COMPUTERS and COMPOSITION 10(3), August 1993, pages 103-109

Verbum Interactive and
Multimedia in Education

Christopher Busiel

"In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word . . . Evolved." With this significant allusion begins the first edition of Verbum Interactive (hereafter VI), the first-ever interactive multimedia "magazine" (an electronic version of the print journal Verbum, extant since 1986). The suggestion by the editors of VI that (systems of) words evolve and the visible evolution here of a well-known set of words herald the creation of a space in which our conceptions of notions such as the word, language, and the act of reading are repeatedly and engagingly challenged. As an offshoot of electronic writing, VI may not be open to deconstruction. It is itself, as J. David Bolter (1991) suggests, a deconstruction of the closed text. VI expands the deconstructive qualities of electronic writing by simultaneously engaging the linguistic value of media such as video, music, and animation and encouraging the interaction between these media and the written word in a common environment.

The scope of VI, in terms of both its thematic and intellectual expanse and the level of technological expertise with which the final product was produced, is truly remarkable. The magazine is focused thematically on digital art and cyberculture (and the role interactive multimedia plays in these realms), but this topic is presented from such a multiplicity of viewpoints, engaging so many convergent and divergent sectors of society, that seemingly every side of the story has been covered. (It has not, though; part of what makes the scope of VI feel so immense is its creators' admission that the book on multimedia is not yet closed.)

Much of VI is presented in the style of a print magazine--there are columns and articles. Even in these familiar genres, however, the reader works through material with techniques and strategies clearly divergent from those required by the printed or electronic text. In a piece on global media culture, for example, the reader has at her or his disposal a wealth of material, including an electronic summary text, a full printed text that is called forth from the computer by clicking an icon, and a multimedia "slide show," all of which may be accessed in any order, including simultaneously in separate windows. The other sections of the magazine explore further the outer reaches of our idea of reading by allowing the reader to engage in nontextual interaction that nevertheless signifies. There are hands-on software demonstrations (the advertisements of VI), galleries of digital art works that are accessed in a variety of ways, as well as a roundtable of digitized computer experts to whom the reader may address questions about various aspects of the industry and receive animated responses (a remarkable 1 1/2 hours of video discussion). Form and function throughout the magazine converge upon one another as VI presents us with both an engaging discussion of the applications and merits of a new medium and a finished product built from that medium.

My attempt to review VI has me in something of a quandary. My problem (an anomaly) is much like one raised by Bolter (1991) in Writing Space: How can I, in a compressed, linear text, draw conclusions about a style of writing and a technology whose very nature defies the linear? For Bolter, the problem arises from the technologies of hypertext, the ways in which the progression of a narrative is determined by the reader, thereby unpacking seemingly closed relationships between author, text, and reader. In VI, much of the same disruption is occurring, with the added technological wonder that VI's text is multimedia, a bricolage of text, graphics, animation, audio, and video. Although contemporary scholars and critics have approached each of these elements as a medium-cum-artform in its own right with specific skills required to read it [1], multimedia and VI present a chance to explore these various processes and use these various skills in near simultaneity, to build meaning from the interplay between various kinds of reading.

Verbum Interactive is revolutionary; it purports to be the first artifact of its kind. Although its scope, in one sense, is bounded by the frame of the CD ROMs that carry it, it feels immense, almost infinite. In addition, despite the restrictions of its packaging, the magazine is in almost every other way unbounded. Its authors, rather significantly, make no claim of its closure; we are free to question its conclusions (or lack thereof), to make our own, even to examine the technology by which the magazine was produced. The ROM aspect of the disks also means that VI operates outside of the realm of electronic network writing that so intrigues us as critics of text and authorship. Because the reader cannot write on the disk, she or he remains merely a reader, not a reader/writer. [2] However, the reader in one sense writes her or his own experience with (interpretation of) the text. We might--particularly with regard to the monumentally passive subjects constructed by our most culturally dominant medium, that of television--consider this in itself a revolutionary act.

This close interplay between VI and television brings to bear the question of whether the magazine, for critical purposes, is best assessed in the context of electronic writing or in postprint media such as television. The fact that the artifact in question consciously travels the netherworld between the two realms makes this question a difficult one to answer. Whether we as readers are watching television on our computers or reading text on our televisions constitutes another difficult question. The opening animation sequence following a reader's logging in shows a television set (transmitting stock sequences of clips from a black-and-white science fiction movie, a Superman cartoon, an episode of "Batman" that won't quite come into focus) that transforms into a computer, then into "VTV" (a mutated, interactive, computerized television version of MTV). This conscious identification with the medium of television is found throughout the magazine, in the ubiquitous appearances of text phrases such as "Now here's something we hope you'll really like!" (Rocky the Flying Squirrel's traditional fourth-wall apology following a particularly embarrassing stunt by Bullwinkle) and graphic and animated quoting (or cannibalizing, as Jameson would have it) of famous TV images. At one point in the introduction the reader is invited to "go where no one has gone before." This identification in relation to TV has one important ramification in the question of the computer literacy required to read the magazine. Frankly, very little computer expertise is required. The text runs on Macintosh (eventually, WINDOWS 3.0 for DOS), strictly with mouse interaction. Currently, technology is being developed that will allow interactive CD ROM programs such as VI to be run on television sets with the addition of inexpensive projection devices. A reader who is not computer literate and, in fact, may not even have access to a computer, is thus constructed. [3]

