Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Bob Stein in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]
Calling a successful entrepreneur in a high-technology industry a “revolutionary” may be a rhetorical tic of business journalists, but the word is spot-on for Bob Stein. He’s both the former publisher of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA’s weekly paper, Revolutionary Worker, and the co-founder, in 1984, of the Voyager Company, a healthy Manhattan-based capitalist enterprise that began the consumer CD-ROM revolution. Voyager publishes high-quality, thoughtful multimedia CD-ROMs—discs that unspool texts on computer screens and offer supplementary goodies (moving and still pictures, recorded sound, sublayers of text) at the touch of a key or the click of a mouse.
Switching his struggle from the streets to the digital frontier seems to have come easily to Stein, 49, for whom the effort to help create what he calls “a diverse and exciting electronic culture” means empowering writers and readers in new ways.
After giving up political work in 1980, Stein took a job with Encyclopaedia Britannica, crisscrossing the country researching the impact of the new digital technology on teaching and learning. That led to a consulting stint at Atari and the conviction that even though entertainment-industry types were hot to dominate the emerging multimedia world, there could be room for “a company with a strong recognition of the role of the author, producing texts with a clear and serious point of view. Stuff with an edge,” as Stein sums it up.
Voyager's maiden voyages were 12-inch laser discs of great films—King Kong, Citizen Kane. Then in 1989 Stein and company brought out what’s generally considered the first consumer CD-ROM, a multimedia guide to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In the years since, Voyager has produced a flood of grown-up titles, including an interactive Hard Day’s Night; Who Built America?, a people’s history (you can click to hear labor songs and personal narratives) that's particularly dear to Stein’s activist heart; a Stephen Jay Gould book on Darwin; and Art Spiegelman’s pathbreaking comic Maus.
Stein’s take on Voyager's role in the digital revolution is a careful blend of humanism, historical sense, and anti-authoritarian conviction. “Hundreds of years ago,” he says, “life was visible. You could go down to the blacksmith’s shop and watch the guy shoe a horse. Nobody knows or sees how things work now; technology is hidden from us. That’s where I think multimedia can come in—by giving an author a broader palate to work from. If something can be more impactful by being shown than written about, then it’s great to have that option.”
At the same time, he takes a stand against engulfment by images. “The entertainment industry wants to make all CD-ROMs more or less like movies,” he says. “We stand for the idea of maintaining a space for the stuff that has to be in print—the thoughtful and more abstract material. It’s a matter of maintaining choices, a matter of maintaining democracy in the electronic world.”