Examination of You can't get there from here: ephemeral films 1946-1960. CD-ROM, 1992.

Hella Heydorn
LIS 296A H. Besser
Spring 1994


1. Introduction

The CD-ROM disc You can't get there from here: ephemeral films 1946-1960 was published in 1992. Incorporating 19 film clips and text, the disc is designed for use primarily by viewers who are seeking a critical introduction in the spirit of the "fabulous Fifties". The disc offers a great opportunity to see clips of advertising, educational, and industrial films made since 1927. Unlike feature films, theatre plays, or newsreel, these films were produced to respond to a specific (social) problem of the time, and are hence called "ephemeral" by the producers of the disc.

The disc encompasses:

This is an interesting source of information about post-WorldWar II America. As with all media in the electronic environment, the value of the publication is dependent not only upon the intrinsic quality of the information itself, but also upon how readily one can access this information. For movies and printed material, access and locational mechanisms are generally stable and well understood. Compared to the book and the film, CD-ROM is a very new medium with conceptual methods and tools for access still evolving. Access software becomes a critical issue, even when a CD-ROM disc contains a relatively small quantity of information (compared to an encyclopedia on disc, for example) as in You can't get there from here. There is nothing more frustrating for a user than to know that something is on a disc but s/he cannot find it. But this has not been my experience with You can't get there from here.

2. The design concept and structure

The basic lay-out of the screen consists of two windows, containing image and text. The image-window can be enlarged to full screen. The concept behind the data structure and the software tools reflects the different type of media contained on the disc, the subject matter and the nature of its use. For example, the text can be scrolled while the film is running, the viewer may stop the movie, fastforward it, adjust the volume or "turn pages" of the text. The header bar at the top of the screen contains software functions that apply to the whole information database. There is a context icon ("Ycgtfh") in the right upper corner of the screen that supports the user's sense of orientation.

The footer bar, at the bottom of the screen, contains function keys that help the user move through the disc (e.g. quit, help - for context sensitive help -, related movies, contents - goes to index of movies).

The underlying structures (or metaphors) that are useful in understanding the nature of You can't there from here are: printed articles, videorecordings, and to a limited extent encyclopedias. Printed text-metaphors have been retained where appropriate (e.g. pages); the same applies to the film clips: the viewer can control approximately the same functionalities like playing a video on a VCR; there is also a timer indicating the duration of the film at the bottom of the image window. In addition, the viewer may choose more than one single route through the information which is clearly encyclopedic in style.

3. Educational potential and language

The educational potential of this CD-ROM resides in its concept of "resource priority". The disc allows each of its media streams to be given priority, at the user's discretion. It does not simply revolve around the text, with the film clips tacked on where appropriate. The control panel allows the user to prioritize either the film clip or the text.

Both media support each other but, in fact, could stand separately. The language of the texts is clear. The text provides history and a brief synopsis of the film including the date it was made and the context in which it was made. The articles are between 1 and 7 "pages" long which makes them an easy reading while the film is showing. They are well written and insightful, inciting the curiosity of the reader to see or read more on the topic. The film clips, on the other hand, speak for themselves as they depict the "golden age of American consumerism". The scenes are usually highlights of the full-length films where the message is highly concentrated in both verbal and pictural form (for example the driving scene in "The last date".)

For a viewer who has not been completely initiated to multi-tasking, s/he may choose to first select one or the other medium to inform her/himself. The alternative situation being a TV-screen and a printed text on hand, the CD-ROM is certainly more convenient and less distracting with both image and text on one screen.

But, unlike an encyclopedia or another database with substantial information, I am not sure if You can't get there from here lends itself well to multiple use. The first time I logged on, I was mesmerized simultaneously by the technical complexity of a CD-ROM and the themes of the films and the text. It was very intersting and educational indeed.

The second time around, however, I viewed more films and read more text, was intellectually engrossed but certainly no more than I would have been reading a good book or watching a good movie. At the same time, I could not help wondering if perhaps, I was not using the CD-ROM to its "fullest potential", if there might not be more features I had yet to discover to get the best use out of it. Needless to say, this thought distracted me from "just" watching and reading, enjoying and learning.

On a more substantive note, I wonder if there will be a sequel to You can't get there from here, this time focusing on the new technologies (including CD-ROMs!) and the dark side of America's post-coldwar prosperity, its emphasise on enhancing self esteem and its pressure to be competitive. Some things in American life may not be ephemeral. Social and emotional anxieties and feelings of inadequacy may be some of them.

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