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
Monday 07 April 1997
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 - http://www.uk.msn.com
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