These are books that provide historical context to the hysteria surrounding technologies; that give an insight into the cultural movements changing society; that explore key philosophical issues such as privacy; or that explore the commercial dynamics driving change.
1. The Master Switch – Tim Wu
The best mainstream history of media technologies I’ve certainly read (although Winston’s ‘Media, Technology and Society‘ is very good too, if a more academic read). Wu tells the story of how radio, film, television and other media technologies went through a consistent path from ‘democratised technologies’ to media monopolies.
It’s a salutary tale for those who think the internet is different. If it is, then it will need to avoid the mistakes made by regulators, legislators and inventors. And those who don’t learn from history…
2. The Information – James Gleick
An astonishing masterwork that begins with why African talking drums were so wordy (it’s all about redundancy), takes in genetics, code-breaking and quantum physics, and in the process draws some very useful lessons about the changing nature of communication and information that help you take a step back from your own assumptions.
3. The Pirate’s Dilemma – Matt Mason
This covers the histories that lie behind the rise of mashups, guerilla marketing, and other cultural movements. A valuable lesson on where to look for change, and how that movements themselves change as different groups adopt their ideas. The book is available as a free download here, as is Lawrence Lessig’s book exploring similar themes, Free Culture.
4. The Wealth of Networks – Yochai Benkler
Widely recognised as the most comprehensive book on network dynamics. Given that these are so integral to everything that takes place online, that makes this a pretty vital book. And this is not just about online networks: the book draws on research into real world networks and communities and where they succeed and fail – vital foundations for any online project.
5. The Spy in the Coffee Machine – O’Hara & Shadbolt
A compact exploration of privacy in the networked age, and how digital technologies are impacting on that. Particularly useful are the passages that explore different cultures’ attitudes to privacy, and the case studies that help the reader explore the ethical issues raised by recent developments and technological possibilities.
6. Search Engine Society – Alexander Halavais
Another compact book, this explores research around how people use search engines, including some types of behaviour that you would not otherwise think about, such as the importance of re-finding, and different types of search literacy. Useful in understanding how people navigate the virtual world.
7. Creative Disruption – Simon Waldman
Although there are many books exploring the successes of new digital businesses, Simon Waldman’s book attempts something much more difficult: looking at how established businesses have tried to adapt to survive in the midst of great change. The book is very well written and does a particularly good job of explaining the various elements that form the basis of any business’s competitive advantage; how the internet changes those; and methods that have been used to respond. It’s a welcome reminder that, like any business, publishing is not just about content, but advertising, distribution, manufacturing and numerous other factors too.
A good book on the legal or political history would be particularly welcome to add to the list – or just something very good that I’ve never heard of.
Paul Bradshaw is a media consultant and academic. To read more, go to onlinejournalismblog.com
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