Thomas E. Bleier and Eric C. Steinert.
net.people: The Personalities and Passions Behind The Web Sites.
Medford, N.J.: Information Today, 2000.
paper, 317 p., ISBN 0-910-96537-4, US$19.95.
Information Today: http://www.infotoday.com/catalog/books.htm
This is an easy-read book, at the lighter end of the IT market, focusing on 36 individuals and the Web sites they have created. There are plenty of illustrations, including screenshots to give a flavour of each site. In each chapter the individual 'Webmaster' speaks directly to the reader about how they came to choose their subject and create their Web site, how the site has developed, and how it has changed their lives. These are people with a wide range of backgrounds and professions, many of whom have acquired the skills of Web design as they've gone along. The common factor is that they're all creative, they're all determined, and they're all willing to spend many hours every day at their computer, maintaining and developing their site and replying to a flood of e-mails. Not everyone makes money directly from this endeavour, and some actually take a loss. Some make enough money for the site to be their main source of income; others see it as a hobby, and earn money elsewhere. Sometimes the Web site acts as a 'shop window', and triggers off a Web design contract, a book deal, a TV or radio interview.
In many ways this is an inspiring book, containing the stories of people who went ahead and got things done, all using a heady combination of talent, skill and luck to make a success of their site. Inspiring, because as I turned the pages, I began to see more possibilities for my own modest Web site, and have already redesigned my home page as a result. But in other ways it is an irritating and disappointing book: after the first nine chapters, which cover a wide range of sites grouped under the category of 'Getting Advice & Educating Yourself', we move into the 'Visiting, Watching, & Playing Outside the Web World' section, which kicks off with two football sites and two further sports-related sites; for anyone (like me) with no interest in sport, this is a bit of a turnoff. Elsewhere in the book are further duplications: two movie sites, three toy collector sites and no fewer than four joke sites (one of them in a different section from the other three). And this is described by the editors as a book about "people with a wide range of talents and interests" (Epilogue, p. 313). Surely a wider variety of topics could have been found, or even an editorial decision to cut a few chapters?
From the gender point of view, just six of the 36 sites has a female 'Webmaster', and perhaps this proportion is a reflection of reality - though the authors don't actually say so. But why compound this low coverage by illustrating one woman's chapter with pictures of a man sitting at a computer?
But on balance there's something here for everybody, and I shall certainly be visiting some of the sites I've been reading about. One thing that comes across more than anything else in this book is the human element: people's sheer delight in communicating with each other and, in many cases, their willingness to spend many unpaid or underpaid hours helping to make life better for others. - Gill Stoker
Gary R. Bunt.
Virtually Islamic: Computer-Mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments.
Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000.
paper, 188 p., ISBN 0-708-31611-5, US$29.95, £14,99.
University Of Wales Press: http://www.uwp.co.uk
Subtitled Computer-Mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments, this book represents an attempt to map the ways in which followers of Islam are using the Internet. Chapters include: a discussion of the diversity of Muslim presences on the Internet; Politics, Islam and the Net; Islamic obligations and authority online; and a closing chapter on Cyber Islamic futures. The author has clearly done a great deal of research in this area, and he strikes a brisk tone as the book sets off on a tour of online Islamic resources.
Bunt is at his strongest when discussing Islamic matters but he is less sure on issues concerning cyber culture. He lectures on Islamic matters at The University of Wales and when writing about Islamic history, doctrine and law he has much to offer the reader with little or no knowledge of the fastest growing faith in the world.
As stated earlier, the book often contains some rather naive statements about the Internet, and at times it is rather like having to listen patiently to an uncle who has discovered the online world, and is eager to tell everyone in earshot of its endless fascinations. Those of you who have consumed a variety of tomes celebrating the quirkiness of online culture may well find the early sections of this book a bit tedious. Anyone who has read Rheingold, Turkle, Seely Brown, and others may find this volume pedestrian. For example the observation that "the nature of the Internet and its inherent accessibility means that webpages generally cannot be regulated (whether this is desirable or not)" (p. 3) is not likely to surprise most readers. Elsewhere in the book a rather tenuous grasp of the technicalities of the Internet leads to statements of this kind: "while reference is made to e-mail, chat-rooms, and other forms of electronic communication, the central focus of this book is the Internet." (p. 7). Errors like these should have been corrected by some editor with an eye for technical detail in the course of proofreading the book.
