CD-ROM and the Internet
by Simon Biggs, December 1994

Originally published 1995 in Berlin Videofest Catalogue, Berlin, Germany as part of the Multimedia program.
Also published in Clicking In: Hotlinks to a Digital Culture, Ed. Lyn Hershman, Bay Books, Seattle, USA.

Analogs and Languages:

With fully digital media the underlying materials on which products are distributed and received become less and less relevant to the specifics and characteristics of the product itself. Whilst recognising that the medium still has important characteristics that inform the manner in which we experience information the medium, in the sense that Macluhan conceived it, is no longer the primary message.

With analogue media such as film or video the relationships between the raw information , the means by which it is "written" and the means by which it is accessed (film-projector, VTR, etc) are more or less inextricable. The information is the product of all its physical components. In the case of film an optical device records light to a material itself composed from various optical characteristics which is then "played" through another optical device.

With video this relationship between the components of the media is not quite as direct, but remains more or less so. An optical device converts information to a continuous and infinitely variable analogue signal on magnetic tape. The relationship between this signal and the original data is directly analogous; a one to one mapping. Another device reads this information and thus drives an optical display device (a CRT).

With digital technology these isomorphic patterns or analogical relationships are lost. The digital data that describes a picture is entirely abstract. Without the correct decoding "key" the information is useless. In this sense digital data is symbolic in the same sense as written language. It is like a Rosetta Stone without any means of translation available, sharing with other linguistic forms the implicit complexities involved in reading and writing. Its meaning remains inaccessable until it is passed through a decoding procedure that releases that which was originally encoded in it. The analysis of digital information is best undertaken not by physicists or engineers but by linguists and semioticians.

As with any medium, but perhaps more explicitly so due to the reasons mentioned above, digital media exist in and of a social context. Digital information is produced, encoded and interpreted entirely within the social environment from which it takes its form and meaning. Before all else it is an idea.

We can establish four aspects in dealing with digital media which reflect on this condition and assist us in its analysis; hardware, software, artware and wetware.


The media which are to be discussed here are CD-ROM and the Internet. As they are the most rapidly developing distribution technologies available today for interactive multimedia products this seems appropriate. That is not to say that they are the best or that they will last. Nevertheless, each has its unique characteristics which for one reason or another are leading to what appears at this point in time to be rapid and sustained growth.

Media such as CD-ROM and the Internet function to allow digital data to be cheaply and efficiently moved from one place to another. Before saying anything about that data let us look at the physical media themselves.

CD-ROM's primary value seems to be the cost/data equation. With a capacity of up to 600 megabytes (allowing high bandwidth data such as video or sound to be stored) and with access times similar to that of a computer's internal hard disk (enabling interactive documents to function satisfactorily) CD-ROM immediately seems to have an important role. Given its very cheap production costs (as little as US$1 per unit) and its small, light and easily packaged nature CD-ROM becomes irresistable and has, not surprisingly, moved to take a large market share in only a few years. It seems that it may become the dominant means of distribution for electronic cultural product by the end of the decade, whether games, movies, educational material, dictionaries or art works.

The Internet has some similar and some quite different characteristics. Like CD-ROM it is a very cheap means of access to data (the cost of a local telephone call). Like CD-ROM the material costs of publication are very low. Like CD-ROM it is very portable. In fact it is so portable that the notion of place is lost altogether, as that which is being "ported" is not the data but the user. When "surfing on the net" it is quite common to move from city to city, country to country, continent to continent in seconds. The "net surfer" is hardly aware of "where" they are. Most likely they donŐt even bother to keep track of their "virtual" geographic whereabouts. Notions of space as we have understood them collapse.

This is where the Internet differs most radically from CD-ROM, or any other medium which exists as a physical object. In a sense the Internet has something in common with broadcast technologies such as radio and television, however its high levels of interactivity mean that the information is not so much received by the viewer but rather is entered by the user. One can see the Internet as one giant computer that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The user enters this non-space and becomes similarly dematerialised.

This brings us to what makes these two media common, what could be seen as the real "meta-medium" behind them. That is, the places that this data is moved to and from - the computers which have ubiquitously invaded our desktops, offices, studios, bedrooms and living rooms. The machines that both produce the material we experience and allow us the means of access to it.

The computer is a language machine. It is a machine that is defined by linguistic forms (programmable) and is optimised for storing and processing linguistic material (here I am using the term language in its broadest sense to include images, sounds, in fact any symbolic or symbolically describable phenomena). As such, it is an abstract machine. There is nothing in its definition (as originally proposed by Allan Turing during the Second World War) that implies that it must have any physical existence nor any particular function. Turing simply defined the computer as a machine that could be any machine; that it could be this because it was programmable - as such, operating symbolically upon symbolic things.

This universe of symbolic forms includes the computer itself, and it is this recursive aspect of the medium that lends it its real technological, and therefore social, power. It is this which places it less as a medium and more as a meta-medium. To paraphrase Turing, it is the medium that can be any medium. It is from this definition that we can see the rapid development of the computer as the means for what has come to be called "multimedia", although perhaps the term "metamedia" would be more appropriate.

Thus whilst the discussion here is focused on the production of and access to computer based multi-media products via what are becoming two of the most popular contemporary means of distribution - CD-ROM and the Internet - in reality the underlying media, and that which is at the heart of any questions about CD-ROM and the Internet, is the computer itself; as both a physical and social artifact.

Given this, and that the future of a medium like CD-ROM appears good but not necessarily assured (as what has happened to video surely tells us), our attention is directed not only to the specifics of these media but also the underlying principles of digital technologies such that the discourse explored and extrapolated will remain more or less valid beyond the lifetime of specific distribution technologies.


