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The Independent Culture
I'd like to say that I have seen the future of CD-ROM, and its name is Days of Rage: Beirut 1982-1985, an interactive exploration of the events in that city based on photographs by Judah Passow. I'd like to say this, because the disc deserves it, but the future remains uncertain for hypermedia ventures which cannot be packaged as "edutainment". As far as the industry is concerned, if a multimedia product is not fun - defined broadly enough to include war encyclopaedias and fine art albums - it is a fearful leap into the commercial dark.

As a technology, CD-ROM demands that its developers stay on top of a wave of advance in which the tools for the job are changed every few months, if not weeks. As a medium, it demands that a whole new artform be evolved for it to realise its potential. In the face of these challenges, it might seem excessive to expect small independent practitioners to lead the way. On the other hand, the need for flexibility and imagination may mean that the natural role of the independents is to act as pioneers. After all, the legend of the student hacker turned multimillionaire is computer culture's favourite story. A precedent exists in the indie record labels which went where majors dared not tread, and then, having seeded new markets, recouped their investments by deals with the big players.

Judah Passow is hoping to go down a similar road. A photographer with a portfolio of images from troubled regions of the world, he became interested in CD-ROM as a way of reaching an audience directly. Editors are increasingly reluctant to commission serious photojournalism, because they believe that celebrities, rather than a corpses, sell copies. Many journalists, however, still cherish a belief that there is a potential audience out there for what they would like to write or photograph.

Days of Rage, the first product of Passow's Further Vision company, is a showpiece of what such an audience might come to expect. It presents 71 photographs Passow took in Beirut, in a medium which creates multiple versions of a photographic essay. Above all, it fulfils the prime directive of multimedia, which is that it is more than an alternative to an existing medium.

The images can be selected from a "lightbox", as an editor chooses frames from strips of film. Among the contextual options available are street- maps of Beirut which show the location where each photo was taken, while broader contexts are provided by Passow's own words, an essay by journalist Julie Flint, and hyperlinks to background information. The images are also presented in the form of a movie, allowing them to be experienced in the idiom of television documentary. Most strikingly, the viewer may choose to have the pictures accompanied by commentary from a Lebanese perspective, from an Israeli perspective, or from both.

Even the packaging offers pointers to the mainstream industry, being a slim black case instead of the absurdly oversized cartons which contain nothing but a disc and a lot of cardboard. The CD itself can be played on both Windows and Macintosh machines, giving the lie to the notion that defying Microsoft's monopolistic ambitions adds unacceptably to the cost of CD-ROMs. Having completed a superbly elegant synthesis of solutions to multimedia problems, Passow is now offering it to the corporations for them to distribute, along with forthcoming titles devoted to Israel and the Palestinians, Bosnia, and the Kurds. If they can't do anything with a disc like this, the future will be sheer, unremitting entertainment.

Days of Rage (pounds 49.95) is available from Further Vision, 21 Ashmount Rd, London N19 3BJ. Fax 0171 281 5207;