The Voyager Company: Bob Stein's Voyage

Bob Stein And The Voyager Company

CD-ROM pioneer Stein, the founder of one of the most successful interactive media publishers, The Voyager Company, has long embraced the potential of technology to extend the idea of the printed page.

The book was always fundamental to me. One of the things I really liked was that the original logo for Criterion, which we designed in 1984, was a book turning into a disc. It was central. When I was writing the paper for Britannica, I felt like I had to relate the idea of interactive media to books, and I was really wrestling with the question 'What is a book? What’s essential about a book? What happens when you move that essence into some other medium?'”[1]

The iconoclastic Stein has been using technology to push the boundaries of whatever form it was in, beginning with analog videodiscs, CD-ROMs, and most recently-- an exploration into the future of the book itself. A confirmed Maoist, he was a founding member of the 1960s radical activist movement Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) while doing his undergraduate degree in Psychology at Columbia University.

Stein became interested in using videodiscs as a way of storing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica on a single disc and was able to convince the venerable publisher to fund him on a fact-seeking mission.

You have to understand, I knew nothing. I got paid, basically, to spend a year going around the country with their imprimatur, going to every lab I could, saying ‘Show me what you’ve got’. I wrote a 120-page paper on the Encyclopedia Britannica, which suggests that the encyclopedia of the future would likely be a joint venture of Xerox, Lucasfilm, and Britannica.”[2]

As it happened, the future of the digital encyclopedia was heralded by Microsoft, who approached the esteemed but financially struggling Encyclopedia Britannica, to license the content. In a classic example straight out of Christensen’s innovator's dilemma the company demurred, saying they had "no plans to be on a home computer. And since the market is so small—only 4 or 5 percent of households have computers—we would not want to hurt our traditional way of selling".

In 1989, Microsoft purchased Britannica's nearly bankrupt competitor, Funk & Wagnall’s New Encyclopedia, and added a significant amount of compelling multimedia content and released it in 1993 under the name Encarta. The new digital format was more engaging and searchable than the print version, and it forced Britannica to release its own CD-ROM version in 1995; in 2010, publication of the print version ceased.

Freshly schooled on the capabilities of videodisc, and seeing that it was not at all suitable for a text-driven application, the curious wanderer looked for other uses for the medium that better fit its strengths. While at a meeting with the president of RKO Home Video, Stein asked him “So, what’s the chance you would sell me the rights to Citizen Kane and King Kong for laserdisc? He said, ‘Well, they’re not worth anything to us. Of course, I’ll sell them to you.’ So I bought the rights to two of the most famous movies ever made”. These two classics launched his new company, the Criterion Collection, which eventually sold hundreds of videodiscs for discerning audiences.

When CD-ROMs began to appear, Stein and his wife Aleen founded the Voyager Company to explore how this new digital medium, which could effortlessly merge text, images, video, audio, and animation could extend older media forms. They used the challenging slogan “Bring your brain” as their mantra. Voyager grew to be one of the premier publishers for the emerging medium, with the company publishing 17 of the top 50 CD-ROM titles listed in MacUser magazine in 1993 [3].

Voyager produced a number of well-received titles, including a version of the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, which included interviews with the director Richard Lester, the Fab Four themselves, and live transcripts: an interactive version of Art Spiegelman’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus, which told his father’s survival of Auschwitz; a ground-breaking digital documentary about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire; and true to his radical roots, a historical exploration of the period between Reconstruction to World War II that featured then controversial articles about gay cowhands and Grover Cleveland’s illegitimate child [4].

Voyager’s first CD-ROM was a HyperCard-based exploration of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, done in collaboration with the UCLA music scholar, Robert Winter, in 1989. It contained a high-quality recording of the symphony, played by the Vienna Philharmonic orchestra, coupled with a commentary by Winter that ties in basic musical theory, conventions, and concepts surrounding Beethoven’s historic and cultural context.

The Beethoven CD-ROM allowed the musical equivalent of a “close reading” of a text, where specific passages are selected, themes are identified and attention is drawn to the voicing of particular instruments. Winter’s commentary provides insight into Beethoven’s life and development of the Ninth Symphony by closely linking his words with the music in both audible and musical notation forms. To make the material more engaging to younger viewers, there were a number of built-in quizzes that assess the learner’s musical listening skills, and the ability to invent games based on the musical score [5].

CD-ROM’s 15 minutes of fame has been long over, but Stein has continued his exploration on extending the book with a new exploratory program. He recalls a conversation from 2004:

The MacArthur Foundation called and said: ‘We loved the work you did at Voyager; how can we help you go back into publishing?’ I said that I had no idea what it means to be a publisher right now, but if they gave me some money to start the Institute for the Future of the Book, I would think about it. And they gave me twice as much money as I asked for and no deliverables.”[6]

In spite of that non-mandate, deliverables have been emerging for the past decade and the Institute for the Future of the Book has been busy at looking at the transition of communication from the “printed pages to the networked screen”. [7]

 

Footnotes:

  1. Stein. B. (2011). Becoming Book-like: Bob Stein and the future of the book, Kairos 15(2)
  2. Greenstein, S., & Devereux, M. (2009). The Crisis at Encyclopaedia Britannica. Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.
  3. Mitgang, L. (2000). Big Bird and beyond: The new media and the Markle Foundation. New York: Fordham University Press, p. 184-185.
  4. Hafner, K. & Rogers, A. (October 9, 1995). How now Voyager? Newsweek Magazine 126(15), p.67.
  5. Vershbow. B. (October 20, 2005). Beethoven’s ninth symphony CD companion. Retrieved from The Beethoven's Ninth Symphony CD Companion.
  6. Visel, D. (July 23, 2010). Mao, King Kong, and the future of the book: Bob Stein in conversation with Dan Visel: Triple Canopy 19.
  7. The Institute for the Future of the Book. (2015).

Excerpted From Sage on the Screen: Education, media, and how we learn by Bill Ferster. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016

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