The search for a theory of hypermedia

(version 020212-1510)

by Kristo Ivanov

Umeå University, Department of Informatics, S-901 87 UMEÅ (Sweden).

Phone +46 90 7866030, Fax +46 90 7866550,

Bibliographic data (figures not included): Ivanov, K. (1995). The search for a theory of hypermedia. In D. Dahlbom, F. Kammerer, F. Ljungberg, J. Stage, & C. Sorensen (Eds.), Proceedings of the Information Systems Research Seminar in Scandinavia IRIS'18 (pp. 283-293). (Gothenburg Studies in Informatics, Report 7. An earlier version was presented at the international Workshop on Social Contexts of Hypermedia, Umeå, February 17-18, 1995.)

1. Introduction

I will adopt the provisional definition of hypermedia as being systems that combine the use of products produced by the computer, telecommunication and television industries, including the advertising-entertainment industries or services. In social economic and institutional terms hypermedia deal with the ongoing merging of mainly the computer, telecommunication and television industries. This is indeed a broad definition, perhaps too broad, but any possible narrowing of it should be informed by the its intended use.

A rigorous analysis and development of such a definition would obviously require a definition of definition itself, and, further, of the concept of theory, of system, of media as well as of the concept of context. The temptation of adopting such an analytical "deductive" approach, however, may be avoided by relating the issue to literature that belongs to the field of information, communication, or media research. I suggest the adoption of "functional" or teleological definition in the sense that the definition will be made to depend in part upon the historical use of the term, and in part upon the purpose of the inquiry. In doing so I will approach the adoption of a historically and philosophically grounded systems theory which supplies at least both a definition of system and of context.

2. The responsibility of university research

The purpose of an inquiry in the university environment - as contrasted with a business school or an institute of technology - cannot be mainly to satisfy particular "clients", and to compete with industrial research and development in fostering sales (Ivanov, 1985; Nisbet, 1971). I understand that the purposes of a university must be in part tied to the purposes invested in its history and tradition, and in part must be to generalize its legitimate ethical good to as broad a group of "stakeholders" as possible. In the context of hypermedia this means that the primary responsibility of the university is neither to design creative uses of existing or emerging products - whatever creative may mean[1] - nor to participate in business firms' design of the products themselves. It is, rather, first of all, to do what pertains to its core competence and, at the same time, falls outside the sphere of interest of other research institutions. It is to evaluate where society or its various groups are going, why, and what for, and where they should be going, as related to information technology in general, and - in our context - hypermedia developments in particular. This is a program statement which exceed the limits of some purely descriptive media research as well as the limits of developing "aesthetic" approaches to design that are not driven by any particular "need" for products.

3. Eclecticism: theories or theory

Theory here is not intended to be opposed to practice and application but it is to be understood as the means for design and evaluation of practice. This raises, of course, the classical discussion of empiricism versus rationalism, etc. which paradoxically implies the need for a philosophical and historical "bias" in all research to be pursued in a university. The issue cannot be solved by "smörgåsbord-toolbox" eclecticism since eclecticism is one more "ism", historically well criticized, which ignores the consistency or fitness of its fragments. This is also the reason for not appealing in a facile way in the title of this paper to "theories", rather than to a theory (not "the" theory) of hypermedia. This is done, however, with consciousness of the difficulty of talking about a unique theory especially when understanding theory in a very narrow "technical" sense, far from the meaning of the Greek roots of the word.

I want, therefore, to advance the following philosophical and theoretical bases for hypermedia research, where theory is understood in the broadest possible sense of the word.

3.1. Networks: logic as theory of symbol manipulation

The Internet and the World-Wide-Web advance the image of linking and connecting as a fundamental feature of communication for the build-up of knowledge. To the extent that the nodes are taken as temporary givens and the emphasis is put on the linkages the basic question is to identify a theory of "linking" including a definition of relations. Besides the mathematical theory of function we have basically logic. The design and establishment of linkages can be seen as a purely formal, and therefore also logical operation. The fundamental theory of logical relations is found in formal mathematical logic. In its turn it is based on a Leibnizian philosophy of science. [2]. This includes the belief that it does not matter so much what we are linking since the validity and usefulness of the whole will be proved by the long run consequences of the linking and by where that leads to.

