Technofile

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The Independent Culture
N I'm sure you were as disturbed as I was by the recent survey which showed that more than half of British schoolchildren named Germany as the most boring country in Europe, while nearly half identified it as the country they would least like to visit. Many apparently assumed that a country they disliked so much must be objectively inferior: 28 per cent imagined that Germany was the poorest nation in Europe.

Three-quarters associated Germany with the War. It seems the conventional media have failed to take our children's perceptions beyond stereotype and cliche. Could hypermedia, I wondered, do any better?

The Atlas of Europe from Infogrames (pounds 35) is packaged with grandly vague slogans - "information as a measure of difference", "the aspiration to provide an 'objective' viewpoint", "the essential information of the space we live in". Yes, it's French. The blurb is an attempt to justify the paucity of information on this disc, which could have been executed more effectively as a glossy magazine. Its take on Germany has a quirky charm, though. The key facts are apparently that Germany has the highest population in Europe, is the leading economic power, suffers from pollution, and is the world's leading producer of lignite.

In both Dorling Kindersley's World Reference Atlas (pounds 50) and Mindscape's World Atlas and Almanac (pounds 60), places of interest are picked out in red. DK selects the Berlin Wall - with a poignant video clip of the night it fell - Frankfurt, and mad Ludwig II's Neuschwanstein Castle. Mindscape points up Berlin, Neuschwanstein again, and Dachau, thus highlighting imperial power, kitsch megalomania and totalitarian oppression. It follows up with a battery of postcards showing historic piles and mountains. Solid, magnificent; but not, alas, calculated to make the average British schoolchild want to visit.

Graphically, DK's product is the clear winner, with a serviceable palette of options - Health, People, Economy, and so on - accompanying each country. Tables of comparison show that Germany lies sixth in the world GDP league, while Britain is at 23. On the other hand, Germany is ranked eighth educationally, while Britain is fourth. What then, one wonders, do German children think of us?

Mindscape's atlas makes you work harder to get comparisons, but the resulting detail may be more instructive. Configure the statistical graph facility to show Interpol's 1989-90 figures for assault in European countries, and Britain comes top with a rate double that of the runner-up, Monaco, and well over three times that of Germany. Similar comparisons can be made around the world for parameters ranging from road accidents to almond production.

Mindscape's disc lacks the contextual information that allows users to make sense of maps and figures. Here DK scores, unafraid to make statements which, while considered, are overtly value-laden. The statement that "German railroads are mostly state-owned and efficient" would certainly make any Shadow Cabinet member blush, for one reason or another.

For older school students, this dimension of the DK atlas could serve as a useful bridge to World Wide Web resources (see http://www.chemie. fu-berlin.de/adressen/brd.html, or gopher://wiretap.spies.com/00/Gov/ World/germany.con) which include a formidable range of historical documents, from Martin Luther's Theses to the German Constitution. No comparisons are possible with the latter, however, for in this country we leave such things unwritten.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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