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.
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.