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The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution Paperback – October 3, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0415197724 ISBN-10: 0415197724

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge (October 3, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415197724
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415197724
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.3 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,433,959 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

According to Paul Levinson, it would be improper to portray information technology as the cause of change in our world. However, Levinson clarifies that its role in enabling change can hardly be overestimated. He also points out--through riveting examples--that inventions have unintended consequences and uses. Why is it, for example, that the move from polytheism to monotheism failed when attempted by the pharaoh Ikhnaton, yet took solid root among the Hebrews who were taken out of Egypt by Moses only about 150 years later? Levinson argues that communication technology played a key role: The awkward Egyptian hieroglyphics failed to carry the ideology as well as the Hebrew alphabetic system. From there, Levinson examines the early social changes that became possible because of what the author calls "the first digital medium"--the alphabet. He considers how the Reformation, economic and political movements, and the scientific revolution were largely enabled by the printing press. He then discusses the influence of photographic communications and electronic technology such as the telegraph, the telephone, and broadcasting.

Levinson devotes the second half of the book to our present digital revolution, from word processing to the Internet and beyond. One of his key points is that new technology doesn't necessarily displace the old so much as it expands it. Therefore, he doesn't see any end to using paper anytime soon. However, he sees great need for changes in the way we view creative rights. He proposes what he calls an"electronic watermark" for intellectual property--a universal patent number that will be embedded in intellectual property and will notify users in any medium of the property's creators. Levinson puts forth his ideas in a manner that is both formal and engaging. He has a knack for making his reader feel intelligent and respected--and never more so than when he looks at issues of ethics and a speculative future. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Library Journal

Readers interested in history, technology, politics, or the limitations of cyberspace may now all clamber aboard for a grand tour of communications media and their effect on our personal and social lives. Levinson, president of Connected Education and a frequent contributor to Wired and the Village Voice, deftly guides us on a cogent review of everything from the alphabet and its impact on monotheistic religion to the printing press and its shaping of Columbus's voyage to the New World, concluding with (what else?) a crackerjack essay about cyberspace and "the feel of knowledge." Smart, spare, yet deep, and heartily recommended.?Geoff Rotunno, Tri-Mix Magazine, Goleta, Cal.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

More About the Author

My novel The Silk Code won the Locus Award for Best First Nove1 of 1999, and was published as an "author's cut" Kindle edition in 2012. My other science fiction and mystery novels include Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002, 2013), The Pixel Eye (2003, 2014), The Plot To Save Socrates (2006; author's cut Kindle 2012; Entertainment Weekly called it "challenging fun"), and Unburning Alexandria (2013). My short stories have been nominated for Nebula, Hugo, Edgar, and Sturgeon Awards. Nine nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), and New New Media (2009, 2nd edition 2012) have been the subject of major articles in the New York Times, Wired, the Christian Science Monitor, and have been translated into Chinese, Japanese, Polish, and ten other languages. I appear from time to time on MSNBC, Fox News ("The O'Reilly Factor"), The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, NPR, BBC Radio and other TV and radio programs - I like talking just as much as writing. I'm also a songwriter, and have been in several bands over the years - one had two records out on Atlantic Records in 1960s. My 1972 album Twice Upon a Rhyme (on HappySad Records) was re-issued on CD by Beatball/Big Pink Records in 2009, and on re-pressed vinyl by Whiplash/Sound of Salvation Records in 2010. I was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education's "Top 10 Academic Twitterers" in 2009, and review the best of television on my Infinitte Regress.tv blog. Last but not least: I have a PhD in Media Theory from New York University and am Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in New York City.

