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"Today, after more than a century of electric technology, we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned."
– Marshall McLuhan
Title screen from Lynn Hershman's interactive laserdisc, Lorna

The Integrated Datawork

The emergence of a meta-medium has enabled interactive, integrated, and immersive forms of multimedia, leading to new strategies for the organizing of information and construction of narrative.

While few recognized this potential during the 1960s, it inspired a series of influential theoretical writings by the rogue philosopher Ted Nelson. Working outside of the academic and commercial establishments, following his own strongly held convictions, Nelson devised an elaborate system for the sharing of information across computer networks, called Xanadu. Central to his approach was the "hyperlink," a term he coined in 1963, inspired by Bush's notion of the Memex's associative trails. Hyperlinks, he proposed, could connect discrete texts in non-linear sequences. Using hyperlinks, Nelson realized, writers could create "hypertexts," which he described as "non-sequential writing" that let the reader make decisions about how the text would be read in a non-linear fashion. As he observed in his landmark book from 1974, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, "the structures of ideas are not sequential." With hypertext, and its multimedia counterpart, "hypermedia," writers and artists could create works that encouraged the user to leap from one idea to the next in a series of provocative juxtapositions that presented an alternative to rigid hierarchies.

Like Ted Nelson, William Burroughs was deeply suspicious of established hierarchies. He was especially interested in writing techniques that suggest the spontaneous, moment-by-moment movement of the mind, and how non-linear writing might expand the reader's perception of reality. Through his use of the cut-up and fold-in techniques, Burroughs treated the reading experience as one of entering into a multi-directional web of different voices, ideas, perceptions, and periods of time. He saw the cut-up as a tool that let the writer discover links between things that had previously gone undetected, with potentially enlightening and subversive results. With the cut-up, Burroughs prefigured the essential narrative strategy of hypertext and its ability to allow readers to leap, in a non-linear fashion, across boundaries in time and space.

By the 1980s, media artists whose roots lay in performance and video also began investigating hypermedia as a means of exploring new forms for telling stories. Artists such as Lynn Hershman and Bill Viola were drawn to the computer's facility to break down rigid, linear narrative structures. Viola approached the medium as a repository for evocative images that could be projected on screens in installations, "with the viewer wandering through some three-dimensional, possibly life-sized field of prerecorded or simulated scenes evolving in time," as he described it. Hershman was among the first to create digital artworks with interactive media, with such pieces as Deep Contact, from 1989. She introduced interactivity into her work, to combat the loss of intimacy and control brought about by media. Her use of hypermedia allowed the viewer to choose directions inside her artwork's complex branching structure, and shape his own experience of it.

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee circulated a proposal for an in-house on-line document sharing system, which he described modestly as "a 'web' of notes with links." The World Wide Web, as he designed it, combined the protocol of the Internet with Nelson's open systems of hypertext and hypermedia, with links that extend across the network. Furthermore, these links, rather than being created by a single author, could be written by anyone participating on the Web. This has allowed a prolific creation of multimedia works linked to any other media element – permitting an infinite variety of non-linear threads through the network.

By the 1990s Roy Ascott had already been exploring the creative possibilities of networking. He was interested in Bill Viola's notion of "dataspace," a territory of information in which all data exists in a continual present outside the traditional definitions of time and space, available for use in endless juxtapositions. Ascott refers to the existence of dataspace as a new form of the Gesamtkunstwerk, or Gesamtdatenwerk (the integrated datawork) as he calls it, in which networked data structures are integrated into the artwork. In such a context, he observed, interactive narrative strategies become increasingly pertinent.

This notion of the artwork as a territory for interaction, as a locus of communications for a distributed community, echoes the Happenings of a previous generation. On-line role-playing games have become laboratories for extending this form of collective interaction. As the social theorist Sherry Turkle has pointed out, on-line communities, such as Multi-User Dungeons (MUD), "are a new genre of collaborative writing, with things in common with performance art, street theater, improvisation theater, Commedia dell'Arte, and script writing." Pavel Curtis created one of the earliest MUDs, LambdaMOO, in 1990 at Xerox PARC. Though it consisted only of text, its interactive quality, made possible through intricate storytelling devices via the Internet, gave participants the illusion of immersion in a virtual environment. Curtis claims that interaction in the on-line environment creates a kind of social behavior which "in some ways it is a direct mirror of behavior in real life."