FM Reviews
First Monday

FM Reviews

Benjamin B. Bederson and Ben Shneiderman (editors).
The Craft of Information Visualization: Readings and Reflections.
San Francisco: Morgan Kaufmann, 2003.
paper, 432 p., ISBN 1–558–60915–6, US$59.95, £39.99.
Morgan Kaufmann:

Benjamin B. Bederson and Ben Shneiderman. he Craft of Information Visualization.

This has been a difficult and unwieldy book to review. Many readers will, I am sure, gain immense value from it, as it introduces some novel interface design concepts. Personally, however, I am unsure of the value of the work outside of academic HCI labs.

The Craft of Information Visualization is a collection of seminal academic papers from the University of Maryland’s Human–Computer Interaction Lab, interspersed with interpretative descriptions of the work of the Lab.

The first thing that strikes the reader is the poor quality of production, layout and typography — an unfortunate first impression for a book with "Information Visualization" in the title. The papers that make up the book appear to have been imported as PDF files and, in one case, font substitution seems to have occurred, resulting in a row of letters ‘k’ in Courier instead of (presumably) a horizontal line. Screenshots have come out as grainy grey–scale images and are not easy to read.

Getting beyond the poor quality of production, the papers describe a number of alternative interfaces to the standard ones we are all used to. Particular attention is paid to ‘zoomable’ interfaces, examples of which can be downloaded. However, the screenshots of these interfaces are crowded and unappealing, and I have not been tempted to look into them.

It has to be said that mine is a very personal, subjective reaction to the content. I was disappointed by the book as I was expecting the material to enthuse and spur me on to innovative user interface thinking. The authors are leaders in their field and highly respected so, while my personal response was rather negative, I would wholeheartedly recommend it as grist to the mill for any academic HCI researcher. I can see how the ideas could be useful starting points for further research — and indeed, they are works in progress.— Rob Scovell. End of Review


Jodi Dean.
Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy.
Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2002.
paper, 224 p., ISBN: 0–801–48678–5, US$17.95.
Cornell University Press:

Jodi Dean. Publicity's Secret.

Dean’s main thesis in this book is that technoculture, a term for the intense circulation of information via the Internet and other contemporary media channels, offers the potential to reinvigorate and revitalise democracy. The free flow of information instantiated by the Internet should make us all better citizens, and the ability to communicate and share ideas should strengthen the bonds which hold liberal democracies together. But Dean is at pains here to point out how the cynical manipulation of the media in late–capitalist society prevents this from happening. The users of the Internet set out with the intention of finding out more about the world in which they live and of getting online to have some serious conversations and contribute to the ongoing health of democratic culture; instead they get waylaid somewhere along the way and end up going shopping instead. The Internet is therefore not a marketplace of ideas, it’s simply a marketplace; taken over by capitalist institutions who are ideally placed to exploit this new marketing and communication tool.

Dean draws heavily on the work of Slavoj Zizek, a Lacanian psychoanalyst who has written a great deal on contemporary ideology and the way beliefs are generated by practices. Zizek has clearly influenced Dean heavily for she spends a great deal of time interpreting his words. Zizek, being a Lacanian, is, of course, not easy to understand: a comprehensible Lacanian is definitely a contradiction in terms, and Dean does provide some useful points on the interpretation of his work. The title of the work refers to a main idea running through the book, the tension between secrets and publicity. The Internet gives us all a chance to discover secrets. Surely when everything is out there waiting to be viewed, no secrets can exist anymore? We can log on and find out exactly what people have said about the domestic arrangements of Prince Charles, learn in detail about the predilections of David Beckham and find graphic photographs of torture and oppression which the liberal press cannot bring themselves to print. But when we’ve finished feasting on these dirty secrets and have updated ourselves on British and American foreign policy, there is still a nagging sense that we don’t have the full picture. There are still things out there we haven’t uncovered and Dean contends that the more we find out, the less we know. Technoculture therefore creates the conditions for ideal knowledge but cruelly denies them to us as we get lost in a sea of information we cannot master.

My main criticism of the book is that it is too long. Not so much in terms of pages or words, but rather in the way that key ideas are drawn out, even laboured over. Dean spins out endless verbal riffs on her main themes and has a way of circling round her key ideas for paragraphs on end, restating issues and never moving on with the pace that you know she is capable of. Some readers will love this feature of the book and revel in the wordplay and densely packed sentences. Other readers may wish for more plain speaking (whatever that might sound like in a technocultural world!), and lose sight of the structures of Dean’s argument. My favourite chapter is titled "little brothers," and contains a very elegant and eminently enjoyable discussion of the culture of computing offset by a neat close reading of the advertisement which launched the Apple Macintosh computer in 1984. In this chapter Dean really gets into her stride with some very perceptive analysis of the cultural investments we have made in computing technology and a keen commentary on how the rise of the Internet has altered our thinking.

