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Books about the internet and society (mostly)

This page contains reviews of books which are about the impact, or potential impact, of the internet upon society and culture. There are also some discussions about the development and control of the internet, and some other new media books.

Reviewed on this page:
-- An Introduction to Cybercultures
-- Cybersexualities: Feminist Theory, Cyborgs and Cyberspace
-- Multimedia: A Critical Introduction
-- Tim Berners-Lee: Weaving the Web
-- Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime
-- Cyberpower: The Culture & Politics of Cyberspace
-- Liberating Cyberspace
-- Growing Up Digital
-- Clicking In: ... Digital Culture
-- Processed Lives: Gender and Technology
-- Hard, Soft & Wet: The Digital Generation
-- Internet Culture
-- Virtual Culture
-- On a Silver Platter: CD-Roms
And in brief:
-- Cybersociety 2.0
-- Life Online
-- Vitual Politics
-- Cultures of Internet
-- (Other reviews)


 
 

Bell, David (2001), An Introduction to Cybercultures, Routledge, London.

— A well-written and attractive introduction to 'cybercultures'. This book is in a similar market to Web.Studies but places more emphasis on the philosophical discussions of cyberspace. Not so much about the latest happenings on the Web, and more about general aspects of cyberspace and cyberculture. It's disappointingly old-fashioned in that it is still going on about MUDs and MOOs even though the majority of the millions of people online don't even know what they are (if you are in the popular oblivious category, they are text-based forums where people used to interact in the 1990s). Nevertheless, it's clearly set out and the best introductory book on cyberspace philosophising.


 
 

Wolmark, Jenny, ed. (1999), Cybersexualities: A Reader on Feminist Theory, Cyborgs and Cyberspace, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

— This is one of the most dreary, po-faced, humourless books I've ever had to look at. This is an area which I would be interested in -- if the work was more interesting -- and regular readers (of theory.org.uk in particular) will know that I'm not prejudiced against the subject matter -- quite the opposite.

But this is quite horrible. A good, readable reader on cybersexualities would be most welcome. But this pretentious, badly-written, and bafflingly out-of-date volume, which manages to include approximately nothing on how the modern-day cyberspace of the Web and internet has affected how real people understand their sexualities, is a shockingly wasted opportunity.


 
 

Richard Wise et al (2000), Multimedia: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London.

— This has useful parts, but is a curious book, being a handful of chapters less-than-seamlessly glued together. The chapters by Richard Wise are fine: five historical ones (useful if you want a history of telecommunications and the internet), one on 'Capital and Multimedia' (a brief introduction which covers some but not all of the essential issues in this area), plus 'The Myth of Cyberspace' (a good introduction to the politics of the internet). Jammed in the middle alongside these is a chapter by Peter Dean, 'Privacy and Censorship' which gets excited about privacy tools, but could have been far better on the internet and censorship (especially the Web and censorship -- barely mentioned here, despite being a meltdown political potato internationally). And there's a chapter by Luke Hockley on computer-generated effects in films which is fine but unneccessary here, especially since there's a lot more the book should be doing to fill the remit of its title. So it's a strange mixed bag with a lot of holes in it. A mixed sieve, perhaps.

Infuriatingly, too, the book seems to assume that some facts are timeless, whereas in the fast-moving world of the internet they changed... not soon, not now, but years before the book went to the printers. For example, this book ("First published 2000") tells us how only the richest people use the internet, quoting a statistic from 1995, and how few people actually use the internet, with a 1997 statistic (p.197). This is, ahem, not very clever. Internet demographics from three and five years ago have changed beyond recognition. The information is worse than useless, because some readers might assume that because it's in this professionally-produced book it has value. This kind of stuff makes you despair and want to chuck the book away, though in fact the history and the cyberspace chapter are basically quite good.


 
 

Tim Berners-Lee (1999), Weaving the Web: The Past, Present and Future of the World Wide Web, Orion, London.

— Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the Web, has always been a fascinating figure. When he makes one of his rare appearances in the media, he always cuts a pleasant, unassuming figure; in fact it's a clichι to say so. His niceness is legendary.

There must be several ways in which Berners-Lee could translate his unique mind and experience into millions of dollars, but he doesn't. Instead he acts only as a guardian and quiet driving force behind his own (very nice) idea of what the Web should be like.

