“…as it should be.”

Sorry for the lack of updates, but the holiday season, combined with winter break, has kept me away from the computer.

AOL is running a commercial on television boasting the capabilities of the “new” AOL. We see a woman’s face as if looking through the computer monitor back at her. As a filter between us and her, we see the text of a four-part AOL page, divided into quadrants. One is clearly AIM, another is a search box, etc.

She is good at multitasking, as all AOL users must surely be if they are to use the “new” AOL to its fullest–at least that’s the message I get.

The most interesting thing about the commercial is that it boasts AOL search results that include text, graphics, videos, and photos all on the same results page, “as it should be,” or similar words to that effect.

I’m reading Lanham’s The Electronic Word at the moment, chapter two to be specific. It’s an essay on how the visual has become more and more important as computers and the Web become more popular. So it’s natural that multimedia environments are on my mind.

Lanham’s essay says that the ratio of text/image is changing. Digital culture is becoming increasingly image-oriented and that perspective is creating a new norm. No longer will text-based culture dominate the world (of business). The image, whether as icons on a desktop or clip art in a PowerPoint presentation, is now acceptable currency for important ideas.

AOL’s commercial shows me that some idealists out there still believe we need to push this transformation–that it doesn’t have enough gas to get there on its own. Obviously, I think we are already to that point. I agree with what I think Lanham was getting at: that our culture (American culture) is image-oriented. Look at the signs and logos everywhere around us. Look at the corner of your television screen: do you even notice the embossed network sign displayed there? Probably only when you need to discern what channel you’re on, and when that need arises, the image is there to convey the information you need–not text.

Undoubtedly, AOL is pushing multimedia (without actually using that word–it’s so 1994, after all) because they want users to buy it. Remember, no matter how idealistic the designers and marketers at AOL may be, they are also in the business of charging users for access to the Web and all the information it holds. They do this under the auspices of protection. They will protect the novice user from hackers and identity thieves, viruses and spyware. They give us the Web, processed and packaged for easy consumption.

The features the “new” AOL boasts are not revolutionary. They do not break new ground in the way that YouTube and Wikipedia have. These features merely use, as bait, a condition that looks novel because we have already integrated it into our lives. Multimedia (or whatever you call in in 2007) looks cool because it’s already everywhere. Like bell-bottoms or Rubik’s Cubes, multimedia is cool because it’s retro.

So what? Why should it be a surprise that a corporation is trying to sell customers something they already have? It’s in that phrase that AOL used to describe its new results page: “as it should be.”

Computing culture has arrived at the point where a major company can say in national television that text and image and video and photography belong on the same page together. Text is no long privileged–it is no longer the primary means of communication. Other media work too.


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