Book title: Information Superhighways - Multimedia Users and Futures

Academic Press, 1995, ISBN 0-12-238360-5

Andrew Dillon

This item is not the definitive copy. Please use the following citation when referencing this material: Dillon, A. (1996) Review of Emmet (ed.) Information Superhighways. Information Society, 12(3), 335-337.

The present volume is the latest publication in the lengthy Computers and People Series initiated by Academic Press over a decade ago to cover a range of topics in the broad area of human-computer interaction (HCI). As is typical of the series, it consists of a collection of chapters from academics and practitioners drawn from both the US and Europe, each offering a personal overview of their work on the books’ theme.

A book entitled Information Superhighways is of necessity going to embrace quite distinct thinkers and attract many readers, thus within its covers are contributions from sociologists, psychologists, media specialists, computer scientists, and science policy experts. Divided somewhat artificially into three sections (Overview, Issues, and Applications), the 13 chapters are intended to ‘introduce and examine a range of key issues which focus on the users of information superhighways’ (p. 4), and in so doing to outline ‘a number of applications that emerge when development is user-centered rather than driven by media corporations’ (p.4).The extent to which the book meets its stated aims will be the major focus of this review.

The information superhighway metaphor has attained remarkable status in the minds of people far beyond the fairly limited confines of academic researchers and software developers, being referenced almost daily in the news media, in political presentations, in advertisements etc. The general consensus is that the information revolution has finally occurred and we are embarking on a course of profound change that will not only affect our work and leisure habits, or transform education, but ultimately lead to new forms of discourse and knowledge transfer. How much of this is hype is frequently hard to decipher, and any volume of this kind ought to shed light on a debate that normally generates more than its fair share of heat.

In selecting the issues that are important at this time, the authors take a very broad stance, considering the social and organizational implications of technology in general, and communication technology in particular. Focus is placed on access to information (a concept that is never satisfactorily distinguished from data), the control of information flow across the globe and the differentiating effects of socioeconomic status. The chapter by Cochrane offers an extremely positive view in which he sees the falling costs of the technology and the rapid gains in processing power affording humanity the opportunity to reduce environmental waste, restructure towns and urban conurbations, and educate the masses to higher levels of knowledge. In this scenario, the limits are only our abilities to exploit the technology. Silverstone, however provides a less enthusiastic analysis, suggesting that in embracing new technologies, people transform the tool more than become transformed, and that large sections of society will often be left out of any technology revolution, not matter how universal one assumes access to become.

It is in these two chapters that the range of perspectives covered in the book is most clearly stated. While the debate is intriguing, the empirical analysis that might best serve its partial resolution is largely absent, and where it does occur, it is too divorced from this debate to appear relevant. Silverstone’s analysis rests on case studies his group has performed of the consumption of technology in the domestic sector, not all of which has involved the type of tools that immediately come to mind at the mention of ‘information superhighway’. And Cochrane’s rosy interpretations of productivity data and communications technology costs and capacity appear far too simplistic in the light of more detailed recent analyses (e.g., Landauer, 1995). Sandwiched between these extremes are fairly standard treatments of organizational structures and work practices that add little to the existing literature. While there are interesting perspectives on regulation from Mansell, for example, and a timely call to learn from the history of communications research to date by Dutton, one finds the supposed emphasis on the users to be occasionally lacking. Thus, in terms of one of its stated aims, the book can at best be seen only as a partial success.

The applications section of the book gives much space to the experience of communication provided by videotelephony, a curiously narrow focus for a book on the information superhighway (and perhaps conceded by the editor in his introduction when he states that this section could have contained any number of other interesting applications). There are several interesting sketches of on-going work reported here e.g., Nardi et al’s ethnographic study of the use of video in neurosurgery, and Travis’ overview of the work British Telecom are performing to improve the quality of communication in interactive visual services. However, none of the studies reported here provide great insight and indeed it is disappointing to find a series of studies in one chapter lead the authors to conclude that users want video links in remote conferencing technologies and that the quality of the audio connection is crucial - hardly convincing argument for the employment of user-centered techniques. Sitting somewhat out on a limb at the back of the issues section is an entertaining chapter from Monk that describes how interdisciplinary research really seems to occur, and the compromises and obligations on the part of the researchers that are involved in reporting and applying it, advice that might have been usefully aimed at some of the authors here. Furthermore, linking many of these chapters back to the issues raised in the earlier section of the book is left to the reader. Once again, in terms of its stated aim of outlining applications that result from user-centered design, this section is also not totally successful.

In all, the book contains some interesting chapters that merit attention, though one feels that few of those authors have not or will not produce more definitive accounts of their work. As a collection of papers on the user issues of the information superhighway it fails to hit the target and its intended readership remains unclear. The two major sections are quite distinct in content and style which only exacerbates the lack of cohesion one senses in the complete text. A catchy title and a foreword by Negroponte are all well and good, but more diversity in the applications section and a sharper focus on the stated aims would have improved matters considerably.

Reference

Landauer, T.K. (1995) The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability and Productivity. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.