This book hardly shatters the nice-guy image. Some people will be looking at this text to see, for example, what Berners-Lee has to say about Marc Andreessen of Netscape, who became extremely wealthy by making what people called 'the first Web browser', even though the first Web browser was really of course made by Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the concept as well as the software, but did not become extremely wealthy.

But the book doesn't have a bad word to say about anything. Berners-Lee always said that he was keen to see professional software companies making browsers and applications for the Web, so in fact it's entirely consistent of him not to complain about other people's success. But there are areas where companies have tried to do things which he says would be very damaging to the Web - but he doesn't finger the companies. For example, he condemns the idea of dominant companies adding their own proprietary elements to accepted Web standards, which divides the Web into those who do and do not have compatible software -- precisely the kind of division that the World Wide Web was devised to get rid of. Many readers of this book will be aware that this is a swipe at Microsoft, who have tried to do exactly that; but Berners-Lee doesn't name names. Perhaps, as Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, he can't be seen to be having a go at any of the members.

Nevertheless, it's a very interesting book, and very readable (I read it from cover to cover). I had expected that the historical first half -- the 'how I invented the Web' story -- would be more boring, and the second half, on the development and future of the Web, would be more absorbing. But in fact it's the other way round.

The tale of the Web's early days, set in the mountains near Geneva, is extremely enjoyable. All of Tim's great ideas of what the Web should be were all there, present and correct, at the start too. It doesn't contain much about the author's personal relationships with the other people involved -- though, of course, he is nice about various people -- but it's still a very good story, containing important messages regarding what the Web is supposed to be all about.

For example, the idea about Web browsing was always supposed to be that users could create text and links and pages just as easily as they could read them. Unfortunately, the earliest popular browsers were for reading the Web only, and this model stuck. A desire to regain the power of creation (and therefore interaction) within Web browsers recurs throughout the book.

Towards the end of the book there are some rather dull pages where the author explains new languages which will add power to the Web of the future. These are fine, simply not as exciting as the Geneva story.

Some readers will be disappointed that Berners-Lee doesn't comment in detail on any of the various Web phenomena which we have seen between 1995 and 1999. But as a book about the early 1990s, and the next millennium, it's essential reading.


 
 

Paul A.Taylor (1999), Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime, Routledge, London.

— This is a very informative and entertaining book. It's full of quotes from numerous hackers whom Taylor has interviewed, which boosts both its insight and readability. Despite the title's mention of 'crime', Taylor paints an balanced picture of hackers and makes it clear that they are not first and foremost 'criminals', even though their activities are, at best, at the fuzzy edges of legality. Instead the hackers come across as intelligent, funny, computer-obsessed experimenters who can't resist the challenge of the locked door. Taylor cleverly takes apart the analogies, such as burglary and bodily invasion, which politicians and journalists (rather hysterically) attach to hacking.

I liked one hacker's defence of hacking into telephone systems to get free phone calls and internet access, that 'the lines are already in place, and the electrons don't care how far they travel,' which is true and stupid at the same time. (Seems to me that admitting that you're ripping off big phone companies should be OK, since the big phone companies doubtless rip people off all the time. But the 'electrons don't care' argument is sweeter).

I might have liked more on activist hackers, who mess up the websites of businesses or organisations that they disagree with; and the book lacks a political angle in general. Or perhaps the book reveals that hackers are less politically motivated than you might think. One or the other.

Taylor is very good on hacking culture, and hackers as people. He also provides a detailed analysis of the mixed relationship between hackers and the computer security industry. It's a well put-together book that you can actually read for pleasure. No, really. Good work.


 
 

Tim Jordan (1999), Cyberpower: The Culture and Politics of Cyberspace and the Internet, Routledge, London.

— I was starting to feel rather self-conscious about my claims, made elsewhere -- such as in the proposal for the book Web.Studies -- that almost all the books about the internet are about text-based interactions and fail to focus on the internet's currently popular throbbing heart, the Web. And indeed, it would be nice if this assertion turned out to be wrong -- then I'd have some interesting books to read.

I expected that this new book, Cyberpower, published 1999, would be one of the new wave of books that could not have been written five years earlier. As you will have guessed, I was disappointed.

