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|Information technologies evolve, often at the expense of their
predecessors. While adopting a new technology may not sound a death knell
for existing means of spreading information, older mechanisms will often
need fill a different niche in the information market to remain viable.
So goes one underlying theme in Paul Levinson's The Soft Edge. Levinson, a professor of Communications at Hofstra University and founder of Connected Education (which teaches graduate courses over the Internet), traces the development of information technologies from the earliest cave drawings to computers while noting each scheme's impact on society. The author takes a path that's at once rambling and well-planned; each chapter is centered on a particular technology, but Levinson effectively includes elements from other chapters (even those physically following the discussion in question) in a manner occasionally approximating a hypertext piece. Levinson and his editor, Adrian Driscoll, are to be commended for producing a satisfyingly readable book.
One aspect of successful information representation schemes identified in The Soft Edge is that successful technologies are often more abstract than their predecessors. The classic example is the superiority of the Phoenician (hence "phonetic") alphabet over Egyptian hieroglyphics. The latter scheme physically represented the pieces of a communication with seemingly innumerable sigils, while the former, due to its abstraction from the concepts or objects it comprehended, was made up of a relatively small number of rearrangeable atomic units. The most abstract representation scheme developed to date, Levinson notes, is the binary language of zeros and ones used in computers.
In the body of the book, the author similarly analyzes the impact of inventions like the printing press, the electric light, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and computers. Some of the most interesting bits are when Levinson takes on the claims of media critics like Neil Postman (author of Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death, among others) and Marshal McLuhan. Levinson takes particular care to debunk Postman's claim that the computer is simply an extension of the television screen, arguing that the computer's interactivity and legacy as a text-based information conduit distinguish it from television. What the author doesn't discuss is the recent push to combine the television and computer into a single device, such as through WebTV's Internet service or planned products from Microsoft. Not considering these developments doesn't kill the book, but it does leave a hole I hope Levinson fills in his subsequent work.
The last part of The Soft Edge looks at intellectual property and a proposal to ensure right-holders are remunerated for their efforts. The skeleton of the plan is reminiscent of the approach Brad Cox sets out in Superdistribution, but the concept is not fleshed out in enough detail here to critique meaningfully.
The Soft Edge is a wonderful book, both as a historical survey of how information technologies have evolved and as a critique of how some media critics have portrayed computers and the Internet. Though Levinson's analysis of some important contemporary issues is incomplete, his grasp of history and how information technologies interrelate leaves nothing to be desired.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.