Cultures In Webs: Working in Hypermedia With The Documentary
by Roderick Coover
CD for Macintosh or Windows. $35.00
2003. Published by Eastgate
Roderick Coover aptly starts out his hypermedia offering, Cultures in Webs (Eastgate Communications, publisher) with a quote by Clifford Geertz: "Cultural analysis is intrinsically incomplete. And, worse than that, the more deeply it goes the less complete it is" (Geertz 1973:29).  Thiry years later, Geertz's words could easily refer to the act of reading most hypermedia presentations. We have become a culture based on fragment intake, whether we surf the web and cruise off mid-sentence because a highlighted hyperlink beckons, or find our visual attention snagged from a newscaster's words by the multi-windowed blurb-bite approach television networks increasingly employ.
It could be argued there is much poetry afoot in a synapse-arc-connect presentation methodology, yet Coover seems bent on making sure his hypermedia presentation proceeds in a predominantly linear fashion. Perhaps the most promising aspect of this collection is the material Coover chose to frame his essays on the use of hypermedia for documentary inquiry: public events and music in Ghana, a wine harvest in France, and funerary practice in India. As so little creative hypermedia takes its subject matter from a world not 'first' or addresses concerns in parts of the world where the information superhighway is not a three-pronged plug away, this choice is commendable, and the collection of works intriguing. But unfortunately, while many of the points Coover makes are insightful and clearly stated, the work's technical implementation struggles along a few seasons behind what could have been achieved using current hypermedia software to build a truly engaging, reader-interactive experience.
In Metaphors, Montage and Worldmaking, a rather fascinating look at Robert Gardner's documentary, Forest of Bliss (1986), a "film [which] visually describes the economy and rituals surrounding the disposal of the dead in Benares, India, without the use of any voiceover ..."  the reader should be able to open multiple windows, not just one at a time, should be able to replay videos, and certainly shouldn't need a Play Video prompt to know what to do.
The horizontal presentation of the second essay, The Harvest, is interesting, reminiscent of a walk through a photo gallery or museum -- but again falls short of the creative possibilities that could have justified using hypermedia as a presentation tool. Horizontal html programming emerged in the mid-90s, specifically at a museum site that allowed the reader to 'walk' left to right through a visual space. As a framing device, it's far from new. When the piece finally offers a link out of the horizontal stroll, readers are propelled back to the beginning, a choice that doesn't seem to aid the work at all.
Concealed Narratives, on Performance in Ghana, the third essay, combines many multi-media elements, it also has the most page-specific sense of design, enabling the author to layer words and clips with additional visuals. But unless one thinks to collapse the browser bars (Cultures in Webs launches off a cd/rom and uses the reader's computer web browser) -- individual screen information at times exceeds screen size (a problem only because the design seems keyed to be read without vertical scrolling, a problem which shows up in some of the hyperlinked sections of The Harvest, as well). Again, the essay is primarily linear, which is a shame as Coover tells us in his introduction [that the] "festivals and funerals are characterized by waves of simultaneous performances."  It also tended to load its multimedia elements a bit sluggishly.
I can well understand how an academic documentary audience would find inserted film clips, music and hyperlinks to be quite a departure. The essays themselves are very well thought out; Coover's theories hold resonance. But ultimately, technical execution falls short of the work's stated theoretical promise. Perhaps this collection could benefit from one of the primary rules fiction writers (and talented hypermedia artists such as Talan Memmott, Geoff Lillemon and Ingrid Ankerson) employ, one with which Coover has a real affinity given his choice of the voice-over less Forest of Bliss: show, don't tell. There is much tell here, not enough show, thus Cultures in Webs isn't really new media. It's remediated media. With the abundance of free material available on the web, if we're to build a paying audience for hypermedia, I think we have to give people a bit more for their $35.
1 Clifford Geertz quoted by Roderick Coover in Cultures in Webs, Introduction
2 Roderick Coover, Cultures in Webs, Introduction