Books: Technofile

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The Independent Culture
One of the grand themes most obviously suitable for multimedia treatment is evolution. Voyager devoted an Expanded Book to Stephen Jay Gould's heterodox view; Notting Hill built a disc around Richard Dawkins. Blackwell Science (01865 206206) have entered the lists with Evolution (pounds 34.66), a companion to an undergraduate textbook of the same name by Mark Ridley. It's an attractive product in many ways, but is enthusiastic rather than definitive. The great Darwinian CD-Rom has yet to appear.

Evolution takes several steps forward, and several awkward steps back. The most perverse of these is in the section containing 20 classic papers on evolution. "Papers" has been taken literally: the only way to see them is to print them out.

The basic idea of the multimedia companion is a viable one, though. Students are supposed to read textbooks in an orderly linear fashion, but hypermedia is a means for browsing. By providing new paths along which students can explore some of the text from the original book, a hypermedia treatment creates new opportunities for grasping concepts. The CD-Rom encourages a relaxed approach to the text, suitable for reflecting upon the book and playing with some of its ideas.

In the process, Evolution draws the text some way out of the textbook, and brings it closer to the kind of presentation expected by lay consumers of popular science. There is a gallery of images, including artificially bred mutant fruit flies, and the lamprey - which is more grotesque than any laboratory monster. The information in the captions is minimal, but the items might well serve as aids to memory, useful hooks on which to hang the substantive content.

The user can choose different values for mathematical simulations of breeding processes, and watch how the resulting graphs vary. These are serviceable teaching devices, but are oversold as "virtual experiments". The video gallery also promises more than it delivers. Though the selection of evolutionary theorists featured is formidable, their contributions are bite-sized. Since their observations are presented as text anyway, good quality still portraits would have been a better accompaniment than the murky video clips.

The designers at the French CD-Rom developers ODA understand that in multimedia, less is often more. There is no period music in The Age of Bruegel, the background collages are muted, and the navigation controls are simple circles and triangles, rather than outbursts of rococo iconography. All these manifestations of restraint add up to one of the best CD-Rom designs I've seen. A consummate production, Bruegel takes the same kind of discreet approach to the display of pictures as the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. The effect, enhanced by excellent magnification tools, is to encourage a surprising sense of intimacy with the paintings.

Enticingly priced at pounds 29.95 by Thames and Hudson (0171 636 5488), the new UK distributors, the series to which this title belongs makes a strong argument that in at least some quarters of art publishing, CD-Roms will eventually supplant books. Other subjects in the range include Rubens, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van Eyck and Rodin. But you get Bosch, among others, as part of Bruegel. And with the elder Bruegel, you get the whole of Europe in a single teeming landscape.