- Hardcover: 280 pages
- Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (September 8, 1997)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0415157854
- ISBN-13: 978-0415157858
- Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,028,134 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Soft Edge:Nat Hist&Future Info 1st Edition
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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.
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.
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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. It is difficult to follow the argument due to the incessant asides with only partially pertinent observations. It appears that instead of using footnotes, Levinson strung supporting observations and references in line in the text.
The main argument is obscured when it is broken up constantly with pages of observations that only marginally illustrate it. It is even worse when there is obvious carelessness in the presentations of the supporting commentaries and when obvious errors are made that hinder significantly its credibility. Special relativity is used as an example of the use of non-Euclidean geometry. Alexander Graham Bell is stated to have developed the telephone in one passage as part of a search for a hearing aid for his wife and correctly in another as an attempt to develop a harmonic telegraph. The explorer Jacques Cartier is misnamed Jean Cartier. This book needed a good editor. However in one of his innumerable asides, Levinson gives a lengthy account of the reason that he does not overly revise his work. He should change his mind on that.
Despite these flaws this is a good book with important ideas that bears close reading. I recommend it.
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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