This book does contain a range of interesting stuff and useful information. However, the material on the individual in cyberspace remains, to my mind, as unexciting as ever -- discussions of how online and 'real' identities can vary are OK, and are philosophically curious, but remain eminently self-evident and predictable. The coverage of cyberspace at a broader, social level is more engaging, with its discussion of the power of corporations to control the development of cyberspace, versus the power of hackers, governments and other interested parties. On the other hand, it's quite vague; for example, you might expect a book on culture, power and politics in cyberspace would contain some concrete stuff about the ways in which Microsoft has tried to subvert the development of HTML, for example, but it doesn't. You would also expect a book on culture, power and politics in cyberspace to contain much more on the attempts at regulation and censorship.

So, this book is okay, but disappointing. It doesn't seem wholly engaged in the internet culture of today; if it had come out in 1996, we'd be more impressed.


 
 

Liberty, eds (1999), Liberating Cyberspace: Civil Liberties, Human Rights and the Internet, Pluto Press, London.

— Contains a good range of punchy chapters on social concerns about the internet. Its remit is actually broader than the title suggests, taking in civil rights, copyright, regulation, political participation, and a neat chapter (for example) on McSpotlight, the McLibel trial website. It contains three chapters on women and the internet, including a gender trouble-themed one.

The chapter on the 'moral panic' about pornography and the internet tries to argue that there isn't as much porn on the net as people imagine, which is a curious way of tackling this concern. Whatever your views on pornography, it is difficult to comprehend the idea that people are thinking there is more porn on the net than there really is, because to do that you'd have to be able to imagine a huge amount of porn. As if any one human brain could stretch to that.

Tragically, the internet develops so fast that some of the chapters, apparently completed in 1996/97, are already well out of date. Nevertheless, a decent book on the internet and everyday politics. (£13.99).


 
 

Don Tapscott (1998), Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, McGraw Hill, New York.

— Upbeat bestseller about how the 'Net Generation' will inherit the earth. This 'N-Gen' is anyone who was born after the original release of Star Wars and who uses the internet. The book is a pleasant antidote to all of the stodgy or fearful responses to new technology; and it is thankfully aware that not everyone has net access -- its solution, of course, is to say that, one way or another, they jolly well should do.

The book celebrates the ways in which the N-Gen will transform society and business, by being creative, and expecting things to happen straight away, and doing away with stupid hierarchies. It's based on collaborative research with children and young people, which is an excellent approach (although it's not clear how representative these ultra tech-savvy kids are).

Funnily enough, Growing Up Digital tips age prejudice a bit too far the other way, so that I felt mildly offended by its implication that anyone over 20 will be a progress-stalling nitwit. But its heart is in the right place, and it's a good introduction of digital lifestyle and economics for 'the general reader'.

The book has a website which is quite good, but seems to have only partially been updated since 1998.


 
 

Lynn Hershman Leeson, ed. (1996), Clicking In: Hot Links to a Digital Culture, Bay Press, Seattle.

— This large book, Clicking In, comes with a free CD-Rom, called Clicking On, which isn't a bad package for £19 [$28]. The 'free' CD-Roms that come with computer books often just contain a bunch of shareware or demos, which you could otherwise get free with magazines or from the Web anyway. The Clicking On CD, by contrast, contains a specially-made multimedia experience which, the cover boasts, "includes video clips of interviews with the contributors".

Being a curious sort, this was quite enough to get me to part with my £19, since having the opportunity to see interviews with this list of 26 contributors -- including well-known people like Sherry Turkle, Sadie Plant and R.U. Sirius -- as well as having their chapters in book form seemed like pretty decent value to me.

Pessimistically-minded readers will have already anticipated this: the cover flap should have said that the CD includes interviews with some of the contributors. Sherry Turkle isn't on it; nor is Sadie Plant. But you can, if you like, see R.U. Sirius. The clips of interviews are quite short. I don't know why they couldn't have been longer.

The book itself is pretty good, given that it must have been completed in 1995. You won't find much on Web culture here, but it's one of the better books on internet chat rooms and Multi-User Domains, and the ways that people can present themselves in these text interactions. This is partly because the book is made up of several short contributions, so no-one has much time to get very boring.

