Making complexity simple (once again)

What follows is a repost of a piece first I first wrote in the late 1990s. It still captures some of my thoughts about technology, relating my ideas through “multimedia” back when it intersected with a less-than-a-decade-old thing known as the World Wide Web.

I feel quite fortunate to have lived in these times of immense technological change. Since about 1986, I’ve come to believe that the ultimate goal in implementing any new technology should be to make complex activities easier and more accessible to an audience larger than the generation implementing the technology itself. We have observed this phenomenon in the adoption of electricity, the telephone, and flight, and I believe we are experiencing it yet again within the realm of multimedia.

Since the beginning of “second age” multimedia or as John Sculley (former CEO of Apple) put it in the early 1990s, the forthcoming “zero-billion dollar industry,” I have been concerned with how people perceive, adopt, and adapt to an ever-evolving technological and media-rich computing environment.

The “first age” of multimedia was characterized by complex slide and video presentations flawlessly timed to music and narration often presented to groups of individuals. Starting shortly after the introduction of the Macintosh in 1984, people discovered the potential of integrating computers and traditional media through engaging visual interfaces. The dawn of multimedia’s second age integrated computer-driven interactivity with traditional multimedia content. This integration shifted multimedia from being group-oriented to a much more individualized and personal experience. Though short-lived and costly, the computer-driven interactive laser disc boom sparked a new technological era characterized by the merger of programming and design with information retrieval. The result was systems that could be tailored on-the-fly through a conceptually limitless array of interface and user options for anyone and not just a technologically savvy user. In essence, it made vast amounts complex information accessible to the masses.

Despite the obvious appeal of these new integrated multimedia technologies, the production costs limited the publishing opportunity to all but a handful of authors. Aside from a few of corporations willing to take the chance on emerging and unproven technologies, the education sector embraced the risk and was at the forefront of development. Fueled by both generous grants and fierce determination, the educational arena drove development of interactive content and in doing so, paved the way for new paradigms for software development. “Authoring” within products such as Apple’s HyperCard, Macromedia’s Director and Authorware replaced traditional programming as the methodology for multimedia design. A new type of software developer emerged that had to know graphic design and human interaction as well as code. All of this did come at a price and fortunately, such costs were destined to fall through advances in technology, but no one dreamed of what was to come and how multimedia would change our lives.

When I started at the University of Chicago in 1992, the Internet was this secretive place for those “in the know.” I had some experience with a networked world through BBSes and Bitnet, but had no clue what Usenet news was, what FTP was for, or who or what was Gopher. All I really knew was that the Internet was terribly complex and foreign, and mired in this thing called Unix. Fortunately for most of us, email seemed to be the most accessible of the Internet options as it was something we could firmly understand; an electronic version of a traditional communication medium.

Early in 1993, Hal Bloom introduced me to an interesting piece of software from the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) called “Mosaic.” Upon seeing it run on his Macintosh, I proclaimed that “this [Mosaic] is the can-opener for the Internet.” Hal more or less agreed. Few at that time realized what an overwhelming impact this free application and the World-Wide Web would have on communication, business, and our lives. Hal, I and others saw the potential, but could not even begin predict the huge social and economic impact it would have. At a base level, we all understood that Mosaic, a free, simple, protocol-encompassing network application that at its core was a tool for accessing the Web, made the Internet “easy” for nearly anyone. Prior to Mosaic, users needed a suite of different applications to access the Internet. After Mosaic’s release, in essence, we only needed one – a user-friendly “browser” that merged graphics and text into a single screen. The Internet became more than just a set of protocols for transmitting email and text files – it was poised to become the next multimedia medium, and finally there was a tool to take advantage of it.

Mosaic alone did not change multimedia and our understanding of media-enabled content – the simplicity of the HyperText Markup Language (HTML) quite possibly did. Developed at CERN in Switzerland and adopted by university researchers, HTML was a simple text-based document format that ultimately allowed anyone to create content and share it world-wide. Building upon the experiences of research faculty, universities rapidly discovered the possibilities of sharing content with other institutions and campus libraries found a new mode for delivering information to students and faculty. As a by-product of this campus “wired” culture, students graduated with this knowledge, corporations picked up on it, and the information age charged ahead at full-throttle, fundamentally changing how we think about information and embedding multimedia deep into our society.

For me, the evolution of multimedia, the development of Mosaic, and the explosion of the Web illustrate one of my core beliefs about technology – if implemented right, technology should make complex things simple, and in doing so, open possibilities that have been too costly or nearly impossible to implement. At the macro level, efforts are sometimes fragmented, financial costs are often quite high, and results can take a very long time. When all of the pieces fall into place, however, the combined product can revolutionize the environment in which we live, work, and play, often affecting the small groups we collaborate with on a daily basis or in rare instances such as the Web, impact our entire society as a whole.

One Reply to “Making complexity simple (once again)”

  1. I quite like reading a post that will make people
    think. Also, thanks for permitting me to comment!

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