On the back cover of the book, Slavoj Zizek, whose ideas are given such prominence inside, declares that for anyone engaged in critical theory "this book is A MUST." A strong recommendation indeed and on balance I would echo his sentiments. The book is well conceived and treats an important contemporary topic; it is written with a certain style and definite passion, and for the serious student of Internet culture it should be considered required reading. — Matthew Pearson. End of Review


N. Katherine Hayles.
Writing Machines.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002.
paper, 144 p., ISBN 0–262–58215–5, US$17.95.
MIT Press:
Related Web site:

N. Katherine Hayles. Writing Machines.

This is a visually interesting book, drawing attention to its subject matter: how the way book publishing has changed from the printed page to the computer screen as technology has moved forward. There are barcode–style vertical lines on every page, the book’s title is visible in two directions on the book’s open edges, and different typographical styles are used on and within each page.

Hayles, Professor of English and Design/Media Arts at UCLA, introduces a word that must be new to most lay readers: technotext. She stresses the physicality of books: the text is a material object, and the literature itself has changed as a result of developments in IT, to the point where e–texts consist of words combined with images plus sound and movement, and reading is no longer simply linear but is open to many directions for the reader via hyperlinks.

Hayles’ chapters alternate between a fictionalised autobiography and selected examples of modern printing and publishing: Michael Joyce’s "Afternoon, a story," Tom Phillips’s "A Humument," Mark Danielewski’s "House of Leaves." She also describes a combined language/computing project by her own students. The autobiographical sections explain how Hayles’ fictional persona grew up in a small midwestern town where books were more exciting than everyday life. I found the more academic, analytical chapters a little heavy-going, but enjoyed the autobiographical sections.

I’m left wondering whether there is a future for the kind of e–books described here, other than for a small élite: I know some people are happy to read a book from a computer screen, but don’t most readers still prefer to sit in a comfortable armchair, or on a train, or in the garden, or on the beach, and immerse themselves in a traditionally printed book, turning the pages in the good old linear way? — Dr. Gill Stoker. End of Review


Howard Rheingold. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution.
New York: Basic Books, 2003.
paper, 288 p., ISBN 0–738–20861–2, US$16.00.
Basic Books:

Howard Rheingold. Smart Mobs.

I should say straight away that I’ve been a Rheingold fan since reading The Virtual Community a few years ago, and this book has done nothing but strengthen my view.

Here he writes with ease, authority, enthusiasm, and exuberance about emerging technologies and the way society is using them, also highlighting some threats to the freedoms we should be able to take for granted in the connected world.

Rheingold is able to draw together seemingly disparate strands to create a coherent whole — his start point in this book demonstrates this skill very well. He describes as a "media moment" the sight of young people in Tokyo, at Shibuya Crossing using mobile phones to create personal space by communicating with someone else, using short text messages, while still in the "real world" crossing a busy intersection in a teeming city. This is given to be the place with highest mobile phone density in the world, of the 190,000 using the crossing each weekday (250,000 at weekends) 80 percent carry a mobile phone. Participating in this shared communication means being considered as "present" with the other person — being there means being in touch rather than being co–located. From here Rheingold describes an increasingly complex yet connected world that includes smart chips replacing bar codes, electronic bridge tolls, wireless Internet nodes and cyborg pioneers like Steve Mann whose wearable computer filters what he sees through video images displayed in the helmet he wears. He describes this collection of connections as smart mobs.

The claim that "the next killer app won’t be hardware or software but social practice" is supported by reference to examples such as: the overthrow of President Estrada in 2001 by demonstrators organised using forwarded text messages; networked processing as exemplified by the SETI@home project and others; vending machines operated by interfacing with mobile phones; the "Lovegety" users in Japan who are part of a location–based matchmaking service available on some mobile phone networks.

Using games theory in conjunction with the tragedy of the commons, Rheingold identifies some of the attributes that these connected communities share; his brief yet comprehensive study of games theory is worth the book alone — as always he shows a great ability to handle and explain some complex concepts in an approachable and cogent manner. He also deals with the online ethos of reputation as a basis for personal stature and as a key strand in online cooperation.

In a chapter entitled "Wireless quilts" we are informed about the growth of wireless Internet nodes and the ways in which they are being funded and used by a variety of groups, for a bewildering range of purposes.

