Comments on the CD-ROM From Alice to Ocean

Clae Styron

for Prof. Howard Besser

March 21, 1994


Basically this CD-ROM is a coffee table book in the style of a National Geographic quickie--questionable rapportage, stories and scientific data with mysterious gaps, hackneyed persona (the adventurous stock characters, jungle Janes, etc.). It promises much but doesn't hang together, too many questions remain unanswered, a mild sensationalism or exaggerated viewpoint knit the story together. But the lush, almost aromatic images, the slick photography prepare the viewer for anything. It's like an extremely well done TV ad--see Coca Cola's charming polar bears. This too is a charming tale.

Camels are very photogenic animals. (Cigarette marketers think so too). I enjoyed the mesmerising silhouettes of Arabian camels, imported to Australia in the nineteenth century, plodding over the vast, red desert to the music of an Aborigine's diggeridoo.

The swaying spectacle of camels introduces the show based on Robyn Davidson's book called Tracks. I go to meet the author to hear her thoughts. (She has now become part of the spectacle as she poses in Indian cotton and nuzzles camels.) I click on " hear her thoughts". She wrote the book that has inspired this new production.

There is an imaginative disjunction between her taut narcissistic narrative, the trim lost- Australian accent, the lack of observational power, the perfunctory, even nasty asides, and the power of the photographer's generous vision and technical composition of the piece. In addition, she tells us she's "alone" when she's got a photographer, tourists, aboriginal villages, cattle stations along the way. She also has a cattle driver mentor and meets a "dream-weaving" Aborigine along the way.

What does she mean by "alone"? Is this a state of soul? Does she know what alone in the out-of-doors really means? Compare this with Ken Nyquist's eight month backpack across the Brooks Range in Alaska. He did his own photography because he was ALONE. (Did anyone want to buy his mediocre photographs? How many people know of this phenomenal tale of survival that took years of mental, physical and logistical preparation? (This is just thrown in for comparison. Unfair perhaps. But we are asked to compare the author with Amelia Earhart and Karen Blixen.)

Journeys across Australia have been described more than once from compelling perspectives. Compare the mythic vision of Noble Prize-winning Australian author Patrick White in his novel Voss.

The above make the author's narration sound like a walk around the block. A walk around the block can be very exciting for suburbanites and collectors of coffee table books.

Rick Smolan's photography creates a fine tension with the author's crisp narrative, but eventually the narrative is subsumed in it. What has happened to the original text? Why can't we have it all as in Voyager's Jurassic Park?

How has the text been sanitized? What has been left out? Surely there is more to tell us about camel lore, exhaustion, dehydration, the problem of organizing and obtaining supplies? This is a pseudo-documentary with a gimmicky but wonderfully designed interface. The photographs tell the story and we watch through the eyes of the cameraman who in turn is watching the author who at first calls him " a bloodsucking little creep".

Observations about what is seen along are the meat of an adventure tale from Dr. Livingston's Diaries to Beryl Markham's West with the Night, to mention a few.

Observations here that deserve to be integrated into the author's narrative are dropped into footnotes accessible via SIDEBARS, as though she were incapable of including this information in her own account. This also gives the illusion on the interface and in the glossy brochure that we are about to enter richly documented gateways to camel lore, Australian flora and geology. Nothing of the kind. Each button links to only one screen with a skimpy amount of information on it. The Outback Wildlife button produces a predictable kangaroo. Knowlegable viewers honed on public television documentaries know there are myriads of marsupials of all sizes and vividly plumed birds in Australia, to mention a few. She has trekked 1700 miles and seen only a kangaroo? Let's try Outback Flora. The button opens a screen informing us that western Australia has 2/3 of the world's wildflowers. Dead end again. A Photographic Tip Index offers another tantalizingly skimpy set of footnotes.

Adapting a book to another medium poses many problems. In this case the abridged narrative is further broken into separate paths that go nowhere and that probably dissolve the integrity and imagery of the original story in the book. It is no longer the author's vision that triggers scenarios in our mind. A photographer does it for us, and his vision, however beautiful, deactivates and substitutes itself for the author's ability to evoke the latent power of the end user's imagination. Can this production really be called a book? Smolan says he wanted to provide a new experience and he succeeds. The author plays a passive role, her most persuasively energetic moments being a few stinging remarks.

Technically this is an exciting work. The synchronizing of image, narration and sound is well done although the sound faded out in places. Images were slow to fade in and out but that added to the mesmerising affect of the journey. It uses only a fraction of the space on the CD-ROM disk. There is room for much more.

I think a major cognitive problem for the future designers of interfaces like this, now an inspiring novelty, is that its pretense of being "interactive" will grow predictable and old very quickly. Unlike the printed book it does not trigger the imagination of the viewer which is the source of the printed book's power. Here we need to be constantly amused and entertained. The challenges to creators of interfaces could be enriched by reference to what can be learned from theatrical forms, film, television. This beautiful production stimulates much about technical issues as well as about the craft of story telling in this new form.

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