Technofile

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The Independent Culture
YELLOW RECTANGLES ON SILVER PLATTERS

The yellow rectangle that frames the covers of National Geographic magazine is being transformed from an anachronism to a multimedia logo, as National Geographic diversifies into the Net, computer games, its own television channel and CD-ROMs. Top of the latter range is a 30-disk set containing the entire archive of the magazine, from 1888 to 1996 (Windows/Macintosh, pounds 200), pictured above right and right. The 1980s and 1990s disks are also available as a separate package, at pounds 30. And for pounds 19.99 there's the National Geographic Photo Gallery CD-ROM (Windows, Mindscape), pictured left and above left. If the market warms to this, other "Decades" sets will appear in due course. The question is, what exactly is the market?

When the audio CD took off, the record industry was able to coast on sales to consumers who wanted music they already owned, but in a handier and higher quality package. Perhaps there are still a sizeable number of older readers who don't want to rummage through piles of old National Geographics in the attic, but the CD-ROM will not bring new life to their relationship with the magazine. The interface makes it clear: this is a research facility, not an aid to a stroll through the back pages of memory. The pages are laid out for inspection between rows of control buttons, two at a time. This is too small to read, and when the pages are magnified using the zoom button, they don't fit on to the screen. Even then, the scanned text is relatively faint, so the reader needs good eyesight as well as good humour.

For all that, it is an outstandingly valuable publication, and the complete set is much more than the sum of its parts. If National Geographic turns out to have made a commercial error in repackaging its old content, it's an error one could heartily wish other notable magazines might make. National Geographic has been immensely important in shaping Western perceptions of the world and our species' place in it. It was a magazine which sent out on assignment not just reporters, but real explorers, conducting expeditions funded by magazine sales. Louis Leakey, the godfather of human origins studies, benefited from National Geographic connections. So did Leakey protegees such as Jane Goodall, now the doyenne of chimpanzee field studies, as influential among scholars as she was demurely radiant in 1960s National Geographic photo-stories.

Until recently, the magazine's house-style tended to a banality that makes CNN look like Newsnight, and prose that sprawled like a CNN "breaking story". With this went an editorial perspective that, for an American magazine, could be remarkably relaxed. A 1926 feature on Russia, rich with photos of queues, blithely echoed the Party line that, as the educational standard of the Soviet people rose, dictatorship would ease into democracy. While noting that a knock on the door from agents of the GPU was a commonplace event in the home life of a Soviet citizen, it took pains to state that the secret policemen always conducted themselves properly; so much so that "usually they express regret to other members of the family for the necessity of disturbing them". Sometimes National Geographic was not just yellow, but pink as well.

MAGONIAN TALES

In 1966, as a generation awoke to cosmic consciousness and strange lights were seen in the skies, among other places, a group of Liverpool University students started a UFO magazine. As the years went by, they gradually realised how silly it all was, but by then they were having too much fun to let it drop. They also realised that the really fascinating thing about UFOs is the folklore that has grown up around them, and Magonia magazine became a forum for anthropological commentaries on the various strands of UFO lore.

In recent years, the cult has swollen to the proportions of a world religion, and Magonia continues to occupy a unique position of sceptical enthusiasm in the buffer zone between flying saucers and the real world. Selected articles from the archives are now available on Magonia's website, including one from last August's issue on the Raelians, whose menfolk are described as resembling "Michael Bolton crossed with Asterix the Gaul". Their leader on Earth is Anthony Grey, a former Reuters correspondent who was imprisoned in Peking by Red Guards in the late 1960s, and who subsequently became a successful author. Despite his experience of totalitarianism, Grey is dissatisfied with democracy: Raelians favour "geniocracy", under which the vote would be restricted to those who have passed an intelligence test. They also believe that in order to save humankind, they have to build an embassy for the Elohim, hyper-intelligent beings who created life on Earth 25,000 years ago.

NEW YEAR HONOURS

Technofile's coveted Stone Rose for the longest-awaited CD-ROM release goes to the Thames & Hudson's Art Encyclopaedia, for the second year running.

The Unplugged Award for commitment to new media goes to News Corporation, for shutting down its multimedia wing the week before the scheduled launch of the aptly named flagship title "Lest We Forget".

The Elvis Award for turning flair into flab is shared by Microsoft and Netscape, for their version 4 browsers.

The Henry Kelly Award goes to John Updike for being game for a laugh and allowing anyone with an Internet account to help him write a story.

The BBC takes the biscuit for Moral Rights, for threatening to set their lawyers on student Teletubbies sites carrying copyright images without permission, while grabbing their own contributors' rights "in all media now known or which may hereafter become known".

And the New Statesman Award for staggering from crisis to crisis without actually collapsing goes, of course, to Apple.

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