Drawing Sea Serpents: The Publishing Wars on Personal Computing and the Information
First Monday

Drawing Sea Serpents: The Publishing Wars on Personal Computing and the Information

A remarkable quantity and range of books on the Information Age is being published, presenting just as remarkable a breadth of opinions and convictions about this era. While it is difficult to keep up with these publications, the effort is worth it because they provide a means of contemplating just what one's place is in an age noted for rapid change, great promises, and equally great perils. This essay provides an impressionistic description of nearly a hundred books published in this decade (about half in the last three years), with some advice about what they have to offer and how they should be read. Approached in the right manner, regular reading in some of the topics described by the author can help individuals to reflect on their own individual use of computing technology and to sort through the hype, hubris, and hysteria that have accompanied what has normally been called the Information Age.

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Contents

Introduction: Print and the Digital Age
Starting at the Beginning
Searching for the Big Picture
Breaking or Using the Looms
Kill the Programmers
Technology and Society
Caught in the Web
The Information or Insecure Age?
Back to the Back
Power to the People
In Touch with the Inner Self
Conclusion: there are Serpents Out There
Notes
List of Works Mentioned

 

"In my world, it was so easy to forget the empty downtowns. The whole profession encouraged us: stay here, alone, home by this nifty color monitor. Just click. Everything you want - it's just a click away ... ."
Ellen Ullman, software engineer [1]

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Introduction: Print and the Digital Age

One of the indicators that there truly is something like a "Information Age" - that it is not really made up by the latest social forecaster wanting to write a best seller, management guru needing a market niche for high-priced workshops, journalist mandated to file a story, or academic looking for a "paradigm shift" - is the explosion of books on the implications of the computer for personal living. And in this, I am not including the many how-to books (the latest "Dummies" or "Idiots" guides included among them, most featuring a needed, wry sense of humor) on every software application imaginable. While it is annoying trying to shift through these (has anybody noticed that they all look the same and the design is not something to brag about) to find the other more serious commentaries on the personal impact of our technocratic age, the how-to manuals have less to do with the attributes of this time than with the general, abiding interest by Americans in self-help publications that have made up a substantial portion of our publishers' stocks for three centuries (as seen in handwriting, letter-writing, and social etiquette books going back hundreds of years) [2]. These guides to discerning the mysteries of computing are merely an extension of the genres of writing on how-to prepare correspondence, become wealthy in any conceivable area (yes, there are books about how to acquire wealth on the Internet), and act in any social occasion - with the notable sole difference that the computing books tend to be more poorly written than the others.

Yet, it is in the more serious expositions about the personal implications of the computer, software design and use, computer networking and other aspects of the computer's use that we find the substance of what has been generally termed the Information Age and others are now wanting to ante up to a Knowledge Age (I mean, "information" is a fuzzy term, but, then, try to get a handle on "knowledge") [3]. The most interesting thing about these reflections on the Information Age is that nearly any and every perspective can be found. Individuals seeking to understand what the technology may be doing to or for them can affirm or challenge their own assumptions and predilections or, by reading broadly, perhaps confuse themselves beyond any hope of comprehending what they are really participating in. It is also easy to pick carefully who you read in order to affirm safely your presuppositions about the various positive or negative attributes of the computer. To be sure, scholars will be generating books about these books for a generation or two and drawing on and commenting on their feminist, Marxist, capitalist, and even Judeao-Christian perspectives - to name just a handful of the potential viewpoints that have already been brought to bear in scrutiny about the Information Age. Given this, there are some stimulating readings anyone interested or participating in the modern information technologies ought to read and reflect on. The rapid pace of change in the technologies should cause everyone, at some point or another, to back off from the screen and keyboard long enough to ponder whether they are anywhere near to keeping up with what is happening to them or whether keeping up is even worth wondering about.

In a period when experts are predicting the end of traditional printed books, ready to jettison linear reading of flat text in favor of browsing the multi-media offerings of hypermedia publications and the World Wide Web, all publishers are trying to get into what must seem like a limitless market. University presses, trade publishers, and smaller, more specialized publishers are all producing titles at a remarkable rate. The books mentioned in this brief review fall far short of being comprehensive of even the publications of the last few years. In my home office a stack of another twenty volumes, all with possibilities for inclusion in this review, sit waiting to be read. What is described here does provide a glimpse into the nature of historical, sociological, anthropological, psychological, and other disciplinary studies and commentaries on this era and the vast publishing industry that has emerged at a time when the publishing industry is supposedly challenged by the new information technologies.

There is an irony in all this, of course, in terms of our modern age of information. One of the themes of critics and supporters of the transformation of our society by information technologies is the difficulty in keeping up with both the rapidly improving capacities of hardware and software and the increasing quantity of information made available to us on our screens. It is nearly impossible, as well, to keep pace with the printed books about the modern Information Age. Anyone who may be annoyed, as I often am, with the struggle to keep current with the technical support needed to play in the Information Age, can also be fatigued with reading to understand what it is they are participating in. An unintended consequence of the modern computer or information revolution is the revolution in publishing about the revolution. This has less sinister implications than the other ballyhooed consequences of the computer, ranging from less freedom and creativity to more stress and a kind of perpetual electronic sweatshop for the new professionals needing to use the technologies, but it is just as clearly another unintended consequence.

