An Introduction to Digital Media
Book by Tony Feldman; Routledge, 1997
Writing about digital media is worse than painting the Forth Bridge. British readers will know the old story of the trials and tribulations of keeping the great bridge properly painted to protect it from the depredations of the Scottish weather. There is so much ironwork that no sooner has the paint dried on the last spar and buttress than the whole process has to begin again at the other end. Writing about the so-called digital revolution is like this but more so. No sooner has the ink dried than the words already written need revision. But not for the same reason that dooms those poor bridge painters to repeat the same exercise over and over again. Words lose their currency in this subject not because it takes so long to say them but because the technological and commercial landscape that they describe changes so swiftly.
This is probably a very bad way to start a book of any kind. It hardly instils confidence to say it is going to be out of date even before the printer has printed it. There is, however, a genuine way round the problem of delivering a static snapshot of a fast-changing subject. The current work, and earlier ones on which it is based, aim to deliver a foundation of material-ideas, insights and demystifications-which remain current far longer than the superstructure of detail which makes up the day-to-day helter-skelter of change. While sudden technological breakthroughs can, of course, upset the apple cart completely, it is broadly possible to sketch the logical geography of digital media so the result delivers (hopefully) some lasting value. Even Multimedia, the book published in 1994 which the current work effectively supplants, retains some of its original value because it presents underlying concepts which-while not quite eternal-are at least a fairly firm, long-term foundation for making sense of the bigger picture with all its plethora of fast-changing detail.
There is, however, a more subtle problem which is personal to any author writing in this field. Not only do the realities of technologies and their commercialisation change from day to day, but also our understandings of the implications of these processes change. Not only is the real world a moving target. So is our perception of it. The reason is simple. No one has a monopoly on the understanding of what the headlong rush into digital media means. There are no real gurus, only a great many people grappling with what all the complex interplays of new technologies, new business models and new social responses to media and information add up to. The day of the expert is over. Everyone has a legitimate viewpoint and should feel confident enough to express it. What books like this one try to do, therefore, is not to dictate a point of view as if cast in stone but to think through what is happening and come up with some models for making sense of it. But a process of thinking it through-like keeping the Forth Bridge free of rust-is actually a task without end. In other words, if you do ever think you have reached a final conclusion, it is probably the wrong one! So a book like this one has to be the author's take on the world at a given moment in time. It is not only a snapshot of a real world of events and activity but also a snapshot of an internal world of mental models, ideas, perceptions and-it has to be admitted-doubts and uncertainties.
Few things spring new and fully formed into the world, least of all books like this. The immediate antecedents are obvious. In 1990, I was asked by the British Library to write a study in the British National Bibliography Research Fund series. The idea was to focus on a new word in the information and publishing industry and to examine what the term meant and what implications the technology embodying it contained for the publishing, bookselling and library community. The new word was 'multimedia' and the research study was eventually published in 1991 by the British Library under the title Multimedia in the 1990s. The study began by reflecting that 'if the history of our technological age is just a flicker of time, then multimedia, amidst all the bustle of change is a word still forming on our lips. It is an embryonic concept in a fast-changing environment and we have to be realistic about the limits of our power to forecast or even speculate about its future'. Five years later, this book deliberately avoids using multimedia in its title because it has become both an over-used industry clich and a false focus for our thinking. Yesterday it was a word still forming on our lips ready to take centre stage. Today it is just one word among the many we need to interpret the wide-ranging processes of change and development that are reshaping the media and information industries.
Within two years of its publication, I was asked by the British Library to revise the original study and the result was then published early in 1994 by the Blueprint division of Chapman and Hall as Multimedia. The new book-focused as it was upon offline, predominantly compact disc (CD) based multimedia-has rapidly grown into a mild anachronism. Not because it has entirely lost currency but because it treats CD multimedia as the important focus instead of placing it in its proper context as an important fragment of a much bigger picture. Consequently, even if this new work continues to owe some of its sections to earlier writings, it is essentially an attempt to sketch the bigger picture and to do so in simple, easily assimilable terms. It is a work of introduction rather than a definitive treatise. In presenting it, the aim is to shape a mental map of the digital media world which will be an aid to those embarking on all the varied journeys that people tend to take in their different sectors of interest and activity.
Because this book is motivated by a desire to demystify, to keep things simple, some compromises are made. First, the book does not pretend to be comprehensive. It sets out to provide the headlines and supporting explanation from many key sectors of the digital media world but it will not detail every avenue or look at the subject from every media orientation. Second, it may-from time to time-play fast and loose with technical rigour. The reason is that comprehension is higher on the agenda than the fine tuning of technological cause and effect. This is not a book about technology but about its implications and we need to understand technology only so far as that understanding accurately informs our insight into those implications.