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Living in the Information Age: A New Media Reader

Editor: Erik P. Bucy
Publisher: Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Thomson Learning, 2002
Review Published: December 2002

 REVIEW 1: Jamie S. Switzer
 REVIEW 2: Collette Snowden

I love American college textbooks. I love the way the content is so carefully selected for the sake of the reader. I love the way the content is presented in well-ordered chapters, sections, and sub-sections. I love the way college textbooks give clues to what the reader needs to know, what to ask, and where to go for further information. Above all, as a generic form the college textbook demands my affection for the amazing ability of making complex subjects seem easy and surmountable. Living in the Information Age: A New Media Reader, edited by Erik Bucy, is no exception.

In this relatively slim volume, Bucy has selected more than 60 separate articles for their "conceptual import and industry relevance" with the aim of encouraging "intellectual exploration and engagement" in new media. With nearly as many authors there is also diversity in the perspectives and styles represented. Unfortunately, with nearly all of the material being of American origin the global nature of the information age is not clearly articulated. It would be useful for new media students to understand life in the information age from other perspectives in order to develop awareness of some of the global problems and challenges of the Information Age. Given the global reach of the Internet in particular, a section by non-American authors might be useful, especially as successful American graduates often end up making decisions in a global context. Even so, for the novice new media student there is still much to explore in Living in the Information Age.

While Bucy, an assistant professor in the Department of Telecommunications at Indiana University, Bloomington, acknowledges in the preface that the book has its limits, its content manages to cover a large number of issues and subjects that fall loosely under the label "new media." It is organized into six main areas: New Information and Entertainment Ecology; Convergence and Concentration in the Media Industries; New Technologies, the Self and Social Life; Social Impacts of Information and Communications Technologies; New Technologies and the Public Sphere; and Policing the Electronic World: Issues and Ethics. In the preface, Bucy apologizes for what may have been left out, yet he has clearly tried to cover as much as possible and any one of the main subject areas could sustain a complete text by itself.

Each separate reading is short, and any student complaining that a reading from this collection is too long or too difficult should immediately be tested for ADD. Indeed, the question of presenting complex issues as neat 'text-bites' to make them more palatable arises when they are mostly reduced to little more than three pages, or less.

If anything, the range of issues and questions posed by the material in Living in the Information Age may overwhelm students rather than assisting them in grappling with the subject. While professional academics tussle over the specific meaning of a single term, sometimes for centuries, a huge range of material confronts the novice student. A more concentrated effort may be required to comprehend and debate the issues of living in the Information Age. However, as Bucy has taught a course with the same title as this book at Indiana University for several years, I accept that this format has withstood some testing in the field.

Perhaps as this collection is designed specifically as "a supplementary resource for introductory communication courses that have a new media orientation" the brevity of the pieces is explicable. Taken in this context, Living in the Information Age provides some interesting supporting material for students beginning to grapple with the literature of new media and communication theory. The need for students to be able to reflect on the views of the authors in relation to the theory in the field is one that individuals who assign this text should consider carefully.

An interesting feature of this book is that a 4-month subscription to Infotrac®, an online library service, is included with the book. Each reading also suggests keywords and subject terms for further research using Infotrac. I found the keywords suggested relevant to the readings and Bucy has taken considerable care that the questions to consider, the reading, the links and suggestions for further research are all coherent and related. Despite this, in my exploration of Infotrac I found that the suggested keywords often give far too many irrelevant references to be of much use other than in developing the skill of managing this particular information database, which has more than 12,000,000 references. Yet, other suggested searches yield only a handful of references. Thomson Learning, the publisher of the book, also owns and manages Infotrac, therefore this service offers the opportunity to raise with students the value of cross-media marketing and promotion in relation to information access and ownership.

Each reading also suggests web-links, which are useful, but some that I tested were unavailable (e.g. Webvan, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001) or no longer current (the Timothy Leary site, last updated in February 1999), while others, like the New York Times archives, require payment to access the articles suggested. This ever-present danger with the Internet is entirely explicable, but might cause some frustration for readers. It also seems dangerous to publish a list of the "most popular game destinations" in a volume in which James Gleick writes about the increasing velocity of everyday life! In fact, I admire Bucy's courage in even attempting to select suitable links for the section on multi-player games even though keen gamers amongst the student readership might question the credibility of a text book that is so blatantly passé in relation to the gaming world.