Despite being an evangelist for the connected world and "mobile ad hoc networks" (a term coined by Gerd Kortuem, leader of the "Wearable Computing Group" at the University of Oregon), Rheingold also sensibly highlights the potential threats. Many of these relate to our social freedoms. For instance, consider that "in 2001, Virgin Mobile admitted that they had stored the location records of every mobile call made by each of its one million customers since the service was launched in 1999," and that, in the U.K., the average urbanite is caught on CCTV camera three hundred times each day (page 185). The potential threats are articulated as threats to liberty, threats to quality of life and threats to human dignity. This is a well reasoned argument and one that, as with The Virtual Community, closes with a reminder: "The next several years are a crucial and unusually malleable interregnum ... what we know and what we do matters."

Those who read this book will be treated to a breathtaking master class on the subject of the connected world and will be far better able to plan and predict the changes it might make to our lives. Furthermore it is an entertaining and thought–provoking read. — Nigel Gibson. End of Review


Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H.R. Harper.
The Myth of the Paperless Office.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003.
paper, 245 p., ISBN 0–262–69283–X, US$14.95.
MIT Press:

Abigail J. Sellen and Richard H. R. Harper. The Myth of the Paperless Office.

A run–in with my PDA resulted in it being forced into early retirement, to languish in a jumble of other discarded electronic toys. I returned happily enough to my ancient Filofax with its soft leather cover and useful multi–coloured pages. For a time though, it had seemed so much more convenient to carry around a tiny electronic device than a relatively large and heavy wad of paper. On the other hand, the PDA’s screen was monochrome and had a poor resolution, so I never was able to really see what I was supposed to be doing on a particular day, let alone make any changes easily.

Coincidentally, on the same day, I happened across a review of The Myth of the Paperless Office and, intrigued, purchased a copy immediately. I was half expecting to read yet another account along the lines of "Is it quicker to read from screen or paper?" — numerous variations along this theme clutter up the HCI literature. However, this book’s approach is, so far as I am aware, unique, and instead addresses far wider differences of use between paper and digital media. Readers who are familiar with Don Norman will have come across the idea of "affordance" (a term first coined by the ecological psychologist J.J. Gibson). In Sellen and Harper’s words "An affordance refers to the fact that the physical properties of an object make possible different functions for the person perceiving or using that object." In other words, the properties of objects determine the possibilities for "action."

The characteristics of paper may seem obvious, yet it is fascinating to be reminded of some of them, for example it is: thin; light; porous; opaque; flexible. Thus, paper affords grasping, carrying, manipulating, folding, writing on and so on. When bound together into a book format, paper affords flicking through, reading, making bookmarks and offering awareness of where you are in a book. The authors also examine some of the affordances connected with digital media, such as being able to display moving images, the creation of machine–readable marks, the ability to archive and retrieve large amounts of information. So, on one level, this book is based on examining the different affordances extended by paper and digital media, but actually goes much further than this by placing the whole subject into context of use.

The authors explain their main aims as being to understand how paper use yields insights into understanding the whole notion of work, documents and the use of new technologies, show how their approach can contribute to design processes and finally, to use their understanding to make predictions about the continuing use of paper in the digital age. The book starts by debunking firmly, the commonly held notion that the proliferation of electronic systems, including the Internet, has led to a decrease in the use of paper and the ascendancy of the mythical paperless office to which the title refers. Pointing out that office paper constitutes some 30–40 percent of total paper use, the authors produce figures to show that the trend in office paper consumption continues to increase in a linear fashion, steadily and steeply. Numerous studies show the increase in computer/Internet use and with this, access to more and more information, much of which needs to be printed out to be read easily.

The second chapter explores why paper is perceived as a problem in many organizations: the symbolic problem — paper is plain "old fashioned"; the cost problem — the real costs of paper versus digital media in the context of time, effort and resources; the interactional problem — the benefits and limitations of different types of media. Subsequent chapters present case studies of knowledge–based office work together with detailed analyses, the role of paper in collaborative work and how the findings can be applied in a practical manner. The book concludes with a cogent argument for paper’s continuing role in the future as an important adjunct to digital technologies.

So, this is also a book about organisational process and practice, not merely about the properties of paper and how people use it; one of the (many) insights that intrigued me was the suggestion that aiming towards a paperless office for its own sake is not, in itself, a successful strategy for organisational success. The concepts presented and discussed are well–supported by appropriate studies, I have not come across any published research on this subject conducted in such depth; as another reviewer noted elsewhere, the book serves as a model of how to conduct ethnographic research. This book is also highly readable and avoids dryness, despite its scholarly approach — a most enjoyable and thought provoking read.

So — Filofax or PDA? Well, I could not resist buying a new handheld recently, it has a high resolution colour screen, holds masses of information (or should that be data?) and is very portable. However, its constant companion is nice A5 paper notebook, usefully printed in a pale grid pattern. So much nicer for scribbling and drawing. — Jenny Le Peuple. End of Review

Copyright ©2004, First Monday

First Monday, Volume 9, Number 6 - 7 June 2004

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2017. ISSN 1396-0466.