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We might be able to resolve the problem of staying current with the writings about the Information Age if we adopt a more critical view about why we would want to read such social, cultural, historical, and technical commentaries in the first place. Rather than seeking to be comprehensive, we can strive to use these works as a means to understanding ourselves and our places in this era. David Denby, himself struggling to understand the controversies about Great Books courses in universities, offers a clue: "The books embodied not imperishable truths, and certainly not a uniformity of approach, but a radical tradition of self-questioning. In this tradition, one book challenges another, or is even at odds with itself, from Homer right up to the modern texts ... . What the books taught was not a stable body of knowledge or even consistent 'values' but critical habits of mind that would never desert the student [4]." My aim is not to equate the writings of even the leading intellectuals of the computer revolution with the likes of Homer, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Marx - although there are clearly critical thinkers who have provided lasting contributions to what has become known as the modern Information Age [5]. What I am arguing here is reading, even if only selectively, some of the new commentaries on the Information Age will help individuals to develop a healthier, more critical view towards the promises and perils of this era and its dependence on the computer and on the notion of information.

 

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Starting at the Beginning

Where should one begin? New, general histories of the computer are appearing that provide some background into the technical issues, but that keep a focus on the personal computer and its uses in the individual's office, home, and school. Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, Computer: A History of the Information Machine (1996) and Joel Shurkin, Engines of the Mind: The Evolution of the Computer from Mainframes to Microprocessors (1996), the latter a revision of an earlier book, are as good a starting point if one wants a historical understanding of the origins of the late twentieth century Information Age. These books are much more satisfactory in their analysis of the technology than the popular accounts offered in the works of commentators such as Alvin Toffler - his best known book still being the provocatively-titled The Third Wave (1980) - or the various offerings of John Naisbitt - of which his Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives (1984) started the megatrends-way of evaluating society, especially stressing the use and power of information and information technologies. Writers such as Toffler and Naisbitt are proponents or prophets rather than critical analysts, although everyone feels compelled to comment on their works, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, those interested in the history of computing ought to read works like Paul N. Edwards's The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America (1996) that remind us about the particular military-industrial origins of personal computing.

Beyond the high-priced, flashy how-to books on what to do with computers, there are some quieter, more reflective writings aiming to help the individual cope with information and its technologies. One of the interesting products of the Information Age or information revolution has been the development of books trying to help individuals navigate through the promises of this era while providing practical advice about what to do with computers. Paul Gilster's, Digital Literacy (1997) does this for the individual, striving to help each of us understand what one must know about the computer to be able to use it intelligently. Gilster is one of many who has taken to comparing the Internet/Web to a library, offering the comment that "if every public library in the world used its own cataloging scheme to shelve its books we would have chaos. Each time you entered a different library, you would have to study its cataloguing system in order to determine how to find a particular book or magazine. This is where we are on the Internet today [6]." Seymour Papert, The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap (1997) provides a similar aid for the family, arguing how the Internet replaces the library in doing homework and advising parents how to best use the computer for the benefit of their children. One would think that libraries and librarians possess far more power than they do or ever have claimed, a fact that some of the more critical analysts of the new information highway have pointed out.

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Searching for the Big Picture

The uses of the information technologies are as much a factor of political, economic, and social factors as the power of the technologies. Individuals who read computer trade magazines know what this is about, as the advertisements and many of the articles promise a re-generation of the spirit through the use of their products. Yet, it remains surprising how many commentators want to measure progress via technical achievement, hardware speed, increased electronic memory, and software flexibility. David F. Noble's The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (1997) examines technology and its religious overtones of saving or destroying society in a way that makes much recent scholarship on the social dimensions of technology available to the average person willing to plow into a book with such a daunting title and theme. As the personal computer, connected to the World Wide Web, has become the centerpiece symbol of our age, many of the metaphors of modern society have been created by use of the technology and these metaphors wrap around even those who do not use computers or who have little hope of using one. Billboards and television commercials feature the URLs (Universal Resource Locators) of the producers of goods, and even the complete computer novice understands something of what this represents. All of us, whether we have access to a computer or not, are described in how we relate to the Information Highway, a road some see as more mythical than the gold bricked path to Oz. Mark Stefik's Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors (1996) considers the ideas of the digital library, electronic mail, and other defining aspects of the networked society and organization and provides a useful orientation to a new way of thinking about our use of technology - but with a stress on how the technology itself has captured much of our discussion by highjacking our ways of expressing ourselves.

