LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 45, No. 4 - Winter 1999
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas
Copyright © 1999 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
CULTURAL REPRESENTATION IN THE NEW MEDIA
Vytautas Magnus University
Recent developments in the new media manifest this medium as very instrumental for documenting Cultural Heritage. As more and more possibilities to exhibit culture emerge (in multi-media and on the Internet) it becomes obvious that both writers (as creators of nonlinear documents) and readers need to acquire a new type of media literacy. This could be explained as one's ability to understand what cultural values new media representations add and what values they take away. With this major aim in mind two examples of cultural representation in the new media will be discussed. The first example - 'How to recognize Gothic style' - suggests a theoretical approach on how digital information should be structured, thus allowing an all-inclusive and a nonlinear (and, therefore, a democratic) approach to cultural artifacts and written explanations. It is claimed that the specific structure of digital information empowers readers to move into the mode of motivated and reflective cognition, which is required for thoughtful cultural study. The aim of using the second example is "to take one step forward", that is, to "move" (at least theoretically) from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional cultural interface. The new media application 'Virtual exhibition of Lithuanian Cultural Heritage' (a Millennium project) will be used to illustrate the new communication technologies' potential to design a three-dimensional cultural interface. Although in the current version of 'M. K. Čiurlionis' project (which is discussed in this paper and is treated as a part of the Millennium project) the domain information is accessed through a list of concepts, it is not difficult to envision that in three-dimensional realization the domain information could be accessed through a virtual browser, thus allowing a reader to get an illusion of himself (or herself) working in Cyberspace.
Challenges and Contradictions
Today paintings are in galleries and cultural artifacts are in museums. What we know about those paintings and artifacts is written in articles and books in libraries and archives. Digital medium empowers writers to combine all these materials in forms that did not exist before. With a little practice, some talent and advanced design programs it is possible to create modern (digital) exhibitions which are not only rich in content but are visually attractive, persuasive and approachable from various points of view.
All these possibilities (undreamed of a few decades ago) require from readers and creators of digital collections to acquire a new type of multi-media literacy. The new (and multi) media literacy could be understood as a new way not only to exhibit, but, most importantly, to evaluate the cultural heritage. Today the greatest challenge in representing the cultural heritage is not so much in exhibiting artifacts, but in inclusions in digital exhibitions of non-objects, particularly, articles written by different writers, audio-visual materials and interactive virtual worlds. This changes the role of traditional museums from a place where art collections are contained to knowledge and information on what these artifacts "talk about". Therefore, it can be suggested that the association between digital mediums of new communication technologies (digital texts, sounds and video excerpts) and the notion of information can serve as a useful conceptual base for exhibiting the cultural heritage. New media cultural representations can be seen as a conceptual tool which enables us to get away from the concepts of authority to information and, therefore, to knowledge. This perspective does this because the notion of information (i.e. various texts) and its association with digital forms of representation (i.e. digital versions of artifacts) constructs a space which is not hierarchical, but highly interconnected. The idea behind interactive cultural representations in the new media is that the user (with his or her intelligence, experiences, background knowledge, temperament and amount of attention paid to the media) becomes the center and, therefore, invents order within intertwined nodes of digital information.
Museums and galleries have traditionally been famous for their "do not touch" signs. Nowadays this is an area where virtual reality reconstruction of artifacts could be of great help, thus adding experiences to museum visits which would not be possible in the case of original objects. Virtual reality allows complete reconstruction of objects, archaeological sites and historical monuments in three-dimensions which allow one "to walk" through the buildings as they might have been. These on-line reconstructions permit users around the world to get a realistic sense of sites long before they have a chance to actually visit the original.