The book uses the term CMC (Computer Mediated Communication) to refer to the Islamic environments. This term suggests social interaction, collaboration and the creation of online communities. Unfortunately the book is rather thin on evidence of Muslim communities interacting, and concentrates instead almost entirely on Web sites, which do not, in themselves, offer much opportunity for interaction. The term "Cyber-Islamic environments" sounds very grand and as a reader I was expecting a more theoretical exploration of issues like identity and religion, authority and subversion and so on. Instead much of the book is given over to descriptions of Islamic resources online. Clearly Muslims are using the Internet in innovative and exciting ways, but as a reader I always had the sneaking suspicion that the term "Cyber-Islamic environments" was nothing more than a souped-up synonym for Web sites. However, the author does mention that this research is in its early stages, and future work could well begin to explore these issues in more detail.
In many way Virtually Islamic suffers from an affliction which besets all publications presenting information about the Internet: the white-hot speed at which they go out of date. And this rapid erosion of currency is not just a matter of dead links, incorrect URLs and sites disappearing, rather it is the contradiction inherent in trying to fix an unstable entity like the Internet in an artefact as stubbornly located in space and time as a book. True, the book is linked to the obligatory Web site maintained by the author. This site contains many useful resources and was last updated in July 2001, so currency issues are addressed here. But if you simply want a comprehensive and well ordered set of links to Islamic sites, then you could go straight to the site and the book can be bypassed altogether.
In conclusion, Virtually Islamic is a useful book for a student of Islamic culture; the author's observations about the changes in Islamic culture which the Internet is creating make for interesting reading. Those who are more interested in online culture and explorations of the social and cultural impact of the Internet will be better served by more experienced and net-savvy commentators. - Matthew J. Pearson
Managing Web Enabled Technologies in Organisations: A Global Perspective.
Hershey, Pa.: Idea Group Publishing, 2000.
paper, 272 p., ISBN 1-878-28972-1, US$69.95.
Idea Group: http://www.idea-group.com
This book is one of a series produced by Idea Group on a variety of topics related to Web based educational and organisational interactions. The main problem with any edited collection is consistency and quality control; this book exemplifies the problem, which is also exacerbated by the need to read it in jargon-enabled acronym recognition mode. An example from Mathew Klempa's contribution, as chapter 4:"the chapter explicates organisation culture and organisation learning as systemic, multiplicative metaforce underpinnings of organisation change and sociocognitively based recursive structurational processual dynamics"
The title is ambitious; its intention is to deal with management issues arising from Web Enabled Technologies (WETs) and to do so on a global scale. It is indeed global in that one could circumnavigate the globe via its various geographical locations - U.S. to Holland and Austria, then via Egypt and Hong Kong to Australia before hopping back around North America. It is too easy however to assume that WETs are only relevant to the first world; striking examples of WETs are being developed in South America, Africa and Asia. It is disappointing that the third world's only contribution to this volume reads more like an advertisement for Egyptian government policy than a reasoned and deep analysis of conditions and potential in that country.
There is an interesting mix of technical discussion and analysis with organisation and sociological theory in this book. Lurking here and there within the pages is a whiff of enormous excitement at being involved in the forefront of a completely new field, where all rules are old and therefore suspect, and new rules must be made up and tested with all the vigour and delight of an academic community in full cry. There is a job to be done here, collecting and collating evidence of current practice, trying out theories, developing academic tools to take charge of a field that is more unfamiliar than many academics care to admit. But often in this case the whiff of adventure is snuffed out by caution and over-elaboration. Klempa's offering is a case in point. He seeks to examine the effect on organisation of the introduction of WETs and in doing so to link technological analysis with organisation theory and, through Giddens' idea of structuration, to sociological theory. A fascinating project, drowned in "-icatives". Deep inside there is a challenging and thoughtful thesis, powerfully illustrated by a detailed case study of a shipbuilding firm.
Several of the other chapters are worthwhile academic stabs in the dark. Scharl describes a five stage Web-based mass information system designed for retail operations, contrasting it interestingly with the type of physical data used in traditional retail stores. He turns a Web-based information system into a hierarchical business development tool. Vriens and Hendriks push available theory into a framework desgined to link WETs to organisational viability, again linking technology to (a techno-limited) organisation theory. Will these tools work in the real world? They are waiting for somebody to try them.
The clearest contribution is from Darbyshire and Wenn, describing the development of a Web-based learning administration system at Victoria University of Technology in Australia. This has the advantages of focusing on a specific project rather than discussing issues in a vacuum, and of being written in ordinary English. It describes in detail technological difficulties and fixes, and the real-world requirements of students, staff and administrators which determined how the system developed. As a case study of the development of a tool that is doing a real job in a real situation, it is hard to beat.
My overall conclusion - would I buy the book? No. Would I get my library to buy it? I'm afraid not. But I might borrow it from a library that already had it. - Rob Parsons
Don't Make Me Think! A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability.
