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issue 08/01/2000

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vCity 1.0
by Dr. Adam L. Gruen

20 days in the life of a 21st century virtual city simulation.

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buy this book from the publisher

Preferred Placement: Knowledge Politics on the Web
Edited by Richard Rogers

- reviewed by David Brake

This collection of academic essays makes a bold claim on its front cover. "Instead of celebrating the Web and all its prospects for creative artistry, democracy and e commerce, the volume authors calmly go backstage. How are search engines, portals, default settings and collaborative filtering formatting the surfer and offering passage to the media?"

This is an enticing prospect indeed for anyone interested in a deeper analysis of the web surfing experience, and indeed the book delivers the goods in several of the essays provided. As you might expect of any collection, this is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the essays here are lucid and make interesting points, some may make interesting points but are phrased in the sort of academic-speak which makes them difficult to grapple with, and a couple, while potentially interesting, only seem to be marginally related to the subject under discussion.

For me, the gem of this book is a 22 page essay: "The Public Good Vision of the Internet and the Politics of Search Engines" By Lucas Introna and Helen Nissenbaum (and not just because they cited an article of mine in their piece!). They look in detail at how through a combination of market pressures and the use of technologies with unexpected results "the leading search engines give prominence to popular, wealthy, and powerful sites at the expense of others." While they successfully identify the problem, the best they can do to suggest a solution is to "urge engineers and scientists who adhere to the ideology of the Web, to its values of inclusivity, fairness, and scope of representation, and so forth, to pursue improvements in indexing, searching, accessing, and ranking with these values firmly in mind."

The essay that follows, "E-Mediation by America Online" by Korrina Patelis, shows how America Online, while claiming merely to simplify the Internet for everyday users with no particular view of its own often restricts them to a narrow, commercially led, selection of resources.

The middle of the book includes two technical essays - one of which is a rather interesting overview of different information visualization techniques, "Mapping the World Wide Web" by Martin Dodge. When you're trying to guide people around large amounts of information (like that available on the Internet) long lists of links may be the most obvious way of doing it but it is not necessarily the best. This essay, accompanied by six pages of illustrations shows how researchers are looking at ways of "flying through" data in an intuitive way. Of course static illustrations are not a substitute for being able to try these products out yourselves - fortunately, the author also has a website where links to many of these can be found. Still, the essay makes a good introduction to the subject.

Of the remaining six essays in this book, I will say little. I suspect that there is some material of real potential interest in, for example, "Depluralising the Web" by Noortje Marres & Richard Rogers. They appear to be examining how one can come up with new ways of determining which websites offer good quality, relevant material (try looking at web sites that contain a lot of links from other web sites in a field not just those with lots of links in general). I fear, however, that I may be substantially misrepresenting their argument as my brain was frequently switch off by sentences like "Returning to the info-egalitarianist, the debatescaping technique redefines inclusion as involvement in an issue-network, and in critical moments, in a debate."

If you're a professional sociologist, my guess is that this is likely to be a very worthwhile acquisition. If you're just a layman interested in the subject, there may still be enough useful information here to merit the book's purchase - and it's certainly nicely produced and will impress your friends if you leave it on your coffee table!

b i o :
David Brake is a London-based Internet journalist, consultant and educator. He has written about the Internet and its effect on society since 1994, started one of Britain's most popular Internet sites in 1995 and was involved in the launch of the world's first consumer digital television project.


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