Didactic Behaviour: On the Silk Road

Florent Aziosmanoff
ART 3000

Translation: Jeanne Disdero

Abstract. Whether it be on the Internet or a CD-ROM, the digital medium poses the problem of a design mode that takes full advantage of its unique character. As this uniqueness resides primarily in its capacity to take complex initiatives, it is the very nature of the relationship between content and user that must be investigated. In addressing this issue, this paper draws upon the example of an experimental documentary application on the theme of the Silk Road.


The uniqueness of the digital medium does not lie in its ‘multimedia’ dimension, contrary to what current terminology would lead one to believe. Radio and television, as well as paper-based formats themselves, have long assembled different media in composing their message. What sets the digital medium apart is its capacity to confer behaviour upon objects. What characterises a digital application is its ability to create its own message ‘itself’ at any time. It is capable of taking initiatives to adapt itself to developments in the ‘situation,’ notably to take into account users' reactions and expectations.

In this sense, computers were the first tools to be specifically dedicated to mental activity. If we admit that this activity consists primarily in taking initiatives of varying complexity to direct the aspects of one's life, both large and small, then what is novel is having an object nearby that can instruct us on how to take these initiatives, that can relay them or even to which we can delegate certain tasks. The subject probably opens vast philosophical or metaphysical perspectives. Nevertheless, concretely, numerous applications already exist that we can place under the general term of ‘personal assistants.’ Among these, you will of course find applications that deal with knowledge transmission. I use this slightly general term rather than that of teaching, because necessarily the latter is strongly marked by the form of 'an adult and thirty children meeting together for forty hours per week.' This is the form we have adopted for the general situation of in-school teaching. Distance learning has had to find its own specific form of relationship with the student. A fitting ‘digital’ adaptation would most likely not be a literal copy of the teacher-student situation, with a cloned teacher giving a lesson on the computer screen. Therefore, we first must rethink the relationship between the knowledge we wish to transmit and the users. Then, on this new foundation, we need to propose new forms to instrumentalise the relationship and embody it in digital form. The resulting object can also be intended to function autonomously, i.e., to be in and of itself a teaching situation, or to have ‘textbook’ status and be put to use by the instructor in teaching.

An Experimental Application

It against the backdrop of this overall reflection that the Silk Road Project was designed. The Saint-Exupéry Cultural Centre of Reims wanted to back an experimental project by creating a second CD-ROM (the first having dealt with the history of writing). The theme was to be the Silk Road, one of the major axes which fostered trade exchanges and was thus a vector of cultural blending and contributed to the forming of civilisations.*

In response to their request, I proposed the creation of a video game based application, thus envisioning the continuation of my experimental design work on the Leopold Sédar Senghar CD-ROM [1]. The reason behind the choice of a video game format was two-fold. First, it is an ‘event integration’ of the elements forming the content. In other words, these elements possess both personal and group behaviours (movement in space, relationship with the user, etc.). These make up the intended message at every moment, depending upon how the situation evolves. This enables the expression potential of the digital medium to be used as described above, with greater flexibility and a wider variety of choices than a catalogue of pre-established options accessible via a tree-like menu. Second, young people are very familiar with video games, and this familiarity encourages simple and direct contact with the proposed content.

The heart of this project lies therefore in the means of accessing information and the processing of navigation within a database, creating a dynamic relationship between the user and the content. This application shifts from the paradigm of traditional ‘document consultation’ and moves closer to the ‘conversation with a specialist’ paradigm. In the latter case, it is indeed the content medium that makes the effort to adapt its options to the wishes expressed by the user, while respecting editorial, intellectual and pedagogical requirements.

A pedagogical system can be implemented in particular through the initiative-taking mechanism. At any time, it is possible to mobilise thematic groups, to enhance knowledge by providing additional information or by placing it into perspective, gradually delving deeper into a subject based upon the consultation made, to develop one theme rather than another, etc. All of these aspects will function spontaneously through the system in a ‘transparent’ manner, i.e., as in the natural piecing together of a message. It will not be presented as an array of tools that the user must manipulate to advance step-by-step in the consultation. It is therefore a mechanism that follows the user's wishes, which are themselves oriented by the presentation of content in a ‘relational loop.’

