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The CD-ROM by the Bay


SAN FRANCISCO — For 13 years, from 1981 to 1994, Greg Williamson, Chris Carlsson and Jim Swanson devoted much of their time and energy to producing a unique, anti-establishment magazine called Processed World. The publication offered stinging critiques of the corporate world and the dehumanizing dimensions of computer technology, and the printed magazine was often distributed with street theater to underscore the point.

In light of this heritage, the trio would appear to be unlikely candidates for multimedia entrepreneurship. But the Processed World writers and editors say they never objected to technology per se, only to the way it was employed in corporate America.

And so it is that Williamson, Carlsson and Swanson have come full circle and are now creating a CD-ROM computer program called Shaping San Francisco. They say their disc is a history project, an effort to acquaint people with what makes "the city by the bay" special, and that the technology they might once have criticized will enable them to share that history with a much broader audience.

The CD-ROM, scheduled to be released this fall, also has some special twists that reflect the creators' political philosophy. The trio wanted to make it possible for people to obtain information that would otherwise be difficult to come across--or, as Carlsson says, "to bring a radical voice into that media world."

They also wanted to make the medium as genuinely interactive as possible. Carlsson is critical of much so-called interactive media: "Real interaction takes place between people," he says, pointing out that what currently gets passed off as "interactive" is nothing more than gussied-up multiple choice.

Although the CD-ROM that he and his colleagues have created presents users with prefabricated choices--just like other CD-ROMs--this one goes a step further by inviting users to contribute interesting stories, ideas or graphics that may be incorporated into future versions. Carlsson recognizes that such an invitation will result in a lot of dreck that must be sifted through to find the occasional gem, but he and his colleagues consider this an essential part of the project.

Under the auspices of the Bay Area Center for Art and Technology, Williamson, Carlsson and Swanson have worked for the last two years with the San Francisco Public Library, the California Historical Society, the Library of Congress and individual archivists and photographers to research and illustrate the project, which has received partial funding from the California Council for the Humanities.

As you'd expect from a CD-ROM, Shaping San Francisco offers catchy visuals, including animated heads of former Mayor (now U.S. Sen.) Dianne Feinstein and disgraced former Chief of Police Richard Hongisto that conjure the irreverence of Processed World.

There are games that make browsing easy and entertaining, and there's a meaty "encyclozine" (a hybrid magazine/encyclopedia) that covers aspects of San Francisco history that you won't generally find in schoolbooks. Topics include Labor, Power and Money, African American, Gay and Lesbian, Civil Unrest, Jewish San Francisco, Natural History, and Writers' Mecca.

There's also a map of the city. By clicking on various areas, you can explore the history of a particular neighborhood. A shoreline tour offers time-lapse photos of how the city has grown via landfill, as well as still images and video clips of the city's entire waterfront perimeter.

Click on the Hindsight Continuum icon and you'll see side-by-side still photos of how a certain block or house or area looks today and how it looked years ago. Video, film and music clips, as well as Swanson's animations and eyewitness accounts of various events, invigorate the information presented in the text.

There is a lot of text, but it's well-organized and engagingly written and offers peeks into historical moments you might otherwise have never known existed. For example, when you click on Chinatown on the neighborhood map, you can access straightforward historical information about the densely populated area, as well as a history of San Francisco's opium dens and reportage on the experience of Chinese immigrants at the Angel Island Immigration Station--the Ellis Island of the West.


Words highlighted in red in the text are hot links that zip you to related information, demonstrating the interplay between apparently unrelated historic elements. For example, you can select Labor from the main encyclozine menu and wind up watching Harry Hay's eyewitness account of San Francisco's 1934 general strike.

Carlsson hopes it will drive home the idea that individuals can influence the cities they live in. "Cities don't just drop, already made, out of the sky. People create the cities they live in, and that's something we want to communicate with Shaping San Francisco," he says. "Things can be different."

Freelance writers Mary Purpura and Paolo Pontoniere can be reached via e-mail at

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