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Noble is looking at technology in general, not just the computer and information technologies, but there are other historical efforts to look at the same concerns but with a focus on the information technologies in particular. Paul Levinson's The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution (1997) considers the relationship of print, photography, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, word processing, and networking and provides, along the way, a good sense of the scope of an Information Age that takes into account more than just supercomputers and the new powerful personal computers and laptops. Levinson suggests one reason for the explosion of printed text about digital sources: "The moral for the evolution of media is very profound: when a new medium triumphs over an older medium in a given function, that does not mean the old medium will shrivel up and die. Rather, the old medium may be pushed into a niche in which it can perform better than the new medium, and where it will therefore survive, albeit as something different from what it was before the new medium arrived [7]." Other tomes suggest similar reasons, perhaps. Thomas K. Landauer's The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity (1995), while not a historical study, pulls together much of the research and debate of the past thirty years to argue that the promises of technology for organizations and individuals remain just that, promises. The continuous promises, with uneven results, indicates why so many scholars and commentators have written extensively about the Information Age, reflected in Jeff Madrick's recent article in the New York Review of Books [8]. The stresses and tensions between promise and product have stimulated efforts to reach wider audiences, such as the engaging popular studies like James Burke and Robert Ornstein, The Axemaker's Gift: Technology's Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture (1997) or the older and now re-issued Theodore Roszak, The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking (originally published 1986). Burke/Ornstein and Roszak provide, as is typical of such writings, very different viewpoints about the attributes of our age. It seems that when one writes on information technology, at least for broader consumption, that it is easy to slip into optimistic or pessimistic views about the societal and personal implications of the technologies.

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Breaking or Using the Looms

There is, in fact, an increasing variety of essays written by individuals who are deliberately antagonistic to the encroachment of technology, like the personal computer, into their lives. For a book whose title suggests clearly this outlook, one should read Bill Henderson, Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club: Pulling the Plug on the Electronic Revolution (1996). Much of this kind of writing focuses on the impact of the computer on reading, the quest for information, and the differences between knowledge and information. Barry Sanders, A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word (1994) is a literate example of this perspective, and he delves into the more sinister ramifications of the technology for us. He picks up on some of the main themes about the incursions of technology in his The Private Death of Public Discourse (1998), playing with the assumption that the wide open world of online discourse and information sources limits, in fact, our world and our experiences in the opposite direction that manufacturers and vendors of hardware and software claim to be helping organizations and individuals to go.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is an interesting body of writing where the Information Age is viewed through the personalities of its chief gurus, inventors, innovators, and marketeers. Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet (1996), focuses on the people and personalities behind the origins and subsequent evolution of the Internet. John Brockman, Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite (1996) is probably the sine non qua of such writing with highly personal interviews and reflections by Brockman on the interviewees. Douglas Rushkoff, Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace (1994) provides an interesting glimpse into the culture of Silicon Valley, as does J. C. Herz, Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Heads, and Rewired Our Minds (1997), a discourse on the relationship of gaming to computer design, marketing, and use. From such writings, nicotine, caffeine, and processed white sugar seem to be the main staples keeping going those individuals who design and market our latest hardware and software, although it is difficult to sort out how much of this is the mythology grown up around the key players - much like the self-myth-making of earlier entrepreneurs such as Thomas A. Edison or Henry Ford [9].

Perhaps it is the culture of the computer industry that causes some to see so readily the personal threat seemingly represented by the computer. Edward Tenner, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences (1996) provides an examination of the gap between technology and its uses, but there are many other books with a particular focus on the computer. The problems with design and a growing reliance on technology can be seen in Ivars Peterson, Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs (1996), with scary tales of medical treatments gone awry and planes sent spinning into hillsides. His comment that the "fact that we can never be sure that a computer system will function flawlessly constitutes a fatal defect" is what terrifies many people. "It limits what we can hope to achieve by using computers as our servants and surrogates. As computer-controlled systems become more complex and thoroughly entwined in the fabric of our lives, their potential for costly, life-threatening failures keeps growing [10]." It is the image of Stanley Kubrick's Hal come back to haunt us, and this image has spawned at least one book, David Stork, ed., Hal's Legacy: 2001's Computer as Dream and Reality (1997). Another example of this genre of writing, Mark Dery, Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century (1996), considers the impact of the computer on our culture and it is seen as not an attractive culture that is emerging.

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Kill the Programmers

Many of the problems considered or dissected in the new publications relate to the issues, challenges, and practices of software programmers. While hardware and the memory capacity of the computer have raced ahead, the capacities of software have lagged behind in taking advantage of the technical possibilities, and this dilemma probably explains why Frederick P. Brooks's classic The Mythical Man-Month (1995) had been updated and re-issued. There are very personal dimensions to these matters, as the design of software - and it is on the future of software that the future of the value of personal computing rests - has often been separated from personal needs and concerns. Nathaniel S. Borenstein's Programming as if People Mattered: Friendly Programs, Software Engineering, and other Noble Delusions (1991) is a readable critique of software engineering, but there are many other similar evaluations. Gregory J. E. Rawlins, in his Slaves of the Machines: The Quickening of Computer Technology (1997), sees that programming has held us back because it is based on ideas of two and more generations ago, changes too slowly, and is too conservative. David Gelernter's Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology (1998) sees that good software is beautiful if it is simple, sending him on an interesting discourse on why such technologists need to be trained to understand and appreciate art and aesthetics.