However, research shows that three-dimensional interfaces and emotional reactions (which are achieved most easily with multi-media) draws our attention to persuasion and entertaining aspects of the new media (c.f. Wooley, 1992; Gass & Seiter, 1999; Milliard, 1991). It is not difficult to see that many facets of our life become increasingly entertainment-oriented. For example, the main role of traditional museums is enjoyment; therefore, visitors are entertained by good stories and by "pushing buttons" on interactive multi-media displays (c.f. Taylor, 1993). Although it is a truism that this kind of access takes little time and allows readers to interact with information, negative effects come from an experiential mode of cognition. Experiential cognition needs constant excitement by extrinsic stimuli (by a piece of music or attractive visual effects) with the mind working without much effort and requiring superficial interaction. On the one hand, there is nothing wrong with this mode of cognition if the reader is exploring unknown information without any specific goals in mind. Cultural research, on the other hand, requires deep mental interaction with ideas and concepts. Therefore, it can be assumed that serious study requires reflectiveness with one's own experience (intelligence, attitudes) and should be manifested in decision making and strategical planning. All these abilities involve intrinsic motivation and responsibility and are seldom achieved with interactive media, designs. Thus the following questions need careful consideration:
What are the chances to move away from the entertainment mode of cultural representation in the new media to the mode of serious study? How to structure digital information: Should we try to reinvent traditional mediums (like books, encyclopedias, video collections, etc.) and traditional spaces (like museums) or try to find new electronic publishing models which are achievable by new means and allow us to use new communications opportunities to the utmost?
With these questions in mind let us take a look at two examples of cultural heritage representation in the new media.
Theory into practice: 'How to recognize Gothic style'
In 1993, while working on her Ph.D. thesis, the author of this paper and her colleagues from Joensuu university developed an example of a multi-media system which could serve as a prototype of new media cultural heritage representation (Balčytienė, 1996). Let me briefly describe the basic ideas which underlie the construction of the system 'How to recognize Gothic style'.
Although many scholars theorize extensively about non-linearity, interactivity and new media, few attempts provide broader views of cognitive processing (which are needed for serious study) of nonlinear electronic documents. A notable exception is the cognitive flexibility theory developed by Rand Spiro and colleagues (Spiro & Jehng, 1990). It is an integrated theory of cultural representation and human cognition. The cognitive flexibility theory takes into account the interface (mostly two-dimensional) factors of new media and user experience. The theory suggests the metaphor of a two-dimensional "landscape" which the user can "criss-cross" and explore from different perspectives. The new media technology allows such "interactive visits" to information. To achieve flexible information management the domain information has to be rewritten into a collection of, so called, mini-cases each of them containing at least some local coherence (for example, the mini-case could be treated as a simple illustration be it text, sound or image). A central claim of the cognitive flexibility theory is that "criss-crossing" the same material (i.e. a mini-case information), at different times, in rearranged contexts and for different purposes is essential for reflective cognition and, therefore, for advanced knowledge acquisition.
The author of this paper was very much attracted by the ideas of the theory and used them in representing information on Gothic style in the new media. Style recognition and definition feature characteristics of ill-structured problems and domains which are characterized by such features as context dependency and so forth. Moreover, in style recognition information is highly interrelated: it involves knowledge from a number of domains, for example, history, religion, the arts, geography, literature, film, music, etc.
In the application 'How to recognize Gothic style' History and the Arts were assumed to be the two major perspectives (or points of view) describing the conception of Gothic style. In other words, the comprehension of style is envisioned as a result of thinking about the historical period when the particular artifact was made and, simultaneously, of respecting the role of the arts which it represents. Thus, the style Of a cathedral (which could be text or image treated as a mini-case) would be understood through evaluating the historical period with its specificity (for example, the Middle Ages with the growth of towns and the centralization of the power of the church), and architecture as representing arts.
For practical reasons additional information on literature (for example, the Gothic novel), music, cinematography, calligraphy, etc. was excluded from the prototype. Nevertheless, to achieve an optimal result (i.e. an all-inclusive electronic document with information on Gothic style as a content) will require the development of individualized agents (who seek and gather materials, rewrite them to adjust to requirements of the new media). The author aims to develop information space where topics from literature, arts, music, fashion will be highly intertwined, thus forming a rich and interconnected "landscape".
In conclusion, the cognitive flexibility theory provides solutions on how to represent culture in the new media. It draws the artist's attention to understanding that serious cultural study is more effective if readers think carefully and actively about the materials and their relationships. If the cultural interface provides cues and forces to generate questions, there is a greater chance that a reader's actions will be intrinsically motivated (and not just aimless wandering).
A short visit to a 'Virtual exhibition of Lithuanian Cultural Heritage' (a Millennium project)
Another example of cultural representation in the new media deals with the Lithuanian Cultural Heritage. This project is currently Under development but will be globally available from the year 2000. Lithuanian Cultural Heritage will be represented through the following perspectives: the Baits, State, Society, Culture, Landscape, Religion, the Arts, Science, Lithuania in the World, etc. All these major perspectives include on average nine minor perspectives. For example, the perspective of Science includes information on famous scholars, academies, the first Lithuanian book and its cultural context, and so forth; the perspective of the Arts suggests texts and images of artifacts, painters (for example, about the Lithuanian artist Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis), musicians, modern art collections and so forth.