The Silk Road

As the theme of the application is centred upon the Silk Road, the ‘voyage’ as such is an integral part of the subject. The experience offered to the users is therefore that of being (as a ‘subjective camera’) a traveller on this road, and of meeting other travellers who teach the user about their history, geography, influence on civilisations, culture, religions, trade, etc. These travellers are presented symbolically as documents, texts and illustrations. Like those who took to the road in the 1970s, users learn about and through the travel experience. The choice of this metaphor for the relationship with the content is therefore not merely illustrative, but intimately tied in with the knowledge envisioned. The sense of the distance covered, the variety of landscape and topography, encounters with others, missed opportunities, pleasant surprises, and the acts of exploration, careful investigation, and casual discovery that form the principle of the project – all these and other themes are addressed in a non-verbal manner.

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Concretely, the application reproduces the road in 3D, winding along the contours and elevations of its real path from Italy to China, across plains and mountains, rivers and deserts, etc. Four specific cities signal its main stages: Venice, Constantinople, Samarkand and Changan. The user glides freely along the road, in a ‘virtual reality’ system, choosing the direction of travel and the point of view. One can follow the road in either direction, but it is impossible to stray from it and enter the surrounding landscape.

The road is inhabited by a total of 55 documents presented in the form of pages containing text or illustrations, half of which are stationary and the others mobile. The four stages are each figured by a group of stationary documents that relate to the place. The mobile documents represent ‘travellers’ and thus move freely upon the road. They travel in three groups personifying the primary vectors that kept this road alive: trade, war and religion. There is thus a caravan of merchants, a troop of warriors and a religious group. Some of the other mobile documents move about alone; they carry specific information such as a map of the road or its history, or they deal with artistic and scientific exchanges fostered by the road. When they are not ‘solicited’ by the user, the documents move freely up and down the length of the road.

Content can therefore initially be consulted by exploring the environment, which itself delivers part of the information: the landscapes traversed, the scale and layout of the trail, the nature and location of the various thematic groups representing the main stages, etc. It is enriched by the various documents encountered during the voyage. Despite this, there is no chronology that must be followed, as the documents have been designed to be read independently, while including references to each other to encourage further exploration. Nevertheless, users can rely on their own motivation, whether it leads to free exploration, a systematic reading, a particular search, or an answer in response to a project or exercise.

The documents are consulted based upon the metaphor of an ‘encounter.’ As in the case of meeting a person, when the user wishes to consult a document, he or she approaches it while maintaining it in the centre of the screen, as if to ‘look the person in the eyes.’ The document interprets this request and spontaneously positions itself to be read. It will remain there until the user wishes to resume travelling, at which point the document backs up and leaves the field free.

From Interactivity to Relationship

The navigation interface and interactivity break away from the traditional ‘point and click’ mode. Here there is no cursor on the screen. The mouse is used to navigate literally: from front to back to move forward or backward on the road, or from side to side to ‘look’ left or right. The user's movement is guided on the road, freeing the person from having to follow the path and enabling easy movement while ‘looking’ to the side, like out of train window. The consultation of documents is triggered spontaneously when the user wishes. There is no need to click; the consultation takes place as if by ‘common agreement’ between the user and the document itself. In this way, the content is manipulated in a ‘natural’ relationship. It is no longer carried out cognitively, but tends to integrate the intuitive and proprioceptive. This is to say that there is a superimposition of the corporeal schema over the mental schema that the user creates of the visited environment. The user proceeds in the same manner that a visitor at an exhibition goes from room to room, moving closer to the glass to linger over a work of art without thinking about how he or she makes each step, but reacting to the ‘message’ of the exhibition. Here there is no choice to be made from a list, no next page to be pointed to or key word to be specified. There is a spontaneous reaction to the situation, without need for analysis. This frees the cognitive side at a higher level to engage with the content itself: the evaluation, comparison and development of a consultation strategy, or the pleasure of discovery.

Overall, this navigation system spares the user a laborious process involving a step-by-step consultation. The user need only manifest a wish when it arises, whether because of a specific project or as a reaction to a situation that is presented. This gives the user's actions greater efficacy; he or she need do very little to influence the development of the experience. As these actions are limited, there can be no drifting into incoherent situations. This system also allows ‘passive’ action (‘non-activity’) for moments of particular receptivity, analysis or reflection. At such times the user is guided by the medium itself, which spontaneously changes the proposed content through ‘life’ on the road: the procession of landscapes or encounters with groups or solitary travellers.

