The Message is the Medium: Online All the Time For Everyone
Author: Tom Koch
Publisher: Westport, CN: Praeger, 1996
Review Published: September 1998
One question kept reoccurring to me as I read this book: "Who is he talking to?" The problem of audience is in fact the quarrel I have with this generally clear, accessibly written book. Most people who would be attracted by the title and who would be interested in Koch's arguments and examples already have some significant Internet experience. And those with experience will have already intuitively figured out almost all of what he wants to tell us. It is as problematic as a book about learning to ride a bicycle: after ten pages of describing the way to ride a bicycle, an analysis of how traveling via bike is analogous to walking, only faster, and a description of all the things one could see while riding, most readers would put down the book and go try riding for themselves.
In Chapter 1, Koch turns the tables on Marshall McLuhan's famous statement, "the medium is the message," to insist that the medium does not in fact matter; the message is all: "None of us, except the occasional academic, care about the medium that delivers our messages" (3). I beg to differ. While I whole heartedly agree that the plethora of information is online's great strength, the medium matters as well. In this out of hand dismissal of significant research which indicates that people learn different kinds of things in different ways from different media, Koch tries too hard to tweak his thesis and make it seem more aggressively original than it is. So while the book does not want to discuss some of the social and philosophical issues of the explosion of on-line information, it is "about the logic and structure of on line systems, about how to understand the medium that people use in their search for facts" (3).
The first part of the book discusses how information has always been expanding and how each piece of the revolution builds upon the past. The second chapter begins to explain how we can use all of this new information, and takes for an example the problems in news reporting. Koch has discussed this in more length in his book The News as Myth: Fact and Context in Journalism. As he explains it here, the news media is so tied to the "proclamations of officialdom" (16) that there is no good, reliable news in print. The Internet is the answer to this dilemma, for it gives us a more direct access to the real truth. Many of us agree that the Internet's marvelous contribution is in providing a forum for the voice of dissent and disagreement; however, Koch's argument as it is presented here begs so many questions about what the differences are between "official" and "unofficial" knowledge, between reliable and unreliable information, that it generates more questions than it answers. He does note, on more than one occasion, the importance of checking one's sources on the web, something that cannot be reiterated too often.
After establishing the role of the Web as a source for news unmediated by journalists, he then goes on to the central concern of the book, explaining how the Internet works. Chapter 3 explains that the Internet is a big conference center where we can now bypass "the old lady who smelled of lavender. She was the librarian, a person who always laughed at our queries and sometimes even helped, when she had the time and inclination" (37). The unnecessary quips about academics, librarians, people perceived to be esoteric, etc. again lead me to wonder who his target audience is. Koch uses the analogy of going to the library to explain the process of accessing online information and in Chapter 4 he explains how e-mail is letter-like and telephone-like, only better. Chapter 5 then explains the logic of finding material on-line, using the detailed example of searching for specific medical information through different modes. Closing this part of the discussion, Chapter 6 gets down to the nuts and bolts of different ways to connect to data sources. In this section, there is some information general users might not have discovered, such as accessing gophers and ftps, all of which is fairly interesting. For readers wanting guidance about "where the info is" this section delivers, under two conditions: if they are interested in using medical information as the example and if they subscribe to CompuServe and the other services he is using. Many readers will thus find it useful, but the book's straightforward and common sense descriptions don't offer a "radical redefinition of online resources" as the online blurb promises.
The book closes with discussions about how the Internet serves to bring together like minded folk with common needs or interests. Chapter 7 relates stories of those who share medical knowledge and support while Chapter 8 talks about sexual and relationship issues. The use of extensive examples lends human interest, but not much else. The long (five and a half pages) "Fran's Story" is more gratuitous titillation than substantive information. Chapter 9 shows how the Internet can help you handle your money.
The final two chapters close with advice and comments. After cautioning that "because it is online does not mean that it is complete or even true" (196), Koch offers some good ways to check up on the factual accuracy of sources. After his introductory contention that one of society's problems is the establishment press, I expected more follow up here on the same kinds of problems on the Web--how do we identify biases, agendas, and misrepresentations that proliferate in web documents? In conclusion, then, my suggestion concerning this book is that the best way to learn how the Internet is constructed is to experience it for yourself, un-mediated.
Cynthia Ho is Associate Professor of Literature and Language and Co-ordinator of Humanities at the University of North Carolina, Asheville. One of the developers of UNCA's new major in Multi-Media Studies, Professor Ho teaches literature classes on medieval women, post-colonial issues and Asian fiction. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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