The Multimedia Boom of the Mid-1990s

A Case Study in Techno-Atavistic Hysteria

By Max Psych, Ph.D, D.M.Z.
Paper delivered as the keynote of the 20th Annual Congress of Media Zymurgists, Jan. 27, 2020

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The philosopher George Santayana made his famous statement in 1906. Judging by the history of the following century, his observation was soon forgotten.

The history of any emerging medium -- any new extension of human communication, any new intermediary between communicators -- is a spectacle of Santayanan repetition. The progression, as I have outlined in my paper "Foetal Growth Patterns of New Media," is as follows:

  1. A new media technology emerges.
    -- Hello!

  2. Artists and communicators become infatuated with the new technology's novelty, and rush to translate their work into it.
    -- Why not?

  3. Enthusiasts of the new technology predict that it will replace older media, while detractors declare that it will quickly fade.
    -- Yes! No!

  4. New generations of artists and communicators take hold of the new technology and, instead of translating existing material into it, devise new forms of expression that are unique to it.
    -- It's like this, see?

  5. The new media technology coexists with its predecessors.
    -- Oh.

These dynamics were understood by many observers of, and participants in, the digital revolution of the 1990s. Such knowledge failed, however, to prevent an almost involuntary passage through the cycle.

First came a dawning awareness that computer technology could be not only a tool but a medium -- something human beings could use to communicate information and ideas, thoughts and feelings, stories and beliefs.

Then came the rush to use this new medium -- to fill it with what came, in a bizarrely dismissive turn of phrase, to be called "content."

What is content? Something that's contained.

Content is what you put in containers.

And sure enough, despite the obeisance the developers of the new medium paid to the importance of "content," their attention remained fixed on the containers. When they tried to name the new medium, they had a terrible time. They tried phrases like "interactive multimedia," but the clumsiness was painful. So they took to calling the new medium by the name of its containers. They said they were creating CD-ROMs.

It was a strange development. When the much less capacious floppy disks had been the most widely used container, nobody went into business as a "floppy disk publisher"; everyone understood that the disk was merely a storage device, and what mattered was the data contained on the disk. CDs could hold much more than floppies, though, and so for reasons that remain obscure many people decided that they would become "CD-ROM publishers."

A business was born. Or was it?

What if the Hollywood studios had referred to their creations as "reels" and not movies? Or book publishers had said they were in the paper-and-binding business? That was the kind of blunder these new media pioneers made.

The music industry had recently switched the kind of container it used, from vinyl records to CDs. This helped people see that the product was the music itself, not the physical container. But the same people had a hard time transferring this understanding to the still-new world of digital media.

It took about a decade for everyone to realize that CD-ROMs weren't the medium at all. Neither were online services, or digital tapes, or disks of any sort. In fact, computer technology itself wasn't the medium.

The medium was bits.

And bits could be made to represent anything -- words, sounds, pictures, cartoons, videos, any combination of things. "Multimedia" was a misnomer. As one '90s pioneer, photographer Pedro Meyer, was fond of pointing out, the more accurate term was "monomedia."

Bits were the new form that creations of all kinds would take. Whether they came packaged in a CD, or in the many generations of storage technology that replaced CDs, or whether they were delivered online, or via satellite, came to mean less and less as time went by.

It was the creative artists who first figured out that, once they began using digital tools in digital media, they were no longer painters or musicians or writers. They had become bit designers. Bit mongers. Bitsmiths.

Coming soon:
Part II -- The Collapse of the CD-ROM Market and the Rise of the Bitsmiths

Max Psych is the critic-at-large and resident media historian at the Turing Institute in Ulm, a post he has held since 2014. He has published many works of theory and criticism, including Das Spiel und die Welt (The Game and the World), Die Welt in dem Spiel (The World in the Game), and Die Welt, Das Spiel und Andere Dinge (The World, the Game and Other Stuff). He has also written one novel, Die Madschen uben eben Oben und die Buben uben eben Oben auch (or, as it was published in English, The Lusty Kitchen Wenches and Their Friends).

We're grateful to Mr. Psych and his colleagues at the Foundation for the Dissemination of Criticism Through Time, whose work has made it possible for us to present Kludge's readers with this advance glimpse of Mr. Psych's research.

Back to Kludge's Front Page

This page maintained by Scott Rosenberg (
All contents © copyright 1995 by Digital Media Zone.