Books: Technofile

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The Independent Culture
Here in the Books department, we deal in insights and impressions rather than calculations, so I'm not obliged to address the question of whether hypermedia took more steps forward than back during 1996. Like the Red Queen, hypermedia enterprises are forced to run ever faster just to stay in the same place. Computers are twice as powerful as a year ago, but Web browser programs demand twice as much memory; plug-ins, authoring tools and such arcana are launched every week, but the experience enjoyed by the ordinary net-surfer or CD-ROM user has not changed hugely over the last 12 months.

On the other hand, the number of people experiencing hypermedia has increased vastly. It's easy to overlook the obvious truth that the explosion in Internet subscriptions has happened not because people have realised how cheap and efficient e-mail is, or because they wish to swap trivia in newsgroups, but because the core of the Net is now the World Wide Web. People can now visualise the Internet, which is based around a medium in full colour and with multiple dimensions - in other words, with the makings of a new cultural form.

It doesn't matter that they don't see hypermedia as the cinema of the 21st century. In fact, it's better that they find more immediate uses for it, because hypermedia will be stymied until the Net becomes a genuine medium of commerce. Fortunately, there are signs that entrepreneurs are beginning to turn the surreal economy of the Internet into a real one.

On the other hand, it would be nice to see a few more ventures that affirm the artistic potential of the new media. Penguin's Irina project showed how to make economical use of text and graphics in the construction of a narrative that said something intelligent about popular culture (in this case, the UFO conspiracy myth).

But Penguin`s foray into hypermedia is a parable for the industry as a whole. At the beginning of the year, the company's range of CD-ROMs covered a compendium of rock music, optimistically expecting to find a market at pounds 999 plus VAT, to a biography of Jack Kerouac. I'll be hanging on to my copy of the latter as a museum piece. By the autumn, Penguin had backed out of electronic publishing, as a cloud of angst settled over the CD-ROM trade. Although CD-ROM drives became standard on home computers, people seemed to feel no need to go out and buy any disks to add to those that came with the machine. Once upon a time, audio CDs were in a similar position, but that was because the only titles available were by Dire Straits.

The mass market may well continue in a Dire Straits condition, but that doesn't imply CD-ROMs are an evolutionary cul-de-sac. As with application software, like word processors and spreadsheets, success depends on producing things that people feel they have to have. This would seem to mean titles designed for niche enthusiasms. In that regard, it's good to hear that Thames and Hudson are really, definitely publishing their multimedia art encyclopedia next year. But it would have been even better to have seen the title appear on schedule this year. The long pauses between significant new CD-ROM releases stir up apathy in a sceptical public.

There is the odd sign of hope in the CD-ROM indy sector, such as the fact that photographer Judah Passow has persevered with his project to turn his portfolio of Middle Eastern and Balkan conflict into multimedia. But what hypermedia most needs now is to demonstrate its vitality and diversity. CD-ROMs seem to be too baroque in their architecture, consuming all the medium's diversity internally. As Microsoft, Apple and everybody else has concluded, next year's excitement will be on the Web.

The navigational devices familiar today may end up looking like the intertitles which could take up half the running time of early films; both guide and obstacle. As directors and audiences became more fluent in visual language, the need to use words to explain the story diminished. But words are fundamental to hypermedia, whose artistic potential must lie in new relationships between image, sound and text.