If I had to pick four relatively current books that will help readers develop a better understanding of the World Wide Web, I would suggest the following books. It was hard to narrow down the list to four, but sometimes less is more. This particular list stems from a recent conversation with Lance Weiler after DIY Days in which he asked me to suggest some good books to read.
1. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee presents a detailed account of the origins and evolution of the web, and who better to tell the story than the inventor himself, who is currently Director of the World Wide Web Consortium (the organization responsible for setting web standards) at MIT. In the 1980s while working at CERN, Berners-Lee defined the core standards and wrote the first web server and browser that began the growth of the Web, which transformed the Internet into a document universe (similar to Ted Nelson’s docuverse but much simpler in design) by allowing users to hyperlink between documents that can reside on any computer connected to the Internet. The design of the Web balances decentralization and centralization in a manner than retains simplicity and allows for unrestricted growth and innovation. Berners-Lee’s writing is clear and concise, which should appeal to a wide audience. A lot of books have been written about the web. You have to be very careful when reading histories of the Internet and the World Wide Web, there are many articles, and even books, that present misleading histories. For example, Architects of the Web: 1,000 Days that Built the Future of Business by Robert Reid gives much of the credit for the development of the World Wide Web to people who did not actually invent it and fails glaringly to properly credit, and sometimes even ignores, those who played key roles in the design, development, and evolution of the Web. For example, Tim Berners-Lee receives very little space in the book and other important figures are completely ignored. On the other hand, Weaving the Web is written with tremendous humility and grace and helps to set the record straight.
2. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom by Yochai Benkler might at first appear to be a dense academic tome best left on the shelf, however, don’t let that stop you from making the effort to read it cover to cover. It will reward you with a comprehensive and insightful perspective on the networked information economy. The book passionately discusses how the Internet empowers individuals and groups working outside of the market economy to become (in some contexts) more productive than for-profit organizations. Examples include projects like Wikipedia and Linux. The production of information, knowledge, and creative works outside of the market system has profound implications for democratic discourse, culture, and justice. There are serious dangers posed by government regulation that protects old-world information companies, for example, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Benkler makes a persuasive argument that non-market production and innovation is a good thing that should be allowed to exist and thrive alongside the industrial information economy. The book provides a clear picture of the state of the internet and shows the Internet enriches peoples lives and has become an essential component of a free and open society. If we want to remain a vibrant liberal democracy, we must push back the dangerous encroachment of corporate interests that want to restrict the free flow of information on the Internet which is critical for the proper functioning of an open society and continued technological innovation. Benkler demonstrates a clear understanding of the information economy worthy of the title which is evocative of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Lawrence Lessig wrote that The Wealth of Networks is “the most important and powerful book written in the fields that matter most to me in the last ten years.”
3. Small Pieces Loosely Joined: A Unified Theory of the Web by David Weinberger provides a fascinating definition of the Web as an idea rather than a technology and discusses how it is challenging fundamental concepts of our culture. Weinberger writes: “If the Web is changing bedrock concepts such as space, time, perfection, social interaction, knowledge, matter and morality–each a chapter of this book–no wonder we’re so damn confused. That’s as it should be. A new world is opening up, a world that we create as we explore it.” The book provides thoughtful answers to questions such as: Why do we perceive the Web as space when it’s not? How is the Web threading and weaving our concept of time? Why does Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Web, say it will always be a little broken? How does the web resolve the contradiction between viewing ourselves as members of a mass culture and as unique individuals? How does the Web change our concept of knowledge? How can the Web be so social and meaningful while traditional notions of technology has been that it’s alienating? How does the hyperlinked architecture of the Web reflect the structure of morality? David Weinberger answers these questions with clarity in a manner that will delight readers from both technical and humanistic backgrounds.
4. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide by Henry Jenkins explains how media convergence is changing the relationship between audiences, producers, and creative work in the context of the emergence of participatory culture. Jenkins stresses this is not a technological revolution, but instead it is a cultural shift from a focus of literacy as individual expression to a process of community involvement. Jenkins presents examples like Survivor and The Matrix to demonstrate how participatory culture can be harnessed by big media who up until now have not been able to capitalize on fan-generated content, which has flourished outside of commodity economics, but is now in the sights of big media.
There are lots of excellent books on this and related topics, but this is my short list as of 2008. In future posts you can expect me to discuss more titles worth a read that cover specific applications and issues related to the Web and Internet.
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