Tom Hyry
SILS 604: Impacts of New Information Resources-Winter '96
13 March 1996

The Way Things Work:

Multi-media CD-ROM Review

David Macaulay's The Way Things Work CD-ROM bills itself as a "unique 'mammoth' guide to the world of machines, inventions, and technology." It represents a CD-ROM version of a popular book which gives insights into the inner workings of much of the technologies which permeate our contemporary lives. The adaptation of this book gives a fine example of the opportunities afforded by multi-media technology, yet in other ways it lacks some of the advantages afforded by its traditional medium. This brief essay will examine The Way Things Work as an educational tool with a comparison to its paged counterpart.

First a description of the CD-ROM. This source seems to target all ages, though it caters specifically to none. Cutesy images of animated mammoths doing many machine related activities provide nice distractions for the adolescently minded, but many of the actual descriptions of functioning technology require a more developed intelligence to comprehend. The source is divided into five different sections: the Work Shop, Machines A to Z, Principles of Science, History of Machines, and Inventors. The "Work Shop" merely gives pictures of roughly thirty pieces of technology which, when clicked on, provide audio and visual representations of how they function. For instance, selecting the telephone makes it vibrate and emanate the familiar ring. No descriptions of how these machines actually work reside in this section. The strength and basis of the CD-ROM resides in the "Machines A to Z" section, which lists all of the machines in alphabetical order. Once the user selects a machine, s/he gets a description of how the machine works which uses pictures, text, moving images, and audio narration to explain. As one might guess, "Principles of Science" elaborates on twenty-two different areas of technological understanding, with sections on computers, inclined planes, wheels, friction, springs, sound, and others. After describing the general ideas behind these driving processes, links are provided to tools which utilize these principles. The tool links are the same as in "Machines A to Z." "History of Machines" divides technological history into five eras: Antiquity (7000BC-AD1250), Birth of Science (1251-1700), Industrial Revolution (1701-1850), Steam Age (1851-1940), and Silicon Age (1941-1984). This section basically consists of a timeline which temporally locates "Machines A to Z," providing links to the descriptions of said technology. The final section, "Inventors," gives yet another way of organizing the tool explanations, linking the technology with a name and a face (where available) with a short synopsis of each inventor's life and work. As one can surmise, then, within the five sections of the CD-ROM, there exist only three main content areas (machines, scientific principles, and inventors) with the different sections providing various methods of organization.

As an educational tool,The Way Things Work effectively utilizes the multi-media potential afforded by the CD-ROM format. Like the book, the source provides textual and illustrated descriptions on the functioning of certain machines. However, the CD-ROM explanations are accompanied by visual and audio representations of the tools at work. For instance, in a section on laser beams, the source describes the physical process of laser creation using print and pictures. With the click of the mouse, the formation of the laser beam can be simulated using moving animation and can thus be seen and perhaps better understood. The CD-ROM improves upon the book in that it can both tell and show, giving both an intellectual and a physical understanding of the tool.

The CD-ROM version of The Way Things Workalso provides an advantageous way of organizing its information. As explained above, tool descriptions can be accessed from four of the five sections. The ease of moving directly to a description of how a phonograph functions from a page on Thomas Edison allows for users to quickly link these inter-related aspects of the source. When compared with the "see also" parallel found in print, one can readily understand the advantages of such non-linear organization. As one further organizational tactic, the source also includes a helpful index which directly links entries to their locations in the CD-ROM. This index grows to be quite large, because it lists different possible names for the same entry, rather than condensing or cross-referencing them. For instance, one can find an entry under both "electric guitar" and "guitar, electric" either of which brings the user to the same tool description.

I would be almost completely in favor of the CD-ROM version of The Way Things Work were it not for a couple minor criticisms I hold. The CD-ROM sometimes substitutes audio narration to express what could better be understood through the use of text. Narration can be useful in expressing ideas when it accompanies visual representations of phenomena, but standing alone, it takes away from understanding found in text, because it can only be heard in a linear way. The substitution of narration for text in this instance lies as an example of using the technology because it exists rather than because it provides greater understanding of principles. Also, the CD-ROM lacks clarity in its target audience. I found the mammoth cartoons alright, but they exist more as a distraction than a learning tool. Since most of the source is written beyond the comprehension of children who might be entertained by the silly cartoons, I question their place in this CD-ROM. Something should give here: either cut the cutesy imagery or provide more simple explanations along with the more complex stuff.

Despite these criticisms, this CD-ROM lies as a great example for the transformation of a traditional book to a multi-media format. I see it as a valuable tool for ready reference and as a good starting point for the exploration of the physical processes of the tools of this world. This source exists as a helpful guide to machines in a world where our lives are increasingly mediated by technology. I rest sure knowing it will fit nicely on the 21st century computerized coffee table which I am sure some MIT dork is currently spending his days developing.