Indianapolis: New Riders Press, 2000.
paper, 195 p., ISBN 0-789-72310-7, US$35.00.
New Riders: http://www.newriders.com
The aim of this book simply called "Don't make me think", is to describe and demonstrate good Web usability techniques. The author achieves this objective by using a number of good Web sites. He then points out areas of weakness and how through a few tweaks they can be made even better.
Steve Krug describes his job as doing "expert usability reviews". His reports to Web site owners describe problems with given sites and suggest solutions. He assures us that what is required is not rocket science, but the application of sound common sense - something which seems to be in short supply in the "dot com" boom and bust.
His main point is that navigating a Web site should be instinctive, and if you need to press a button, then the button should be clearly "clickable". If a site has a lot of links which do not seem like they should be clicked, something important may be missed, and the visitor and the site is going nowhere.
Some other points are:
- the less thinking the visitor has to do the better; if the user has to think " ... what do I do now?", this is simply not good enough;
- Web browsing is not like reading a newspaper or a leaflet sitting in your armchair; rather, it is more like looking at billboards while driving by at speed;
- little details make a difference; for example in a search box, an arrow on the right of the "search" link puts question marks in the visitor's mind, whereas the arrow to the left tells you exactly what you need to do;
- users don't always "get it" or behave as the Web designer intended or could imagine in his or her wildest dreams; the important thing, though, is that the visitor eventually gets there;
- testing is crucial; it doesn't need to cost millions, but doing it methodically ensures that weaknesses are identified and fixed before going live;
- there are conventions in Web design which have evolved over time and it is better to use these than re-inventing the wheel.
The positive aspects of this book are:
- we gain a sense of perspective from Steve Krug's extensive experience and knowledge;
- he provides us with structured method for assessing Web sites and tells us where to look;
- the book kept my interest throughout and I can practice his review techniques in my day-to-day browsing;
- there are screen shots of lots of Web sites; these are more effective than mere descriptions;
- the book is a very good example of how an effective Web site should be designed - no unnecessary words,well designed and holds our attention.
Some of the aspects of the book that could have been improved are:
there could have been some discussion about the aesthetics of Web design, such as which colour combinations work and which do not; some poor Web sites could have also been discussed to provide contrast and comparison with the better designed Web sites in the world.
My overall conclusion is that this is a very worthwhile book and should definitely be your first step in Web design, whether you are out to design the next Amazon.com or something less ambitious. - Kamal Khan
The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000.
paper, 360 p., ISBN 0-262-68121-8, US$18.95.
MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu
This book divides neatly into two elements, the original text written in 1993 and additional chapters added for this MIT republication.
The 1993 section is written unashamedly as a defence of those who enjoy an online life in the face of detractors who thought that "only socially crippled adolescents would use the Internet to communicate".
As a participant since 1985 in The WELL, an online community established in the San Francisco area, Rheingold paints a vibrant and enthusiastic picture of a life online. He describes the "barn raising" events of any community, the births and deaths, with the authentic voice of someone who has spent enough time in this "third place", the place where Oldenburg proposed in The Great Good Place that people join for conviviality. His narrative about these events is moving and will resonate for anyone who has experience of how these events can affect virtual communities. This early section deals with the growth of the "gift economies" that made the WELL, and other virtual communities, viable. He also explains the techniques used to attract valuable participants, such as providing free accounts to local journalists.
Using this as a backdrop Rheingold then discusses the technologies and innovators that enabled the birth and growth of virtual communities - from Englebart's work on HCI in the 1950s, through the development of ARPA, the work at Xerox PARC, and UUCP from Bell Laboratories - he shows how the components slotted together.
The horizons are then drawn wider and we look at communities in Japan (COARA), France (based on the MINITEL system). Again Rheingold looks at the people involved in the processes. We meet the "Online Activists" using the Internet as a democratising tool. People like Dave Hughes, a retired Army Officer, who travelled with a laptop and evangelised about the Net. Hughes helped towns by advocating and practising online activism using bulletin boards to pass local council planning decisions to a wider audience. He used this technique to expose inefficient and ineffective processes in his local authority in Colorado Springs and showed others how they could make an impact locally by using bulletin boards.
In addition to a wider landscape we also see the strata - the MOOs and MUDs, FIDO and Usenet, IRC and BBS. This was a time when communities used their own, often proprietary, software and the only links would be through e-mail where members of the communities could talk to members of other communities to exchange ideas and invite new members. Nor are the less desirable elements ignored, flame wars and Energy Creatures, those contributors who deliberately post to generate any response: positive or negative, and who 'feed' on that response are dealt with and highlighted. Rheingold is excellent at getting beyond the online persona, showing us something of the people behind the screen.
In Chapter 10, "Disinfomocracy", Rheingold starts to look at some of the wider issues about using the Net. Questions about who owns digital information and whether ISPs can control the information are still with us today.
The 1993 section of the book closes as the first graphical browsers are becoming available. The inherent one-to-many communication of the WELL and other communities is soon to change as the nascent Web starts its amazing growth.
In the updated section Rheingold brings the story of the WELL, the people and politics up to date and also discusses his own early failures to bring commercial community building to the Web. He looks at differing views of an online community; can it really be viewed as a community in its fullest sense? Rheingold's final paragraph sums this up:"The battle for the shape of the Net is joined. Part of the battle is a battle of dollars and power, but the great lever is still understanding - if enough people can understand what is happening, I still believe we can have an influence. Whether we live in a Panoptic or Democratic Net ten years from now depends, in no small measure, on what you and I know and do now."
Readers of this book will be better equipped to understand how the Net and the Web can be used to join people together and used actively. Readers will also have a social history document that shows a personal perspective of an earlier, more innocent, Internet and finally they will have an excellent history of the birth and growth of the Internet. Rheingold is still able to remind us that the core of the Internet is people, the people who use the tools, the people who build the tools and the people who would control the tools. - Nigel Gibson
Serious Play: How the World's Best Companies Simulate To Innovate.
Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000.
cloth, 234 p., ISBN 0-875-84814-1, US$27.50.
Academic Press: http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu
Next time you find yourself yawning through the safety demonstration, consider this; aeroplane cabins are designed to allow emergency evacuation within a certain time, on the basis of tests conducted by manufacturers and regulatory bodies. Real events - and studies which offer even small amounts of money to those who emerge first - show that exits jam up very quickly as individuals abandon group welfare for their own needs. The official tests were sustaining a 'polite fiction' of safety regulations - as Michael Schrage puts it, dishonest play leads to dishonest designs.
The 'serious play' of the title refers to the process of developing, and even more importantly using, rapid prototypes. Serious play is promoted as a core competence for the organisation seeking to manage innovation. To be serious, play requires passion, self-awareness and introspection - and above all, honesty. Schrage shows that it is important to consider the political side of prototyping - who benefits from the process and the product, and who loses? A good prototype can cause surprise and friction and alter the balance of power in an organisation if cherished assumptions are questioned.
The premise of Schrage's argument is that innovation is more social than personal. It is the interaction between people as they use prototypes which matters, whether the interaction is with colleagues, customers or suppliers. So far, we see nothing startlingly new. However Schrage demonstrates again and again the power of the prototype to spark innovation and change relationships. Take the idea further - instead of building teams to generate innovation, rely on prototypes to attract potential members of innovative teams. Schrage quotes the aeronautical engineer Paul MacCready: "... prototypes are a way of letting you think out loud. You want the right people to think aloud with you."
A strength of the book is the wide range of examples discussed. A prototype is not just an artefact for manufacture but can be a model, a simulation or just an idea. Lessons are drawn from areas as diverse as car and software manufacture, spreadsheet models, Pampers nappies and the America's Cup sailing competition, to name only a few. An example which demonstrates the power of the Internet examines Microsoft's beta-version testing of Windows 95 by customers and developers, estimating its value at $1 billion - and in those days Microsoft didn't even charge its beta testers. "But this subsidy isn't merely about money: it's also about creating and managing relationships that let innovators tap into the time and resources of their savviest customers." Vivid examples and a clear writing style elevate the argument from business guru rhetoric into something genuinely thought-provoking and useful, whatever your business.
The book concludes with a 'user's guide' which sets out ten rules to be followed by those resolved to avoid 'polite fictions'. For example Rule 3: 'Fail early and often' encourages you to front-load opportunities for failure by aggressive stress-testing early on in the process of developing an aeroplane or a financial product, before the product makes it out from the computer into the real world. BMW developers were able to improve the side-impact crash-worthiness of a sedan by 30% over 91 computer based design iterations - illustrating a point made earlier in the text that forcing a high number of iterations as an alternative to reducing speed-to-market can pay rich dividends.
A frustration is the virtual impossibility of following up the many stories, since sources are not cited in the text - though there is a 19-page bibliography as some compensation for the more persistent reader. This drawback aside, the book can be highly recommended for anyone interested in managing innovation who is seeking serious inspiration. - Alicia Gazely
Paul A. Taylor.
Hackers: Crime and the Digital Sublime.
New York: Routledge, 1999.
paper, 216 p., ISBN 0-415-18072-4, US$26.95.
Paul Taylor is a lecturer in the Sociology of Technology at Salford University in the UK and has written a few publications on the sociology of hackers. This book, published in 1999, takes a look at the divide between the hacker society and the security industry.
Taylor has mixed interviews with members of both fraternities and his own insight into a book that, at times can be hard to read, but at the same time becomes an absorbing read. The book leads you into the history of the concept of hackers and the change in meaning of the term from its origins at MIT to its current definition. Taylor tries to focus the reader on the true underlying philosophy of the hackers and narrows down the meaning of the word in the context of the book, leading the reader in to an understanding of the hacker culture today before offering the security perspective.
He demonstrates that distrust has arisen on both sides of the line between legal and illegal actives and how neither community is getting near to a compromise. Taylors argues for the need of a middle ground for the two factions to meet and maybe work for the good of technology. Reading snippets of interviews from both sides however gives the impression that these factions are unlike to achieve this goal in the near future.
Depending on which side of the fence you approach this book you might be compelled to change sides or approach the other side differently. In any case, the book does offer an understanding that may channel your approaches to the overall problem of securing technology for the masses.
Taylor's research means that this book cannot be ignored by the security industry. The references and bibliography included only enhance your thirst for further research into a culture that fascinates many. If you wish to understand the culture of hackers rather than just condemn them, this book must be one for the bookshelf. - David Phillips, Bsc (open)
Anthony G. Wilhelm.
Democracy in the Digital Age: Challenges to Political Life in Cyberspace.
New York: Routledge, 2000.
paper, 192 p., ISBN 0-415-92436-7, US$22.99.
This is a thoughtful and well-researched book that belongs on the bookshelves of social psychologists, philosophers, political scientists and IT practitioners. Wilhelm challenges the belief that the openness of the Internet is an antidote to democratic ills and substantiates this viewpoint by detailed research, mostly within the U.S., but the basic concepts can be equally applied to any country as it embraces the digital age.
Wilhelm sees four specific challenges to real democratic participation in the digital age:
- Barriers to entry: cost of access or purchase of capital-intensive hardware; universal literacy needed to use the media; communication and critical thinking skills to participate effectively in public discussion and debate.
- Innovations in telecommunications goods and services that are only accessible to a subsection of a population will increase the information and communications-poor unless safety nets are put in place to ensure that essential services are available to all who are on the margins of society.
- Can quality discussion, debate and deliberation take place in the digital age without undermining democratic decision-making?
- The pressure of market forces that distort, compress and eliminate public interest access by the design of "closed" networks and increasingly expensive supporting hardware.
Chapter 1 reviews the theories of both supporters and detractors of the so-called information or communications revolution under the heading "Cyber-democracy's Troubled and Frothy Surface" and provides a comprehensive review of academic thought in a number of disciplines.
In Chapter 2, Wilhelm lists 4 features that he believes are necessary for political engagement, without which democratic cyberspace is as "sturdy as a chair with 3 legs". These are:
- Barriers to entry: cost of access or purchase of capital-intensive hardware.
- Antecedent resources: The skills and capacities that one brings to the table to achieve certain functions, in this case, participation in the virtual political public sphere.
- Inclusiveness: Ensuring that everybody affected by a certain policy has the opportunity to access and use essential digital media.
- Deliberation: Subjecting one's opinions to public scrutiny for validation.
- Design: The architecture of the network developed to facilitate or inhibit public communication.
The remainder of the book takes these themes and closely argues (supported by numerous references) the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats which are presented to any society embracing digital technology without due thought and planning.
Issues such as use of computers and the Internet for non-English speaking citizens on lower incomes make thoughtful reading. Whether the Internet can be an effective democratic medium for collective action given that anyone who wishes to participate in a public debate must have the opportunity to voice his or her concerns, needs and preferences. The dangers of Usenet groups that encourage debate only amongst like-minded people who do not wish to reflect on the merit of alternative arguments. The role of the new "gatekeepers" - the cable operators - who have commercial interests that are at variance with public access to information and telecommunications also undergo detailed scrutiny.
The book ends with a salutary warning that unless comprehensive and redistributive policies are enacted, inequality, poverty and social exclusion will continue. Although there will be the appearance of progress, the underclasses will not move anywhere as these individuals will have to run even harder tomorrow to catch up with today's advantaged citizens (the "Red Queen" effect). Wilhelm then cites a few examples of good practice where public access to telecommunications has been provided and provides a two tiered model for democracy in the digital age where values and policy goals associated with cyber-democracy can be brought to fruition. - Peta Jellis
Copyright ©2001, First Monday