For some (postmodern critics), this relationship to television is troubling. It seems to suggest that the act of reading, already stigmatized as passive in certain discourses, will now be appropriated and subsumed by the even more passive act of watching television. Certainly, Bolter (1991) seems to have great difficulty with nontextual computer technologies entering the realm of communication (though certain items, such as graphs and charts, are appropriated for their signifying, linguistic, value). Virtual reality, for example, is for him little more than a video game that lulls the user into a passive experience. A more useful conclusion, I would suggest, is that the consequence of VI is the reclaiming of media technologies (previously numbing in their proliferation) by a mode of communication that supports the development of an active participant. Although VI is not a pedagogical tool for the teaching of either rhetoric or composition, it functions as something of a chemical agent, melting barriers in the students' minds between written (and other academic) forms of communication and those of popular society by revealing the productive interaction between various postprint electronic media and a written discourse. [4]

Although they do initially draw the reader away from television on the strength of their eye-popping visual quality, the elements of multimedia are to be read in conjunction with text and as an equal component of the overall text. The reader is not lulled by these media, and thus remains every bit as active as Bolter's projected reader of hypertext. In addition, the consideration of multimedia as text brings about even more important questions regarding the process of reading, which may in VI mean the following:

In every case, the media is presented not simply for its aesthetic value but to play a more significant role in the creation of meaning shared by user and computer. In every case, the significance of the act of reading and the relationship of the reader to the text is called into question. In every case, an active reader has developed--active in that she or he writes her or his reading of the textual experience, and in that she or he is given the tools and the inspiration to create in turn her or his own representations of the experience in oral, hypertextual, or multimedia communication. [5]

But so what? We are still becoming more an illiterate society. Our school system is increasingly defunded, depopulated, demoralized. What's the significance of suggesting that VI has succeeded in developing an active reader? It lies in the consideration of a literacy that is postmodernly post-television, a claim no other version (fixed in various forms of the written or printed text) can make (or desires to make). The search for meaning and a new mode of communication is based in multimedia because of a conscious recognition of the stifling proliferation of meaningless media in our society. When the topic of VI turns to education (and the use of interactive multimedia therein), the voices are concerned with the reclaiming of students from television, the need to create meaningful discourse that does not silence or negate the powerful effects of visually stimulating media but appropriates them for a productive end. Although post-Derridian literary theories may have empowered the reader by destroying the notion of the fixed, finished, text (or are at least couched in the rhetoric of having done so), VI as a text always already grants the reader a certain empowerment. It lays open its own workings to the point that one can sample on the disk the software technology by which it was created. The line between VI as object and VI as process is blurred. The artifact requests that the reader chart an active interpretive path through its contents.

Although I don't want to make naive conjectures about the power of one digital artifact, I do believe that the fundamental ideology (as well as the rapidly developing computer technology) displayed by VI is important in our consideration of our roles as subjects (readers?) of a society. By the initial step of becoming active readers, we gain the potential of disrupting economic systems (by becoming educated buyers no longer prone to the persuasive images of television advertising) and social systems (by becoming more discerning learners). Technology is to be used.

Clearly, there is more that needs to be said about VI. The final, implicit message of the software demos VI provides may be "go make your own magazine." The technologies behind the magazine are of particular value in the classroom, a point VI explores thematically in more than one of its multimedia reports. What is most significant here is that the multimedia technology will not replace the teacher; the human teacher may customize the technology to better suit her or his teaching needs.

Perhaps there is more that I could have said myself (though I already feel the constraint of having filled or overflowed the linear text). VI presents a technology and a philosophy that is powerful more than it is either beneficial or detrimental. No doubt our further conclusions on VI will be contingent on who maintains control of this multimedia technology in the future. We may wonder at the further advances demonstrated by the second edition, now in preparation. Certainly some bugs need to be worked out--the second edition could run faster, could use a less substantial amount of RAM. The creators could perhaps limit its size somewhat in order to devote all their energies toward providing material of a more uniformly excellent quality. But the most exciting advances will be, I believe, in the further exploration by the staff of VI of the mode and measure of our interaction with a text, whether printed or electronic. For the time being, what we have is an interesting experiment that pushes the envelope of our notions of reading, of text, of language, of closure. How can I conclude my analysis when the creators themselves choose not to close the very artifact I'm supposedly analyzing? In their words: "Is this the beginning of a new kind of communication? We're not really sure. That's why we're doing this. We want to find out."


  1. See, for example, Jameson (1987) on the video text.

  2. The latter figure is of central importance to Mark Poster (1990) in The Mode of Information, and to other critics who seek to map the dynamic and interactive role of the reader in a conceptual framework or history of the book, of writing, of communication.

  3. This is an important cultural event, as the high price of the technology required to run VI certainly limits its potential readership. Whether ease of access can be increased through libraries, schools, and other institutions is a point to be exam- ined in the future. Another point of concern is VI's current retail price of $49.95.

  4. One highly visible example of this tendency is the hypernote, of which this linear print-footnote is a rough example. Following the logic of the "hotword" in hypertext applications such as HYPERCARD or TOOLBOOK, the hypernote links the reader to a simultaneous flow of supplementary information in an environment analogous to the pop-up window. This information may be simply a dictionary or technical definition of the word, but often it is more, linking such signifiers as animated sequences and audio cues (and their signifieds) to the textual sign.

  5. Poster (1990) and Bolter (1991) again provide an important model, in this case networked electronic writing. This strategy is being employed in our work at The University of Texas by providing "notetaking" fields in the HYPERTEXT courseware we develop, thereby making the student texts an integral part of each future user's experience.

Christopher Busiel is a graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin and works in John Slatin's computer research lab.


Bolter, J. D. (1991). Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Jameson, F. (1987). Reading without interpretation: Postmodernism and the video text. In N. Fabb, et al. (Ed), The linguistics of writing: Arguments between language and literature (pp. 199-222). Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Poster, M. (1990). The mode of information: Poststructuralism and social context. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.