Although the ambitious project has the name of "Virtual exhibition", it gives very little impression of someone working in Cyberspace. Texts and audio-visual materials are exhibited in two-dimensional interfaces and suggest an illusion of a new (digital) encyclopedia rather than of virtual exhibition. For example, in the case of M. K. Čiurlionis (on whom information is currently available on www.vdu.lt/ Čiurlionis/index_lt.html), the cultural interface provides hierarchical list of concepts. From this "content node" further information on M. K. Čiurlionis' life ('Gyvenimo kelias'), paintings ('Dailės galerija'), music ('Muzika - pirmoji kalba'), letters ('Laiškai ir literatūrinė kūryba'), etc. can be obtained. It is not difficult to see that all information is highly structured (which is common for two-dimensional interfaces).
Today new information technologies allow us to create radically new information structures which can exist beyond the subject that one is interested in. This type of information visualization - conceptual navigation -^suggests the idea of a three-dimensional interface. Three-dimensional navigation spaces could free readers from hierarchical (and authoritarian) forms of presentation., For example, in the case of M. K. Čiurlionis, a three-dimensional interface could be realized by including interconnected concepts which provide texts and audio-visual materials describing his name, his date of birth and death, where he studied and worked, list of letters, music, paintings, drawings and so forth. In addition to this key information there could be references to all secondary sources about M. K. Čiurlionis in books, refereed journals, where (internationally) CD's with his music could be obtained and so forth. The concept in question ('M. K. Čiurlionis') could be positioned in the center of the computer screen while related terms ('Music', 'Art collections', 'Letters', etc.) are placed nearby. If one of the surrounding terms becomes more significant (i.e. it attracts a user's attention) it takes the place of the central concept (for example, 'Art collections' could become a central concept surrounded by more detailed information on 'Paintings', 'Graphics', 'Museums and archives', etc.). It is not difficult to see why this three-dimensional cultural space might be useful. Like the physical environment it shows the user what overall information space is like, how it is linked together and offers means of moving from one information node to another.
Moreover, once this rich knowledge exists it can be combined in new ways. For example, new media allows one to explore the paintings of M. K. Čiurlionis in radically new ways, that is, by activating symbols from the painting (currently located on the computer screen) and, thus obtaining an ever-changing collection of artifacts. Information could be intertwined not only within one theme, but meaningful connections could be found with other themes of the project (for example, between M. K. Čiurlionis' paintings and Baltic symbols).
Although it sounds obvious, practice shows that this requires an enormous reorganization of human knowledge. More specifically, new electronic publishing models have to be found. Writers and readers should understand that the new (digital) medium is not an optimal interface for detailed cultural research: physiological experiments have shown that one sees a third less when light comes to the eye directly from the computer screen rather than from printed page. Human factors specialists emphasize the characteristic of the new media, that the digital medium does not provide readers with essential knowledge of the length of information, how many illustrations are included in digital texts and so forth (Dillon, 1994). Physical books provide the reader with information as to thickness, size, age and so on. As a result of working with print medium readers have several basic models on how to read and comprehend messages conveyed by basic types of printed documents, for example, by conventional newspapers, books etc. The electronic equivalents also need to convey these characteristics and three-dimensional conceptual spaces could be one solution to provide readers with at least some information on what knowledge (and how much of it) is exhibited in the new media.
Synthesis: more questions than answers
Although computers remove the barriers of storage capacity, new challenges demand attention from both writers and users of cultural representations. It can be assumed that once the basic facts of domain knowledge will be arranged, scholars will find themselves devoting more attention to issues of representation. The greatest challenge may lie in teaching users to look at facts and concepts in new ways both experienced in conventional media (for example, a chronological list, a chart or a map) and not previously experienced (for example, a visit to a virtual space). While such a translation of physical into virtual space constitutes the most obvious application of the new communication technologies, for the cultural field the most exciting remains the challenge to see the combinations of real and virtual. Thus, further questions need careful consideration:
If the new (digital) medium allows an all-inclusive approach, what artifacts, in what contexts and from how many perspectives do they have to be represented? How does the new media transform our understanding of cultural heritage and how we represent it? Whose culture (elite or popular) and which content will tend to dominate in new cultural interfaces?
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