Feeling Powerless

The world of multimedia, with its plethora of supposedly stimulating CD-ROMs, is an enticing one. But just how exciting is it, and what do you do when that Mac you upgraded to just six months ago isn’t up to the job? Peter Hall has a frustrating time find

SBHD: The world of multimedia, with its plethora of supposedly stimulating CD-ROMs, is an enticing one. But just how exciting is it, and what do you do when that Mac you upgraded to just six months ago isn’t up to the job? Peter Hall has a frustrating time finding out

Whenever I hear the word multimedia, I reach for my chequebook. And the more I hear about the migration of graphic designers into interactive digital media, the more I realise that I have to buy a CD-ROM drive. Not just a CD-ROM drive, but a fast, powerful computer with speakers, a large colour monitor and cross-platform compatibility. In short, a Power Mac 8100/110 would be just fine, if I could only find several thousand dollars.

For the time being, I get my dose of multimedia by borrowing time on other peoples’ computers. This tends to make the process of viewing CD-ROMs time-sensitive, so it’s difficult to describe it as pleasurable.

One of my first experiences was with rock entrepreneur Peter Gabriel’s XPloral CD, which first required me to piece together a police photofit of the man’s face before proceeding into the secret world.

Intermittently, Gabriel’s head would appear in the corner of the screen, muttering something inaudible. There was much waiting. There was a suitcase to fill with items for the journey into the secret world. But I never got there. Every time I completed a task I would be met with an interminable delay and the appearance of Gabriel’s head, like an angel of digital darkness, muttering something inaudible. Then the screen would freeze and I’d have to restart the computer.

My next interactive experience was a sampler of Myst, the all-time best-selling CD-ROM. The pointless clicking of a mouse through a series of sterile, dirt-free rooms baffled me, but perhaps I’ll find an explanation when (and if) I confront the fully fledged program.

I pressed on to David Bowie’s Jump CD-ROM. More technical problems. No matter where I clicked, I landed in a shiny control centre where a Japanese woman on a screen said something inaudible to the same irritating loop of music. I tried The Residents’ Gingerbread Man, lavishly illustrated by artist Jim Ludtke, but grew tired of waiting for the gingerbread man to stop spinning, and bored of the dull cameos of the ugly characters.

Finally, I tried Brian Eno’s Headcandy, described as a “lava lamp for the computer generation”. Large, candy-coloured spheres bounced around over a psychedelic curtain, making electronic popping noises with the soft, ambient Eno music. But with a click on one of the spheres, the music and imagery blanked out.

After a while, a large colourful amorphous mass appeared and began subdividing itself across the monitor in silence, which seemed strange for a music CD. Eventually, the spheres came back with the music and I tried quitting the program. But no. More problems arose when the credits appeared, accompanied by spheres that crawled across the screen at a rate of a millimetre an hour. I woke up the next day, slumped across the keyboard, dimly remembering a nightmare in which I was a whale in a goldfish bowl.

No doubt I failed to assign enough memory to the program, failed to install the correct version of QuickTime, or simply need to go out and buy a Power Mac with a triple-speed CD-ROM drive. My six-month-old PowerBook is clearly destined for charity, and as for that Apple SE gathering dust in the corner, well, it’s great for propping the door open.

Just around the corner from my new apartment is a second-hand goods warehouse. Piled high in one of the aisles is an assortment of obsolete electrical goods, including an IBM computer and a shelf full of eight-track tape music centres and mono record players, and nothing is priced over $40 (ú25).

Further down the street is another store operated by the Salvation Army. In pride of place on the counter is a vintage Apple II computer, with a flickering green monitor, keyboard and joystick.

In a few years, these venues will most likely be resting places for those CD-ROM drives, Power Macs and Xploral CDs of the Nineties. CD-ROMs will have been replaced, like CDIs and 3DOs, with mini optical disks, or some other medium that feeds the homes of the world with interactive games and shows, across the fibre-optic cable networks.

Do we ever stop to question this ring-out-the-old-ring-in-the-new approach to technology? Will there ever be a digital format that lasts longer than two years? If I don’t hurry, that triple-speed CD-ROM drive will be obsolescent before I get around to buying one.

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