Customer Reviews

3.2 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 6, 1999
Format: Paperback
After a long search, I selected this as the best book available for providing a historical overview of the social effects of electronic communication media for my college course, "The Information Age." The author clearly identifies the various types of technology: audio, visual, multimedia, and he does a nice job of assessing the impact of these individually and in combination. The latter third of the book becomes increasingly confusing, however, as he attempts to extend today's technologies into the future and predict their effects. My students found the book very interesting, and the author's ideas generated quite a bit of discussion.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Arnold Kling on November 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
This book asks many interesting questions about the history and future of media. Examples include:
1. Why did the sight-only medium of silent movies get wiped out completely by "talkies" while the sound-only medium of radio survived television?
2. The most powerful leaders of the past 150 years were Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, and Stalin. Was this power due to the nature of radio as a medium, and the fact that radio flowered when they were prominent?
3. Is centralized authority in media necessary (because people need "gatekeepers" to filter information for them) or a result of the economics of mass media (the high cost of sending radio signals compared to the low cost of receiving them)?
4. Does information want to be free?
Levinson's answers are not always as good as his questions. His explanation for the survival of radio (as a medium you can use while doing something else) was persuasive. His view that the leaders of WWII drew their power from radio was less compelling.
Levinson's view of the decentralization effects of computers is valid. The opposite view, which is widely held, is a serious misconception.
Otherwise, when discussing the future, Levinson is disappointing. He says less than what can be found in other work that predates his book. The issue of the future of paper is discussed better in some of George Gilder's articles in Forbes ASAP, going back to 1994. The issue of how to pay for information is discussed better in Brad Cox's work on what he calls "superdistribution." The issue of the status of artificial life is discussed better in Steven Levy's book on that subject.
If I were teaching a course on the Internet, I would include "The Soft Edge" as background reading early in the course. It would help students start to think about the evolution of media.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By C. Freas on May 10, 2000
Format: Paperback
I enjoyed reading The Soft Edge. I found Levinson to be a little long in his summations. I also found that his first two chapters were confusing. I was not sure of his direction or the purpose of his book. His use of mini-headings in each chapter did make each subject easier to understand. I would highly recommend this book for research in other classes. I have already used it. I did find his use of quotes from other authors leaving me wanting more. He used them to prove his arguments. Without more from that author, I was not able to accept or decline his argument. I believe his weakest part was on the future of technology. Levinson gives a great history and analysis on the impact. I found his analysis on the future small and quite unassuming.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on October 17, 1998
Format: Paperback
THE SOFT EDGE by Paul Levinson is an amazing look at communications technology throughout time, and how they have had surprising and unexpected consequences -- for example how the invention of the printing press was responsible for the discovery of America (or at least for people in Europe to find out about Columbus's voyages) and the Age of Exploration and why the idea of one God didn't take hold until the Hebrews with their alphabet, and many other such fascinating examples. Then the author shows us why silent movies disappeared when talking pictures arrived but radio is still doing well even though we have television. And lots of other insights and observations about things we use every day and rarely think about. This book should be required reading for all people who want to understand the Internet -- especially parents and teachers -- and why we shouldn't be so afraid of what's out there. Professor Levinson is a great writer, and this is a terrific book.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Tom Gray on August 7, 2001
Format: Paperback
This book is a reply to the technological pessimists such as Ellul and Postman who see technology as dehumanizing. Levinson convincingly argues that technology is not dehumanizing in itself and indeed succeeds in establishing itself when it is matched to human forms of activities.
The title 'Soft Edge' is a comment on the ideas of technological determinism. Hard determinism is the view that technology contains within itself the means to dictate how it will be sued in society. Soft determinism is the view that technology can only influence the direction of how it will be used. Levinson seems to go even further by arguing that technology and human society co-evolve and that technology that is not amenable to successful human use will be eliminated. Successful technology is absorbed into the human fabric and new technology demonstrates its fitness in the natural selection process of this co-evolution by demonstrating its fitness to serve human needs.
Levinson clearly points out that this co-evolution does not necessarily have beneficial ends. It opens possibilities whereby both human good and human evil can flourish. It is a human choice as to which one - good or evil - will predominate. Levinson shows how the power of radio to create close personal contact benefited both the evil of Hitler and the virtue of Roosevelt. Each in their own way touched the feelings of their populations personally. Radio, in part, created the conditions whereby politicians of their respective sorts could lead. It was human choice and not technological determinism that allowed each to flourish.
This book contains important ideas that do much to refute the popular pessimism of the current day. It is well worth reading. However the style in which the book is written makes this a tedious exercise.
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