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On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology

Editor: Greg M. Smith
Publisher: New York: NYU Press, 1999
Review Published: May 2003

 REVIEW 1: David Prater

The thing I like about this book is that, despite the fact it was first published way back in 1999, it's still a relevant and enjoyable read. Which is more than I can say for any of the thousand and one technologically-utopian tomes that seemed to be the hallmark of early 1990s American media theory (Douglas Rushkoff's Media Virus or anything by Howard Rheingold springs to mind).

On a Silver Platter is a good read because a) it's characterized by academic inquiry, b) its themes are interconnected and interwoven, and c) the authors of each chapter/essay are clearly enthusiastic about what they're writing, without flying off the handle and getting all, well, I'll say it again, evangelistic.

This is evidenced most clearly in Greg M. Smith's introduction, where all bases are covered in a most respectable, inclusive, cautious, and watchful fashion. I like the admittance of the book's central proposition's possible irrelevance - namely, that CD-ROMs may be overrated or extinct much sooner than we think, therefore placing the entire project in a kind of technological limbo. But then again, you could say that about almost any technology.

On this point, anyone who's stepped outside the house in the last few years would know that CD-ROMs have been having a hard time as a genre, due not so much to competing technologies (for example, the Internet as a publishing or game playing vehicle) as a diversity of compact disc formats, most notably: DVD, CD, and home burnt discs.

I include this last format quite deliberately, because the ROM in CD-ROM stands for "Read Only Memory," a fact that indicates (for me personally, anyway), more than a slight irony in the format's supposed interactivity, a characteristic explored (often with admirable honesty and critical distance) in the essays contained herein. Then again, as Greg M. Smith's introduction states: "The concept of interactivity emphasizes the distinction between mouse clicking and remote clicking, instead of noting the possible continuities between the two" (11).

Speaking personally again for a moment, my first experience with the CD-ROM format was in the form of "Where in the World is Carmen San Diego" (actually bought for my young sister) and an absurdly addictive railroad game (whose name I cannot remember) with which my father, my brother, and I often spent lazy afternoons playing. The appeal of the former for me was that it offered a more realistic and visually stimulating version of the classic "Choose your own adventure" game (while still maintaining a visual tackiness unique to the 1980s), while the latter offered the entertaining option of attempting to build railway lines that crossed over a competing company's tracks, or designing huge circular routes that displayed zero logic or understanding of railway systems (let alone systems theory).

Most recently for me, I had the honor of having a poem of mine accepted for publication on a poetry CD-ROM, coming out of Brisbane, Australia, by the name of Papertiger. The only problem was, I'm a Mac user, and Papertiger is PC only. While not really explored in-depth in this collection, the politics of format conflict are almost deserving of a volume in their own right.

But enough about me. The obvious touchstones these days for CD-ROMs are the games: Quake, Doom, Playstation, Sim City, et al. On this last point I must of course state that Sim City was originally on a floppy disk, not CD Rom. Nowadays, of course, one can buy 6 Sim games on one silver disc (but again, if you're a Mac user, only half of them might actually be playable). File sharing systems (or facilitators, perhaps) have also made CD-ROM formats circumventable. Times have changed in terms of file formats and capacities, but the question posed by On a Silver Platter is a most pertinent one: how interactive, entertaining, unique, and worthy of study and analysis are CD-ROMs, actually, if at all?

From my reading of these essays, in terms of the above categories, I'd say the answers are: medium (interactivity), very (entertaining), mildly (unique), and extremely (worthy of study). This might sound like a straightforward pat on the back for the authors but where this book succeeds is in its in-depth analysis of specific CD-ROM "texts." Not just the Sim City texts (hell, instead of talking about it, let's just play the damn thing!) but also the not-so-obvious, notably: the Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail CD-ROM, or the downright intriguing "L-Zone," which comes across as a postmodernism thesis in waiting.

