Click, and I'm a Microserf

In a dingy back street in the West End of London, a multi-media magazine is planned. There are nerdish people in horrible T-shirts. Pat Kane feels at home. He launches the new project on Friday
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The Independent Online
So the fax stuttered in out of nowhere, hard after the accountant's letter and just before that riveting chat-show proposal from Radio Five Live. Would I like to work for Microsoft, as the editor of its new on- line music and culture magazine, Blizzard? I stood in the bomb-site of my cramped study in Partick, Glasgow, and stared hard at the sheet. Two things immediately struck me. One, how the hell did they get my number? And two, what would it mean to go to work for Bill Gates - to become, in Douglas Coupland's words, a Microserf?

The first was easily resolved: after about a decade of decorous schmoozing in the realms of music'n'media, just about everybody has at least one of my numbers. The second took, as they say, a bit of processing. I'd already partially bought into the Microsoft Way, when (sad admission) I had scrambled out to get Windows 95 on the morning of its release: I've also been reading (and admiring) Microsoft's most public journalistic venture, the American politics-and-culture netzine Slate.

And if I could at one point happily take the Murdoch coin - only because, of course, it allowed me to write 3,000 words on the philosophical quandaries of post-photography - I could take virtually anyone's. Time to get on the next info-capitalist wave, boy - at least to say that I'd been there, and in the proper manner.

And as a cyberspace dilettante, the basic idea very much appealed to me. A year on Compuserve had saved my sorry freelance butt on quite a number of late-night occasions, because of its range of online print archives and net-search facilities. But could you combine the world-library aspect of the Internet with something more dynamic? I had worked extensively in radio, television, journalism and music. Could there be a publication which combined the best aspects of all four media, throwing in the exploratory, point-and-click freedom of the video game into the bargain? Amid these piles of tottering wood-pulp and ink, I felt the cool and invigorating air of something completely and utterly next-century. The reply was faxed off before brunch.

My first meeting with Noho Digital, the multi-media design company contracted by Microsoft to create Blizzard, took me to a faintly dingy back street behind Tottenham Court Road, and the tiniest of buzzers. No surprises there: I'd once visited Silicon Gulch in San Francisco, and found the vast warehouse offices of Wired magazine behind a door that looked like the gateway to a crack den.

After a few hours of breeze-shooting and CV-swapping - Emap this, BBC there, indie production the other - I realised that everybody here, like me, was having to make up most of the rules as they went along. Would Blizzard be a magazine, or a show? Does it have to be a good textual read, or good interactive fun? And should we be thinking "both-and", rather than "either-or" anyway? As the programmers and I got talking about how to make the ideas work, I felt right at home: rock engineers have the same expressive faith in technology as nerds. And they wear the same appalling T-shirts as well.

When Microsoft finally sent a heavyweight internet cruiser up to Glasgow, I was able to do the proper network-society job: log on to my first show as it was being constructed in London, while I lunched on a Penguin biscuit in rainy Partique.

And a week before launch, it's closer to the ideal than I expected: that is, using the full spectrum of multi-media to make sitting before the computer a less inert, more engaging experience. My seven-year old daughter loves the interactive feature on ABC - chasing the icons of her personal obsessions round the screen (from Kit Kats to early Bowie), clicking on them to hear Martin Fry's Sheffield-stentorian booming out at you from the speakers. And if you also want to read a tart essay on the idea of the Eighties revival, or hear clips from U2's Pop in the midst of a critical review ... then you can. Only a mouse-sweep away.

There is, if you'll pardon the pun, still something of a snow job to be done on the music business with Blizzard. Some press and record people are as net-savvy as can be, suggesting all manner of snazzy digital tie- ins. Some are half way there, at least able to stick the set-up disc into the right slot on their office PCs. And some are charmingly, if frustratingly Luddite about the whole thing.

No matter how many transatlantic millions I assure them will be watching their artists, as subscribers to Microsoft Network, there is still an intangibility about net culture that puzzles the non-screenager. Getting your fingers covered with ink from handling the latest NME: apparently, that's tangible. I'm consoling myself that I'm ahead of the curve: every time Tony Blair bleats "infaw-mation supah-highway", my task here will get incrementally easier.

The only lifestyle change, other than a weekly flight to London from Glasgow and yet another set of deadlines, is the death of my fax machine. I'm an E-male now, logging on to my team's messages every morning. Do the Partick pigeons look in on my pale, screen-lit face, and see a willing Microserf? Microhack, please. It's all a lot of macro-fun, anyway.

Blizzard launches on the Microsoft Network on Friday. Telephone 0345 002000 for a free start-up disk, or contact Microsoft on the net -