It is sometimes believed that logic deals only with formal symbols but it does not seem to be the case that such a limitation is inherent to Leibnizian philosophy of logic.[3] I conclude that "Leibnizian inquiring systems" can be a theoretical basis for hypermedia applications.[4]

3.2. Objects

The linking process may also stand in the background, and be understood as being based mainly on the definition of the objects to be linked. These objects can be understood as formal objects that are themselves the result of linkings, and in that case the conception reverts to a Leibnizian conception. To the extent that they are understood as being "empirical objects", however, they are grounded in a Lockean empirical philosophy which includes the concept of a "data base" and at least some kind of basic logic of connectivity.(Churchman, 1971, p. 100ff.) The emphasis shifts then to what is being inputted in order to be linked at a later stage. The process of deciding what to input to the system introduces the social context of consensus and its economic implications - the liberal political philosophy of John Locke, which adopts a particular, limited conception of conflict. It is reduced, for instance, to statistical probability, and confidence.

I conclude that another possible theoretical basis för hypermedia applications is offered by "Lockean inquiring systems".

3.3. Representation for navigation

The realization that the wealth of objects and their possible connections confronts us with the "information explosion" emphasizes the economic aspects of information systems, or, in the broad sense, the economy of inquiry. In the context of hypermedia this means consciousness of the need for having an "economic" representation of information in the sense of a proper data-base organization or "navigational" capabilities in time and space. This can be understood as the need for a flexible source of continuosly revised representational models which complicate the a-priori of the representation in order to facilitate more accurate computations, or easier navigation.[5]

I conclude that one more possible theoretical basis for hypermedia applications is "Kantian inquiring systems".

3.4. Social context beyond semiotics, and dialectics

The realization that different representations and different "economies" relate not only to "the mind" but also to different social consensual groups opens up the discussion of dialectics of the observer and the observed, subject and object. This social dimension expands the problem well beyond the pragmatically based semiotics of signs related to subject and object[6]. This changes the representational problem by means of the introduction of the "Weltanschauung" or world-views which are superordinate to the search of hypotheses, and complicate the "navigation" process.

Navigation is no more a matter of linkages for travelling in a network, and it is not a matter of arriving at a certain object with its attributes, as in a database. It is more a matter of "sweeping in" the world as stratified in its fields of knowledge and influence, stimulating antitheses and syntheses, striving for consensus or agreement in the context of maximum possible disagreement. The mechanistic definition of information is replaced by the dialectical definition where disagreement and error become central activators of a continuous "controlled" search.[7] Hypertext thinking becomes hypersystems thinking.[8]

I conclude that a more encompassing theoretical basis for hypermedia applications is "Hegelian-Singerian inquiring systems", in that they try to synthesize the feature of Lebnizian, Lockean, and Kantian inquiring systems in a "Hegelian" spirit. Hegel's philosophy has also the advantage of permeating much Western thinking in the humanities, including a due regard to matters of aesthetics.

4. Aesthetics: Why architecture?

The upsurge of multimedia which challenges us to develop hypermedial computer applications does, however, emphasize the aesthetic dimensions of images and sound, not to mention "plastic" motor skills. The place of aesthetics, as that of tradition, is not easily found in the line of development from Kantian formalism towards Hegelian dialectics, and Marxist "participatory theories", or the "communicative-discursive theories" in the spirit of Habermas-Apel.[9] Postmodernism seems to build upon Nietzschean nihilism in the form of theoretical eclecticism and of ultimate aestheticism. It is my hypothesis that un-ethical or a-ethical aestheticism is implied in much of the present day's search for "skill" at work. In the absence of a proper analysis of work as related to technology,.[10] I assume that it will be easy to find out that skill is often understood as meaning the same as the workers' provisional competitiveness on the labour market, or just aestheticist "fun".