The collection of texts, links, and suggested search topics in Living in the Information Age highlight a dilemma for anyone publishing material in this field. The rapid changes and developments in this industry can easily render material irrelevant, or out of date. Many of the readings in this collection are more than five years old, and those originally published as feature articles in magazines suffer most from a lack of contemporary relevance. This is especially so for articles that first appeared in Wired magazine, which has a reputation for its leading-edge perspective on technology and related issues. For example, the view expressed in Jon Katz' piece, "Online or Not, Newspapers Suck," in the section on Print Media, is at odds with more recent research (Chapman, 2001; Freeland, 2002; Runett, 2002; and "Young People Read Newspapers More Than Before," 2002) showing that on-line news sites are amongst the most popular, most visited sites online. The article on email overload by Seth Shostak, which originally appeared in Newsweek in January 1999, while still relevant for the issue it tackles, puts the number of American email users at only 10 million. The points to consider that Bucy poses at the start of this section redeem it to some extent, but such inaccurate and out-dated information sits uneasily within the category, new media.

Similarly, Catharine Lo's piece, "Get Wireless: Spectrum is the Real Estate on Which the Wealth of the 21st Century Will Be Built," was first published in 1997. To its credit is the excellent summary it gives of the various technologies that use the different parts of spectrum. It also points out some important and neglected issues relevant to spectrum assignation. However, some of the information in the article is simply out of date. For example, the article states that satellite company Iridium is developing its capability for global portable phones, even though Iridium got its system operating and has been through a very public near-death experience. Teledesic is said to begin operating services by 2002, while the company's own publicity now puts 2005 as its start date.

Am I being unfair? Yes and no. Yes, because I understand the difficulty in producing and publishing material that is current in the new media field, and no, because textbooks need to be as factually correct as possible. The difficulties faced by Iridium, Teledesic, and the whole satellite sector have been widely discussed and are a rich source for analysis. Students need to have the facts before they consider the more complex issues relevant to those companies. And by the by, not withstanding my prior acknowledgement of Bucy's all inclusive approach to his subject, any new media text book that can only manage one article on wireless or mobile communication is not really up with its target market, who are likely to be heavy users of cell phones, laptops, hand-held devices, and so on.

Publishing new media articles in 2002 that are five to seven years old, when there is so much material churned out on this topic every day, through traditional avenues such as books, magazines and journals, and on the Internet raises the question of the relevance of a conventional text book for this particular subject. It is an issue which educators, publishers, and students need to confront. We cannot on one hand talk about Knowledge revolution, Information revolution, Communication revolution and then not deliver with the basic material. Yet the textbook still has much to recommend it, not least the economies of scale offered by mass production. 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.

It is important to remember that the current crop of new undergraduate students were less than ten years old when Mosaic appeared and allowed the Internet to burst out of the industrial and academic ghetto. New media for these students is therefore not that new; it's been a part of their lives in some way for some time. Even students who might not have Internet access at home, or at school, would know about it via other media, but they do have access to games, cell phones, cds and dvds, digital video, and computers. Popular culture is filled with references to new media, whether it is in the high-tech world of the television series 24, or in contemporary advertising, film, or music. For most students, much of the paraphernalia of new media is integral to their lives, and the New Media are Everyday Media, if not Old Media. The importance of giving such students a comprehensive understanding of how this media emerged and developed, and how media continue to evolve is an important educational project. How it affects their future is just as important, so they need to be aware of the social, political, and economic issues that emerge from developments in the application and use of media and communications technology. Erik Bucy's Living in the Information Age approaches this task with gravity and with an obvious desire to provide a provocative wealth of material. It overwhelmingly succeeds, but the issue of relevance when discussing the published material with contemporary students must be addressed.

Chapman, Rod. (2001, March 5). "Product Watch: Web news 24/7." Information Highways Magazine.

Freeland, Chrystia. (2002, May 20). "Delivering the news you need in new ways." Financial Times - London Edition. p.19.

Runett, Rob. (2002). "Reaching out. Newspaper sites add audience; improve stature as Net marketplace." Newspaper Association of America.

"Young people read newspapers more than before; first rise in 20 years." (2002, January 3). Helsingen Sanomat - International Edition.

Collette Snowden:
Collette Snowden is the Donald Dyer Research Scholar in the School of Communication, Information and New Media at the University of South Australia. A journalist and communications analyst, she is completing a PhD on the impact of the use of mobile communications by journalists and other media professionals.  <collettesnowden@yahoo.com>

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