In the Digital Comfort Zone
Paul Hilts -- 2/26/01
Code becomes culture and culture code, as computers work their way into the mainstream

In This Article:

For much of the last decade, the future of computing was envisioned as a time of "ubiquitous computing," in the words of John Seely Brown, then head of Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center. There wouldn't be a separate computer-geek culture, because computers would be everywhere--invisible, reliable, running all kinds of machines that used to be "dumb iron." The last year has shown several examples of computers learning to do what people do, rather than the other way around.

Last fall, Redmond Technology Press, a new computer publisher formed by Stephen Nelson to produce books that he had been packaging for others, was ballyho d in the Wall Street Journal. What was so newsworthy? Nelson targeted his books at "ordinary businesspeople, not at beginners or power users." Two typical Redmond books due this spring are The MBA's Guide to Microsoft Excel 2002 and The Effective Executive's Guide to Microsoft PowerPoint 2002.

Rather than getting people to change the way they work to fit computers, Redmond's books show people how to do the things they need most. "Most computer manuals provide more information than people need," explained Nelson. "They're too crammed with detail and the
Virtual Classroom series
uses technology to teach
the way people learn.
language is unclear. Our book on Project 2000 has 180 screen shots, because people need to see what the screen is supposed to look like. There is truth in the saying 'A picture is worth a thousand words.'"
Osborne/McGraw-Hill's Virtual Classroom series takes the "picture worth a thousand words" idea a step further. Each book in the series will include a CD-ROM in the back, as computer books have done for five or six years. Each of these CDs, though, rather than containing just some sample codes, holds more than an hour of video lessons from the author of the book. The disks allow users to learn by watching experts, "at a fraction o f the cost of traditional seminars and classes," said Dan Newman, head of, who produced the CDs for Osborne.

Code as Culture: A New Ethic?
Osborne is also involved in an effort to describe the culture that comes from computers. This spring Hacking Exposed, an inquiry into computer network security and why hackers do what they do, g s into a second edition, having taken over bestseller lists last fall. If digital processes are ubiquitous, the terrorists of the future will be hackers, the book argues, and security is everyone's concern.

Osborne is promoting the book with a contest involving questions that are answered in the text. The winners receive courses in computer security worth $7,000.

Random House also has a new title delving into programmers' minds, but from a positive angle. The Hacker Ethic, by open software leading light Pekka Himanen, describes computer use as a natural part of human evolution. The first step in evolution, Himanen writes, is survival. Then comes prospering through hard work, the common definition of the Protestant work ethic. Himanen claims that the next step in evolution is entertainment, when people do what they want to do, not merely what is required. Thus, he proposes a Hacker Ethic, using "hacker" in its original, positive meaning--someone who plays with programming as creative expression--not the digital terrorists computer users all detest.

Random House is also exploring the melding of digital processes into mainstream culture with its new electronic imprint, AtRandom. The titles cover a wide range of nonfiction topics, but a number of the books deal in digital cultural matters: Men Seeking Women, about love and sex online; King of the Angels, about funding high-tech companies; and Digitopia, which ponders the psychological and cultural implications of a fully wired world.

E-books Strive to Make Their Mark

NASA officials used to say that they would know they'd made their mark when a space shuttle
Hungry Minds' E-Publishing
for Dummies: Opening e-books
to the masses.
launch wasn't news any more. Electronic books are trying to make their mark in the same way now, trying to become mainstream enough not to be news.
One effort to bring e-books into the mainstream is Random House's, the first electronic effort from a traditional publisher to mix digital culture titles with other nonfiction. Of the imprint's first 16 titles, four are computer culture-related. All the AtRandom books list for $9.95 in a variety of electronic formats from e-tailers, followed a month later by a print-on-demand trade paperback for $15 from bricks-and-mortar stores.

A common assumption has always been that e-books would be a hit first with computer book readers. Technical people were "in the digital comfort zone," at ease enough with various kinds of technology to see e-books as just another format, like a mass market paperback. Two publishers are working hard to break out of the computer-ghetto mindset, and make e-books accessible by ordinary people.

Hungry Minds Inc. has just released E-Publishing for Dummies ($24.99) and Top Floor Publishing is about to bring out Poor Richard's Creating E-Books , both of which discuss the different formats available, as well as distribution and promotion.

One question remains, though: If digital culture becomes this pervasive, what will become of computer publishers?
--Paul Hilts