Hypertext Video: Are We There Yet?

Quinn WarnickNew Media Seminar

Thanks to a conference trip that occupied most of last week, I have fallen hopelessly behind on my blogging commitment. I wish I had the time to revisit Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg’s “Personal Dynamic Media” (prophecy fulfilled — I carry my iPad almost everywhere!) and Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message” (I once spent an entire session of a graduate seminar discussing the distinctions between “message” and “massage”), but I’ve decided to cut my losses and jump ahead to this week’s reading: “Will There Be Condominiums in Data Space?”, by Bill Viola.

I was intrigued by Viola’s discussion about “interactive video discs” and the potential for what sounds like the video equivalent of hypertext, which struck me as remarkably advanced for a 30-year-old article. Even in 1982, Viola suggests that the technology needed to realize his vision was in place; the problem lay with the users of the technology:

“After all these years, video is finally getting ‘intelligence,’ the eye is being reattached to the brain. As with everything else, however, we will find that the limitations emerging lie more with the abilities and imaginations of the producers and users, rather than in the tools themselves.” (p. 467)

Whether or not we had the tools to accomplish what Viola describes as “branching,” “visual footnoting,” and variable playback speed in 1982 (p. 468), we certainly have them today. The question remains, though, whether we have the imagination to embrace a new style of video. There is some evidence that nonlinear/hypertextual/etc. video is catching on; see, for instance, Kutiman’s ThruYOU remixes.

For that matter, see almost any video on YouTube, which has made video-within-video ads and embedded links to other videos standard practice in the past five years. YouTube’s innovations, of course, are primarily profit driven, but the fact remains that audiences are much more accustomed to fragmented, nonlinear viewing experiences than they were in 1982. And even without YouTube, shows like VH-1’s Pop-Up Video have trained us to expect visual interruptions and narrative detours while watching television.

The one place where this type of storytelling hasn’t taken root is full-length feature films, which are prefaced by endless advertisements and previews (and even cluttered with product placement), but still exist primarily as cohesive, linear stories. Sure, some movies are told nonlinearly (e.g., Christopher Nolan’s excellent Memento and Inception), but they are still arranged by the filmmaker, not the viewer. Some DVDs offer viewers the chance to rearrange portions of the movie or view alternate endings, but we tend to think of these as “bonus features,” not integral aspects of the movie-watching experience.

A truly hypertextual movie might not work in a traditional theater (which lucky audience member gets to control the arrangement of the film?), but one could certainly work online. Perhaps something like this exists already — I need to do a little more searching — but I suspect we’re still waiting for Viola’s perfect video to be created.