TECHNOFILE

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The Independent Culture
Regular readers of Technofile may be surprised to hear that there's more to the new electronic media than Old English poetry, classical philosophy, hypertext fiction or radical Croatian critical theory. Equally, regular readers of other publications may still be persuaded that there's no more to the Net than inanity, paedophilia and Nazis. I don't want people to miss out on the birth of a new medium because of misapprehensions like these, and up to now, I've used Technofile to pit an idiosyncratic vision of hypermedia against the cliches peddled elsewhere.

As long as Technofile's home was in the Books section, that vision was based on text, books and writing. Now it'll be expanding to embrace the glittering mosaic of digital culture as a whole. So, welcome to Technofile 2.0; as big a leap forward as Internet Explorer 4.0, but a lot leaner and easier to use. (And shipped sooner, too.)

Restrictive definitions don't do hypermedia any favours. Usually they are little more than expressions of personal preference. Many people who got wired more than two years ago tend to see discussion forums as the soul of the Net. They regard the Web as the technology that let the salesmen in, the equivalent of waffle-front hotels on a golden beach. For that school of thought, the Web is "just a presentation medium". At the other extreme, there are the vanguardists who declare that since sound, images and words can all be encoded digitally, truly progressive exercises in digital media must contain lashings of all three.

At bottom, this is a religious vision, ordaining that all information modalities must strive to transcend themselves and become one. Like other religious visions, in the wrong hands it has a tendency to produce kitsch. Sooner or later, an animated pieta will weep tears on CD-ROM.

My own view is that a range of balances will be struck between different modalities, and these will form the bases of new genres. Some of these genres will be primarily visual, some will be basically textual, some will be riotous new polymedia. Some new ways of combining modalities will gain widespread acceptance, becoming as familiar as icons and windows, while others will wither on the vine. Much of the fun of the next few years will come from seeing what works and what doesn't. Technofile 2.0 hasn't lost touch with its literary roots - as you can see from the pocket Joyce feature below. Thanks to the smart decision of our Books Editor to instigate the column, instead of leaving computers to the propeller- heads, Technofile has been able to discuss multimedia and the Net as a form of culture rather than a technology. The column's original position was an ideal platform for asserting that text is fundamental to the new media. Now we've made that clear, it's time to celebrate what hyperlinks can do for the gamut of culture. Even a brief acquaintance with the work of hypermedia artists shows that the traditional boundaries between word, sound and image are no longer relevant. Actually, a brief acquaintance is all one generally gets before the program quits. The art world's main contribution to software technology seems to be the point-and-crash interface.

Meanwhile, the revenue for digital culture comes in large part from games, which also help force the pace of progress in multimedia technologies. Every other form based in popular culture - rock music, soap operas, cartoons - is now considered fit to be taken seriously. But I don't see why the Prodigy should command more space in grown-up papers than games like Dark Earth. The only reason can be that fantasy games embarrass the middle- aged, reminding them of their Tolkien-obsessed youth.

ULYSSES

Dateline June 16, 1904: "Lunchtime. Bloom stops in at a pub for a bite to eat." Radical cross-media treatments of James Joyce's Ulysses are nothing new: Bloom's Hotel in Dublin presented a summary on its tablemats way back, surprisingly confident that it wouldn't put diners off their food. The webzine From Hunger offers tastier fare with "Ulysses for Dummies", which tells the story in 18 cartoons, like stations of the Cross. The captions are written to competition rules, completed in not more than 25 words; the pictures are animated, though conspicuously missing is a portrait of the author revolving in his grave.

'My mother hates Nixon, my son hates Nixon, I hate Nixon, and this hatred has brought us together. Nixon laughed when I told him this. "Don't worry," he said, "I, too, am a family man, and we feel the same way about you" '

Hunter S Thompson, in his 1994 Rolling Stone obituary of Richard Nixon, He Was A Crook, now presented on the Atlantic Monthly Web site

WRITTEN ON THE BODY

The Spleen by Piotr Szyhalski, is a labyrinthine exploration of art, propaganda, the state and the self within a metaphor of the body. Preambles to the constitutions of 24 nations are presented as skin eruptions, which some may see as an argument for leaving these things unwritten. Featured in Website Graphics: The Best of Global Site Design by Liesbeth den Boer, Geert J Strengholt and Willem Velthoven; Thames & Hudson pounds 29.95

DARK EARTH

A bombardment of meteors has plunged Earth into darkness, save for a few isolated patches. Our hero Arkhan (no relation to the Serbian ethnic cleanser Arkan) is a Guardian of Fire in the city of Sparta. "We've worked very hard on the design of the universe," boasts Nicolas Gaume, head of the Bordeaux-based developers, Kalisto. To underpin the sense that Dark Earth is a world with depth, Kalisto worked out details, such as educational systems, which don't actually feature in the game. Its other distinguishing feature, says Gaume, is that it offers US and Japanese players a post-apocalyptic scenario with a European sensibility: cathedrals rather than cyberpunks. (Mindscape, Windows only, pounds 40)

'He was a flat-out, knee-crawling thug with the morals of a weasel on speed'

Hunter S Thompson, on Nixon's understudy, Vice-President Spiro Agnew

WORLD WIDE WEB

YOU'LL FIND LINKS TO WEB SITES MENTIONED IN TECHNOFILE ON ITS HOME PAGES:

http://www.poptel.org.uk/technofile

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