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Writings critiquing the programmer's practices often point to a distinct separation between the programmers and the ultimate users of hardware and software. This may partially explain why the information technologies and their impact on the private and work lives of each of us has also produced an array of studies, from the sociological analyzes to philosophical ruminations to highly personal accounts. Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work (1994), Anthony Smith, Software for the Self: Culture and Technology (1996), Michael Heim's Electronic Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (1987) and The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality (1993), Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior (1985), and the ground-breaking Shoshana Zuboff, In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power (1988) are all examples of writings on this theme. These writings enable us to comprehend the trade-offs that the use of computer technology may involve. Heim's books are particularly interesting in this regard with their effort to demonstrate how something as simple as learning word processing can affect in substantial ways the manner in which we write as well as the end product of what we produce in our writings.

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Technology and Society

Many of the recent publications struggle with, or reflect on, the relationship of technology to society. Some write from a very deterministic stance, others are more balanced, and still more see technology as a source of many, if not all, social ills. Some have been very intrigued by how information technology affects culture. Is our culture really all that much more different than it was thirty years ago, when there were a small number of mainframes and long before personal computers, laptops, or handheld computers? From J. David Bolter's somewhat pioneering Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age (1984) through any of the writings of Neil Postman, such as his Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1986) to Robert K. Logan's remarkably optimistic The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age (1995), the inquisitive reader can find much to think about where the technology might be helping to take us and whether we are building a cybernetic culture that is truly unique from visual, print, and oral cultures.

Some of these cultural studies are quite critical and certainly potentially disturbing to the average person, no matter how connected to the use of the information technologies they may be. Mark Slouka War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality (1995) and Clifford Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway (1995) are well- informed explorations into what unthinking reliance on the computer can result in. Slouka, for example, writes with an edge that makes you think or can aggravate you immensely, depending on your own presuppositions about the technologies. He writes that "we accept - it's almost an article of faith with us - that the information superhighway will make everything easier, faster, better; that it will make us (and our children) more knowledgeable, more imaginative, more creative ... . So hypnotized have we become, in fact, that we have to pinch ourselves to remember that literacy existed even before the invention of the microchip and that the imagination was doing quite well, thank you, long before the arrival of fiber-optic cable [11]." Some of these newer publications try to chart more specifically the implications of the personal computer or the networked office to the individual, such as psychologist Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet (1995) or philosopher Langdon Winner's older, but still relevant, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (1986). These latter writings stimulate immense reflection and, especially in the case of Turkle, provide absorbing explorations in highly personalized encounters with the recent popularization of networking.

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Caught in the Web

The rise of the Internet and World Wide Web, the move of the networks out of the defense industry and the academy to millions of homes, has certainly spawned a lot of reflection on the power of the computer to transform, both negatively and positively, the individual life. Clearly the idea of the Internet and World Wide Web have engaged remarkable attention, partly because networking raises the possibility of connecting everyone to a wealth of information, bringing the library, news services, the entertainment industry, and every other conceivable aspect of consumerism and culture to each person's desktop. But there is also the specter of people retreating into imaginary worlds, losing touch with reality, and engaging in a new kind of virtual anti-social behavior. Even the growing quantity of popular writings, such as David H. Rothman's NetWorld! What People Are Really Doing on the Internet, and What It Means to You (1996), Steven Johnson, Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate (1997), or John Seabrook's highly personal Deeper: Adventures on the Net (1998) provide a wealth of information regarding cases of both information technology use and abuse and a sense of how use of the technology changes one's attitudes about computers, their value, and their implications. Writings like those of Johnson and Seabrook are like the spiritual journals or autobiographies of Quakers of two centuries ago in which the writers chronicled their lives to make personal sense of their journeys and to serve as guidebooks for others who follow behind.

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The Information or Insecure Age?

There is, then, for some, a greater sense of insecurity in the electronic information era. The widespread use of computers certainly has caused entirely new challenges to the security of information, prompting some writing about interesting case studies such as Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992) and David H. Freedman and Charles C. Mann, At Large: The Strange Case of the World's Biggest Internet Invasion (1997). Closely related to this is the concern about new technologies and their impact on free speech, reflected in writings such as Samuel Walker, Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy (1994) and Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay, Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment (1995); useful case studies, such as Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan, Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace: Freedom and Censorship on the Frontiers of the Online Revolution (1997); and writings on related issues such as intellectual property and privacy in Brian Kahin and Charles Nelson, eds., Borders in Cyberspace: Information Policy and the Global Information Infrastructure (1997). The fears about children sitting in public libraries or at home, gliding effortlessly into chat rooms where they are stalked or onto sites with explicit sexual images, ties together the computer age with the earlier television age. These fears may or may not be greater, although it is certainly the case that the power, quantity of information, and variety of visual and other sensory materials is noticeably increased since the rise of the personal computer, networking, and the Web.