CD-ROM and the Internet are relatively new (at least for artists) and it is clear that there is a conspicuous lack of "artware". The technologies in question have been available for some years but with recent drastic cuts in costs (prices falling as much as 80% in the last 2 or 3 years) artists and others who tend to work independently can only now afford to access these media. If we look at the impact of the music CD on the music scene, with the rise of small independent producers encouraged by the low mass-production costs involved, we can get some idea of the possibilities for a media where practitioners are familiar with counting copies of their videotapes on their fingers rather than in the thousands on their calculators.

CD-ROM has been around for a decade yet artists' use of it is a relatively recent development. As the costs of the media involved have fallen artists have found that they can consider working with them.

Education has been critical in this process. Art schools have over the past few years invested relatively heavily in new technologies, and this has led to the emergence of a new generation of artists who are familiar with the use of computers and peripheral systems. They have also developed their work within a social context that regards technology as an almost natural phenomena. The role of entertainment technologies such as computer games have contributed to the development of what some are now calling Cyberculture.

Because of this these artists have a distinct attitude towards their audience. They expect their audience to be involved in the work, to take on the role of a protagonist in the interactive processes of interpretation, problematising the whole process of reading and writing. This is something explicit in all interactive technology, but also a major factor in the psychological makeup of todays youth culture. Computer games have shifted forever our expectations of media and our role relative to them. The passivity of cinema, video and television is being transformed into an entirely different media culture.

The Internet has been around since the 1950's, but artists have only now begun to consider its attractions for artistic production and distribution. The reasons for this are much the same as for CD-ROM; the problems of access to technology, the difficulty of aquiring the skills to work with computers and similar advanced technologies and the lack of a social context within which to engage meaningfully with the technology.

This is rapidly changing. Internet usage is increasing exponentially. During 1994 there was an increase of 20% each month in the number of people on the net. Nobody has any idea of how many people use the net but it is perhaps in the area of thirty million; and doubling every six months.

One can see the Internet as one giant distributed computer which is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. The user enters this non-space and becomes similarly dematerialised. In this sense the user becomes a linguistic node, another simulation amongst a "universe" of simulations, a "packet" of information constantly moving from one server to another. When on the net one feels not only disembodied and displaced but also transformed.

With the Internet we can see the possibility for artists, who once may have considered broadcast technologies as an appropriate medium for their work, to shift their means of production from the linear to the interactive and their means of dissemination from fixed broadcast to customisable narrow-access.

Artists' use of TV has been sparse and generally unsuccessful. Why? We know it is expensive and politically difficult to access but perhaps the determining reason is that to use broadcast media requires an entirely different approach to that of traditional art. It's not that you can't make art on TV, it's just that to do it well you have to shift your practice, intentions and definitions so far that the result doesnŐt really resemble art anymore, at least as we generally accept it. The same holds true for attempts at cultural intervention or subversion. Like Saturn and his children, broadcast media consume difference. Can something remain radical, to continue to function as different, if it is culturally shared on the scale that broadcast allows?

An artist such as the New York based Paul Garrin partly made his reputation with hard hitting broadcast interventions. Similar to a number of artists around the world that consider themselves to work in the media-underground Garrin, in collaboration with Nam June Paik and a number of ex-Fluxus artists, has recently moved across to the Internet as a means of achieving their ends.

Apparently Garrin sees the future for disruptive underground practice outside of the broadcast context. Whether this is a forward step into a new media world of fragmentation or a regressive step brought about by the apparent paradoxes involved in artists' engagement with mass-media is a question which remains open.

Certainly the Internet is distinct to broadcast. Perhaps the greatest distinction lies in the relationship between medium and "audience" (in reference to the Internet it is difficult to deal with the concept "audience"). Whilst broadcast functions to deliver a shared cultural experience to the maximum number of people the Internet is all about subcultural production and experience in its most extreme form. In contrast to the broadcast viewer, who more or less passively accepts a paradigm, the Internet user enters a cultural context by choice, where they know that they are sharing it with others with similar reasons for being there. As more users opt for such inclusion within various subcultural millieu's the disruptive and subversive nature of the Internet becomes apparent not in how it may intervene in our televisual flow but in the way in which it may change our whole relationship with information media and cultural experience.

One problematic here is the status of art and the artist. New media always offer the possibility to short-circuit notions of what art and culture are and thus encourage the emergence of new ways of working, of seeing, of being seen. The emergence of both photography and the cinema functioned in this way. If the artist is less concerned about something being art then perhaps they are free to be more creative with their ideas, the form of their work and their relationship with the audience/viewer/user.

This idea can be seen to inform much of the emerging practice now evident. A perfect example is the Digitale Staad project by a group of artists and social theorists in Amsterdam. This involves the creation of a parallel but virtual city where participants can choose to live virtually, in parrallel to their normal existence in the real city they daily inhabit. The intention is not to create an ideal or utopian city, nor to establish it as a metaphorical-critical space. Their agenda is not specific in any of the ways that such objectives would suggest. Rather, the Digital City exists as a potential space where individuals and groups may invent their own shared experience in a form that is in its totality open ended and unstructured. As such, perhaps it can be seen as a utopian space if one sees the creation of a discontinuous and fragmentary space occupied by diverse subcultures as an objective worth seeking. Whatever, we should recognise that much of the intrinsic value of this type of work is in its differences rather than its similarities with more traditional artforms and modes of cultural expression.

Therefore, some multimedia work may resemble games, edutainment or computer simulation. Hopefully some work looks like nothing we have ever seen before, evading definition. Our criteria should be founded on notions of creativity in its widest (and wildest) sense rather than on ideas of what is or is not art. As has already been argued above, at this point it seems both retrograde and limiting to confine one's interest to works that are very obviously artistic, especially with media forms that in their very nature bring into question the whole notion of the artist and authorship.