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The Independent Culture
The beginning of January seems like a good time to pose a question that's been at the back of my mind for a while: what year is it? This may seem a little premature, since it is not until after 23:59 on 31 December, 1999 that all the computers in the world are due to lose their track of time, with supposedly apocalyptic consequences.

My query, however, concerns the point hypermedia have reached in their history. The first public film show was given on 28 December 1895 by the Lumiere brothers, who toured it internationally over subsequent months, making 1896 the generally accepted Year One of cinema. Which will be the centenary year for the hypermedia buffs of the next century? Perhaps the release of the hypertext software that made possible the World Wide Web will make 1992 seem an appropriate inaugural date. Perhaps there won't be a centenary year at all, and the 1990s' creaky steps into new media will be regarded as an appendix to history, like airships in the modern perspective that sees the Wright Brothers' first flight as the real dawn of aviation.

There are certain clear similarities between computer media in the 1990s and cinema in the 1890s. Cinema was perceived first as a scientific and technical wonder. Many of its early essays were simple demonstrations of what it did, making images move. It was also used very early in its development to communicate information about current events, in newsreels. The first cinema audiences saw crowd scenes, Derby winners; they were being given tokens of a promise to reproduce the world.

Almost at once, film pioneers began to promise that cinema could rearrange images so as to create dimensions unseen in the outside world. With these experiments in illusion, and later narrative editing, cinema became recognisable as a nascent art form, not just as a medium.

As it invented itself, it used models from existing forms: Georges Melies devised fades and dissolves; he depicted a "voyage to the Moon", but he held the camera static, reproducing the spatial arrangements of the stage where he had worked as a conjuror.

From where we stand, the most obvious and humbling similarity between our new media and early cinema is the primitiveness of the technology. But cinema produced art without effective means of reproducing sound or colour. Directors developed new languages of expression and narrative; audiences learned to read them, in return teaching the movie-makers which devices worked and which didn't.

The collective creation of new languages turned out to be a more important advance than getting projectors to run at the right speed. If this were also true of computer media, it would make a far more interesting proposition than the need to replace copper wire with glass fibre, or the moaning of last year's disk drives as they struggle to cope with this year's overblown software.

Most office workers have now grasped the mixed metaphors of menus, desktops and windows. Hypermedia depends upon office metaphors, like files and pages, or metaphors consistent with office or domestic life, such as the virtual buildings that CD-ROM designers are so keen to trail their customers around. These metaphors have proved intuitive and serviceable, but their main impact has arisen from the fact that they are so much better than the crabbed lines of type that came before. There's no reason to assume that windows are the ultimate interface.