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The potential ills about the computer's impact on personal liberties need to be weighed against what has been going on in this realm long before the computer was a factor, such as in the textbook and other censorship cases described by Joan DelFattore, What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America (1992), Kent Greenawalt, Fighting Words: Individuals, Communities, and Liberties of Speech (1995), and the highly readable Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy, The Right to Privacy (1997). The impact of information technology on individual privacy ought to be a concern when we understand how sloppy mega-corporations are treating this matter, as described in H. Jeff Smith, Managing Privacy: Information Technology and Corporate America (1994), an important and disturbing study of seven major financial institutions. The specter of Big Brother may explain why we have more personal reflections on the issue of individual privacy than ever before, such as Mary Gordon, The Shadow Man (1996) and Janna Malamud Smith, Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life (1997). This may also explain why there is a spate of books on the ethics of computer use and information issues, led by Tom Forester and Perry Morrison, Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing (originally published 1990). The most moving reading may be David Gelernter's Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber (1997), a dark tale of a computer scientist who has been critical of the uses of information technology attacked merely because he is a computer scientist.

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Back to the Book

An interesting aspect of the modern Information Age, given the incredible interest of the publishing industry on the societal and personal influence of the computer, is the explosion of writings on the future of the traditional, printed book. Technologists like Nicholas Negroponte, in his Being Digital (1995), wax eloquently on the wonders of the emerging digital book, while others like Sven Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age (1994), write just as persuasively about the continuing viability of and necessity for the traditional book and the dangers of moving away from a bookish culture. Writers like Birkerts, recounting the values of print, are like the seventeenth century Puritan divines penning their Jeremiads, treatises designed to upset the present age by helping it remember the virtues of those who had gone before. Academic conferences have produced remarkably readable texts, such as R. Howard Bloch and Carla Hesse, eds., Future Libraries (1995) and Geoffrey Nunberg, ed., The Future of the Book (1996). Literary scholars have struggled to see the possibilities in the electronic text, such as Richard A. Lanham in his The Electric Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (1993) or George P. Landow, Hyper Text: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology (1992) - the latter a study demonstrating both the weaknesses and strengths of the electronic book and, more importantly, how the electronic book fulfills many of the ambitions of writers and publishers of traditional printed books - and journalists have seen the possibility of studying how electronic books are developed, such as in the description of Microsoft's efforts to develop a CD-ROM children's encyclopedia by Fred Moody I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year With Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier (1995).

With every threat to something as ingrained as reading printed texts come responses that demonstrate the value of such traditional, older, or outdated behaviors - depending on one's perspective. Interesting commentaries on books, reading, libraries, and related matters can be found in unlikely places. Michael Pollan's A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder (1997) is a description of the literary critic's effort to build, but the building considered here is his study/library and he comments frequently on the place of books and reading in the Information Age. The essential view about the nature and purpose of texts may reside in the act of reading, and individuals should be familiar with studies such as Alberto Manguel, A History of Reading (1996), a magisterial view of reading that provides a comprehension of the act perhaps not so well understood before. Some of the writings in this area have a direct bearing on the manner in which texts are used and interpreted, such as Robert Alter's The Pleasures of Reading in An Ideological Age (1996) or Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books (1996). At the least, such writings have proved to be indispensable for academics like me trying to stretch students to think about these issues, because they provide such extreme and diverse opinions [12].

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Power to the People

Much of the discourse on information technologies has focused on the democratic aspects of the media or the potential of these technologies for transforming place and the democratic government form. Advocates of the technologies see a renewed and stronger role of the average citizen in government, as best exemplified in Howard Rheingold's enthusiastic The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier (1993). But Rheingold is not alone with his agenda or his hopes, as seen in Edwin Diamond and Robert A. Silverman, White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America (1995), Stephen Doheny-Farina, The Wired Neighborhood (1996), Lawrence K. Grossman, The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age (1995), Jon Katz, Media Rants: PostPolitics in the Digital Nation (1997), and Johanna Neuman, Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics? (1996). On the other side are critics who see the dangers in the growing control over the sources of information and the technologies making information available, such as Herbert I. Schiller, Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression (1989) and Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America (1996), and William Wresch, Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age (1996), the latter providing a useful orientation to recent data regarding the less than equal access to information. Schiller, painting a stark portrait of the big guys and the rest of us is particularly eloquent about the potential loss caused by the demise of the librarian in the new age: "It is their bedrock principles and long-term practices that collide with the realities of today's corporate-centered and market-driven economy [13]." What the real extent of this influence was before the online culture emerged is a matter for debate.

Information technology and its impact on community, for example, generates very diverse views. William J. Mitchell's City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn (1995) sees a new and interesting city, where "being online may soon become a more important mark of community membership than being in residence [14]." M. Christine Boyer's CyberCities: Visual Perception in the Age of Electronic Communication (1996) sees also a vastly restructured city, but one in which time and space have been broken apart and where "we can no longer read the city as a totality: it is heterogenous, fragmented, dismembered, decentered [15]."

