By Scott Rosenberg
The CD-ROM industry churns out a vast quantity of ephemera. It's the nature of the medium to serve as an informational catch-all, and publishers tend to fill it with assortments of junk -- useless, error-ridden reference works with a few old stills and video clips; advertisement-laden music-video compilations; trivia-game photo albums based on old TV shows.
But there's room in this new marketplace to create a more valuable sort of hodgepodge -- a miscellany that's shot through with the flavor of a different era. That's the sort of product the new "Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties" CD-ROM is: not exactly a reference work, not quite a documentary film, it's a kind of cultural time-capsule -- a vehicle that lets you Be There Now.
Created by developer Tony Bove and published by Compton's New Media, "Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties" offers three pathways into the material contained on its two discs.
"Turn On" provides a straightforward timeline documentary based on the work of Allen Cohen, who edited the Oracle, the Haight counterculture's paper of record. "Tune In" provides direct access to the CD's libraries of period posters, interviews, texts, rare iews, texts, rare footage from be-ins and street festivals, and extensive reproductions from the Oracle archives. "Drop Out" is a party-game diversion in which players acquire "love points" on the way to enlightenment.
From its mandala-like opening screen on, "Haight-Ashbury" takes its visual cues from its subject; its fuzzy-edged, kaleidoscopic look is about as far from high-tech as you can get. And the phosphorescence of a computer monitor lends a new-minted glow to the now-historic swirls and flourishes of the psychedelic style.
Perhaps in keeping with its subject, the "Haight-Ashbury" CD's design is more labyrinthine than logical, and you can sometimes get lost in it. It moves slowly, and in the course of my review it has frozen up more than once. (Bad acid, meet bad code.)
But there are treasures within that are worth the hunt. Other histories are more comprehensive, but it's hard to imagine a more pungent introduction to the cultural flow of '60s San Francisco -- from Beat-era stirrings to the high hippie days, then through disillusionment toward the New Age retreat of the '70s. Each strand of the counterculture is represented, from utopian psychedelia to Eastern mysticism, from back-to-the-land communalism to off-the-pigs militancy.
"Haight-Ashbury in the '60s" features plenty of music -- primarily drawn from the Grateful Dead's live "Two From the Vault" recording -- but it's no fan album. Cohen's narration instead shapes an emphasis on the intellectual and artistic forces at play beneath the era's pop trends. There's self-aware humor as well as nostalgic affection in his portraits of life at the Oracle -- where staff meetings would debate whether a piece of artwork should be captioned "Revolution" or "Evolution," and where an underground-press syndicate arose "to chronicle the collapse of civilization as we know it."
As you watch the Oracle pages flash by on the screen and listen to Cohen's voice-over recollections, the CD becomes a remarkable time machine. "Here's an advertising page," he says, "just to show that we occasionally bowed to the gods of materialism." In the middle of the curlicue-crammed page a headline jumps out: CITY LIGHTS LOVES YOU.
The history is peppered with quotations from figures like Alan Watts, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary -- whose exhortations to "Turn on, tune in and drop out" are captured in a grainy video from the January, 1967 Human Be-in at Golden Gate Park's Polo Field.
Some of the predictions recorded on the CD haven't aged well ("With group marriage, capitalism is doomed"). When Cohen quotes Leary's view that "there may be two or more species evolving, one an anthill with technological king and queen, and the other tribal and basic," you can't help thinking that only one of those species seems to have survived into the '90s.
But many of the ideas has have only acquired a deeper resonance over time. One statement by Alan Watts that Cohen quotes could easily serve as an analysis of the digital era's discontents:
"Man is so embroiled in his abstractions that he represents the physical world in the same way the menu represents dinner. He very easily confuses the symbols for what they represent, and so has a tendency to eat the menu instead of dinner."
One wonders how Watts would feel to find his own words appearing as a choice on a computer menu today. Then again, '90s workers whose lives are increasingly immersed in computerized abstractions are the people who most need to ponder his thoughts. When "Haight-Ashbury in the Sixties" inspires such then-and-now connections, it's fulfilling any historical work's highest calling.
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