Living in the Information Age: A New Media Reader
Editor: Erik P. Bucy
Publisher: Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002
Review Published: December 2002
Any fair review of a published book is one of the sincerest forms of flattery an author or editor can ask for, and for this I thank both reviewers of Living in the Information Age: A New Media Reader, Jamie S. Switzer and Collette Snowden. I also wish to credit David Silver, the able director and progenitor of the Resource Center for Cyberculture Studies, for providing this opportunity for review and response. The RCCS site provides a tremendous service for teachers and scholars in the field of new media studies and we all owe David a debt of gratitude for that.
On a personal note, I remember when David established the RCCS site at the University of Maryland, College Park, where we were both graduate students in the mid-1990s. Our different disciplinary perspectives, his grounded in American Studies and mine in journalism and mass communication, sent our academic interests on slightly different trajectories. Not surprisingly, his orientation developed into critical Internet studies, while my interest in new media retained a media effects perspective. One of the appealing aspects of communication research and technology studies is that they are both so inclusive in character.
As the reviewers of Living in the Information Age rightfully point out, a topic as broad-based and cutting-edge as new media is fraught with the potential hazards of timeliness and thematic scope. At almost every step in the editing process of this book, a decision had to be made about immediate relevance versus enduring importance. With the advice of several anonymous reviewers (identified in the acknowledgements upon publication), I decided on a middle way for Living in the Information Age: there would be a core set of readings that addressed recurring issues and the balance of entries would strive for currency but with the caveat that they would have a relatively short shelf life.
Consequently each of the book’s sixteen chapters features one or more anchor readings that should "stand the test of time." The second section, including chapters 3-7, is the most topical and therefore the most susceptible to accusations of datedness. Even so, the relevance of readings concerning print media’s struggle to "get the Net," the rise of voyeuristic and surveillance-oriented television shows, the corporate threat to information freedom, and the precision accountability that new technologies afford traditional media companies isn’t likely to fade any time soon.
Granted, some of the industry players, programs, and online addresses will change by the time certain readings are assigned in the context of a class, but this is true of any reader or text dealing with trends in new technology. Moreover, the precise purpose of the Related Links and For Further Research features at the end of each reading is to provide students with a springboard for further exploration. Each reading thus provides its own mechanism for continuous updating. (Point taken that the suggested searches could have been better calibrated with the contents of Infotrac®, but not all readers will use this service; many will refer to the Web or other databases like Lexis-Nexis for follow-up research.)
One of the more important issues that the reviews of Living in the Information Age allude to is the challenge of delineating the literature of new media. Reflecting the dynamism of developments at the interface, the scholarly and popular literature is continually evolving and expanding. An author or idea considered fashionable today may lose some allure by the time tomorrow rolls around. Such is the nature of new technology. While there is no agreed-upon "canon" of great works, there are widely recognized authors who are influential in their particular areas. Many of these names – Barlow, Turkle, Rheingold, Rushkoff, Stoll, Shenk, Katz, Brin, and Garfinkel to name a few – appear in the reader. Inevitably, largely due to space limitations, not all perspectives can be represented in one collection.
Despite its scope, Living in the Information Age is not intended to fulfill the role of a traditional textbook. Although each of the book’s sixteen sections could serve to structure a semester-long course on new media and communication technologies, the reader is not meant to take the place of a more conventional text. Living in the Information Age probably works the most effectively when paired with at least one other book (traditional or otherwise) so that individual readings can perform their role as a supplement to, rather than replacement for, longer and more developed overviews and arguments.
As the reviewers seem to understand, the book is intended for a novice reader, not someone well along in new media or technology studies. Understanding the book from this perspective negates much of the concern about the "brevity" of the readings or range of issues presented. The intention is to interest readers in the topic and pique their curiosity, not turn them off with meandering explications and inaccessible prose.
Before blindly accepting the criticism that the book gives short shrift to international developments, the careful reader would do well to look more closely at the actual content. In particular, chapter 1 on the communications revolution includes a reading on the "death of distance" across national boundaries; chapter 7 on media concentration includes a reading on the new global media by McChesney; and, chapters 15 and 16 on privacy, surveillance, hacking, and the digital underground include readings addressing U.S. trade problems with Europe over the privacy issue as well as organized exploitation of the Information Superhighway by international terrorist groups. That said, the book is admittedly intended primarily for an American audience (owing mostly to the arcane permissions process of reprint rights).
Another issue a book on new media raises is its physical form: Why a book of all things? Isn’t that a retrograde format? Perhaps because of my newspaper background, I happen to believe in the utility of print. The benefits of a book are that it gathers together a vast number of readings in a portable package; it’s easy to access, highlight, and make marginal notes in; and, there’s no need to print it out – it’s already in hard copy. Having taught large intro courses in social informatics and communication, technology, and society for the past several years, I’ve also learned that there’s nothing like a book to suggest to students that they really do need to read the material.
The principle drawbacks, of course, are that publisher lead times instantly date any topical reading selections that are made, and the economics of the print format limit the number of readings that any one edition can accommodate. Over time, with continuing improvements in screen resolution and technological acceptance, perhaps an e-version of Living in the Information Age will be warranted. In the interim, I’ll argue for the book’s continued publication as just that, a book. As Collette points out in her review, "to access and print out the articles that Bucy has compiled would be a time-consuming and expensive exercise – and there wouldn’t be the points to consider, the links, or sources for further research." Agreed.
As of this writing I have begun preliminary discussions with my editor at Wadsworth about the content and scope of the second edition of Living in the Information Age. My inclination this time around is to reprint a smaller number of articles, book chapters, and magazine pieces that are more substantial in length (though not any less readable) and that can all, to a greater or lesser extent, "stand the test of time." Given the short shelf-life of the more industry oriented readings in the first edition, I will especially rethink the second section of the book, which is focused on industry concerns.
Any feedback that readers of this response wish to provide would be most welcome, particularly if you are planning to use the book in courses concerned with new media and communication technology.
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