Clicking In contains other gems too, related to other aspects of 'digital culture'. Perhaps the most unusual of these is Mark Ludwig's introduction to his Little Black Book of Computer Viruses. Ludwig argues that computer viruses have been given a bad name by foolish people; viruses are computer simulations of micro organisms, which only want to survive and reproduce. They can be used for destructive purposes, but that's just one use for them, Ludwig suggests; humans can be very violent, but most of us do not want to outlaw all humans. Since The Little Black Book of Computer Viruses gives people the information they need to make destructive viruses, however, not everyone will be sympathetic to Ludwig's live-and-let-live attitude. But it's interesting.

So: as a mid-1990s book on the specific things I've mentioned, it's pretty good.


 
 

Terry, Jennifer, & Calvert, Melodie, eds (1998), Processed Lives: Gender and Technology in Everyday Life, Routledge, London.

— As the title indicates, this one is about technology in general, rather than the internet exclusively, in relation to gender and everyday life. So if it's the internet you're most interested in here, you'll be wanting Nina Wakeford's good chapter, 'Networking Women and Grrrls with Information/ Communication Technology: Surfing tales of the world wide web', which covers the ideas of internet communication as (potentially) genderless, and as a performance, as well as stuff on webpage-creation as an expression of identity (as it obviously is). Well illustrated with examples that aren't (particularly) out of date yet, and well attuned to the 'new generation' of net grrrls, of various ethnicities, who produce websites.

The rest of the book, whilst varied in its range and quality, contains some other treats -- notably the brilliant instructions from the Barbie Liberation Organisation which show, with diagrams, how to swap the electronics between the talking G.I. Joe and the talking Barbie dolls, so that G.I. Joe squeaks "Want to go shopping?" whilst Barbie snarls, "Dead men tell no lies", amongst other choice phrases. How Routledge's lawyers allowed them to include this is a mystery, as Mattel are famously protective of their blonde icon and have been taking Barbie websites to court all over the place. [Naturally, this website would like to point out that we in no way approve of this devilish sabotage]. But this alone obviously makes it a terrific book. (£13.99).


 
 

McGrath, Melanie (1997), Hard, Soft & Wet: The digital generation comes of age, Flamingo/HarperCollins, London.

— A readable, mostly- autobiographical book -- "a piece of travel writing which adds the virtual world to its itinerary as though it were a new place on the map", as it says on the cover. Reviewers (quoted all over the paperback) seem to have found this wonderful -- maybe because they started with low expectations of a book like this (which would be reasonable). Because of these reviews, I read it with high expectations, and found it to be surprisingly ordinary. McGrath uses novelistic hooks to keep our attention -- most obviously the drawn-out matter of whether the nice-sounding man she's become so close to via internet chat will turn out to be a real-life soul mate or a serial killer.

McGrath's internet adventures are based largely in the text-based worlds of e-mail and chat, and the book reasonably captures the mix of curiousity and tedium involved in spending time talking to someone you are never really going to get to know. But tellingly, the more interesting parts are when she actually travels to actual cities around the world. McGrath is 30-something and, whilst she is aware of her age, this makes some of the writing about clubbing and other youthful activities a bit embarrassing; whilst the book's subtitle 'The digital generation comes of age' is just meaningless, has nothing really to do with the book, and is just a cool-sounding thing to help the book sell, presumably.

This book just about reaches the level known as 'sufficiently entertaining', then, but it's not the internet book to end all internet books.


 
 

Porter, David A., ed. (1997), Internet Culture, Routledge, London.

— This one, another edited collection, also takes on the issues of 'identity play' in internet communications -- how people can adopt alternative 'virtual selves' -- as well as questions about whether virtual communities are really communities, the internet as a public or cultural sphere, whether it represents 'pure', democratic communication... all good stuff... as well as some material on the nature of virtuality (yawn).

In a bid to be different, presumably, this book, as you can see, is tall and slim. This is different, certainly, but it doesn't work, and feels like a timetable booklet or something, and isn't easy to handle. (These things are important!). Maybe it is a bid by internet fiends to put its readers off books. Sneaky. (£12.99).


 
 

Jones, Steven G., ed. (1997), Virtual Culture: Identity And Communication In Cybersociety, Sage, London.

The cover tell us that this is a collection of essays which examines 'cybersociety as an identity-structured space', with a focus on 'disadvantaged and marginal groups' using the internet. Sounds quite good then. But, I'm sorry... the internet is a buzzing, exciting place, whereas this book, er, isn't. Published in 1997 and therefore probably written in 1995-96, most of the chapters (as in several of these books) are about text-based communities and interactions, and so don't reflect the more visually exciting web we know and love/hate today. The book includes more of those discussions of whether virtual communities are virtual communities or not... Surely even in 1996 there must have been some level-headed people going "Yes! It's a community! And...?!".

