The Guardian Online section
visiting the MA in Hypermedia Studies
by Jim McLellan
"So what is it that Bill Gates actually owns?" Sat near a bank of computer screens, Dr. Richard Barbrook is trying to nudge a group of students towards a greater appreciation of the economics of the Microsoft monopoly. Gradually they pick up his lead and the discussion ranges over the rise of Windows, the fall of Apple and the coming of Netscape. Once this seminar on Graphical User Interfaces (part of a term long course on the "History of Convergence") is over, Barbrook' students have a lecture on the history of computer games to look forward to. Interesting though this is, you can see more than a few students gaze longingly back at the computer screens.
A few days later, they get their chance. It's practical day and Andy Cameron is taking them them through the basics of Lingo, the programming language behind Director, the multimedia authoring tool. On the screens, animations unwind, keyed to various bleeps and beats. One student has set up a routine in which you hit the bald head of French pomo theorist Michel Foucault with a red boxing glove. As it bounces round the screen, a loop of mad scientist laughter booms away irritatingly.
Gates, GUIs and animated GIFs - just another week at the University of Westminster's MA in Hypermedia Studies. The very idea of 'hypermedia studies' would probably be enough to start some newspaper columnists fulminating about the decline in education. But perhaps they should hold back on those soundbites about Mickey Mouse studies and Super Mario theory.
Learning about the political economics of Sonic might sound like the last gasp of cultural studies. But Westminster's Hypermedia Studies MA is actually something new. With its stress on helping students survive in the wired workplace, with its mix of public and private funding, it represents a promising attempt to reinvent the university for the digital age.
Prime mover behind the course is Barbrook, though the original idea came from Andy Cameron. Teaching on Westminster's Contemporary Media Practice course, he met more and more students interested in digital imagery. "He realised something interesting was going on and decided to get involved" comments Barbrook. So Cameron joined some of his old students to work on ANTI-rom, the punk multimedia CD ROM, and decided to set up a new media course.
Barbook (an forty year old ex-punk rocker, who studied politics and philosophy and worked in community radio) came in to plan the course and set up the related Hypermedia Research Centre. Aided by Westminster tutor Jeremy Quinn, he got the HRC website up to showcase related writings and projects - everything from "The Californian Ideology, his and Cameron's theoretical attack on Wired magazine to Quinn's award winning website for the Future Sound of London. He also commisioned the current big names of design, Tomato, to do the course literature and posters. "I think something like that is important", he comments. "It helps to make everything feel special".
There are around twenty students on the course, some from a technical background, others from the arts. Around fifty per cent are women. There's also an interesting mix of ages and nationalities. "Somebody accused us of trying to create a Benetton poster" laughs Barbrook. "We did want to have an interesting mix of people so they fire off each other. I think you can learn as much from your peers as your tutors, especially in an area like this."
The one year course involves two basic term-length modules, on the History of Convergence and on Virtual Communities. For each module, the students do an essay and a small practical project (eg designing a multimedia game, creating a MOO). The last term will be taken up with a 10,000 word dissertation and a large scale practical project. For Barbrook, having a mix of theory and practice was crucial. "I've taught on courses where you can spend three years doing media studies and never make a TV or radio programme. That seems completely absurd."
However, he is still committed to teaching some theory (as a survival skill) and says that distinguishes Westminster from other courses in computer graphics. "Some of these computer skills are going to be obsolete in a few years time, so it's important to give the students a theoretical background, to give them the ability to understand the wider picture, so they can move through the industry."
As part of his desire to ditch the academicism of media studies (and the outmoded left wing suspicion of industry), Barbrook has involved the burgeoning new media industry, encouraging companies like Webmedia, Sony Music, Agency.com and Carlton TV to create bursaries that cover tuition and maintenance fees. Nearly all the students are sponsored by a particular company and will work with them on their final project. "Aside from the money and practical experience, it's good for us because it allows us to understand how companies are using these technologies, how the industry is developing. Hopefully, it will become a two way process. We can adapt the course to fit what people need."
The overall idea of the course is to give people the skills they need to survive in the new media business, to train what Barbrook calls 'digital artisans'. So what are digital artisans, exactly? The modern, wired-up equivalent to the old craftsmen who controlled their own businesses (and destinies), apparently. To understand it all, he says, you need to go back to the nineteenth century. "We used to be in this Fordist economy - the organisation man, jobs for life, a pension scheme at the end - and now, partly because of the peculiar politics of what happened here in the eighties but also for other reasons, we've gone to a contract culture.
"That has a negative side - god knows how anybody is going to have a pension - but also a positive side. It's like the artisans of the early nineteenth century. A lot of people I know in the new media industry have a lot of control over their actual production process. They don't control the market but they actually control the pace of work, within the limits of the marketplace."
Web designers are in a similar position to the artisans who worked in London in the early nineteenth century, he suggests. "They were very self-organised. They did a lot of self-help. They grouped together, not just to try to do trade union type things. A lot of it was to do with skills and pride in work, which is something we're trying to do, encourage people to take pride and care, to make a good job of it. We're also doing some serious research about the conditions out there. Will people like ANTI-rom or Obsolete survive as small units or will they become big production houses? Is there anything really there. Is the London new media industry just a myth, a temporary situation?"
Whilst Barbrook does want to give his students a sense of the possibilites of new technologies, he also wants to encourage them to be suspicious of West Coast cyber-utopianism. "Part of it is combatting a lot of the cyberbollocks. All this stuff about uploading the brain into cyberspace, leaving the meat - which comes from having read too many science fiction books. We do want to challenge the Wired magazine, Louis Rossetto, Newt Gingrich vision of cyberspace. We want to create a more critical less hyped, less obsessed with SF fantasy idea about what's going on in all this."
So what do the students think? There's some criticism of the course's rather chaotic start - the computers arrived six weeks late - and a feeling on the part of some that the technical side of things could go further. But overall there's support for the mix of theory and practice. As for the world after graduation, some are planning to work in new media but others talk about doing more research or using their new skills to suport personal projects.
Chris Brown says he hopes to work at the new media end of the music industry. His end of year project is a move in that direction - he'll be working on a website for a major music magazine publisher. "But I can't say much about it. It's all under negotiation at the moment." (You can't help feeling this is some sort of sign of the times). Mare Tralla, who sold her flat in Estonia to fund her studies, says she will probably go home to teach. "Perhaps I have a big future as the guru of Estonian multimedia," she laughs.
It's early days yet and there are a few teething problems, but the Hypermedia Studies course could develop into something quite interesting. Cyberia's Eva Pascoe has already said that that the Hypermedia Research Centre is the nearest thing Britain has to the MIT Media Lab. That would make Barbrook a homegrown Nicholas Negroponte. "Oh dear", he says when the idea comes up. "I hope that doesn't mean I have to write a book as bad as Being Digital."
Perhaps a better comparison is with New York's Silicon Alley and the role various colleges play in the city's booming new media business. A college course obviously isn't going to tell you everything you need to know to succeed in the net business. But something like the HRC and its MA course can play a kind of figurehead role, boosting the profile of the homegrown industry. "We do want to do something that's as interesting in this area as the things going on in music, design and fashion" says Barbrook. "We're in this incredibly privileged position - we speak English and we're in Europe. Given the combination of the two - it seems ridiculous if we can't do something equally as good here in hypermedia."