cover image The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution

The Soft Edge: A Natural History and Future of the Information Revolution

Paul Levinson. Routledge, $79.95 (280pp) ISBN 978-0-415-15785-8

Those who think the ""information revolution"" of the subtitle refers only to the current electronic transformation, will be surprised to discover how big a piece of history Levinson bites off. In this philosophical ramble, Levinson, who teaches at Hofstra University and the New School for Social Research, and, as president of Connected Education, offers graduate courses on the Internet, reaches back to the invention of the alphabet. In early chapters on the development of the printing press in China, public education in America and such 19th-century inventions as photography, Levinson spreads the paint pretty thin. But when he homes in on specific technologies (telephone, electricity, radio, computer) he does offer original insights about how various media respond to basic human needs and characteristics. Some media survive better than others because they occupy important cultural-ecological niches and seem natural to human sensory perception. For instance, the radio, which provides background noise, fits with pre-technological human habits, whereas television, which must be attended to with eyes open, does not. Another valuable idea is that of ""remedial"" technologies that make up for deficiencies of others: the VCR, for example, compensates for the fleetingness of television images. There are interesting ideas here, but they are often obscured by sticky prose: e.g. ""[T]he icon's re-enlistment of the hieroglyphic for communication service far less peripheral than road-signs partakes of a rear-view mirror reaching so far back into the past for its inspiration as to seem like the Hubble, except quite the reverse of forward and outward in its outlook."" (Oct.)