By Ray Sawhill
Playing with CD-ROMs, it’s hard not to succumb — for a while — to the Whoopee! Factor. You’re dizzied by techno-euphoria. But most of the programs come to feel thin so fast that they’re most useful as lessons in the perils of digital.
A label has been developed for CD-ROMs that try to do everything: Shovelware. Designers, technicians and marketers of CD-ROMs often don’t know how to stop; since anything’s possible, everything must be included. The ironic result is that, if all you’ve played with are dud CD-ROMs, you wind up convinced that the medium doesn’t yet have the oomph it needs. Although a present-day CD-ROM can store a staggering amount of information — about 250,000 double-spaced, typed pages — that doesn’t seem so infinite when you compare it to infinity, which is what shovelware programs essentially ask you to do. My hunch is that even when the programs and machines are 10 times more powerful than they are now, they’ll still leave you hungry for horsepower. Shovelware programs, like drugs, will always fall short of delivering the Cosmic All that they promise.
In digital, everything simply does connect with everything else — that’s given. In other words, what’s often taken as the ultimate message of the arts has now become technology’s starting point. That explains part of the Whoopee! Factor. You feel freed, if only for a moment, to entertain such notions as: With machines like these, who needs to think? Who needs to imagine?
Giving in to temptation, designers and marketers have created vast numbers of CD-ROMs that are, at least from a user’s point of view, essentially thought-free and imagination-free. They’re games, or reference works with some multimedia gimmicks woven in — animations and timelines and links between highlighted words and subjects. Once the Whoopee! Factor exhausts itself, you crash down to earth, right down to such basic gripings as: After all, it’s not as easy to read from a cathode-ray screen as from a well-printed book. And if all you want is to look something up, it’s much faster to pull a book off the shelf than to turn on your computer and load a CD-ROM. Given the effort it takes, you need to spend some time (an hour, maybe) clicking around inside a reference program to make the effort feel worthwhile. You quit that hour having encountered no personality, and no point of view. You’ve just found out a bunch of things.
In the past what distinguished a medium was the limits it imposed on you. What digital imposes on you is boundlessness. (Digital has already begun to blur the boundaries between the publishing, movie, television and software businesses.) The designer or artist isn’t sweating to shape something into an A-B-B-A form, or to wrest life from inert matter; he’s confronted with the fact that his medium allows him — encourages him — to do most anything.
Of the CD-ROMs I’ve played with the ones that have any elegance in their design have invariably come from among the more modest packages, such as “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” designed by the Dorling Kindersley team. What these designers have discovered is that digital tends to explode from every point in three dimensions. (And from those new points to explode yet further …) The team has been smart enough not to succumb to the promise of everything-included, and to be ruthless about focus, exclusion and simplicity.
I’ve only been able to sample programs that can be run on an IBM-compatible computer. But the standout by far has been “Multimedia Beethoven,” a look at Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony put together by the UCLA music scholar Robert Winter and a team of people associated with Voyager, a small media company. (Winter and Voyager have put together four CD-ROMs for the Macintosh; I’d bet all are worth a look. “Multimedia Beethoven” is the first to appear for the IBM; the rest will follow later this year.)
It’s the only CD-ROM I’ve found that’s a vehicle for a point of view. You don’t feel you’re drowning in information soup. You sense a mind and an imagination at work using the (multi)medium to make you see, hear, and understand things. It was common in the Eighties to deplore the way movies were turning into video games; “Multimedia Beethoven” suggests a video game with the depth and intelligence of a good movie.
Winter makes the symphony take form as a geodesic dome-like, floating mental object; it seems available to you all at once, to examine at your own speed. “Multimedia Beethoven” has the form of nested modules that enable you to step back for an overview or to move in close for measure-by-measure commentary; it also supplies historical context (in casual essays) and dissects the elements of classical music.
It really does seem like magic to have any part of this program, and any part of the symphony itself, only a few mouse-clicks away from any other; the mouse starts to feel like a magic wand. It’s like having slides, essays (Winter is a gracefully colloquial writer), musical examples and every bit of the entire symphony all in one room — with all of it instantly available. (If you have ears that balk a little at Western art music, using this program is an ideal way to coax them along.) This is the rare example of the computer behaving like the ideal slave you imagine it should be. Like “Microsoft Musical Instruments,” “Multimedia Beethoven” has a design that can leave you convinced that the best computer interfaces ought to be included on any list of the great creations of the Eighties and Nineties. The program is so head-clearing that it makes you imagine a future moment when — despite all the shovelware — a shelf of CD-ROMs will have been created that will more than equal the best possible college education.
But even Winter occasionally succumbs to another Digital Peril — that of spoon-feeding the user. Winter gets beyond the usual browsing-and-grazing method, but when he presents a screen of text saying how if he’s sparked you into seeing things your own way, he will have done his job, he’s like a teacher anxious not to offend his touchy, spoiled charges.
Life among digital artifacts, like life under multiculturalism, can starve you of argument, disagreement, forceful assertion — everything that provides sting and contrast. (You can sometimes suspect that the drive towards digital stems in part from a fear of being offended, turned on or upset.) The never-ending encouragement and playfulness that digital promotes can make you reflect that, if digital has provided an escape from authoritarian family horrors, it has done so only to place us in day care. And much like shopping malls, digital encourages the fantasy that in window-shopping you’re expressing yourself.
“Beethoven” centers on a hyper-dramatic, hyperlinear piece of the highest 19th-century heroic art. You keep rocketing off from it into all sorts of connections, and returning to it from new directions. But it’s the music that provides the program’s center of gravity; for the moment, what digital, the medium of the coming information age, seems to do best is let us examine artifacts of the period we’re leaving, what has now come to be known (semi-nostalgically and semi-contemptuously) as the industrial age. Winter may genuinely believe that all he’s doing is making his knowledge and perceptions available — scattering a few more drops into the sea. But part of what makes his work arresting is his commitment to his way of seeing, and his eagerness to drive home his points. You can’t keep your focus in a wilderness, even a user-friendly digital wilderness, without some force and determination.
- The history of HyperCard. HyperCard was an early Apple application for building nonlinear multimedia presentations. It foreshadowed the Web, and was the program “Multimedia Beethoven” was built on.
- Even before Wikipedia, CD-ROMs killed the paper encyclopedia.
- I wrote a profile of Robert Winter for Wired magazine.
- I haven’t explored Robert Winter’s latest project but it looks brilliant.
©1992 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.