Brian Kelly and Scott Bukatman's analysis of the latter is for me the highlight of this collection, playing as it does on notions of the machine (within the machine), and the interface between humans and our supposed virtual realities (produced by other machines). Perhaps this was because I personally had not experienced L-Zone, whereas other essays in the collection, while thorough in their criticisms of, say, Civilization or a Star-Trek CD-ROM, held less intellectual curiosity for me. Perhaps this is because, as Smith states in his analysis of the Monty Python CD-ROM, "[I]n spite of all the bally-hoo about CD-ROMs as new media, many commercial discs contain a high percentage of material recycled from other media" (58).

Smith and his co-contributors are right to draw attention to this apparent inability of commercial producers to exploit opportunities for new content and left-field interactivity in CD-ROM releases. The same conservatism or protectionism can be said to be infecting producers of DVD movie releases with "extra special features" that turn out to be simply animated menus, the addition of one language (say Dutch), or a collection of jpegs from the movie one could have downloaded from the Internet for nothing.

In this respect, On a Silver Platter is fascinating perhaps not so much as a founding tome in a new breakthrough academic movement, but a much-needed and ultimately valuable history of CD-ROMs as texts in their own right.

Ted Friedman's analysis of Civilization II (despite my comment above) is interesting for his personal observations: " as when I finished up a roll of quarters on Pole Position, walked out to my car, and didn't realize for a half mile or so that I was still driving as if I were in a video game, darting past cars and hewing to the inside lane on curves" (132). Well, who can't relate to that? The same comment could be made of the cinema experience, or the book (or even the bedtime story) but as Friedman observes, the difference lies partly in the computer game's relative immaturity as a genre.

While on the subject of film, though I personally can't stand stalker/horror/slasher films, Angela Ndalianis' "Evil Will Walk Once More" makes some valid comments on the way in which translating the stalker film experience to CD-ROM has the potential to "... unsettle film form and the interpretative approaches that are applied to horror cinema - and to film spectatorship in general" (88). This sort of observation demonstrates that the old baloney about the content of new media being "old media" is just that. We are familiar in postmodern theory with the transformation or transgression of a story in later film versions - why not admit to the same potential for reterritorialization of film texts by computer simulations?

Alison Trope's "Museum Dis(play)" addresses similar questions in terms of the modern day museum's relationship to virtual spaces. Trope points to the close connection between corporate-sponsored or museum-commissioned CD-ROMs as a "storage and display context for their artifacts" and the traditional idea of the encyclopedia as a pedagogical instrument. As her essay goes on to show, such a notion fails to account for the real possibilities inherent in the CD-ROM format for virtual museums and innovative exhibitions/demonstrations.

Recently, when I visited the Museum of Modern Art's temporary gallery in Queens, New York City, one of the most absorbing "displays" for me was the collection of touch/computer screens facilitating access to shelved parts of the museum's collection, including a fascinating series of avant-garde Russian hand-made books. One could watch a QuickTime movie of the pages of the books being turned by a suitably white-gloved museum staff member, while also clicking on various text sections and close up images to give a convincing impression of what for all intents and purposes was for me a non-existent object. The multimedia element evident here (though not necessarily CD-ROM based) adds weight to Trope's statement that "the presence of multimedia - whether a retail CD-ROM museum reproduction or a resource database within the exhibition environment - is nonetheless implicated in the museum's constant renegotiation and balance of the high-low divide" (175-76).

One day, of course, CD-ROMs will be redundant, as cassette tapes now appear to be, despite my best efforts to track them down, for nostalgia's sake. On a completely unrelated final point, perhaps this redundancy will lead to countless exciting future discoveries, as today's youth in fifty years' time remove their old CDs from some dusty packing cases, insert them into the new machines that read every format known to humanity, and discover once again all those bonus hidden features they'd first experienced as true convergence way back in the late 1990s.

What's clear to me is that content will remain in some form or other. What's not so clear, even from this very thought-provoking book, is what that format will be. Then again, maybe I'm wrong, and I'll be forever poorer for not recognizing this gift that's been handed to me as if, indeed, on a silver platter.

David Prater:
David Prater lives in Melbourne, Australia. He is editor of Cordite, an online poetry journal funded by the Australia Council. Previously a researcher at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, he is currently studying towards a Masters in Creative Writing at Melbourne University.  <davidprater@optusnet.com.au>

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