Commanding Heights: The battle for the world economy

Action! Adventure! International intrigue! Economics?

While global economics might seem, shall we say, a dry subject, it has had direct effects on higher profile historic events - and in turn has been directly affected by them. Last year, the PBS series Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy traced the last 90 years of global economic development, and -in the words of Wired magazine- did for capitalism, "what Ken Burns' films did for jazz and the Civil War." Commanding Heights is back and updated for a new year, and is accompanied by a website as ground-breaking as the series itself.

Available in regular and "Rich-Media" versions, Commanding Heights both mirrors and supplements the six-hour documentary being rebroadcast this May and June. (The title of the series was taken from Lenin's assertion that a government could rule an economy by simply controlling its most important elements - banks, railroads, ports, etc.) If you miss the television programs, or if they're on at an inconvenient hour, fear not, since the 'Mirroring' mentioned above refers to the growing practice of PBS companion sites to include entire television broadcasts online - a practice taken to a new level in this particular case (more below).

The site's first low-bandwidth destination, Storyline, holds concise synopses for the series' three two-hour 'chapters,' as well as Chapter Menus (which break the episodes into smaller segments for online viewing), and Transcript Menus (which turn it all into text). The video segments, in a rare example of accessibility, are themselves available in high- and low-bandwidth versions, and in MediaPlayer, QuickTime and RealVideo formats. Segments are also accompanied by links to related online-only extras available elsewhere on the site.

The first of these extras is the Key Events timeline, which traces relevant milestones from the 1911 Chinese Revolution to this year's invasion of Iraq. Next Countries provides economic profiles of 41 nations - with developments since 1910, graphs tracking such indicators as inflation, unemployment and national debt, and recommended external links. People offers interviews with more than 60 players in global economic events (an eclectic roster that includes Lech Walesa, Naomi Klein, John Kenneth Galbraith, and Newt Gingrich), and profiles of 20 "Economic Architects" - from Karl Marx to Margaret Thatcher.

The last of Commanding Heights' main sections, Ideas, offers a glossary of economic terms (especially useful for those of us only familiar with the term, "broke"), essays and videos exploring such concepts as Privatization and The Global Village, and perhaps most useful for the marginally aware, "Up for Debate." This last feature presents opposing views on such topics as Deregulation, Reaganomics, and the link between Globalization and Poverty. Online discussion groups are offered for those who want to add their own opinions to the debate, and teachers are shown how to take advantage of the series and website through theEducator's Guide.

And then, there's the rich-media option...

If you have the bandwidth and the processing power, the deluxe version of Commanding Heights demonstrates an inspiring achievement in -functional- interactivity. Instead of separate links for each of Storyline's chapters, the site places the chapters into a window within an interactive viewer. The viewer then plays the selected chapter -or an entire episode- while simultaneously providing immediate access to other chapters or episodes in the series.

In addition, the viewer can display closed captions, and links to related onsite content - automatically synchronized to events being depicted on screen. Choose a link, and the video playback pauses while you go off in search of further details. Choose time sensitive content (such as a country's economic data), and the viewer takes you to information from the same point in history as the video currently being played. It sounds simple, but it's a truly efficient and impressive method for displaying a wide variety of information. (If you've got a slower connection, but would like to see how the viewer and other enhancements - such as the Time Map - operate, you can preview the rich-media version of the site with a QuickTime site tour.)

Just to be clear, you're not losing any content by opting for the low-bandwidth version of the site, only an increased level of interactivity. It's also possible to switch between low- and high-bandwidth versions at any time through a link in the upper right corner of the browser window. Referred to as "a new model for interactive non-fiction," the rich-media viewer could also be adapted not only to interactive fiction, but also to the deeper study of well-known fictional works. (After you've seen the site, imagine a similar approach taken to presenting the works, history, interpretations and criticism of Shakespeare, or the intricate 'backstories' of Middle Earth in relation to "The Lord of the Rings.")

Commanding Heights demonstrates that the connections between world events and world economies are both intricate and fascinating. The Commanding Heights website demonstrates the enormous -and largely unrealized- potential of interactive content. Both are well worth a closer look.

Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy can be found at http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/commandingheights/.

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