Judgement day is nigh

There was a time, not so long ago, when we all thought everything done by computer was magical. Everyone seemed incapable of objectivity as they enthused over the capabilities of the new technology, but it’s time the blinkers came off, says Sutherland Lya

SBHD: There was a time, not so long ago, when we all thought everything done by computer was magical. Everyone seemed incapable of objectivity as they enthused over the capabilities of the new technology, but it’s time the blinkers came off, says Sutherland Lyall

Call me innocent, but I can’t get excited by all this tabloid stuff about CD-ROM porn. Unless you’ve got a megapower computer, a fast new CD-ROM player, fast video card and exceptional eyesight to watch the crude postage stamp-sized movie image, you’re going to wonder why you didn’t go round to the video store and get a tape from behind the counter – or shlep down to the newsagent for one of the glossy stroke magazines which you can stuff under the pillow when Mum comes in. Always providing you thought either was a good idea in the first place.

I write not to promote the use of porn but to indulge in sub-McLuhanesque musings about how the medium – the 14in computer screen and the box that powers it – has such a powerful affect on our perception of the quality of what we experience – namely, the message.

Last year you could put anything at all on a CD-ROM and flog it for at least ú25. One, which is probably still on sale somewhere, had a whole lot of books on it, maybe 200 or 2000, it hardly matters. Plus it contained a lot of extremely uninteresting garbage culled from US government reports to fill out the 600 megabytes which CDs can currently hold. There were translations from the classics too. But because they were all out of copyright you couldn’t be sure when they had been done, who they were written by and whether they were any good. But people bought it (I would have if I hadn’t seen a contents list on some bulletin board) and hundreds like it, on subjects ranging from jam-making to arcane computer-operating systems, because there on that little rainbow-reflecting disk was the contents of a small library.

It’s a reverse take of those people who glue the backs of books to the wall in fake library shelves. Until your over-knowledgeable brats demanded that disk-based encyclopedia, you could casually pull out the disk at dinner parties and say with a bogus wonder in your voice, “Here’s the Complete Works of Shakespeare on this round bit of aluminised polycarbonate. Amazing”, and hope your guests would then look at each other in a wild surmise.

Like students photocopying references, you didn’t actually have to read it yourself. I suppose a few people sat down in front of their computers every evening and religiously read through from Jane Austen all the way to Emile Zola. But there is something faintly ridiculous and earnest about trying to get your head into the plots of forgotten novels you never before wanted to read, sitting on an office chair late into the night (and later the arms of your friendly chiropractor), wielding a mouse and peering into the unearthly glow of a VDU tube.

Anyway that was last year. This year the CD-ROM industry has taken off. The latest catalogue someone sent me had some 1000 titles, all at between ú30 and ú60. And I’ve seen some of them, and quite a few interactive demo CD-ROMs from software houses – the first couple of minutes that is. Trouble is, you rapidly come to the conclusion that CD-ROMs are interesting primarily because they can store more megabytes than your old hard disk but you don’t peer through the slot watching it go round do you? Their guidance systems are mostly crap. Too few have Skip and Exit facilities – essential because with few exceptions they have been designed by Uncle Herbert during that bad patch when the electric lights kept on blowing. And the movies are tiny and jerky; the latter because you haven’t upgraded last year’s CD drive, the former because that’s the way movies are, using current computer gear.

Does anyone complain? Apparently not. We’re in, hey, an ongoing learning situation guys, and have to be sympathetic during this transition period when we have to admire whatever dross spews on to the screen. It’s rather like the demo of Apple’s voice recognition system I went to. It was a dismal failure – even with an Apple demonstrator wheel-ed in from the US. I was astounded when I read my fellow hacks’ reviews. They were all wildly, wildy enthusiastic – about a system they’d seen not working. Eighteen months later it’s still not working.

And all that stuff about computer graphics. Everyone went crazy about those heavily pixilated images and loopy typefaces originally designed for extremely stupid bank computers. Embarrassing to contemplate now, but amazing then because they were produced on a computer.

I put this, and the serious reviews of inept, pathetically designed and thought-out CD-ROMs, down to this eye-brain effect which enables us to stitch individual movie frames together into a seamless moving image and turns distorted and shifted pictures into apparently three-dimensional shapes. Deep in the brain is a mechanism by which the combination of a colour VDU screen and a computer box clicks everybody into total-suspension-of-judgement mode.

You and I know the computer is an often wonderful tool, but magic it ain’t. It’s time we started telling people that crap is crap, starting with the CD-ROM producers. And the porn merchants.

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