And That's the Way It Will Be: News and Information in a Digital World. Christopher Harper. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 256 pp. $24.95 hbk.
When Sophana Meach was a child in Cambodia, he survived the killing fields by telling adventure stories to the Khmer Rouge's younger followers in his camp. Today he uses his storytelling skills to show his countrymen how to obtain news and information by computer. McLean Greaves grew up on Vancouver Island, Canada, one of only three blacks in his high school class. Today he heads Virtual Melanin, a company whose many projects include fostering online connections and computer literacy among young blacks and Latinos in New York's toughest neighborhoods. Brad Bartley is an MIT student who was homesick for Quapaw, Oklahoma. Today he keeps up with life back home by signing on to a personal news retrieval service that he conceived and helped design.
Meach, Greaves, and Bartley are among the dozens of innovative people whom we meet in And That's the Way It Will Be. The omnipresent Bill Gates is here, too, of course. So is America Online's Steve Case, the Los Angeles Times' Leah Gentry, and various other "digerati." But the story Christopher Harper tells is not really about them and even less about the technology itself. It is mostly about people like Meach, Greaves, and Bartley- and you and I - who are finding creative ways to use news and information in an increasingly digital world.
Through their stories, accomplishments, and concerns, we get something more valuable than another overview of technology and its attributes. We get a sense of what the emerging medium can actually do. As the novelty of the online format itself wears off, greater attention to its use by real people is, arguably, not just the way it will be but the way it should be. As Harper is not the first to point out, the digital age "stands as part of a historical continuum to learn and use information effectively."
The down side to And That's the Way It Will Be is that while the human voices form an engaging and often strikingly insightful mosaic, the pieces are only loosely glued together. The book comes perilously close to being a collection of anecdotes. Through the small and the personal, we catch a glimpse of the big and the comprehensive - but only a glimpse. Harper covers a tremendous amount of ground in a mere 200 pages of text (supplemented by a chronology and a glossary, both useful if rather eclectic compilations). He hits on everything from the culture clashes created by corporate joint ventures, to the credibility of online news, to the computer's potential to narrow the knowledge gap both locally and globally. One especially good chapter deals with pornography, hate speech, and` privacy; another drives home just how big a challenge it is to devise viable government policies for this complex and rapidly evolving medium. …