Technofile

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Technofile globe-trots the Web, dropping off in the newly restored Inuit territories (where we learn the local for sealskin pants) and traces the routes of the African diaspora. Plus Disney's Bugs, coming to a computer screen near you

Continental Content

Like its editors, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates Jr, Encyclopedia Africana (Microsoft, Windows, pounds 70) is serious, smart and sharply dressed. It could have traded scholarship for feel-good nostrums about African glories, but instead it conveys the glories in a framework that is accessible by virtue of clarity (an underappreciated alternative to dumbing-down).

Africana looks gorgeous too, filling the superb Encarta layout with warm savanna reds and golds. A virtual tour picks out points in the Old and New Worlds and illustrates them with a screen-wide panorama of locations significant to people of African descent, from Senegal to Brazil to the Boulevard St Germain in Paris and 125th Street in Harlem. As the viewer moves the image, the arc of view is tracked on a map underneath, on which are marked clickable spots of interest, such as the clubs where American jazz musicians rubbed shoulders with French intellectuals (though we don't learn what Charlie Parker and Jean-Paul Sartre said to each other when they met).

The subject which best indicates the mettle of a project like this is slavery, often represented as an evil so great that its political and socioeconomic dimensions are invisible in its moral shadow. Readers will come away from the main article with an appreciation of the slave trade as a complex phenomenon the effects and dimensions of which are the subject of continuing debate, the most basic question of which is why the transatlantic slave traffic took place at all. After all, it would have been cheaper to ship out European convicts, as British colonists did in Australia. Some historians argue that Africans had better resistance than Europeans to diseases such as yellow fever or malaria, which were present in the tropical regions of the Americas to which most of the slaves were sent. Others maintain that European motives were political rather than economic - furthering the project of European ascendancy.

There is much more to read on the subject, from the customs brought to the New World by Africans to the "maroon" communities in which escaped slaves maintained their rebel freedom; and there's nothing better than a well-designed hypertext for further reading of this kind.

Inevitably, I had a couple of reservations where articles were about topics on which I'm past entry level. One of these was the piece on Afrocentrism, which implied that its weaknesses are concentrated at its extremes, where claims flourish about the innate superiority that the pigment melanin confers on blacks over whites. The flaws in Afrocentrism run much deeper - as Anthony Appiah himself has trenchantly shown. But Afrocentrism in its most diffuse form is right to maintain that Africa's historical and cultural importance remains undervalued. Encyclopedia Africana is an elegant riposte to anybody who imagines that African history began when the European ships hove into view.

IT'S NOT A BUG, IT'S A FEATURE

You can almost smell the salvos of corporate correspondence over the billing in the title of Disney's Action Game, Disney/Pixar's A Bug's Life. But everything else about the joint venture is sheer, 3D- rendered style. A Bug's Life, the movie, was made on computers, so the home PC is a natural environment for the film's interactive cousin. The effects are suited to the platform in a way that digital versions of ordinary animations never are. The luminous fungi work particularly well on monitor screens, for instance. But it's not just the hyper-realistic 3D treatment that makes the impact so stunning. The artistic flair and intelligence behind these arthropods confirms Pixar's place in the animation pantheon, and the unique position in children's multimedia that it established with its Toy Story spin-offs. Fans of the earlier venture will enjoy set-pieces such as the Flea Circus, in which the player has to tweak a kinetic arrangement involving a cannon, a trapeze, a spider's web, a stick insect and Heimlich the caterpillar. Disney, Windows, age 8 and upwards, pounds 30.

WE'RE ON THE TOP OF THE WORLD

This charming audio-visual introduction to the Inuktitut language is brought to you by Igloolik Isuma Productions, an independent Inuit TV company. But there isn't a list of seven different words for snow - that's just a myth.

This map of the Inuit region, Nunavut, features on the Qikiqtani Inuit Association site, which sports a ".nu" domain tag in front of the ".ca" for Canada.

WORLD WISE

Michael Quinion's ever-growing World Wide Words site is the place to chew over questions such as when to use the word "gender" rather than "sex"; to reflect on whether sticking "e" in front of any word relevant to the Internet is really necessary; and to get the low-down on hot new words like "phytoremediation" (it means using plants and trees to clean up pollution).

TECHNOTIP

The biggest obstacle to Internet commerce isn't customer confidence, it's customer impatience. Filling out forms on-line isn't any more fun than it is on paper, and you're being billed while you do it, too. Now, and not before time, Microsoft has added an automatic form-filling tool to the Internet Explorer browser. It's part of the new Mac version, 4.5, while Windows users who don't mind unfinished products can sample it on the beta version of Explorer 5.

Comments