TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
Nothing exposes the multimedia computer's pretensions like its attempts to display a video clip, its hard disk chuntering away like a clockwork toy to produce an image of which a colour TV would have been ashamed 25 years ago. Occasionally, though, a lack of graphic detail is a blessing; and never more so than during the treatment sequences in A Right To Die? The Dax Cowart Case by David Andersen, Robert Cavalier and Preston K Covey (Routledge, pounds 35). They show Mr Cowart, a victim of a gas explosion, being treated for his burns. But if you did not already know this, and if you could not hear his voice protesting against what the medical people are doing to him, you would think that the wasted form being manipulated, piebald in green and brown, was that of a corpse.

Dax Cowart did not simply want his carers to minister to him less, or more gently. He wanted, unequivocally and resolutely, for treatment to cease in order that he might die. He believed that the kind of life that might follow, in which he would remain scarred, fingerless, and blind in one eye - or possibly both - would not be worth the pain and duration of the treatment. Many people fight to live with far worse damage to their bodies, yet Cowart chose to fight for death.

Perhaps you are beginning to form an opinion already. We generally do, listening with half an ear to the procession of tragedy and ethical dilemma on the airwaves, making judgments in the luxury of not having to think them through. A Right To Die? is a device for facing its users both with the evidence and the implications of their own decisions. At each stage in the "Guided Inquiry" mode, the viewer/judge is instructed to indicate agreement or disagreement, "strongly" or "probably", with propositions in the case. The program casts a cool eye over contradictory responses: "You agree that medical professionals are obligated to treat a patient? Then how could you, as Dax's nurse, help him die?"

At the end of the initial review of the evidence, the viewer is requested not only to indicate a leaning, but to justify the preference, selecting statements which support the position. It should be possible to save a record of one's responses which, by the end of an inquiry session, might well include extensive notes, to one's hard disk.

The core of the body of evidence comprises video clips, mostly of interviews with principals in the case. They can be viewed without guidance, and it is in a comparison with the "guided" mode that the remarkable qualities of this CD-ROM became apparent. As the professionals reflect on medical ethics, or observe that Dax's quest to die appears to have been a manipulative reaction against his powerlessness, there scarcely seems a case to answer. It is easy to relax into a received opinion, with none of the mental exercise demanded - despite its basic simplicity - by the guided program.

Much is made of the way in which users can take different paths through CD-ROMs, yet the consequences are usually no more significant than those of the order in which one leafs through a book. Here, the path taken really does transform the meaning.

The text is in the present tense, although it is clear that Dax's accident took place more than "some years ago", as the briefing puts it. So what actually happened? A video clip reveals the answer, though the program scrupulously avoids giving it any signposts. Nothing resolves ethical dilemmas like hindsight.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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