A Study of the Information Age
Spirit of the Web: The Age of Information from the Telegraph to
By Wade Rowland
Reviewed by Nicole Redman
DATELINE 1:00 A.M., April 1, 2000, Toronto CANADA
An alarm clock has been set. E-mail has been read and answered.
The messages on the Answering Machine have been listened to. The
latest version of Netscape has been downloaded. The Reports have
been faxed. The VCR has been set to record those Reruns. Now, if
I could only program myself to sleep.
Well if technology can't put me to sleep perhaps reading about
it will do the job. It is with such thoughts that I open Wade Rowland's
book. Being the tech-head that I am I finally force myself to put
the book down around 3:00 A.M. and close my eyes with questions
about how we got here to this frontier of the next expansion of
the Information Age.
If you too have pondered the strides and gains of the Internet
and personal computers then you must take a peek at Wade Rowland's
latest offering, Spirit of the Web. Rowland, one of this
country's most respected science and technology writers takes the
reader though a journey through communication technology and our
fascination and tribulations with it in this exhaustive and fascinating
With his prologue "Extensions of Man" Rowland prepares
us for the historical epic of a family called communication, its
many mediums and struggles concluding with the declaration of the
Internet as a "meta medium."
The book is divided up into two main parts: Part 1: The Analog
Era and Part 2: The Digital Era. There is also a handy list at the
beginning detailing some milestones in communications technology
and the years they occurred.
Part 1: The Analog Era commences with the evolution of the Information
Age, from the perspective of the human need to communicate. Rowland
argues that the Information Age is not the product of some cold
technology used by power-hungry money makers but rather it signals
the "return of the humanist or rhetorical world view."
In essence technology as we know it today has brought about an increase
in the tangible understanding of the planet we inhabit. We are basically
more globally aware because of technology.
Spirit of the Web cruises through early technological history
touching on the inventors of the telegraph, telephone, radio and
television giving ample space to analysis and factual information.
Rowland's account of the electrodynamics theory and other intricate
scientific work is balanced by the very real human side of invention.
His intimate glimpse of the way technology has been used, pursued
and funded by politicians and government for gain in war is both
educational and sad. More often than not some useful invention which
we have all benefitted from at some point is the direct result of
some selfish purpose. The American Civil War for example "provided
the impetus" to spread the telegraph across the American heartland.
Rowland's analysis of the effect of technology on business is thorough,
looking at the advent of a global market and its evil cousin protectionism.
He also looks at the most important results of technology: its effect
on the general public. This instantaneous communication made it
possible for people to know about events around the globe almost
immediately. It hastened a "redefinition of the news."
Instead of someone else's analysis, you could now have your very
own based on the facts you just heard. Critics soon began forecasting
the end of journalism and the beginning of "the frantic pace
of industrial life" that we now live in.
Rowland also touches on the modern inventors. He discusses the
increasing role of corporations in financing inventions and the
near-demise of freelance inventors. Corporations with their "industrial
research" departments still couldn't obstruct the inspiration
of those freelancers who came up with the some key inventions of
the first half of the 20th century such as the ballpoint pen, cellophane,
insulin, xerograph and countless others.
Rowland also provides the reader with an in-depth look at the patent
systems and the heartbreak they caused for the many people who never
got their due credit because of a lack of understanding of the system.
For some, it was just a matter of timing like Elisha Gray who missed
the patent for the telephone because Alexander Graham Bell got there
two hours earlier.
The author also gives a great Canadian perspective on the many
technological contributions this country's inventors have made.
I would have to agree with Rowland when he states that the telephone
and electric lines are the only technological inventions that get
unanimous public approval. We all know that radio, television and
now the Internet have all been subject to great criticism.
Part 2: The Digital Era deals with the results of what Rowland
and many others called the most significant development in the history
of communication technology: convergence. This is the adoption within
different communication media of a common symbolic language of digital
systems. This has brought about the intersection of television,
telephone, telecommunication and interactive media which are commonly
known as the Internet.
With a philosophical approach Rowland takes on the information
highway and personal computing at the same time providing the reader
with a great deal of factual technical information. He basically
states that the Internet has taken the control of communication
technology out of the hands of government and corporations and placed
it firmly in the hands of the common man.
Readers are treated to a detailled history of the many races for
various components of the computer and its social impact on society.
The conclusion of Spirit of the Web offers insight into
the opportunities as well as the fearful consequences of the Internet.
Spirit of the Web is a great read for those knee-deep in
the information age as well as that reluctant compliant.
Published in Sources,
Number 45, Summer 2000.
Index of Book
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