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Spirit of the Web
The Age of Information from Telegraph to Internet

Rowland, Wade
Publisher:  Key Porter, Toronto, Canada
Year Published:  1999  
Pages:  416pp   Price:  $26.95   ISBN:  1-89443-302-5
Library of Congress Number:  TK5102.2.R69 1999   Dewey:  384'.09

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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 history.

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.

[Review by Nicole Redman]

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