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Column1: Introduction to Interactive Writing
By Michael Utvich
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The Medium and the Message

Thirty years ago, Marshall McCluhan penned his famous "the medium is the message" and only now are we beginning to get what he was talking about.

The telephone, the printing press, television, radio, the movie screen: each of these technologies has served as the basis of a medium of communication between human beings. McCluhan pointed out that each of these media subtly alters and shapes the way we perceive and react to the content they present. The word "cat" seen on a printed page draws an entirely different reaction than seeing a video clip of the live animal slinking through a TV commercial. The abstract idea of a cat, conveyed through written language is radically different than seeing a representation of a real, specific cat in motion.

The Interactive Revolution

Today, we are faced again with another media revolution, this time driven by the ubiquitous personal computer. The core buzzword is interactive. The computer, unlike the TV screen or the printed page, permits the audience to talk back, or feedback in real time. Of all the familiar technologies, the computer is most similar to and linked directly with the telephone. A telephone conversation is an interactive event. The added capabilities of the personal computer now permit us to design information and entertainment as a kind of meta-conversation - a broadcast event that draws individual response and feedback.

Regardless of the actual interactive medium used - the World Wide Web, CD-ROM, a computer network, a cellular telephone, a fax machine - the approach and process used to present information and tell stories interactively demands that we rethink and re-invent the way we think about both information and storytelling.

Technology vs Communication

Itís easy to get the totally false idea that this revolution is All About Technology.

With its usual narcissistic extremes and taste for ham-fisted self-promotion, the high technology industry has presented interactive media as a gift from the lab. If you follow any of the trade or general interest computer magazines, you have been Netscaped past your Java into total Shockwave. As each of the various technical components makes its bow, the technical columns trill yet louder about what new horizons lie before us, courtesy Digital Audio Objects, or Compressed Video Whatever. Meanwhile, the creative impulse that gives rise to the Arts has been comptrashed into that thuddingly dull and all-purpose term: "content."

Guess what? Without human creativity and inspiration, all this stuff would just sit there, gathering dust.

The Interactive Challenge

Everything human beings do is interactive. From our casual conversations, to driving the car to the Seven-Eleven, to turning on the TV to watch the Presidential Debates, to making dinner. Our lives are interactive patterns, actions, and rituals.

For the first time, technology is starting to catch up with the way we really live and communicate.

This, in a nutshell, is the core of the magic in the new media. For the first time we can develop entertainment and information to communicate the way human beings really think and feel.

Welcome to Interactive Writing

This online column is about writing for these new media. It will not focus on high tech industry gossip, the latest whizbang on the horizon, the Microsoft-Netscape business wars or anything like that.

It will focus on the fundamental principles and practical techniques necessary to create interesting, vivid, involving interactive artforms, stories, presentations, books, games, and experiences.

Interactive writing is a new place to discover yourself and to shape your creativity. I hope this column will serve to both assist and inspire you.

Michael Utvich

© Michael Utvich 1996

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