No. 5, Fall/Winter2000

Special Issue:
The Arab World

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Paul A. Mayer, ed. (1999) "Computer Media and Communication: A Reader." Oxford University Press. 340 pages. ISBN 0-19-874257-6 (paperback).

Reviewed by Manjunath Pendakur, Faculty of Information & Media Studies, University of Western Ontario, Canada

Human beings in advanced capitalism are supposed to be swimming in a sea of images and drifting fast towards an information society. A new visual culture that has little to do with either reality or photography appears to be developing. It is driven by computers, which have fast become the principal knowledge producing and embodying machines of the age. Production, distribution, and consumption of all knowledge (including entertainment) are coalescing into this machine. Those who produce for this machine-centered knowledge society, those who control the networks through which knowledge circulates, and those who are adept at using these information machines have ascended to positions of power around the world. Earlier forms of dominance that have characterized capitalism are being replicated in the nascent information society. To understand and theorize this development, students of communication need the historical knowledge and conceptual tools. This book edited by Paul Mayer attempts to grapple with that important issue.

The book is divided into two parts. The first deals with the historical development of computer media by bringing together eight major essays written by some of the visionaries who contributed to the conceptual development of this new media. Although these essays had appeared earlier in various publications, they have a useful purpose in this book. We learn where and how certain ideas such as hypermedia began and gave rise to the dynamic, global-scale, hyperlinked medium called the World Wide Web. Ideas related to human computer interaction and the communities in cyberspace were bandied about in labs and seminars financed by the war departments long before the Internet took off. The pleasure in reading this part of the book lies in discovering not only how certain ideas have been realized into machines and implemented in certain ways, but how the visionaries idealized a computer-based society.

The second part of the book is devoted to nine studies which deal with a variety of issues such as interactivity as a concept, community in the information age, gender in computer-mediated communication, etc. They offer sophisticated analyses of what is at hand and attempt to theorize the social implications of computer media.

The central purpose of the book, though, is to propose anchoring fields of inquiry in order to constitute computer media as a legitimate field of study. Paul Mayer's introduction and epilogue, and also the array of studies in part two, attempt to push the envelope in that direction. The contributing fields to develop computer media studies, Mayer argues, are artificial intelligence, human-computer interaction, and media studies. He provides a brief but lucid description of all three of these fields. The book, however, does not include essays that may have encompassed the range of work that is described in Mayer's encapsulation of these fields. For instance, centralization of power and knowledge in advanced capitalism is an important concern for media studies, and its ideological implications on who produces knowledge, how, and for what purpose remain to be investigated in computer media forms as well. The military-industrial complex is at the heart of the development of a networked society. The contradictory nature of its investments both in the development of computers and certain technologies, virtual or otherwise, could have been an exemplary study to push the agenda for the development of the field of computer media.

The networked society is also a global society in that there will be producers, users, workers, and investors in advanced capitalist societies as well as in the developing world. Cyber-cities in India and Malaysia have emerged to compete with Silicon Valley. The essays in part two, however, are cast with the users in North America and Europe in mind, thereby ignoring one of the critical facets of computer-mediated global culture. Despite these weaknesses, I would recommend this book because it is a worthy attempt to synthesize the conceptual development of computer media and put forward an agenda for research. TBS

Copyright 2000 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo