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All That Is Solid Ends Up On The Web

If you want to know which bits of Marx's thoughts continue to haunt us, the digital industries will tell you. Of all Marx's writings, one passage leaps into electric relief:

"Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind."

That's from the Communist Manifesto, which Marx and Engels wrote in 1848. At the time of the final great upsurge of Marxist faith, in 1968, these words would perhaps have seemed anachronistic to many of the great unconverted. Television was going into colour and men were going to the moon, but for millions of people in the West, the phrase "everlasting uncertainty and agitation" would not have spoken to their own experience of daily life. People thought that they could enjoy both progress and security.

If they were lucky, they might stay in a job for life; their times of sickness and old age underwritten by social contracts that would not be rewritten or torn up. By now they have become much richer, but everlasting uncertainty and agitation is the normal condition.

The digital industries are the vanguard of the constant production revolution, in which technology is stable for weeks rather than months, let alone years. Last spring, wanting to check the quote, I downloaded a copy of The Communist Manifesto from the Marx/Engels Internet Archive. When I came back to it in the summer, it wouldn't open, because the copy I had saved using Internet Explorer 4.0 was incompatible with Explorer 4.01, to which I had upgraded in the meantime.

Meanwhile, over in Zagreb, the wired dissidents at Arkzin were working on a new interface for the Manifesto itself, which they have published in print and as a multimedia Web production, with an opening title sequence and images that drift around the text. An old communist logo bearing the faces of Marx and Engels is followed by those of Microsoft and Sony. The Manifesto can be launched by clicking on a Windows `Start' icon. It's Pop Art in reverse: instead of taking the ideology out of an icon of, say, Chairman Mao, it pastes the ideology into the pages of popular culture. And it re-brands communism as a dynamic force for the coming century, complete with Dynamic HTML. As the Arkzin crew say, the spectacle is worth a look even if you can't read the text, which is in Croatian.

It would be unwise to assume that just because the pages look cool, the exercise is merely a fashion venture. Whatever the reasons for the minor vogue that Marx and the Communist Manifesto enjoyed in this country earlier in this 150th anniversary year, the motives in an ex-communist region are different. "Perhaps the answers offered by The Communist Manifesto are no longer pertinent," admits the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek in his introductory essay, sections of which appear in English on the Arkzin site.

But the post-communists know better than anyone why answers are needed, Zizek observes. Forced as they are to live out the contradiction between globalised capitalism and reasserted national identity, most of them get the worst of both worlds.

On the Web page, the IBM logo hovers above these remarks, together with the corporate slogan: "Solutions for a small planet." It can only be a matter of time before some Internet enterprise enhances its brand with "All that is solid melts into air."

Jeux Sans Frontieres

How do you upgrade a five-year-old who can read, write and do sums? A second language is a natural choice, and Jump Ahead French (Knowledge Adventure, Win and Mac, 5-8 years, pounds 15) offers a primer of 200 French words. The paintbox game on Technofile's copy was very buggy, with several paintbrushes producing the wrong colours, though the translations themselves seemed to be working properly.

Scare Quotes

"`Please' do not f`lush' anything dow`n' the toilet that doesn't belong `there'." An exceptionally pathological specimen from a University of California at Berkeley toilet, in the Gallery of "Misused" Quotation Marks. "Donations" are welcome, though the site does rather "labour the point". Especially on signs advertising `"fresh" food.

From A Long Way Off The Starboard Bow

"A Sedgwick County Juvenile Court judge will decide today whether four children should be removed from a home police found littered with animal waste ... Police also found an abundance of Star Trek magazines, posters and memorabilia, and couldn't understand the father at first because he spoke to his wife and children in Klingon."

Subscribe to the NTK (Need To Know) e-mail news bulletin and you need never miss crucial reports such as this one, from the on-line Wichita Eagle (which will, however, charge you to see the rest of the story).

Technotip

So Santa didn't bring you a new computer? If you don't have pounds 1,000 for a new system, but you've got something in the region of pounds 100 to pounds 200 going spare, you can make your machine look more expensive by fitting a 3D graphics accelerator card. These devices make games run more efficiently and look better; taking the case off the computer and installing a card may also give you a gratifying feeling of geek power.

Although the computer games world is still overwhelmingly PC, the number of games available for Macs is growing. If you can't keep up with the iMac - a souped-up version is said to be set for launch in February - there is the 3D card option. Techworks' Power3D card is specifically geared for games (it requires 32Mb of RAM, a PowerPC chip, and pounds 60). It's based on one of the Voodoo chipsets made by 3Dfx, which in the PC world are bidding to become as indispensable to PCs as Intel.

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