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Outeractive Media: The Beats CD-ROM

by Mike Zwerin

the beatpadPARIS - I have an attitude problem. I am pro-content, anti-form. I believe what is in the movie or on the album or the CD-ROM is more important than the technology wrapping it. I believe in black and white movies and LPs. I'll choose good music recorded with lousy sound over the other way around. You may very well ask why in that case am I writing on-line.

Good question. To attack the belly of the beast, that's why.

Selling interactive media today is like selling real estate in South Florida in the 1920s. It may be worth a bundle someday but it's not a present-tense deal. I would not buy a house in Coral Gables from the people who are presently hyping CD-ROMs.

BeatmanThey are, of course, hustling themselves as well as us - they have convinced themselves that the time is NOW. But interactive, the word of the day, is an over-rated and limited word. Imagination takes up too much space and time. It is unreliable. It seems to me that programmers today are like jazz musicians with Paul Whiteman being told that they can play what ever they like as long as they stick to the melody.

Think of all the people worshipping screens like altars. This is a religion as much as a medium. They accept by faith as much as experience. The faith is rarely questioned.

I first thought of this image in a recording studio a few months ago.I am a trombonist as well as a writer, and I was recording a "unison"passage with a saxophone player in state-of-the-art fashion. Which is to say that each one of us played the line alone, one after the other, listening to each other through earphones. We might as well have been on different continents.

Playing the same line at the same time with each other would have risked the "sin" of leakage. With leakage, overdubbing or splicing to correct errors would be impossible. But good players like us don't make mistakes (ha ha) and anyway, hey guys, how about just doing another take? But the technical people in the control room were too busy paying homage to the visual representation of sound on the screen - wow! dig that, man - even to consider this option. It would have been heresy to suggest it.

Isn't it ludicrous that posing the possibility of two musicians in the same place recording the same music at the same time becomes metaphysical? Doubters beware.

Which brings us to the point. ("Finally!" you may be excused for exclaiming.) We are now ready to punch the software into the hardware. The standards will probably conflict. Your computer will be too archaic or inexpensive to deal with the information. You will have time to read the New York Review of Books before the information is finally downloaded.

No no. Enough naysaying. Let us assume that it all works as advertised. I won't mind if you accuse me of quibbling.

cutupsQUIBBLE1 - In this Voyager Beat CD-ROM, there is a category to click on called "Cut-Ups." This was the name of an aleatoric literary device invented by the Beat poets and philosophers William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin which involved literally cutting up clumps of text and shuffling the pieces of paper. Whatever sequences resulted made a kind of whacky sense of their own. Sort of like a random CD program. It's a whole new way of relating to the written word. Words make sense despite themselves.

One trouble with the product is that there is no illustration. It should be easy enough to do with some sort of cut and paste game. There must be some fun way to play electronic cut-up. Another trouble is that nowhere does the product in question explain what I just explained. How many people know what "cut-ups" are? Perhaps there was not enough memory for an explanation, let alone an illustration. Maybe nobody thought about it, knew how to set it up or perhaps the mere mention of scissors and paper was considered counter-revolutionary.

Charlie ParkerQUIBBLE2 - We see Charlie Parker and band on-screen. Great! Better yet, we hear them too. But this on-screen music is sometimes out of sync. And the images are often out of focus. Is this supposed to be new technology or what? And there are not enough musicians, not enough music; in or out of focus. Why not more? I know the answer. I know I know - if I'm told this one more time I'll spit. There's not enough memory for moving images or music in today's CD-ROM technology. But, hey, just wait until the next generation. Sure.

Where's Chet?QUIBBLE3 - In the 50s and 60s there was a big Beatnik scene in Paris. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gysin, Allen Eager, and many of the others stayed in a roach-infested Left Bank dive called the Beat Hotel. The connection between the Beat scene and Paris is essential to this subject. Yet it is not stressed and this is indeed distressing. Because if stuff like this that I happen to know about is not handled well or is wrong, what about stuff I know not? Makes you lose confidence.

QUIBBLE 4 - Where is Chet Baker? Chet was as cosmic a Beat hero as James Dean. You really cannot understand the Beats unless you know about Chet; his talent, his appeal, his lifestyle.

MORE THAN JUST ONE MORE QUIBBLE - You cannot really learn anything new about the Beats at all by buying this CD-ROM. Forget it. Read a good book.

QUIBBLE5 - Are you turned on by hard core homosexual images that appeared in Beat period porn magazines? Then you'll love this CD-ROM. The Beats - weren't they naughty? - were sexually adventurous. Gee, Gus, I didn't know that. Lots of tits and ass and whips and stuff. Cheap shots. Bad taste.

THE MOTHER OF ALL QUIBBLES: You click and you click and after a while you are just clicking in circles. You come all too quickly and inevitably back to the same starting point. There are many roads, in other words, but few destinations - more departures than arrivals. Not enough exits. This piece of interactive media commits the worst of all mediatic sins. It gets boring fast.

RigSo we bid a fond farewell to our Beat heros, who are stuck inside this small-time nerdy version of their existence. They have clicked their mice on the big hyperdermic needle on the floor of Voyager's representation of a Beat pad without paying attention to the warning that flashes on screen - "DeadEnd."

Ha ha ha. This might be a good joke except that "Dead End" is not exactly the perspective from which the Beats used to consider the subject of dope. It was no joke at all, and it kind of misses the point. Just say no, kiddies. Thank you, Nancy Reagan.

You can almost hear Bill Burroughs chuckling.

As we ride into the sunset, we catch a glimpse of some Beats who have tired of struggling to get out. Just like the bad old days, they roll all their little troubles into one big one. They tie up, fix some smack and sit there scratching their noses nodding out.


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