WE ASKED EIGHT EXPERTS TO DISCUSS THE BEST RECENT BOOKS ON THE INTERNET AND THE WORLD WIDE WEB.
Patricia Aufderheide, professor of communications at American University and author of Communications Policy and the Public Interest: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 (Guilford, forthcoming).
"In an area where information has a half-life of weeks, we're always in search of
basic facts--only to discover that we don't know what they mean. No wonder the Internet has been prey to pundits who yo-yo us between the ecstatic and the curmudgeonly. Now there's a Web site for humanistic techno-critics: www.technorealism.org. Launched with its own manifesto last spring, the site instantly engendered the highest form of cyberflattery--parody, with sites devoted to technoblatherism, techno-feelism, and pubertyrealism. Among technorealism's principles: 'Information is not knowledge.' This concept also informs Data Smog (HarperEdge, 1997), by one of the manifesto's authors, David Shenk. Shenk argues that nonstop information, flowing across wide-open communications networks, is great for marketers and con artists but not for democracy or peace of mind. It doesn't allow for moderate discussion--unlike the technorealism site, where one can find informed conversation about living well as we informationally age."
Steven Johnson, editor of the on-line journal Feed and author of Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (HarperCollins, 1997).
"The ambitious subtitle of Andrew Leonard's Bots: The Origin of a New Species (Wired Books, 1997) suggests yet another mind-altered manifesto about the new organisms of cyberspace, heavy on the epic pronouncements and light on actual evidence. But the book turns out to be something else altogether: a series of illuminating case studies in one of computing's weirdest and most innovative fields. A "Bot" is Net slang for an autonomous software program that emulates human behavior in its dealings with flesh-and-blood users. Surveying an extraordinarily diverse field with a taxonomist's eye, Leonard lays out a series of portraits of the bot family tree: software characters that inhabit on-line communities; intelligent agents that manage information for people; cancelbots that delete junk e-mail en masse; and spiders that crawl across the Web compiling data for the mighty search engines. Leonard has some tantalizing words to say about the technodialectic driving bot evolution, but you're left wanting a little more analysis. Leonard is not yet the Darwin of the digital ecosystem, but the refreshing thing about his book is that he's not trying to be."
Mark Dery, a cultural critic and author of Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (Grove/Atlantic, 1996).
"Zeros + Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture (Doubleday, 1997), by Sadie Plant, is a would-be cyberfeminist manifesto. In this fascinating (if doggedly wrongheaded) meditation on gender politics in the digital age, Plant argues that men are born command-and-control freaks, genetically out of step with the new, out-of-control cyberculture. Resurrecting the shopworn argument that women's essential nature makes them superior to men, Plant embraces the Net as an exemplar of `feminine' values such as non-linear reasoning. As Plant tells it, the Internet was once a self-assembled network that deliberately subverted patriarchy--a revelation that would come as a thunderbolt to the Internet's military-industrial creators. Read as postmodern science fiction, however, Zeros + Ones is highly entertaining, a shotgun wedding of Gilles Deleuze and Joanna Russ. But Gutenbergian holdouts would be well advised to arm themselves with a weed whacker before venturing into this Garden of Forking Paths."
Paulina Borsook, a San Francisco-based writer and author of Cyberselfish: How the Digital Elite Is Undermining Our Society, Culture, and Values (Broadway Books, forthcoming).
"There are few so universally revered as both technologist and humanist as Peter Neumann, chief scientist at the Stanford Research Institute. His Computer-Related Risks (Addison-Wesley, 1995) is a compendium of yarns about computer snafus ranging from the comic to the tragic and touching on reliability, safety, security, and privacy. Neumann's book is both a technical publication and a meta-lesson on how we--and the technologies we create--are fallible. Such chastening is in short supply on the Web. In a different vein, the site www.suck.com pioneered the pomo, self-deprecating, self-referential voice that's now everywhere on-line. Now, a collection of the best of Suck: Worst-Case Scenarios in Media, Culture, Advertising, and the Internet (Wired Books, 1997), edited by Joey Anuff and Ana Marie Cox, shows why there ain't nothing like the real thing."
