From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg

From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg
by John Naughton
373 pages, Quercus, 2012

If you’re a student, the chances are you can scarcely imagine a world without Google. You’ll have to ask your parents about fax machines, about when news was received in print and a time when phones were used only for voice conversations.

John Naughton’s new book is an attempt to relate ‘what you really need to know about the internet.’ So it should be useful for students who may lack perspective (‘the strange thing about living through a revolution is that it’s very difficult to see what’s going on’) – and for parents and employers who are bemused and wonder if it’s really such a big deal.

The author is a good guide to the subject: he’s a Professor of the Public Understanding of Technology and an Observer newspaper columnist. The book is written in a popular and non-academic style (though it’s brim-full of ideas and it cites many other thinkers).

Naughton the university lecturer makes good use of metaphors to explain key points. Using a railway analogy, he describes the internet as ‘the tracks and signalling technology of the system’ and web pages as just one of many kinds of traffic that can run on this infrastructure (some others being email, file downloads, instant messages and voice conversations).

Naughton the scientist challenges Naughton the journalist over the meaning of ‘media’. In biology, media are used to cultivate living organisms. So there’s something more essential to life here than just a means to transmit messages. This introduces us to one of the author’s favourite concepts, the media ecosystem.

This approach, borrowed from McLuhan, shows why bloggers can coexist alongside journalists – and why one does not mean the end of the other. ‘One of the laws of communications technology is that new media are generally additive rather than substitutive, which is a fancy way of saying that new technologies generally don’t wipe out older ones… New media don’t wipe out old media. But their arrival does change the ecosystem.’

Living with complexity

‘My hunch’ writes Naughton ‘is that over the next decade, the Internet will move to become the dominant ‘species’ in our ecosystem.’

It’s an increasingly complex ecosystem, in which the whole is more than the sum of the parts (a process described as ’emergence’). ‘Anyone who seeks to understand the Net has to realize that disruption is a feature of the system, not a bug, so we need to accept that complexity is something we have to live with. It’s not a temporary aberration, but the new reality. And it’s likely to increase.’

The author then suggests what this means for public relations practitioners and business managers:

‘Organizations which seek stable equilibrium relationships with an environment which is inherently unpredictable are heading for failure’. Success will require ‘openness to change, accidence, coincidence, serendipity.’

In another important section, Naughton deals with the tension between of copyright law and creativity. ‘[Common sense] should revolt at the idea that doctrines about copyright that were shaped in a pre-Internet age should apply to a post-Internet one’.

In general, it’s an enlightening and positive read. ‘We need to rise above the optimist-pessimist, Utopian-dystopian dichotomies that characterize our current discussions about the Internet,’ he argues. ‘Like electricity, the networked information environment is here to stay.’

I’m struggling to find fault with this brilliant and readable book, but noticed that US academic Yochai Benckler was variously introduced as a ‘legal scholar’ and a ‘network scholar’. I also question the capitalising of internet and web in such an accessible book. Surely the use of lower case better proves the point that they are now established fixtures in our lives and our vocabulary?

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  1. […] For an intelligent and well-written overview of the impact of the internet, the web (they’re not the same thing) and mobile technologies, read John Naughton’s From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg (see my review). […]

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