Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Hypermediated Telepresence: Sensemaking Aesthetics of the Newest Communication Art

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Hypermediated Telepresence: Sensemaking Aesthetics of the Newest Communication Art

Article excerpt

Coming to terms with a new medium of expression typically raises questions for communication scholars about how the experiential environments it creates are at once distinct from and similar to other forms of mediated communication. Discussions of hypermedia reflect this pattern. As with other forms of mass media, hypermedia serves a variety of communication functions. Its three-dimensional chat rooms, on-line video game competitions, and hypermedia story worlds create a "buzzing hive" of cultural and social activity (Danet, 1995; Kiesler, 1997; Turkle, 1995;).(1) It also supports instrumental and work related tasks by extending the ways in which interpersonal communication, collaborative decision making and electronic commerce can happen (Kiesler, 1997; Sproull & Kiesler, 1991). Thus, whether formatted as CD-ROM designs, Virtual Reality set ups, or Internet based structures, hypermedia is capable of playful as well as utilitarian, public as well as private, persuasive as well as informational communication functions.

At the same time, the sensory world of a Web page is not that of a printed magazine page, nor is the emotional and cognitive engagement of a Virtual Reality simulation that of a 3-D film, or the experiential nature of a CDROM novel that of a tale told televisually. Like all communication media, hypermedia involves its participants in a particular kind of "sensory world" (Shapiro & McDonald, 1995), and most would probably agree with artist Joseph Squire's appraisal that the hypermedic experience is one of a "... rawer ... faster ... multiple layers of things happening simultaneously ... world in flux ... (Frost, 1997, p. R12)."(2) A rich array of concepts has emerged as descriptive labels of and for this sensory essence, including such distinctions as cyber and virtual, such characteristics as convergent, non-linear, instantaneous, multisensory, or random, and such manifestations as fragmentation, synaesthesia, simulacra, fusion, or bricolage (Cotton & Oliver, 1992; Gibson, 1984; Moulthrop, 1996; Rhinegold, 1993; Woolley, 1992; Zachman, 1992).(3) For various reasons, though, theoretically framing this multifaceted distinctiveness as an experience of mediated communication has proven elusive. A conceptual framework for analysis and extension to theory has not emerged.

A number of scholars argue that research which focuses on distinctions among technologies rather than on distinctions about the experiences that technologies create has prevented treating the emergent concepts of hypermedia as qualities of communication (Gibson, 1996; Lippert, 1996; Shapiro & McDonald, 1995; Steuer, 1995). Familiar conceptions of cyberspace, for example, reflect such a device-driven view.(4) Accordingly, we know cyberspace as "an abstraction of the computer (Lippert, 1996, p.x)," "the territory of digital information," or as a "hyperdimensional realm that we enter through technology (Barnes, 1996, p. 194)." At the same time, other scholars link a technology driven approach with theoretical inadequacies regarding issues of interactivity. Their analyses argue, for example, that qualities of interpersonal engagement in chat rooms and text-based virtual realities (Danet, 1995; Davis, 1995; Marvin, 1995; Turkle, 1995),(5) as well as interaction in Web site communities (Mitra, 1997) or hyperlinked storytelling (Miles, 1996), are not explained simply as mediated versions of everyday, face-to-face interaction.

The work reported here -- in the form of a conceptual framework synthesizing a set of aesthetic principles relevant to hypermedia -- addresses what communication scholars recognize as the "sensory world" or the "experiential environment" of mediated communication. The heart of the work is a visual field analysis which theoretically maps how perceptions of space and time are structured by hypermedia within the aesthetic field of a two-dimensional screen. Using the perspective of contextual media aesthetics (Zettl, 1999), it isolates a set of perceptual qualities which are argued to form the basic building blocks used by this medium to create and shape its sensemaking experience. …

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