I once thought information existed only between the official covers of encyclopedias. But since I completed year 12 in 2001, I have witnessed a lava-like eruption of information in the world, instigated by the emergence of the Internet. This fluid information is not neatly arranged between the covers of books by the privileged few, because it runs all over the place in a wayward manner and is accessible to many. Due to this information revolution, everyday people are able to organise information according to their own tastes and dispositions (Douglas 2000), and they do this through the use of hypertext. This means that pieces of information do not always end up in the same place, and are not inherently part of a traditional framework such as a narrative containing a beginning, middle and end.
In order to make sense of the contemporary information environment we need to deepen our understanding of it, so it becomes as natural as our understanding of books and encyclopaedias (Miles, 2007). This means recognising that canonical sources of information no longer exist, and that information can be organised in a variety of ways by an assortment of actors (Miles, 2007). This skill is known as network literacy, and according to Miles (2007, p. 203), its definition is ‘being able to participate as a peer within the emerging knowledge networks that are now the product of the Internet’.
In attempting to characterise the contemporary information environment I will highlight an important consideration for me as a future media maker, which is a certain loss of control over the information I produce.
Once upon a time, information was regarded as only that which came from books, written, edited and published by those qualified to deliver it. Today, information is everywhere, and although more ‘official’ sources of information still exist – although more as a souvenir from the past – everyday citizens create the continuous flow of information we interact with in modern times.
Applications accessible via the Internet, such as blogs, ‘allow participation within contemporary information ecologies as creators, rather than being limited to being passive consumers’ (Miles 2006, p. 189). Every time we post something to a blog, Facebook page, Twitter feed, online forum and so forth, we are contributing bits of information to the intertwined, messy online information network. Weinberger (2002, p. 143) suggests that ‘what pulls us on [to the Internet] is the sound of voices… we migrate towards those who are interesting and we move away from the spouters of facts’. Miles (2007) says this tendency to subscribe to voices we feel are genuine and rational is what underpins the current model of knowledge production. Consequently, this is not a linear process whereby information moves obediently from one receiver to the next in an organised fashion. According to Weinberger (2002, p. 8-9), ‘the Web… has no geography, no landscape. It has no distance. It has nothing natural in it. It has few rules of behaviour and fewer lines of authority. Common sense doesn’t hold here, and uncommon sense hasn’t yet emerged’.
I have always imagined the contemporary information environment as a network similar to the London Tube. This is a system I have explicit knowledge of, whereby information moves from one receiver to the next, sometimes connecting to others but never overlapping because if it did, it wouldn’t operate.
As a future media maker, I can see the need to move away from this analogy in order to understand a new information network, one where many participants will share, interpret, link and alter information produced by me, and nothing I create can be gospel. Moreover, the media I produce will become part of the intangible, nonlinear environment as highlighted by Weinberger above. This realisation forces me to imagine a disorganised, overlapping and chaotic information environment.
Only when I feel comfortable with this de-centralised system of information, will I be able to produce media that is appropriate for the contemporary environment.
Before I expand on the shape of the contemporary information environment, I would like to highlight one particular tool used for navigating this space known as hypertext. The following video outlines the ideas and concepts behind hypertext.
Video: Courtesy of Mundaneum via YouTube
Hypertext is an important concept for me as a future media maker, as it enables the media I produce to be linked to others, thus becoming part of the contemporary media environment. Bolter (1991, p. 40) suggests, ‘the needed skills [of the media maker] go beyond the mechanical ones of holding a pen and turning the pages. The writer must learn how to structure and locate text in the visual space provided, just as the reader must learn how to make sense of texts in that space’. Furthermore, information containing hypertext is fluid rather than fixed, which allows for readers to imagine different scenarios (Douglas 2000).
Take my Networked Media blog for example, according to Landow (2006, p. 78) ‘blogging… has major importance for anyone interested in hypertext because one form of it provides the first widely available means on the Web of allowing the active reader-author’. Firstly, in making strategic decisions as to where I link a blog post, I am allowing readers to piece together the main points of my post without having to explain every detail to them (McNeill, cited in Landow 2006). Secondly, and importantly, when readers have the ability to comment on blog posts by clicking the hypertext word ‘comment’, they are linking themselves to my blog and inviting more comments from other participants (Landow 2006). Hence, the information I originally produced becomes the subject of scrutiny and opinion, and can be interpreted to mean something very different to what I originally intended.