There are certainly good reasons for wanting to take advantage of the power of information technologies. We have long known the foibles involved in how news is packaged, such as we see in Herbert J. Gans, Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time (1980), a classic study on what constitutes the content of news reporting, or how government controls and restricts access to taxpayer-supported creation of information, such as seen in David Rudenstine, The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (1996). But these are minor issues when viewed against the matter of whether the information being conveyed by the technologies is useful and authentic. A remarkable illness of ease has developed about the reliability of information sources, another irony of the modern Information Age. The authenticity of records and books has been an issue for five centuries, but such concerns have been made more important by the increasing use of electronic technologies. The debates and discussions about the nature of a postmodern society have produced some interesting inquires into the nature of authenticity and related concerns, providing a broader societal context for considering books and records. These writings include Charlene Spretnak, The Resurgence of the Real: Body, Nature, and Place in a Hypermodern World (1997), Marcel C. LaFollette, Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing (1992) - an interesting study about the nature of publication and the power of the media to provide public scrutiny of academic and scientific research, and the control of the interpretation of the past as reflected in Ian Buruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan (1994) and Michael Schudson, Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past (1992).

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In Touch with the Inner Self

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All of the social ills and solutions attributed to the computer may be the reason why we are beginning to see books applying the Judeo-Christian or other religious frameworks to the challenges of the modern Information Age. Jeff Zaleski's The Soul of Cyberspace: How New Technology is Changing Our Spiritual Lives (1997) describes how major religious groups are using the Internet and, through a series of annotated interviews, considers how key figures in the development of cyberspace assign spiritual values to the Net. Zaleski never answers just "how" the technology is really changing anything, but his book provides insights - some of them disturbing and amusing - about how religious leaders and cybernetic pioneers see the spiritual potential of what is variously called a new "consciousness" or even the "mind of God." Douglas Groothuis, The Soul in Cyberspace (1997) - and note the difference in the title - presents a Christian critique, considering postmodernism, debates about truth, challenges to community, the quest to separate mind from the physical body, and the lack of stability, memory, and coherence represented by the Web. There is much of value in such perspectives, bringing the utopian dreamers of cyberspace and their rhetoric back to earth: "The mightiest hard drive, the fastest modem, the most sophisticated word processor, and the most powerful Internet search engine on the planet will not download wisdom into the human soul [16]." Amen.

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Conclusion: There Are Serpents Out There

Any number of things come to mind when considering the range and recent rapid appearance of books on the Information Age. The first thing we ought to consider is whether we are too close to this era to be able to understand it. The telephone, telegraph, and printing press might all look like marvelous even miraculous inventions in their time - an idea Xerox played with in its advertisements two decades ago featuring a Medieval monk copying a manuscript book via photostatic copier. Yet, these earlier inventions did not inspire the remarkable range of writing we are seeing now. Did Leonardo da Vinci constantly and consciously write about the "Renaissance"? Did Lord Bryon proclaim his era the age of "Romanticism"? It may be that the rapid pace of life in the late twentieth century, the approaching Millennium which tends to bring out more self-reflective musings as well as a number of crazy notions, a loss of the sense of truth and meaning reflected in Post-Modernism, and other aspects of soul-searching may all be contributing to the dread of or desire for information technology. Whatever this new publishing industry reflects, it reminds us that the Information Age may be too simple a notion to capture or criticize in this current time.

While we may be struggling with understanding where we are and where we are going, it is crucial that we at least comprehend the nature of our struggle. This may seem like the easy way out, but it is an improvement over the generally optimistic or overly pessimistic views of the computer, the Internet, and the Information Age. Esther Dyson's recent, truly interesting book, Release 2.0, is a convenient example. Dyson argues that the Internet is ours to control, to mold, and to use as we need. But the book is full of statements like this: The Internet's "impact - the widespread availability of two-way electronic communications - will change all of our lives. It will suck power away from central governments, mass media, and big business [17]." We honestly don't know what will happen. In fact, at best, we can only know for sure what has happened in the past and even the past can be a difficult place to understand. The diversity of books on the Information Age provides, then, something of a road map to the uncharted territory of our near future, but, and this is a big modifier, we need to keep some sea serpents drawn in, like the ancient map makers, to mark for the yet unknown areas. There are many serpents on my map, even with so many books seeming to show us the way. end of article

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About the Author

Richard J. Cox is an Associate Professor, Department of Library and Information Sciences, School of Information Sciences, University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of four books on archives and records management. Dr. Cox is currently completing a new book on re-thinking records management programs. He teaches courses in archives and records management and one of the core courses, "Understanding Information," for the M.L.I.S. program.

Richard J. Cox
Associate Professor
Department of Library and Information Sciences
School of Information Sciences
University of Pittsburgh Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Voice: 412-624-3245
FAX: 412-648-7001
e-mail: rjc@lis.pitt.edu
homepage: http://www.lis.pitt.edu/~rjc

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Notes

1. Ellen Ullman, 1997. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents. San Francisco: City Lights Books, pp. 59-60.

2. Tamara Plakins Thornton, Handwriting in America: A Cultural History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996) is a recent, wonderful study of this genre of self-help books. Historians for generations have noted the great interest in self-help manuals. Louis B. Wright, in his classic The First Gentlemen of Virginia: Intellectual Qualities of the Early Colonial Ruling Class (San Marino: Huntington Library, 1940) and The Cultural Life of the American Colonies 1607-1763 (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), discusses how books were prized enough to be brought by the first European settlers and how their interests focused on self-improvement - medicine, law, surveying, engineering, agriculture, and rhetoric and logic.

