Becoming Human

1. A hypertext that works. I've been meaning to write about this one for months. I think it is my favourite Web site. It is all about the origins of man, and the main content is made in Flash throughout. It has two parts, a linear and a nonlinear, and they are of course deeply intertwingled. The linear part, a "documentary", is made very much like a TV documentary, and the images are "made to move" by zooming and panning, and dissolves between them.

The narrated slideshow runs uninterrupted for 30 minutes, but the point is really that it should be interrupted. At certain points, a "learn more" link is visible on the screen for a while, and clicking it halts the documentary and opens an "exhibition".

Actually, the "exhibitions" are always available from a "drawer" in the bottom edge of the Flash pane. There are 42 of them (of course...), though only 10 are linked from the documentary, the others have to be browsed. These exibitions differ widely -- some day I will catalogue all the different forms of user actions they offer -- some containing text and info-graphics with rollovers, others contain sound and video. And many of them offer another "learn more" link, which will open a text window, slightly smaller, on top of the exhibition, with additional pages of text. Those of us who enjoyed the CD-ROMs in the last century will recognise most of the techniques. This is really CD-ROM-style interaction, not Web-style.

Paleoanthropology was not something I knew interested me, but this site keeps me glued. Lots to be inspired from. Made by Terra Incognita, one of the most experienced teams in interactive media. It is hypertext, and anyone would agree it works.

2. Signs. Currently, I am tumbling with how to describe the convergence going on in this thing. One thing is the mix of what CS geeks call media, what we semiotic media studies geeks call sign systems. Take the documentary. We have a mix of static photographs, and spoken language and music, both dynamic, existing and changing in time. The static images are made dynamic, and our power to inspect them, contemplate their composition is empowerished. They disappear. We also have a mix of what I think Nelson Goodman (where did I put that book, now?) calls continuous (analogue) and discrete (digital, but not in your ordinary sense of the word) signs. The spoken narration is language, where the meaning of each word is fairly fixed (yeah, yeah, fairly, don't start that Peirce-Saussure-Wittgenstein-Hjelmslev-Barthes-Eco-Derrida thing (this is a blog, not a seminar, remember?)) by its opposition to any other word. Discrete signs. The photographs are continuous. We can not tell where one "sign" or meaningful element stops and another begins. The narration helps anchoring the photographs, which on their part give detailed, vivid description and empathy to fill out the words. The music add "ethnic" "North Africanness" to a Northern ear, though I do not in any way want to start discussing the complexities of a semiotic of music. Links showing up in the documentary are text (discrete signs) to avoid confusion.

3. Genres. Still, there is more going on, helping us to understand. What about genres? The voice-over, by paloanthropologist Don Johanson, is a kind of autobiography, but also in the style of television documentary. The photographs are documentary and mainstream arty colour photgraphy, animated televison-style, but some of the images are more resembling info-graphics. At the top of the pane, there are some really advanced playback contols resemling video applications expanding on the VCR metaphor. They can be hid and shown, like applications in a GUI. The exhibitons draw on so many CD-ROM examples. Everything in a large genre of science communication within didactic or explanatory or expository texts.

What a mess.

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