First Monday - Book Reviews
First Monday
First Monday Reviews, First Monday November 1996 column

Deep Thinking about the Internet and Computing: new books

Books and software reviewed

With the growing use of networked computers, it is not surprising that software, telecommunications, and other digital trappings define the Internet. Different groups with differing agendas and ideas are using the Internet and computers in ways that were never expected forty years ago. We are all incredibly grateful in one way or another for this serendipity and creativity. Still, these changes have made us think seriously about the impact of these virtual lives, spending so much time glued to keyboards and screens. These books take a deep look at the Internet and computing, approaching it from new angles. For all of the changes in the past few decades, these books indicate that we need to think even more seriously about our time spent absorbed in the glow of photons and electrons with our well-worn computing machines. - ejv

Stephen Doheny-Farina
The Wired Neighborhood
New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996.
224 p., cloth. ISBN 0-300-06765-8
Price $US25.00
Yale University Press

Many hailed the arrival of the Internet as the beginning of a new global community, where netizens would reign supreme with this most democratic of all tools, the networked computer. Stephen Doheny-Farina fires a warning shot with this book at those idealists, those ready to create a global networked government with the press of a few buttons on a keyboard. Doheny-Farina is no Luddite as he carefully argues, although at times you may complain that he is quite a well-disguised one. Virtual communities, he feels, develop and prosper at the hands of real communities. For the Internet to truly succeed as a democratic forum, it needs to be well integrated into existing communities, not as an electronic replacement. He asks us to "fight the good fight" for our communities, both real and virtual, and provides the reader with advice on balancing our desires for a virtual life with reality. Plenty of examples of successful marriages between real and virtual communities fill this book, as well as descriptions of problems and failures. For anyone who spends more time in front of a computer monitor than with their neighbors and local community, this book is highly recommended. - ejv End of article

Paul N. Edwards
The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.
440 p., cloth. ISBN 0-262-05051-X
Price $US40.00
MIT Press

Those familiar with the history of the Internet know that it was born in 1969 as a result of funding by the Pentagon, to create a communications system that would survive a nuclear war. Few realize that much of computing and networking that we take for granted today has its origins in military and cold war research, beginning in World War II. For example, according to Edwards, the graphic interfaces of today had their beginnings in efforts in the 1950s to track aircraft more efficiently and to train pilots in more realistic ways. The protocols that we use today so effortlessly, to allow our desktop machines to communicate with thousands of other computers around the world, had their sources in archaic protocols invented forty years ago to allow military computers to communicate with other devices. All of this research came at a heavy cost in government funds, personnel, and reasoned logic, and Edwards examines the special philosophy of Cold War research well. A certain mind set was necessary to imagine that the brute force of really quite primitive computers - and their programs - could create an impenetrable shield. This philosophy survived for decades in one form or another, accelerating the development of computers with ultimate unexpected benefits for the world at large. This fascinating book examines a side of computing history that is both eye-opening and troubling at the same time. There is much to think about in this excellent tome on computing and the military in this century, much that you will carry away and turn in your imagination long after you've finished reading its last pages. - ejv End of article

Raymond A. Kurz
Internet and the Law: Legal Fundamentals for the Internet User
Rockville, Md.: Government Institutes, 1996.
248 p., cloth. ISBN 0-865-87506-5
Price $US74.50
Government Institutes

In the past year, there have been a number of cases and actions that have brought the Internet and its tools and users in conflict with existing laws. Some governments have reacted by strictly controlling the devices that make networked computing work, as in Myanmur, where owning a modem without a government permit will lead to arrest. Other governments have sought to encourage the use of computers and the Internet, within basic guidelines and community values. Kurz takes an American approach to law and the Internet, looking at basic parameters of intellectual property, licensing and contracts, and other matters. In eight chapters, with nine appendices of forms from various U. S. agencies, this book provides a basic and brief overview of matters legal relative to the Internet. Intellectual property - copyrights, trademarks, patents, licensing - occupy half of this book, while discussions on defamation and unfair competition. References to relative U. S. court decisions make this book particularly helpful, although there is little discussion in this book of international matters and more recent developments springing out of the National Information Infrastructure Task Force. This book is not exhaustive in its treatment, and would strongly benefit by frequent updates, reflecting new decisions in the courts (most notably American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, the decision on the Communications Decency Act of 1996, this year). For those looking for a place to start thinking about the Internet and the law, this book should only be a beginning. Its lack of pointers to online resources as well as to many of the interesting views expressed in the literature of law reviews (both in print and electronic forms) mean a lot of research on the part of the reader to get a complete and balanced picture, supplementing the slim chapters of this volume. - ejv End of article

Bonnie A. Nardi (ed.)
Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction
Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1996.
400 p., cloth. ISBN 0-262-14058-6
Price $US40.00
MIT Press

Activity theory is a way of looking at how people interact with their environment with tools, by trying to understand why certain tools work and why others don't. For those designing computers and programs, it is incredibly crucial that much thought be given to the possible ways in which digital inventions will be used; the history of computing could be described as being littered with many failures, and a few lucky successes in human interactivity. Examples of failures and successes are scattered throughout this book, with dissections of why something worked or didn't work. The diversity of these examples - on the rise and fall of the U. S. Postal Service's electronic device called Postal Buddy or the use of computers by Danish homicide investigators - poignantly make activity theory not some academic pursuit but a practical consideration. Indeed, this no dry and boring tome, but an imaginative exploration of the real possibilities of computers working well with their users, a joy rather than an electronic cross to bear. For those curious about humans and their digital machines, this book is highly recommended. - ejv End of article

Jonathan Wallace and Mark Mangan
Sex, Laws, and Cyberspace: Freedom and Censorship on the Frontiers of the Online Revolution
New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
304 p., cloth. ISBN 0-805-04767-0
Price $US24.95

Democracies flourish thanks to a free exchange of ideas and opinions; Internet-connected computers accelerate this exchange but at a price, according to some. Frequent cases in the past year have tested the limits of free speech on the Internet for some, redefined it for others. Wallace and Mangan take you, in nine chapters, on a review of recent decisions and opinions over the use of the Internet by some individuals that may be labeled imaginative, deranged, or both. They argue ultimately that free speech applies to the Internet and that efforts to control the use of the Internet are doomed in one way or another. Rather than demand government control, they argue for individual responsibility and action, and a flourishing of voices on the Internet expressing a wide range of opinions and ideas. This book provides a good review of recent decisions and cases, without a great deal of legal overhead demanded of the reader, other than basic commonsense. Confused about the real meaning of Internet restrictions? Worried about your freedom to express yourself, to anonymity? You will find this book a welcome relief. - ejv End of article

Copyright © 1996, First Monday
First Monday Reviews.
First Monday, Volume 1, Number 5 - 4 November 1996

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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