textbooks and computer science lectures, often told as if it happened to Weizenbaum himself.) The conversation takes place at nine on a Saturday morning: