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Spirit Of The Web 32

Posted by JonKatz
from the -from-smoke-signals-to-the-Web dept.
In "Spirit Of The Web," Canadian technology and science writer Wade Rowland has written a surprisingly readable book that puts the Information Age in some historical context and traces the human and spiritual origins of the Web, from smoke signals to the computer.
Spirit Of The Web
author Wade Rowland
pages 420
publisher Somerville House Publisher
rating 7/10
reviewer Jon Katz
ISBN 1-895897-98-X
summary History of the Information Age, from telegraph to NeT

Lots of people are unhappy about the information explosion. Academics and social critics argue that modern communications technologies are triggering a deluge of junk data we don't need, that overwhelms most people, and makes intelligent discourse nearly impossible.

Canadian science and technology writer Wade Rowland has more balanced overview. Information technologies like the Net, he argues, have enormous promise. But, he writes, "it is important...to recognize that it is as true when dealing with the opportunities offered by technology as it is with political institutions, that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." Technological processes are amenable to management, he says, but in the absence of continuous monitoring and intervention at appropriate decision points, they will manage themselves in ways that might might not be to our collective advantage.

The Net, in particular, warns Rowland in his new book "Spirit Of The Web", was developed as an open and democratic institution because it was deliberately designed that way and it will remain so only as long as each of us respects these virtues and works to preserve."

This isn't a message most techies want to hear. The flaw in Rowland's otherwise smart and timely argument is that hardly anyone involved with the Internet is working particularly hard to respect these virtues. The Net is stuffed with chaos and hostility as well as information, and is being gobbled up nearly whole by restrictive new government regulations, lawyers and laws, copyright and patent fights, and greedy companies.

The inherently arrogant and increasingly elitist tech culture is myopically convinced that whatever happens to the masses, their salvation is just some new software away, and that programming skills will insulate them from the world beyond.

Rowland's book puts the information age in context. He traces the history of the human urge to communicate -- which he calls one of the most basic of human impulses -- from the drum to the smoke signal to the radio to the Net.

What's unusual about this book is its business-like, professional tone, and that it's so clearly written and intelligently organized. Rowland starts off looking at the real meaning of the Information Age, tracing exactly what impulses made the Web inevitable, and what its real "spirit" might be.

For better or worse, he writes, these are fascinating times, information-wise. "Already, we see a smudging of the boundary between human and machine by the notion of the brain as an elaborate, biological computing device and intelligence as an emergent, perhaps generic quality of complexity in natural systems, and we have the Internet, a network of digital computers, proliferating like an organic creature. Whether in the end substantial or illusory, this strange convergence between the animate and inanimate, the organic and inorganic, seems likely to mark humanity as profoundly as did Copernicus's momentous observation that the earth orbits the sun."

Information is driving much of the growth of the Net and the Web. "Spirit of the Web" is as good and interesting a history of human communications as you're likely to come across,especially if you want to know what the roots of the digital culture really are. There's plenty of research and scholarship in "Spirit of the Web" but it doesn't have the ham-handed obtuseness of many technology books. And it reads nothing like the textbook it could very well be. "Spirit of the Web" is a very good read for anybody who cares about information and how it moves and has moved from one person to another.

Purchase this book at FatBrain.

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Review: Spirit Of The Web

Comments Filter:
  • Sorry ,this falls way to much into that disgusting goat-like kind of thing. How about acidic torture? Is there a way to vaporize somebody's motherboard in such a way that it gives off harmfull toxins? Remote overclocking, anyone?
  • (That actually was my comment, but /. didn't log me in correctly).
    ________________
  • MCSE is _NOT_ one of the tech elites

    The truest words so far. Although I should point out that becoming a "Minesweeper Consultant and Solitaire Expert" is a very hard thing to do. Who do you think invented RSI?

    Say thanks to Illiad!!

  • If he makes his living as a writer, this is a rule he should live by when he writes formally.
    I disagree.

    Language is constantly changing and we must change with it
    That's more like it.
  • You just made me fall from my seat laughing! Perfect!
  • If he makes his living as a writer, this is a rule he should live by when he writes formally. I disagree.

    OK, fair enough, we will disagree. Now, if Jon was consciously 'misusing' the language, that's different. My assumption is he was being lazy and made a mistake.

    Language is constantly changing and we must change with it That's more like it.

    Yes, but until the language changes, there are wrong ways and right ways to express something. Since -wise is still only considered informal usage, it is incorrect to use it in formal writing. Again, if Jon feels that he disagrees with accepted usage, and is adding his vote to those who want to formalize the use of -wise, then more power to him and I take back my original comment. But if he just made a lazy mistake, my original comment was valid.
    ________________

  • Great! I dont have to read that book.


  • IF I EVER MEET THE PEOPLE STUFFING CHAOS AND HOSTILITY ONTO THE INTERNET, I WILL KICK THEIR ASS. [slashdot.org]

    Bruce

  • Basically the only real difference between the two is that it is a hell of a lot harder to stay away from annoying people on the web.
  • I like this one:

    He traces the history of the human urge to communicate -- which he calls one of the most basic of human impulses -- from the drum to the smoke signal to the radio to the Net

    It is actually interesting to trace this "urge to communicate" in not so old times. Phone system (P2P), radio (broadcasting), web sites (pull ready-to-broadcast content), search engines, ... Note what changes: direction, formalization, what else?

  • "...how barbed wire is destroying the spirit of the West..."

    A very apt analogy. In fact, there are commentaries comparing the current attempts to rope off the Net to the range wars of the 1800s which resulted from the invention of barbed wire. See, for instance, this article [softwarelaw.com] which describes the history of that time and how it applies to patents and such in our day.

    As with the range wars, there were extremists on both sides (some who wanted to rope off every bit of land for themselves at the expense of the public good, and those who wanted to take even private grazing land for themselves). It is an interesting analogy.
    ________________

  • by Hairy_Potter (219096) on Thursday September 28, 2000 @06:25AM (#747753) Homepage
    And like any frontier, eventually it gets civilized.

    I wish Katz had been alive 140 years ago, he coudl write his screeds about how barbed wire is destroying the spirit of the West, and schoolmarms are changing the uniqueness of each little prairie town with their lesson plans, and the Indians are being oppressed by settlers.

    Here's how a frontier works:

    First, someone discovers or invents it (Tim Berners-Lee).

    Next people start exploring it. Professionals (like Lewis and Clark or the CERN staff), then hobbyist and amateurs, then unsocial malcontents (like fur traders, mountain men and socially dysfunctional geeks), then people hoping to make loads of money (gold miners, html writing/waiters hoping to charge $100 an hour, hello Razorfish), then people making lots of money (pick ax sellers, Cisco), then homesteaders and businessmen (the farmers, the railroad) and finally the fairer sex (schoolmarms, women, wtc). This is just part of the closing of the web frontier, nothing to get upset about, and about as useful to fight about as fighting about entropy.

    If geeks are feeling upset about this, just unil the next geek frontier opens up, just don't complain than there are no women there.
  • Someone really should write some sort of funny program that allows you to reroute 220 Volt from someone else's power supply to his keyboard. That way you have some "negotiation material" when another portscan passes by.
  • Look a few posts earlier. I was thinking just the same thing.
  • >>The inherently arrogant and increasingly elitist tech culture is myopically convinced that whatever happens to the masses, their salvation is just some new software away, and that programming skills will insulate them from the world beyond.

    NO. You have once again confused people who know what they are doing with everyone else. The -true- tech "elites" know that that software revs won't solve world hunger.

    oh, and your average MCSE is _NOT_ one of the tech elites.

  • A good review, and the book sounds interesting and worth reading. However, it bothers me to see this sentence:

    "For better or worse, he writes, these are fascinating times, information-wise. "

    Please don't write 'xxxxxxxx-wise'. I would suggest the sentence be re-written such as this:

    "For better or worse, he writes, these are fascinating times in the area of information," or "...in the use of information."
    ________________

  • Just imagine all the idiots with their blankets and fires trying to get first post.
  • go to ICANN and sign up as a member. Then you too will have voting rights and can choose the direction of the net. whee.
    --
    Peace,
    Lord Omlette
    ICQ# 77863057
  • I read this book as part of a course on the history of media at journalism school last year.

    Katz is right; this is a good review of infomation technology and a great read. But the author has some odd views about advertising on the Web.

    I can't remember the details, but I wrote an essay about it and maybe I'll post it on my site. The jist of it is that the author seems to think that advertising on the Web will be so customized and personalized that we will welcome it as content. He doesn't seem to get the idea of 'spam.'

    He has a very idealized view of what the Web can be (as Katz does). I'm not sure I share it.

    JohnnyB [twu.net]

  • The Web was. The Web is. And the Web will still be. And unless you're Bill Gates or Al Gore, you will play no part in choosing its direction.

    Fortunately some of us have a higher opinion of their own capabilities to actually change something. Tell me, before good ol' Billyboy started his little business, what did he have that you don't now?

    I'm tempted to say "the guts to start a business".

  • Oh, I'm sorry moderators. I didn't realize that it wasn't fashionable today to bad mouth Katz.

    Marking my previous post as a troll isn't really appropriate. A troll would post a positive "Katz is a god and you all suck" sort of post. Whereas I posted what I think is probably the way most people see Katz.

    Anyways, Slashdot is no longer fun or interesting. The bullshit articles and the shittier than fuck moderation is just too asinine to believe. I wouldn't mind the bad articles, but let us discuss them if we have a valid opinion. But noooooo! If someone disagrees with the moderators, it's crucifiction time.

    Pardon the rant, no on second thought don't. I'm tired of being polite. Fucking attitude of the moderators has got to change. I'm sure I won't change it, but it's frustrating as hell.

    Down with moderation! I've had it with the stupidity that is introduced when every idiot and their dog can moderate. Hand all moderation over to some idiot like Katz, that ought to solve the problem.

    Mumble, grumble....
  • The nice thing would be that with fire and blankets most of the people stupid enough to go for first post would probably burn themselves to death in the attempt.

    Now, to figure out a way to make stupid posting as painful a death as that? Electroshock therapy to all idiotic posts (every time you are modded down you get another blast of electricity).
  • Your comment has much in common with the Rock. In fact, change 'wrap them up with...' to turn that sum'bitch sideways and change sophomoric to candy and you would be exactly the same.

    Wow, now I know what the Rock does during his free time.
  • Don't tell me, let me guess. You're from Hollywood aren't you? Either that or D.C., but I've found most in D.C. want their whore to be 'ever ready' for them, so wouldn't ask them to leave. They'd just ask them to hide in the closet while they got rid of their wives.

    I'm sorry, this one was just begging for a response. And I hate to see anyone begging.
  • How about a way to shock all idiotic moderators that moderate down a valid post because they don't agree with it? I think that would be even better than the stupid first posters being shocked.
  • From the Cambridge International Dictionary of English [cambridge.org]:

    -wise
    relating to
    What shall we do foodwise - do you fancy going out to eat?
    Moneywise, of course, I'm much better off than I used to be.
    What do we need to take with us clothes-wise?
    We were very lucky weather-wise yesterday.
  • Despite your sophomoric response, I double-checked with Strunk & White [bartleby.com]. I can find no reference to -wise anywhere in the book. Feel free to point out an actual reference.
    ________________
  • How about a way to launch the pole on their chair straight up their ass and then shoot electricity into them from there?

    Sorry, too many horror movies combined with poor moderation have made me bitter, angry, and ready for revenge.
  • Well, the moderators should know better. As for the first posters, electrocuting will do. We'll have to device a more painful way for the moderators.
  • Here's the bit from my essay:

    Rowland also says,

    "Advertising as it evolved on the Web was thus tightly targeted and highly informational, to a degree where it could be argued that it provided useful content to the Web as opposed to littering it with noisesome clutter." p.324

    OK, obviously Rowland has never heard of spam, and if he hasn't heard of spam, he hasn't been on-line much. Spam is exactly what Rowland says doesn't happen on the Web: "noisesome clutter." It is unsolicited junk email and it is the bane of every netizen. If you publish your email address on your website or on a newsgroup, a computer program will pick up your address and add it to a list. The lists are sold to spam producers and soon you find your inbox full of messages proclaiming "EARN $$$$ BY SURFING FROM YOUR OWN HOME" or "HOT TEENAGE CHEERLEADER LESBIAN SLEEPOVER CLICK HERE."

    Seasoned users intentionally misspell or otherwise mangle their published email addresses to avoid spam. They include manual instructions on how to remove the "spamblock" so that only other humans can contact them.

    On the other hand, there are situations in which Rowland assertion that advertising is valuable content is true. If you register yourself with mp3.com, it will keep track of all the music you download and in their monthly email newsletter will let you know if any of those artists -- or any artists _similar_ to them -- have released any new songs. Similarly, on a lot of Web sites, you can sign up to receive updates on software or web content by email. And some Web sites will give you free space on their server in exchange for the right to fill your inbox with ads. In all of these cases, the commercials are content that you _choose_ to receive.

  • Seriously, I'm sick of people pretending that they have some special privileged access to the normative content of "true spirit" and "final purpose" in these matters. The Web just is -- it's an empirical fact, without any moral dimension. You'd just as well argue about how great life was in Italy before Mount Vesuvius erupted. You might even get some intellectually tired posers to agree with you that indeed, it's a pressing matter that we understand such a historical period because somehow, by some means, it'll be relevent in the present, but get off your high horse, please. The Web was. The Web is. And the Web will still be. And unless you're Bill Gates or Al Gore, you will play no part in choosing its direction.
  • by mooredav (101800)

    The Net is stuffed with chaos and hostility as well as information, and is being gobbled up nearly whole by restrictive new government regulations, lawyers and laws, copyright and patent fights, and greedy companies.

    Example? Censorware. Greedy companies hack up some obvious AI and push it directly to congressmen who are under pressure to fight smut regardless of how bad [slashdot.org] the software is. Blocking software is probably the unmentioned example that Katz had in mind while writing: "The Net was developed as an open and democratic institution and it will remain so only as long as each of us respects these virtues and works to preserve."

    However, barring threats to my internet access, I think that the deluge of junk is a normal and tolerable consequence of being "open and democratic". It doesn't make "intelligent discourse nearly impossible", it makes all forms of discourse more possible. The key is choice. What should I pay attention to? I just think that the web offers an incredibly useful mechanism (hyperlinking) for finding the good stuff. It's even better than channel surfing or browsing the headlines of a newspaper, especially since hyperlinking scales up nicely to huge amounts of information.

What the scientists have in their briefcases is terrifying. -- Nikita Khruschev

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