Technofile

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The Independent Culture
N The world of multimedia seems to be rubbing off on Richard Dawkins. To meet the press at the offices of Notting Hill, the Whittam-Smith family CD-ROM business, he wore impeccable Oxford tweeds and glasses on a cord but no socks, like a Time Lord with better dress sense. Oddly enough, his appearance on Notting Hill's CD-ROM The Evolution of Life (pounds 29.95) is entirely conventional, while his environment is rendered in a kind of beatnik Baroque.

The inspiration for the visual metaphors - a study, leading via a photocopier to a gallery, and on via a couple of tulips into the substance of the disc, comes from the computer game Myst, the success of which seems to have led a number of multimedia designers astray.

Notting Hill believes you can never have too much design; the result is florid collages in which various layers of text, tenuous video images, brash decorations and subfusc underlays all compete. Their navigation icons are intricate, but frequently indistinct. It all reminds me of progressive rock triple albums with Roger Dean covers from the early Seventies. In a few years we'll laugh at the idea that people were once thought to need a metaphor of rooms to find their way around a CD-ROM. But Evolution does have a strong visual character, and I have to admit that I find it appealing, although against my better judgement.

Ironically, its style seems more suited to the prose of the other great populariser of evolutionary theory, Stephen Jay Gould. His essays are bushy, whereas Dawkins writes in the manner of a fencer. As it happens, Gould's own CD-ROM, Stephen Jay Gould On Evolution, produced a couple of years ago by the American company Voyager and available on import from BMG Interactive (0171 384 7798), is classically simple in presentation. It also contains the founding text itself, Darwin's Origin of Species.

The Evolution of Life is based on Dawkins's The Blind Watchmaker. Notting Hill has devised a cunning graphical tool to replace dull old indexes, though at the time of demonstration it had not been hooked up to the text files. In fact, the whole project has turned into a miniature Francis Ford Coppola production, its deadlines crumbling in the face of its ambitions, but it is now promised for late October.

When Evolution does eventually appear, it'll be a lot of fun. I'm not sure how effectively its architecture lends itself to the communication of the entire story it has to tell, but users will stumble across a bunch of entertaining cameos. I particularly liked the South American river scenario which demonstrates how the need to attract mates, by means of signals such as bright colouring, must be reconciled with the need to survive external threats. You add predators to the river, and watch selective pressures do their work on the coloured guppies.

The most effective use of digital games is in the finale of the disc, which demonstrates how computer "organisms", initially taking a very simple form on the screen, can evolve by mutation into fantastically complex - and beautiful - structures. Each time the program is run, the results are unique. Dawkins confirms that it is true to the spirit of the programs he devised himself and described in The Blind Watchmaker.

These ones can reproduce sexually, too, by exchanging chunks of computer code. Thus the disc concludes by placing the user in the driving seat instead of Dawkins, and encouraging him or her to manipulate the selection of breeding partners. In other words, to play God.

Marek.kohn@mcr1.poptel.org.uk

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