But this seemingly well-intentioned volume isn't kind enough to spare us another person telling us -- at some length -- why some newsgroup or multi-user domain is really a community. It has to be admitted, however, that since I fall asleep whenever my eyes fall upon stuff about virtual communities these days, this shouldn't be taken as a very specific critique of these particular parts of this book.

The chapter 'Gay Men and Computer Communication' was lucid and interesting, full of quotes from men about their on-line interactions, showing how internet culture can be different to other social experiences (some men were more confident on-line than in person; interactions could have nothing to do with what you look like), but ultimately could be rather similar (they always want to know what you look like sooner or later).

On the other hand, a chapter which took virtual communities so seriously that it got very worried about the ways in which those communities punished people who (virtually) violated their rules was really ghastly.

So. A mixed bag.


 
 

Smith, Greg M., ed. (1999), On a Silver Platter: CD-ROMs and the Promises of a New Technology, New York University Press.

— On a Silver Platter is based on the idea that if media studies can produce books which consider the content and uses of TV shows or particular movies, or genres, then why not do the same thing for the complex multimedia works published on CD-ROM. And it sets out the stall for this rather well, with some thoughtful and readable discussions of various shiny discs from games to virtual museums.

The book sensibly protects itself from instant obsolesence by pointing out that whilst it looks like the internet may supercede the aluminium beermat, the analyses of multimedia which appear in this book will be relevant regardless of whether the data is read off a CD-ROM or comes via a fast internet connection.

The highlight for me was Greg Smith's study of the Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail CD-ROM. Smith discusses the challenge of turning already-existing movie properties into CD-ROMs, and the ways in which this disc works well -- helped by the fact that the movie doesn't have a strong linear narrative anyway -- compared to other CD-ROM cash-ins associated with films.

Most interesting were the parts about how, just as the TV Monty Python satirised and deconstructed the conventions of television, and the Python films similarly toyed with movie traditions, the producers of the Holy Grail CD-ROM have cleverly included numerous features which highlight the curious and often tedious conventions of multimedia play. Like the first Monty Python CD-Rom, Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time, the Holy Grail disc revels in its own pointlessness, even going as far as including a registration process with 125 bizarre questions which has to be completed before one can proceed. As well as being an enjoyable account of Monty Python's transition to multimedia, then, this chapter is able to make broader points about the nature of commercial CD-ROMs and the ambivalent pleasures offered to their users. Good.


 
   

More books

This is a roundup of some other books that may be of interest, so that you can decide how useful they sound.
 

 

Steven G. Jones, ed. (1998), Cybersociety 2.0: Revisiting Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, Sage, London.

The slightly less exciting brother of Virtual Culture (above), edited by the same guy. Has some good parts, but is focused on the notion of 'virtual community' a lot, which is often dull, and retains a concern with chat spaces rather than the world wide web. And as you will have noticed, it comes with a worryingly horrid cover.


 
 

Annette Markham (1998), Life Online: Researching Real Experience In Virtual Space, Sage, London.

This is the author's autobiographical-ethnographic account of exploring cyberspace by means of going there and wandering round. The blurb says it raises a load of philosophical and other issues about internet use; I'm unconvinced at this stage, though it might be quite a good read. They gave this one a nice cover... and messed up the internal text design instead (to a small extent; it's still readable).


 

David Holmes, ed. (1997), Virtual Politics: Identity and Community in Cyberspace, Sage, London.

If you want a book on politics in the internet age, or on the political and activist uses of the internet (given the title, Virtual Politics), this is not it. Instead it is one of those mid-1990s publications which ruminate, in philosophical fashion, about the nature of virtuality and the concept (rather than the contemporary reality) of cyberspace. Typical sentence: "Virtual reality is the only environment other than politics for which truth is not determined as the adequacy of knowledge to reality". Quite.


 

Rob Shields, ed. (1996), Cultures Of Internet, Sage, London.

Poor old book -- published in 1996, and therefore written in 1994-95, this has some good historical stuff on the origins of the internet and yet more ruminations on the nature of internet chatting and the nature of virtuality, and virtual community, but it's rather old already.
 


 
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