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The Independent Culture
N I think I need to repeat at intervals that this column is intended not as a sidebar for the electronic cognoscenti, but as a bridge between paper and pixels. A major element of the gap between print and computer media is jargon; a greater one is the size of the investment required to buy into hypermedia. It's therefore particularly agreeable to recommend a book - a normal one composed of ink on paper, not bundled with a disk or linked to a web site - which tackles both these obstacles.

For pounds 6.99, Fred Moody's I Sing The Body Electronic (Coronet) gives you a thumbnail sketch of how computers work, and how they serve as vehicles for hypermedia - a model of how to talk clearly without talking down. It gives as much technical background as you are likely to need for the next few years - or, as publishers would say, until the millennium. That's just the introduction. The main text, as the subtitle announces, is an account of "a year with Microsoft on the multimedia frontier". You may not be interested in Microsoft or multimedia, but if you aren't interested in Schadenfreude, you are a saint. This book is perfect holiday reading. However bad you feel about going back to work afterwards, you'll be able to console yourself with the thought that at least you don't work for Microsoft.

Moody's year was spent shadowing the team working on a CD-Rom encyclopaedia for children. The strategy was typically Microsoft: to dominate the global market for such products not by being the best, but by being the first into the marketplace. The paramount goal, therefore, was to meet the deadline. Yet for the entire year, Moody watched as the team meandered, vacillated, bickered, split into factions and undermined whatever progress it managed to make.

The team operated within a corporate culture in which financial carrots were abundant, but there was a chronic drought of the milk of human kindness. A sense of social contract was also conspicuous by its absence. "I guess I don't feel like because you've devoted a year to a company that you deserve anything," one staffer remarks, speaking dismissively of a colleague who had been hoping for a permanent position. But if a company ethos of aggressive professional egotism fails to produce leadership and direction, of all things, maybe it's time to start thinking about being nice to one other.

One major problem in this regard was that on the technical side, Microsoft was packed with human hard drives whose prodigious mathematical feats were achieved by co-opting all the brain capacity used by ordinary people for things like empathy and communication. Above them all was the Jovian figure of Bill Gates, an irascible and unforgiving god reached mainly by email, Microsoft's version of prayer, but given to delivering thunderbolts now and again in person.

Moody paints a portrait of a company in which "IQ is as prized as speed and strength in football, where native intelligence is far more valuable than wisdom, and where experience counts for nothing unless it is experience in working at Microsoft". Then at the end he recants. Explorapedia, as it is eventually named, meets its deadline after all, Gates's managerial genius is revealed, and you can almost hear Moody's sigh of relief as he snaps his lap-top shut.

In his afterword, he remarks that any aesthetic process in a new art form is bound to be long and tortured. What he doesn't examine is whether it needed to be as tortured as it was, or whether the manner of the torture could have been one which produced more creative results. If Microsoft's really is the only way to do multimedia, the road ahead looks pretty rocky.