Network: Review - Don't lose sight of the human touch

Masters of the Wired World Edited by Anne Leer Pitman Publishing pounds 18.99
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The Independent Culture
THIS BOOK has a contents list that runs like the cast of an IT blockbuster. Masters of the Wired World, in which all bar the editor, Anne Leer, and one contributor are masters, is a collection of essays taking the reader on a journey into the meaning and potential of the global information society. En route you bump into such luminaries as Vice-President Al Gore, Arthur C Clarke, Jim Barksdale, Sir David Puttnam, Peter Mandelson (this book was on the printing press before his light was extinguished) and Charles Handy.

Topping it all is Tony Blair. His introduction makes clear that the book is about business, and the change which the digital economy brings: "We do not know exactly where it will take us or how quickly, but we do know that change will come." But the commercial intent does not narrow the interests that the book pursues.

One of the most memorable images comes from Arthur C Clarke. He compares the person who rushes to the Internet seeking knowledge with the person who rushes to Niagara Falls to quench his or her thirst: they will be drowned. Clarke's warning is mirrored in the scale of the revolution that Gore anticipates, so much so that he calls for a Digital Declaration of Independence to safeguard the values of democratic societies in a world in which information can work for good and ill.

Leer's method is to try and see behind the hype. She seeks to engage in the painstaking task of mapping the real wired world, not the imaginary one confused by its own myth and flights of fancy. Only in this way will the means of navigating it be found. In this, she is supported by Netscape's Barksdale, who argues that it is more important, though more difficult, to grow networks rather than merely pile on the power of the computer. He prefers Metcalfe's law to Moore's.

The book also tries to identify and promote the human value in the digital revolution. Sir David Puttnam's thoughts add a particular caution. When it comes to digital content in the age of entertainment, he fears that the US will dominate. He worries over a cultural time bomb that could blind people to the subtleties of real artistry in the 21st century.

Until his recent demise, Peter Mandelson was rapidly developing a reputation for being right about the strategic importance of leading in the digital economy. Here he talks about the possibilities for a digital government with no less enthusiasm and places himself clearly on the American side of the regulation debate. No doubt his opinion will continue to carry weight, and his successors could do worse than listen to his warnings: technology has tripped up governments repeatedly in the past.

This book manages to touch hard issues as well as generate lots of excitement. The contributions do vary, and there is an occasional indulgence in neologisms, which obscure rather than explain. And it ends well with Charles Handy's case for fraternity in the individualism of the Information Age. In fact, he thinks only that will save us.