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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 621-623
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The Social Shaping of Information Superhighways: European and American Roads to the Information Society
The Social Shaping of Information Superhighways: European and American Roads to the Information Society. Edited by Herbert Kubicek, William H. Dutton, and Robin Williams. Frankfurt and New York: Campus and St. Martin's Press, 1997. Pp. 372; figures, tables, notes, index. $49.95
Although the chapters of this book are all based on papers delivered at a conference held in October 1995 in Bremen and sponsored by COST/A4, they include important revisions to reflect subsequent events, such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in the United States. A lengthy introductory chapter by Herbert Kubicek and William H. Dutton provides a useful overview of the conference as well as a framework for the following eighteen chapters. These are organized into five parts. The first addresses the nature of and differences between American and European perspectives on the information superhighway, a theme that flows strongly through the entire book. The second reviews earlier projects to provide historical perspective. The third examines the social bases of policy responses, in particular how input derives from the public and from business. The fourth and largest addresses access to the information superhighway, with special attention to issues of universal service. The fifth provides two excellent [End Page 621] summaries of major elements of the social shaping of the information superhighway, with one chapter by Robin Williams and a second by Volker Schneider. Many useful citations are included throughout the book.
The book provides a variety of viewpoints and presents insights by key people who have been deeply involved. It will be highly valuable to the scholar intent on understanding the decisions made during a critical period in the development of the information superhighway and differences between the United States and Europe. This variety has a downside, however, in that the result is less a coherent story and more a portrayal of the reality of the policy debates during this period. The closing chapters by Williams and Schneider provide an approximation to that coherence, but ultimately the book is what it is, a collection of conference papers.
It is appropriate that the largest portion of the book is devoted to access and to policy objectives such as universal service, because issues of haves versus have nots related to the information superhighway seem certain to become increasingly difficult. Especially good are chapters by Andrew Blau on universal service and the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and by Paschal Preston on implications for less developed regions in the European Union.
An important caveat is that many of the authors appear not to understand the Internet or have much insight about the impact it will have. Many seem to be coming from a background in traditional voice telecommunications or television and do not see the magnitude of what is coming and how fast it is going to happen. That is actually a virtue, though, because it reflects the outlook of many key people and hence provides clear evidence of how history shapes planning for the future. Perhaps because they had not quite grasped the Internet, there are two major aspects of the social shaping of the information superhighway that the authors miss, at least with regard to the United States. One is the crucial role of universities in the development of the Internet. Most of the work on ARPANET and subsequently on NSFNET was pioneered by universities or by associated scientific research laboratories. Commercial interests, beginning with the research units within corporations, subsequently recognized the enormous advantages of the Internet, but the developmental roots and explosive early use was in academia, which served also as a crucial source of skilled developers and users, long before the Internet became so exciting to Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, or the stock market.
The second point to note is that the push with the Internet did not start when the NII was announced in the United States or the Bangemann Report presented in...