TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
I've been trying to decide how Slate, the on-line magazine (http://www.slate.com) edited by Michael Kinsley and published by Microsoft, will fit into my life. I don't have any great doubts about its editorial vision. Any magazine that launches with a feature about the difference between "Jesuitical" and "Talmudic", and a spoof Henry David Thoreau Home Page, is OK with me. The proposed price - $20 per annum, starting from November - seems very good value for money, by comparison with paper magazines.

Even the fact that it emanates from the Great Satan is not a problem. The launch issue of Slate actually turned Microsoft-phobia to its considerable advantage, demonstrating the impressive calibre of its panel discussion feature with close-quarter argument on Gates's Leviathan and the marketplace from players of Ivy League standard.

Like the best print magazines, Slate is based on its editor's intuition rather than market research. Presumably Kinsley is confident that he has been appointed as a leader of opinion, rather than a chaser of consumers. His position is another example of how the Net can stand the usual scheme of things on its head. Microsoft is the computer equivalent of News Corp, yet instead of an aggressive drive to debase the culture in the name of giving the public what it wants, the software giant is seeking to enhance its prestige with the kind of publication that would affect anti- intellectual tub-thumpers the way garlic affects Dracula.

The Thoreau parody, clever but not too clever, illustrates the Slate stance nicely. Springing from a remark from a professor of English to the effect that if Thoreau were alive today, he'd have a home page on the Internet, it requires familiarity both with American letters and Web arcana: "QuickTime users! Check out my new bean cam - a new image from my beanfield every 30 seconds! ... Free demo: Where's Waldo (Cyberhunt for RWE; Netscape 2.0 or higher) ... " If you use the Web, you understand the contemporary references. And because everybody on the Web is an expert of a sort, the usual stultifying distinctions between the highbrow and the popular are undermined. Slate is smart and grown-up enough to wear high culture lightly. It deserves to find an audience that is equally relaxed about higher learning.

But where will it fit in its readers' lives? The initial obstacle is technical. It took me a week to download the whole thing. Imagine going to the newsagent's every morning and collecting a magazine one article at a time. This will be resolved as mechanisms for downloading entire issues, or getting them by e-mail, are perfected. But you still can't flick through it, unless you print it out and staple it together (imagine having to do that with this publication), or subscribe to the printed digest version, which seems like an admission of defeat. Although Slate is meticulous in its efforts to assist the reader, it is essentially a site to dip into. That bodes ill for the "back of the book" reviews section. On a quick visit, readers would be likely to look at one of the main features and then move on.

Magazines succeed when they express their readers' cultural identities, and when they are perceived to be "must-read" publications. As yet, Slate seems like a useful rather than an essential read. It would be agreeable, say, to browse through the Slate art gallery over breakfast, or to check the magazine round-up and see if the New Yorker is worth buying this week. Fine if you're sitting with laptop and fresh orange juice on the verandah, but, in most people's lives, time would be the on-line magazine's worst enemy.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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