Brave new words;Books

11th June 1999 at 01:00
Jack Kenny puts his feet up and picks out the essential reading for summer Plato knew it: "The unexamined life is not worth living," he said. And with the summer holiday drawing near, what better time to examine yours? Caught up by day-to-day pressure, it is difficult to find time to consider where information and communications technology (ICT) fits in the grand scheme of things - not to mention in your life and work. Which makes the books of some fiction and non-fiction writers, packed with thought-provoking ideas, such a joy to read. And if nothing else they're perfect companions for a few lazy hours in the deckchair.

The term "cyberspace" is in everyday use but it was coined in 1984 by William Gibson, proving once again that some of the most creative thinking comes not from scientists but from novelists. In Neuromancer he describes the Matrix, a computer network remarkably like the Internet. It is not an easy read because the narrative is a largely interior journey - you feel the disorientation the book strives for is sometimes achieved at the expense of clarity - but the journey is worth it. Gibson's other books, especially Burning Chrome, are just as provocative and are worth a read.

The Difference Engine (1991), by Bruce Sterling, co-authored with Gibson, asks what would have happened if the computer age had arrived 100 years earlier - imagine that Charles Babbage, the father of computers, had perfected his Analytical Engine. Steam-driven mechanical computers, or Engines, are created and thrust Victorian England into the information age. The work investigates a technology that leaps ahead of the moral evolution of humans.

Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash takes the Internet, now called The Metaverse, and looks ahead a few years. In prose that reads like a collaboration between William Burroughs, William Gibson and JG Ballard, he considers the dominance of the information society and examines its more sinister side. This is our society pushed into a Blade Runner-like future, a future where data is all-important and can be moved and manipulated. Prepare to finish this book with an aching brain, glazed with apprehension.

In The Gutenberg Elegies, Sven Birkerts authored one of the most challenging books of recent years, a serious look at the way IT was affecting reading and writing not just in schools but over the whole spectrum of society. Now, as editor of Tolstoy's Dictaphone, he brings together the reactions of a mixed bag of articulate artists and writers to technological innovations. What is refreshing is that they are not computer people and in the main have little interest in technology. Poet and author Daniel Mark Epstein writes a hymn of praise to the Peabody Library in Baltimore, which he sees as a bulwark against declining standards. Paul West, a novelist, explains why he refuses to use a word processor and Birkerts also has his say in his attempt to account for why the mental impact of reading from a screen is so different from that of a page.

It falls to author and journalist Ralph Lombreglia to write the most upbeat essay: "Machines can't take the poetry away. Only we can do that,"he says. "There will be, eventually, a new media Fellini. There will be a digital Kafka."

It seems a pity that most of the stimulating books about the impact of IT come not from the education sector but from business - why is it that people in the financial sectors seem to approach our technological future with more thought than those who prepare children to live in a world that will be saturated with ICT? As such, the collection of essays Rethinking the Future is needed in education more than in any sector. Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who write the foreword, are eminent futurologists, and contributors include Charles Handy, a leading thinker on business strategy. Handy writes: "Many of the assumptions of my education were that there were knowable things about the world. And that if I knew those things then I could proceed with some certainty through that world. I think that I've had to unlearn a lot of that." He continues: "We have designed our schools on the implicit assumption that all the problems in the world have already been solved and the teacher knows the answers."

The other 14 contributors to the book don't have the answers but they do pose many interesting questions. Without fear of hyperbole, this book is essential reading for those managing schools.

Not something to read while lying in the sun is Howard Rheingold's Tools for Thought. Well, not unless you have a long extension lead that is, since the book has been published on the Internet. It is, however, a splendid survey of the new world of technology. The chapter on educational technology guru Seymour Papert is one of the best I have read, as is the work on Alan Kay, the father of modern operating systems. Read this and you will have a good grasp of the theories and the people behind the growth of ICT over the last 40 years.

William Gibson Neuromancer (Voyager; pound;6.99)

Gibson and Sterling The Difference Engine (Orion; pound;5.99)

Neal Stephenson Snow Crash (RoC; pound;5.99)

Sven Birkerts Tolstoy's Dictaphone (Airlift Book Company; pound;12.99)

Rowan Gibson Rethinking the Future (Nicholas Brealey Publishing; pound;9.99)

Howard Rheingold Tools for Thought (http:www.rheingold.comtextstft) (computer manuals)

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