3. I have struggled a bit with the concept of information, as reflected in "Do We Understand Information in the Information Age?" Records & Information Management Report, volume 14 (March 1998): pp. 1-12.

4. David Denby, 1996. Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World. New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 355.

5. Crucial to understanding the history of information sources and the information professions is the need to comprehend how the notion of the Information Age has emerged. There are, at least, three pioneering publications. Fritz Machlup, The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1962) is the early articulation of a theory of an information or knowledge economy. Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (New York: Basic Books, 1976) identified the decline of the industrial sector and the expansion of the service sector as the leading sign of a post-industrial society. Marc Porat, The Information Economy: Definition and Measurement (Washington, D.C.: Department of Commerce, Office of Telecommunications, 1977) identified the new information society by breaking down agriculture, industry, and service sectors and, as a result, popularized the concept of the information economy. The views of these scholars were the basis for many of the popularized accounts of the Information Age, such as Alvin Toffler, The Third Wave (New York: Bantam Books, 1980). A commentary on the various scholarly views about the Information Age can be found in Frank Webster, Theories of the Information Society (New York: Routledge, 1995), a study considering the work of Daniel Bell, Anthony Giddens, Herbert Schiller, Jurgen Habermas, and Manuel Castells.

6. Paul Gilster, 1997. Digital Literacy. New York: John Wiley and Sons, p. 173.

7. Paul Levinson, 1997. The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. New York: Routledge, p. 48.

8. Jeff Madrick, "Computers: Waiting for the Revolution," New York Review of Books, volume 45 (March 26, 1998), pp. 29-33.

9. It would be interesting, for example, to read Bill Gates's writings after considering how self-promotional another inventor/promoter was in an earlier day. Read Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1981) as a basis for comparison.

10. Ivars Peterson, 1996. Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs New York: Vintage Books, p. xix.

11. Mark Slouka, 1995. War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. New York: Basic Books, p. 144.

12. As I wrote about in my "Debating the Future of the Book," American Libraries, volume 28 (February 1997), pp. 52-55.

13. Herbert I. Schiller, 1996. Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America. New York: Routledge, p. 36.

14. William J. Mitchell, 1995. City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, p. 68.

15. M. Christine Boyer, 1996. CyberCities: Visual Perception in the Age of Electronic Communication. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press, p. 119.

16. Douglas Groothuis, 1997. The Soul in Cyberspace. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, p. 87.

17. Esther Dyson, 1997. Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. New York: Broadway Books, p. 6.

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List of Works Mentioned

Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy, 1997. The Right to Privacy. New York: Vintage Books.

Robert Alter, 1996. The Pleasures of Reading in An Ideological Age. New York: W. W. Norton and Co.

Stanley Aronowitz and William DiFazio, 1994. The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sven Birkerts, 1994. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber and Faber.

R. Howard Bloch and Carla Hesse (editors), 1995. Future Libraries. Berkeley: University of California Press.

J. David Bolter, 1984. Turing's Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Nathaniel S. Borenstein, 1991. Programming as if People Mattered: Friendly Programs, Software Engineering, and other Noble Delusions. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

M. Christine Boyer, 1996. Cybercities: Visual Perception in the Age of Electronic Communication. Princeton: Princeton Architectural Press.

John Brockman, 1996. Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite. San Francisco: HardWired.

Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., 1995. The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering. Anniversary Edition. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

James Burke and Robert Ornstein, 1997. The Axemaker's Gift: Technology's Capture and Control of Our Minds and Culture. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons.

Ian Buruma, 1994. The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan. New York: Meridian.

Martin Campbell-Kelly and William Aspray, 1996. Computer: A History of the Information Machine. New York: Basic Books.

Joan DelFattore, 1992. What Johnny Shouldn't Read: Textbook Censorship in America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Mark Dery, 1996. Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. New York: Grove Press.

Edwin Diamond and Robert A. Silverman, 1995. White House to Your House: Media and Politics in Virtual America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Stephen Doheny-Farina, 1996. The Wired Neighborhood. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Esther Dyson, 1997. Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. New York: Broadway Books.

Paul N. Edwards, 1996. The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Tom Forester and Perry Morrison, 1990. Computer Ethics: Cautionary Tales and Ethical Dilemmas in Computing. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Herbert J. Gans, 1980. Deciding What's News: A Study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek, and Time. New York: Vintage Books.

David Gelernter, 1998. Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology. New York: Basic Books.

David Gelernter, 1997. Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber. New York: Free Press.

Paul Gilster, 1997. Digital Literacy. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Mary Gordon, 1996. The Shadow Man. New York: Vintage Books.

Kent Greenawalt, 1995. Fighting Words: Individuals, Communities, and Liberties of Speech. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Douglas Groothuis, 1997. The Soul in Cyberspace. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Lawrence K. Grossman, 1995. The Electronic Republic: Reshaping Democracy in the Information Age. New York: Viking.

Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon, 1996. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Michael Heim, 1993. The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Michael Heim, 1987. Electronic Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Bill Henderson, 1996. Minutes of the Lead Pencil Club: Pulling the Plug on the Electronic Revolution. Wainscott, N. Y.: Pushcart Press.