To the extent that some researchers have attempted to take aesthetics seriously there have been lately problematic attempts to shift the emphasis from "theory" or "design of inquiring systems" towards sheer "design", and, further, to design thinking as found in architecture.[11] The literature on design seems to be rich in compelling intuitions and examples, but it seldom spells out its philosophical assumptions, especially the ethical ones. I propose that those who refer to architecture should justify their choice in view of both the similarities and the differences between architectural and information "systems". Kant envisages that what is central to architecture, including crafts, is the use of the products of art.[12] Neither computers not information, however, can be seen outright as products of art unless we equate industrial high tech to arts and crafts.[13] This leads us to the need for considering in greater depth the complicated relationship between art and science which as of today seems often to be understood as in Kant's systematization and contextualization of science.[14]

Kant's philosophical system can be schematized as follows (Swedish terms in italic):[15]

Faculties of the   Faculties of   A priori        Areas of 
mind               knowledge      principles      application 

Faculty of know-   Reason         Lawliness,      Nature-Science:
ledge-Cognition    Förstånd       Primary goals   Determinism,Truth 
Kunskaps                          Lagbundenhet    Natur 

Satisfaction-      Judgement      Fitness-        Aesthetics:
Taste-Emotion      Omdömes-       Enthusiasm      Art-Sublime &
Tillfreds-         förmåga        Ändamåls-       Play-Beauty 
ställelse                         enlighet        Konst 

The will           Intellect      Ultimate goals  Ethics: Freedom-
Begär              Förnuft        or ethical      Emancipation,
                                  ideals          Teleology 
                                  Slutmål         Frihet 
Aesthetics is here considered to have the function of bridging the true and the good. Aesthetics presents two interfaces: play-beauty, towards the true knowledge, and art-sublime, towards the good moral.[16] In a Kantian perspective these are essentially categories of the individual mind or personal "I" egoism (or group- "We" egoism ) of the "I know", "I like", "I want". The "socialization" or universalization of this egoism is what probably motivates the participative pluralism that builds up the Rousseau-Kantian "world citizen" or the invisible universal civil church on the basis of "Habermasian" argumentation and communication", with a "Protestant" emphasis on justice rather than love.[17]

It is in this multimedia context that one can understand the up to now rather unconscious will, and drive towards networking and communication, as well as towards the aesthetical fun of symbolic playful manipulation. Architecture is unconsciously and culturally sensed as having some sort of relevance in a conception of design which barely dares to advertise its claims of synthesizing unphilosophically the mostly undefined faculties of cognition, taste, and will. Architecture as belonging to the aesthetic realm would indeed have a Kantian claim of bridging the reason and natural science of computer technology to the intellect and teleology of the ultimate ideals of "the clients" and "the market".

I suggest that what I perceive as the inconclusiveness of the pretentious claims of this approach is conditioned by the possible inherent shortcomings of the Kantian model. Its communicative argumentative Hegelian superstructure permeates both the field of semiotics and the understanding of the relation between ethics and aesthetics. My own claim is that, to begin with, architecture has a very tenuous basis for its information claims in the context of multimedia.

In the Kantian subdivision of art[18] there are the art of the word, fine art, and the art of play of the senses. The first art, of the word, includes rhetorics (cf. communicative argumentation) and poetry which Kant considers to be the highest form of creativity. The second, fine art, comprises art which is faithful to the senses like plastic art, and fictional "virtual" art like painting. Architecture including the crafts, like sculpture, belongs to the fine arts and, as mentioned earlier, it is characterized by the use of the works of art. Most of the "imaging" of multimedia including the claims of three-dimensionality in virtual reality, however, would seem to come closer to painting. Nevertheless it is the third type of art, art of the play of the senses, which may indeed be the one coming closest to hypermedia applications. It departs from sensuous impressions of sight and hearing, and it plays with colors and sounds, as in music which traditionally has being judged to be formally very close to formal logic and mathematics.