Jay David Bolter, professor of literature, communication, and culture at Georgia Tech and author, with Richard Grusin, of Remediation: Understanding New Media (MIT, forthcoming).
"The World Wide Web, culturally and economically the most important service on the Internet, is a global hypertext. To understand the Web, therefore, we need to understand the rhetorical and theoretical nature of hypertext and hypermedia. An indispensable book for that purpose is George P. Landow's Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (Johns Hopkins, 1997). In this thorough revision of the 1992 edition of Hypertext, Landow argues that hypertext reconfigures author, text, narrative, and the very idea of writing in ways that embody the insights of thirty years of poststructuralist literary theory. It is a bold thesis that many have questioned, but it needs to be considered, because hypertext will surely continue to be a defining element in our media landscape."
Robert McChesney, professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and author of Media in Crisis, Democracy in Retreat: Communication, Politics, History, and Scholarship in Dubious Times (Illinois, forthcoming).
"Most critical work on the Internet has been fairly ahistorical and unsophisticated. It has often failed to integrate the Internet into the broader media and communication systems, and all of them into the broader political economy. Nicholas Negroponte, for instance, views technology as autonomous and benevolent, and capitalism as essentially democratic. In Digital Capitalism (MIT, forthcoming), however, Dan Schiller provides a compelling and sobering view of the democratic potential of the Internet. Drawing on trade and business publications and government reports, Schiller demonstrates how the Internet, because it has been closely linked with capitalism, the communication requirements of large corporations, and neoliberal regulatory policies, exacerbates social inequality. He also suggests the need for strong regulation of Internet service providers to promote public access and a public-service component of the Web."
Elizabeth Reba Weise, a San Francisco-based technology writer for USA Today and co-editor of Wired Women: Gender and New Realities in Cyberspace (Seal, 1996).
"The growing hunger of the publishing industry for news rather than history and the relentless media hype about the Internet have thus far precluded the publication of a clear-eyed analysis of the Internet. But Claude S. Fischer's America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 (California, 1992) provides a blueprint for what such a volume might include--as well as a healthy reminder that hype about a new communications technology is hardly novel. Fischer offers a fascinating social history of the telephone, informed by studies comparing the distribution of the telephone and automobile, statistics on the cost of a telephone in different eras, and an intriguing look at censuses and old telephone directories to determine who had phones when. The book is enlivened by interviews with California residents who remember the introduction of telephones in the century's early decades."
Margaret Morse, associate professor of film and electronic media at the University of California at Santa Cruz and author of Virtualities: Television, Media Art, and Cyberculture (Indiana, 1998).
"Steven Johnson's Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (HarperCollins, 1997) is an account of revolutionary advances and heroic figures in the history of the screen interface. In a style honed by semiotic theory but lacking in jargon, Johnson explains how the visual metaphors that organize information space are evolving into a genuine art form. In Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (City Lights, 1997), Ellen Ullman offers a more somber treatment of the messages latent in the interface medium. Lyrically written anecdotes about algorithmic lovemaking with a `cypherpunk' and the agony of designing software resonate with the dark cultural implications of the virtual life. For Ullman, a software engineer, second-wave feminist, and old communist, the word `revolution' rings hollow from inside the crumbling software that threatens to destroy the banking system."
Robert Pool, a freelance science and technology writer and author of Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology (Oxford, 1997).
"In Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (Touchstone, 1998), Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon describe how a group of visionary computer scientists funded by an equally visionary Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) set out in the late 1960s to link a number of powerful computers around the country. They succeeded, and their ARPANET was the prototype of today's Internet. But as Hafner and Lyon demonstrate, the Internet's development was haphazard. It grew as it did because the developers of the network were also its original users, so they pushed the system in the directions that were most useful to them--for example, by creating ways to send private e-mail and to hold open electronic forums. In general, the features that make today's Internet most valuable to people are not those originally envisioned by the agencies funding the research. Instead they are the collective product of individual users satisfying their joint curiosity and desires."
Are there any great books you think we missed? Let us know.