J. C. Herz, 1997. Joystick Nation: How Videogames Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Heads, and Rewired Our Minds. Boston: Little, Brown.

Steven Johnson, 1997. Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate. New York: HarperEdge.

Brian Kahin and Charles Nelson (editors), 1997. Borders in Cyberspace: Information Policy and the Global Information Infrastructure. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Jon Katz, 1997. Media Rants: PostPolitics in the Digital Nation. San Francisco: HardWired.

Marcel C. LaFollette, 1992. Stealing into Print: Fraud, Plagiarism, and Misconduct in Scientific Publishing. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Thomas K. Landauer, 1995. The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

George P. Landow, 1992. Hyper Text: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Richard A. Lanham, 1993. The Electric Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Paul Levinson, 1997. The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution. New York: Routledge.

Robert K. Logan, 1995. The Fifth Language: Learning a Living in the Computer Age. Toronto: Stoddart.

Alberto Manguel, 1996. A History of Reading. New York: Viking.

Joshua Meyrowitz, 1985. No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior. New York: Oxford University Press.

Newton N. Minow and Craig L. LaMay, 1995. Abandoned in the Wasteland: Children, Television, and the First Amendment. New York: Hill and Wang.

William J. Mitchell, 1995. City of Bits: Space, Place, and the Infobahn. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Fred Moody, 1995. I Sing the Body Electronic: A Year With Microsoft on the Multimedia Frontier. New York: Penguin Books.

John Naisbitt, 1984. Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives. New York: Warner Books.

Nicholas Negroponte, 1995. Being Digital. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Johanna Neuman, 1996. Lights, Camera, War: Is Media Technology Driving International Politics? New York: St. Martin's Press.

David F. Noble, 1997. The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Seymour Papert, 1996. The Connected Family: Bridging the Digital Generation Gap. Atlanta: Longstreet Press.

Ivars Peterson, 1996. Fatal Defect: Chasing Killer Computer Bugs. New York: Vintage Books.

Michael Pollan, 1997. A Place of My Own: The Education of an Amateur Builder. New York: Random House.

Neil Postman, 1986. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books.

Gregory J. E. Rawlins, 1997. Slaves of the Machine: The Quickening of Computer Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Gregory J. E. Rawlins, 1996. Moths to the Flame: The Seductions of Computer Technology. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Howard Rheingold, 1993. The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. New York: HarperPerennial.

Theodore Roszak, 1986. The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking. New York: Pantheon Books.

David H. Rothman, 1996. NetWorld! What People Are Really Doing on the Internet, and What It Means to You. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing.

David Rudenstine, 1996. The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Douglas Rushkoff, 1994. Cyberia: Life in the Trenches of Hyperspace. New York: Harper San Francisco.

Barry Sanders, 1998. The Private Death of Public Discourse. Boston: Beacon Press.

Barry Sanders, 1994. A Is for Ox: Violence, Electronic Media, and the Silencing of the Written Word. New York: Pantheon Books.

Herbert I. Schiller, 1989. Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression. New York: Oxford University Press.

Herbert I. Schiller, 1996. Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America. New York: Routledge.

Michael Schudson, 1992. Watergate in American Memory: How We Remember, Forget, and Reconstruct the Past. New York: Basic Books.

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, 1996. Ruined by Reading: A Life in Books. Boston: Beacon Press.

John Seabrook, 1998. Deeper: Adventures on the Net. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Joel Shurkin, 1996. Engines of the Mind: The Evolution of the Computer from Mainframes to Microprocessors. New York: W.W. Norton.

Mark Slouka, 1995. War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality. New York: Basic Books.

Anthony Smith, 1996. Software for the Self: Culture and Technology. New York: Oxford University Press.

H. Jeff Smith, 1994. Managing Privacy: Information Technology and Corporate America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Janna Malamud Smith, 1997. Private Matters: In Defense of the Personal Life. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Mark Stefik, 1996. Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Bruce Sterling, 1992. The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam Books.

Clifford Stoll, 1995. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Anchor Books.

Edward Tenner, 1996. Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Alvin Toffler, 1980. The Third Wave. New York: Bantam Books.

Sherry Turkle, 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ellen Ullman, 1997. Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents. San Francisco: City Lights Books.

Samuel Walker, 1994. Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan, 1997. Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace: Freedom and Censorship on the Frontiers of the Online Revolution. New York: Henry Holt and Co.

Frank Webster, 1995. Theories of the Information Society. New York: Routledge.

Langdon Winner, 1986. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

William Wresch, 1996. Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age. New Brunswick, N. J.: Rutgers University Press.

Jeff Zaleski, 1997. The Soul of Cyberspace: How New Technology is Changing Our Spiritual Lives. New York: HarperEdge.

Shoshana Zuboff, 1988. In the Age of the Smart Machine: The Future of Work and Power. New York: Basic Books.


Copyright © 1998, ƒ ¡ ® s † - m ¤ ñ d @ ¥
Drawing Sea Serpents: The Publishing Wars on Personal Computing and the Information by Richard J. Cox.
First Monday, Volume 3, Number 5 - 4 May 1998
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/595/516





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