Kant goes further in combining the primary forms of art in the process of creating new forms of artistic creativity. Rhetorics and painting result in drama (cf. computer games and human-computer interaction as "theatre")[19], poetry and music result in song, song and music result in opera, etc. I will not pursue the question further beyond remarking that I have not seen anything like this sort of analysis in the determination or evaluation of the possibility of analogies between architectural and information systems.[20] Architecture may not be interfacing with all the natural and formal science aspects of embodied cognition that are paramount to computer-based information systems. Furthermore, it should indeed be noted that the Kantian envisagement of art implies its two interfaces, towards both cognition (playful beauty), and will (sublime art). We have heard a lot about architectural art as a semiotic play of signs - the interface towards science, but very little about the other interface, symptomatically the interface towards ethics. I have therefore claimed that the present interest in architecture does not really tend to the whole of aesthetics. If one does not ground such interest in a philosophically based theory it may tend more easily, postmodernistically and irresponsibly, towards aestheticism.

5. Tradition: from culture to aesthetics, ethics and religion

I consequently claim that it is not aesthetics which should bridge cognition to will. It is, rather the human will, based on justice and love as in theological religion beyond ethics, that is to bridge the cognition of a theological (computer) science to the emotion of theological aesthetics as in Biblical drama, sacred art (including architecture) and in Christian mythology.[21]

The place of aesthetics as it has been understood in our research up to now, and the confidence in its "power" are simply misplaced. They take us away - we do not really know why and where - on the wings of an apparently aimless and costly multimedia technology, a sort of expanded, market-oriented world-wide-web of interactive television, cinema, and video games.[22] This should not appear to be far fetched as compared with the lessons gathered from the realm of cinema and television research, to which the discipline of software design has been related.[23]In order to try to prevent this from happening we must try to reach further.

Some symptoms of unfortunate results of unconscious applications of Kantian thinking are to be found nowadays in the interest for phenomenological and existential approaches. Their origins have been attributed to the the philosopher Johann Georg Hamann, a close friend of Kant who symptomatically also was his first strongest critic.[24] This brings us to the issue of theoretical concern for tradition which seems to have been largely undervalued in Kantian enlightenment.

I suggest therefore that together with an analysis of the proper place and limitations of art in general, and architecture in particular, our theoretical interests should be informed by an explicit non-Kantian attention to tradition.[25] There are easily available works that pay serious attention to tradition and to the import of visual culture as related to the social context, where the image is not anchored in traditional or historical experience the way the spoken or written word is.[26] There are also other original works which cannot be easily classified, like the philosophical study of word processing, which should be a welcome inspiration in the search for a theoretical base for hypermedia.[27]

To the extent that programming and software design can be seen as a branch of cinema we can revert to ignored "classics" of the analysis of this by now more "traditional" form of industrial art. These classics can indeed be found in the context of mass communication, including interactivity.[28] My suggestion is, then simply to contribute to a theoretical platform for hypermedia by digesting earlier criticism of related forms of mass communication in general, and cinema in particular.

6. Conclusion

In summary, I suggest that the universities consider to be their responsibility to develop a theory of hypermedia which can be used for, and tested in, the design and evaluation of hypermedia products. The theories of logic including semiotics should be related to the social context of hypermedia by means of the tentative use of a particular dialectical social systems theory. In turn this systems theory should be analyzed and reformed in the view of the particular role of aesthetics in modern hypermedia applications. The conceptualization of aesthetics should not be unconsciously and uncritically anchored in a Kantian view of science and art, but it should rather revive and profit from the possible contribution of ethical-theological thinking and of tradition. A philosophical and a Christian basis for this search can contribute to taking into account the problems of eclecticism that are probably to be met in this attempt.

Despite the obvious temptation of avoiding these issues by considering them too philosophical, metaphysical, or whatever, it should be clear that if we ourselves do not pick up this task there is no indication that anybody else in society feels this responsibility. To my knowledge nobody else can hope better that we do to muster the resources for doing this, including resources for the availability of the necessary technical equipment. Without a theory there can be no scientific evaluation of practice, while we are having a lot of unstable, changing, and hopefully profitable, practice which waits for the establishment of its meaning in theory and in principles of design.

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