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Hi-tech poem of no lasting value

A MANHATTAN publisher of limited-edition art books appears to have hit on the ultimate in ephemeral art - a poem published on computer disk that self- destructs as you read it.

Kevin Begos Jr says he hates computers, but is fascinated by the idea of a disappearing book. 'I wanted to take a look at the medium and what it means to publishing. I guess I see a disappearing book as a sort of satire on collecting,' he told the American magazine Publishers Weekly.

The medium suits the material. The poem, Agrippa (A Book of the Dead), was written by William Gibson, the foremost writer of 'cyberpunk'. Cyberpunk is a bastard son of science fiction which conjures up underground computer worlds known as cyberspace. In 1984, Mr Gibson wrote its seminal work, the novel Neuromancer, which has since inspired many a computer hacker.

Cyberspace is a nightmare computer-generated landscape, full of urban decay and amoral inhabitants, both human and electronic 'cyborgs'.

Agrippa - which is about Mr Gibson's father, who died when he was young - is 'a one-off experiment', according to his UK agent, Shelley Power. The poem takes about 15 minutes to read, and has been encrypted with computer code that wipes it as you scroll through.

The disk binding includes etchings of genetic codes by Dennis Ashbaugh, a New York artist, which are printed in inks that change when exposed to light - appearing and disappearing. 'The whole creation is thus in the process of alteration, like human perception and memory,' Publishers Weekly said.

Ms Power said that the binding was designed to look worn- out and burnt.

Mr Begos is creating only 445 copies of the disk, which can be used on Apple or IBM-compatible personal computers - 95 special editions at dollars 1,500 ( pounds 1,000) each and 350 limited editions at dollars 450 ( pounds 250). He believes most sales will be to museums or computer enthusiasts keen to crack its encryption.

In October, Mr Begos will go a step further and transmit the poem once only over fibre optic links to computers. It could be picked up on thousands of computer message points - known as bulletin boards - across the world. But it will still be encrypted, so its appearance should remain transitory.

However, both Mr Begos and Mr Gibson believe that the sort of people who will be interested in reading Agrippa will know exactly how to break the coded protection and store the poem.

The irony is that Mr Gibson is far from computer-literate himself. He only recently took to using a computer for writing. 'When they meet me, my fans are always disappointed by my lack of expertise,' he told Publishers Weekly.

He describes the Agrippa project as 'hermetic and wilfully eccentric. It seems pointless, but it may lead somewhere'. His next project is to publish the entire Neuromancer trilogy on computer disk.

Even Ms Power is puzzled by this: 'Whoever would want to read a book on a computer? You can't take it to bed with you, or read it in the bath . . .'