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Interactive Television: TV of the Future or the Future of TV

Jens F. Jensen and Cathy Toscan, eds. (1999). "Interactive Television: TV of the Future or the Future of TV." Aalborg : Aalborg University Press. 278 pages. ISBN 87-7307-625-2 [hardcover].

Reviewed by Dr. Brendan Murphy, School of Contemporary Communications, Central Queensland University, Rockhampton, Australia.

The discipline of media studies has evolved alongside broadcast and print technologies, which address their audiences with a fixed set of information from a single transmission point. Emerging digital multicast technologies represent a significant shift in the media paradigm with which the discipline is concerned. While popular commentary places much stock in the idea of technological convergence, the same technology that allows for the transmission of different media types (print, audio, video, software) through one pipeline is paradoxically fostering a plethora of new media forms. These new media forms offer a degree and type of interactivity hitherto unknown through a number of devices, some old ones being used in new ways, such as WAP enabled mobile phones, and some being truly novel, such as the new generation, multi-user gaming platforms.

The greatest strength of "Interactive Television," edited by Jensen and Toscan, is that no attempt is made to limit the scope of new media scholarship by applying rigid definitions. In fact, much of the book is dedicated to unravelling the complex matrix of technologies, content, and social utility that are smoothed over by the glib application of terms such as "convergence" or even "interactive television." While the focus of the book, and in particular the detailed case studies on the introduction of trial services in the UK and Germany and of digital television broadcasting in Scandinavia, is on the transformation of television and the multiplicity of transmission modes, and contexts are never taken for granted.

Nor are the discussions proscribed by technical and generic definitions. David Tafler's chapter "Interactive Television and Virtual Culture: Ruptures, Disruptions and Transitions" in particular maps the relationship between the technology of interactive television, its social contexts, and effects on culture. In this section the relationship between Aboriginal culture in the Tanami region of Australia and a point-to-point satellite video communication system, the Tanami Network, is thoughtfully analyzed. While an indigenous satellite network provides a cultural buffer against Western media hegemony, to what degree does an Aboriginal media system strengthen indigenous culture when it reaches across what were traditionally separate language groups? In keeping with the themes of the book, this analysis suggests that simple categorizations and evaluations need to be applied very carefully, if at all, to the emerging paradigm of interactive television.

"Interactive Television" suggests several ways of approaching the emerging field. Terje Rassmussen's chapter "New Media Change: Sociological Approaches to the Study of the New Media" considers much interactive television content currently little more than a digital makeover of traditional television and other information services. It charts four phases in the development of the medium: 1. appropriation, where the proffered content leaves the realm of the commodity and is incorporated into the home as a cultural object; 2. objectification, where the material or technology is taken on board in order to signify something about the social, aesthetic, or cultural orientation of the household; 3. incorporation, whereby usage and placement of the new media come to be part of the fabric of household practice and politics, and 4. conversion, whereby usage of the new media allows identification of the household with larger cultural groups. Rassmussen's sociological approach is valid for interactive television and is of use in the analysis of the domestic and social uses of information technology in general.

A complementary approach is offered by Jensen in his chapter "The Concept of Interactivity in 'Interactive Television' and 'Interactive Media,'" which defines interactivity as transmissional (a central provider controlling content and distribution), consultational (the consumer controlling access to material from a central provider), registrational (a central provider regulating consumer-genrated content), or conversational (the many-to-many, unregulated mode). Applying this schema to a variety of technologies suggests that considering interactivity as a continuum of processes and technologies may overcome the limitation of more traditional approaches.

Thus "Interactive Television" is a thorough reader offering many different but complementary approaches to emerging digital broadcast, narrowcast and multicast technologies. The book's strength is in its recognition of the complexity of interactive television and the breadth of approaches to this complexity that it suggests.

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