This differs greatly to traditional frameworks for information sharing, such as books, as Douglas (2000, p. 17) says, ‘while authors of print narratives can never be certain exactly how readers will interpret their work, authors of interactive narratives [hypertexts] can sometimes be surprised at the permutations and combinations of narrative segments that readers encounter’. A reader of hypertexts may assume the author is dead altogether (Douglas 2000), but as a creator of information I still exist, just in a less obvious way.
The idea that anyone can contribute to the production of meaning seems somewhat more egalitarian. However, Bush (1945) came up with a rebuttal to this idea saying researchers found it exceedingly difficult to keep up with the number of conclusions being drawn by an increasing number of specialists, leading to important information being overlooked. If this was the case in 1945, we have an even bigger issue in contemporary times, as the many who generate meaning on the Web are not specialists – not official specialists in any case. With this in mind, how are we to determine what information is genuine and what is not?
If we are to participate in an information environment whereby media is organised according to the likes or dislikes of everyday citizens, we will probably not experience the familiar, resolute endings we are familiar with (Douglas 2000). Information in its contemporary environment doesn’t stop at one particular point; it continues to be linked to other parts of the media network. According to Douglas (2000, p. 23), ‘since hypertext fiction does not have the fixed tangible beginnings and endings of print stories and books, readers decide where their experience of the text ends’. Therefore, the contemporary information environment suggests an abandonment of traditional conventions, such as narratives where we start at the beginning, develop through the middle and finish at the end. What is an end in the modern media world? There is no end, like there is no distance and no hierarchy.
I found this idea uncomfortable at first, as it seemed unnatural. However, narrative is far from natural having taken 4,000 years to mature (Landow 2006). In creating our own beginnings, middles and ends we are creators of new meaning, having broken free of the traditional conventions of information sharing. Nelson (1987, p. 0/11) submits that ‘education, now pressing in new and uncertain directions, can leap forward into new curricular structures that eliminate sequence and promote initiative and understanding’. If we continue to develop within traditional conventions we can only learn that ‘life is a coherent, fathomable whole that concludes in neatly wrapped up revelation’ (Shields 2010, p. 110), which is simply not the case. Therefore, through understanding a new media environment that abandons narrative, society may start to develop more realistic expectations of life.
As a future media maker I must think less about taking people on a journey, and instead allow readers to use my media to create a journey for themselves. I must fully comprehend what Nelson (1987, p. 0/11) means when he says, ‘we stand at the brink of a new age, a new time, when the handling of the written word will change very deeply, and civilization will change accordingly’, and I must be prepared for an ephemeral information environment.
In considering the contemporary media environment as an intangible, nonlinear environment and recognising that many ‘unofficial’ citizens can create information, I can better understand how the media I produce in future might be used to create new meaning. I may then implement technology such as hypertext, in my productions to allow for information to be used interactively. One of the most challenging aspects for me in adopting an immaterial information environment is abandoning traditional conventions of text, such as a beginning, middle and end. However, in doing so I am allowing readers to come to their own conclusions about the information they consume. In becoming network literate and relinquishing control over the media I produce, I feel I will be able to create the type of media that will be successful in the contemporary media environment.
Bolter, J 1991, Writing space, Erlbaum Associates, Hillsdale, N.J.
Bush, V 1945, ‘As we may think’, The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 176, no. 1, pp. 101-108.
Douglas, J 2000, The End of Books – Or Books Without End?, University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.
Landow, G 2006, Hypertext 3.0., Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
Miles, A 2007, ‘Network Literacy: A New Path To Knowledge’, Screen Education Autumn, vol. 45, pp. 24-30.
Miles, A 2006, ‘Blogs In Media Education: A Beginning’, Australian Screen Education, vol. 41, pp.66-69.
Nelson, T 1987, Literary Machines, Theodor H. Nelson, Swarthmore, PA.
Shields, D 2010, Reality Hunger, Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
Weinberger, D 2002, Small Pieces Loosely Joined, Perseus, Cambridge, MA.