JUNE 1993

Technology’s a whore and the media pimps are trying to get you to jack in. Forget about cyberspace—all that stuff about virtual universes and electronic immortality is drug-pushing. They’re toys for people who can’t get enough dead air out of their TV sets. If you want a cyberpunk experience, slap some Public enemy in your Walkman, and take a ride on the bus.

Computers are a lot more mundane than that. They’re like a wrench or a screwdriver: tools. You do work with them to get satisfaction out of them. They’re not very sexy. Despite all the hype, and promises of multimedia extravagance, electronic books are actually the opposite of what virtual reality claims to be: They’re a nerdy return to the written word, even as VR promotes our current slavish worship of the image. If electronic books have it in them to spark a revolution, it’s one that will have us reading—and imagining—again.

Currently, the advantages of a light paperback still outweigh whatever benefits a computer can bring to written text—but they’re working on it. The few adventurers who’re exploring electronic publishing are still trying to figure out what a computer can really do for text. Nobody’s quite hit on maximum potential, or fully understood how radically computers can change the way we read. Meanwhile, there’s a wide range of approaches as everybody’s experimenting, with mixed results. Here’s a casual, somewhat arbitrary look at three of the more popular tacks: print adaptations, multimedia, and hypertext.

One interesting experiment in punky, throwaway multimedia technology is Jaime Levy’s one-woman show, Electronic Hollywood. The newly released Ambulance, an "electronic novel," combines a dead-pan horror-story text written by Monica Moran with illustrations by Jaime Hernandez lifted from Love and Rockets and bass samples from fIREHOSE’s Mike Watt. Levy, who put the whole thing together, is a slacker-generation graduate of San Francisco State University, and after leaving San Francisco’s "bad video art scene," she hit upon the idea of making electronic magazines that would be easily accessible for non-computer users, or, as she puts it, "normal dudes who happen to have a Mac and don’t know that it can play graphics or music." Her electronic magazines Cyber Rag and Electronic Hollywood are just that, magazines on disk that combine graphics, primitive animation, and sound with text, including "the usual hateful editorial" and "reviews about Techno House Raves…and a Greater Bay Area dis."

In Ambulance, the imported graphics and sound lend the text an intentionally cheap feel, all the better to reflect the affected Generation X poseur despair of the story. (Besides encountering excessive violence, the characters in Ambulance do lots of drugs and write inane messages in each other’s yearbooks.) The low-tech, comic-book sensibility of Ambulance gives it a welcome unpretentiousness, but leaves something to be desired as far as literary quality. Fortunately for Levy, however, serious literature isn’t quite what she’s into. "I’m an MTV-head," she says. Anyway, her hard work has begun to pay off. She has a forthcoming collaboration with Billy Idol (!?) due out soon, with specially programmed multimedia floppy disks to be included with limited editions of Idol’s upcoming CD, Cyberpunk.

"There’s two different ways to explore electronic publishing," notes Levy. "There’s the multimedia-graphics thing vs the sub-linear, hypertext thing. I’m more into the TV-video thing."