The application, which is still at an experimental stage, has not reached the stage that truly marks the transition to the specific use of the digital medium. Thus, in the current state of its development, the documents' behaviour depends upon their thematic nature. When they are stationary, they of course remain in the same group. For those travelling in the caravans which form a coherent thematic group, all the documents stop if one amongst them is consulted. In both cases, they remain available together so that the user can delve deeper into the theme they represent. However, the solitary mobile documents can only be consulted singly, even when chance brings them together in the same group for a while. The initial intension was for these functionalities to be broadened. Each document was to have a multiple indexation. In this case, when the user consulted a document, this would launch a message in the database to activate its indices. All of the documents that include one of these indices would then spontaneously appear around the document being consulted, available to be read as well. Thus, a user looking at the illustration of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople would trigger the complementary indices ‘architecture’ and ‘religion.’ The documents that contain one of these indices would gather around the Saint Sophia church, and reading these would have enabled the user to know immediately that St. Mark's Church in Venice was built using the same design as Hagia Sophia, to have a perspective on the mosque and the pagoda, to broaden the themes of Christianity, of Islam, etc. The group would disappear once the attention of the user was turned elsewhere. This mechanism could be triggered systematically at any time during the consultation, and would offer the possibility of a consultation based no longer on the formal structure of the Silk Road, but on the semantic structure of the index.

Multiplying these approaches and mechanisms would make it possible to complement more responsively the various states of reflection and motivation of the user.

Education or Entertainment?

Using a medium traditionally associated with games does not imply that the same means of expression should be adopted. Games are characterised by a ‘retention’ type relationship with the content, which is what motivates the consultation. This means solving a puzzle, conquering an enemy and surviving or overcoming challenges in order to encourage the player to continue. In the case of a documentary project, the relationship with the content is reversed. The system is designed to place the content at the disposal of the user as best possible, in all situations, for all possible wishes. The motivation of the user is encouraged by the interest the content holds and by the quality of the initiatives that are taken to deliver this content. A ‘self-adapting’ system as described above has the absolute rigour or the infinite patience to wait for users to move along at their own pace, in the order they wish, through the various situations it offers for learning, exploration or contemplation.

The very form of an application developed with this type of ‘real time’ system is a strong reference to the world of video games. On the one hand, it is possible to make very diverse aesthetic choices and to consider that the formal uniformity seen in the gaming universe today merely reflects the uniformity of the culture of its designers. On the other hand, it would be a shame that the formidable ability that this interface has to fascinate be used only for ‘entertainment.’

What can pose a more fundamental question is the very nature of this relationship with the content, which, via mechanisms of adaptation to the user's motivations, seems to set up a system of generalised avoidance. If our goal is to transmit knowledge or messages that are considered more ‘difficult,’ requiring sustained attention on behalf of the user, we could fear a situation which seems to encourage the user to avoid any effort of ‘concentration.’ This is a real issue, well known to teaching specialists, as well as authors or anyone with an ‘editorial line’ to defend. Does this response arise from the fact that primacy is given to a system of constraints? Teaching professionals themselves have long preferred approaches that enable them to support and guide the motivation of their students over those approaches founded solely on the recognition of the teacher's authority. The stumbling block is something resembling ‘channel zapping,’ with ratings taking on more importance than the principle of the program. However, perhaps we should draw fully upon what seems at first to be a weakness. This ability to zap is the first opportunity offered to the viewer to ‘exist’ in relation to the system of transmission that faces him or her. Of course, this initially led to a levelling down of the quality of the television shows offered. However, when it is truly deployed, it can become a formidable means of enriching the relationship individuals have with knowledge. Choosing one channel over another is indeed not enormous progress. Entering into a personal dialogue or one shared with others, broadening the nature and range of our intellectual experiences – this can be progress. Whatever the case may be, taking into account the user's behaviour is structurally part of the ‘behavioural’ dimension of these new media. This is therefore an aspect we cannot ignore.


The application The Silk Road was a creative project in the framework of the Multimedia Cultural Space of the Saint-Exupéry Cultural Centre of Reims. It was developed with Virtools software and can therefore be consulted online.


Florent Aziosmanoff. Léopold Sédar Senghor: Le Poète Président. CD-ROM. Jériko, Paris.

About the Author

Florent Aziosmanoff is a multimedia author, cofounder and editorial director of ART 3000 and the publication NOV'ART. A trained psychosociologist, he has been a producer and curator in the area of art and new media and director of the General States of Interactive Writing. He can be contacted by email at: aflorent@club-internet.fr.

About the Translator

Jeanne Disdero is a freelance conference interpreter and translator in French and English. Originally from Southern California, she completed degrees in both Economics and Translation at the Université de Bordeaux and the Monterey Institute of International Studies. She currently resides in Paris.

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