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The Internet and Society

   by James Slevin

    Polity Press
    15 March, 2000


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Editorial description(s):

Book Info
Explores the impact of the internet on modern culture beyond the fashionable celebration of anything goes online culture of the overly pessimistic conceptions tainted by the logic of domination. Softcover. DLC: Internet (Computer network)--Social aspects.

Reader review(s):

Certainly a good book about the Net, March 27, 2000
Good books about the Internet are rare, but Slevin's book is certainly one of them. It approaches the Internet from a social point of view, and describes the Net as a completely new medium, which covers aspects of all other existing media, and which, being so varied, has some major advantages over single, separate media (like newspapers or television). As Slevin argues, the Internet differs from a single, separate medium in that it does not merely have a push role, but can give people so much information as to make a real difference and a huge impact on society. Slevin might, as such, have named his book 'Internet is Society' rather than 'Internet and Society'.

The book is a good introduction to the origins and definitions of the Internet. It describes how young people basically grow up with the medium and how other people are spending more and more time and money to explore the Net. The book also deals with the Internet's possibilities and, not unimportantly, with the risks that are involved. These risks being a hot issue in society at the moment (risk management in organizations), Slevin's book provides some new insights into handling the Internet, both online as well as offline. So the book is a kind of a SWOT analysis of the Net and I am very impressed by this book!

Ren� Kalsbeek M.A.Communication Studies, University of Amsterdam

Internet's impact much broader than "online culture", December 14, 2000
As a doctoral student in Mass Communcation at the University of Texas in Austin studying the social impact of the Internet, I was glad to find a text that discussed the Internet from a social and cultural perspective. It was so refreshing to find that someone recognizes that the impacts of technology are broader than just the "online culture."

I was also inspired by Dr. Slevin's active approach recommendation to technology, rather than the passive approach or wait-and-see approach, or the technozealot/technophobe approaches that are prevalent in current literature. I, too, feel that the impact will be the sum total of various pros, cons and indifferences of the medium and that only through a coherent study of technology and an analysis of communication and sociological theory will we be able to grasp its opportunities and consequences. I plan to refer to this book and the resources on the associated Web site as a key resource in my dissertation process.

The focus on the arguments of Giddens, Thompson and Baumann strengthened the position of the author and grounded the work in sociological theory. Slevin realizes that we must not assume that traditional theory will apply in this new medium, but that we must analyze existing theory and understand that the unique dynamics of the Internet might modify or even rewrite theory. This work is powerful and insightful in its ability to integrate and apply multiple perspectives. I only wish that I could have written this book myself!

The Net and Society's Nettles, November 6, 2001
To the first-time users of both the Arpanet and Milnet in the birthing days of the Internet, it was clear pretty early on that this new technological development could very well become a potent force in society's processes. Sadly, academic exploration lagged in its tracking over the years, apparently favoring instead a focus on technological advances in the new medium.

Slevin's work goes far in correcting the shortfall between books that teach us how to approach the Internet and those that speak of how the Internet approaches-and changes-us. He feels the Internet is a new media that informs certain social forces transforming modern society, and that our human relationships re-sculpt themselves in an emerging arena of "manufactured uncertainty" and "manufactured risk."

From this thesis, Slevin goes on to do something quite valuable. He creates a new vocabulary, perhaps even a language, which names these often contradictory forces that push and pull our communities with new social tensions and technological innovations. We respond to these tidal flows, of course, both consciously and unconsciously. The point Slevin makes in this is, "we ignore them at our peril."

While Slevin's book certainly cannot be described as a fireplace-and--shawl reader, it is, nevertheless, eminently readable for both the specialist and interested layperson. The textual flow is relentlessly outlined, tracking the changes in society from the early days of hand shaking computers through the emergence of today's world wide web. With the careful introduction and naming of each social development, a mental game board emerges, on which one can see how each transforming force dynamically plays out in our human uncertainties.

Slevin carefully negotiates the quagmire of describing the Internet in moral terms. He turns away from the battle between doomsday prophets and ecstatic acolytes of the electronic altar. True to the post-modern dilemma, he views the Internet through a multiplicity of lenses. His diopter may not always be accurate, but his focus is unusually clear, particularly on a swirling subject that refuses to be interpreted in linear fashion.

In reading through Slevin's careful foundation necessary for a useful vocabulary, one can sometimes lose the sense of raw power for transformation the Internet carries within itself. Slevin seems to counter this by describing how our core institutions, never big fans of any kind of change, creak and groan at their very roots. In fact, he makes a good case that certain organizations are responding to the Internet in a fitful reflex of denial or embrace, perhaps even an odd combination of both, unconsciously sowing the seeds for their own destruction or transformation.

On the other hand, his views on emerging virtual communities are quite tantalizing. While he agrees it is not productive to trade a real life for a virtual world, the Internet does offer the potential for relating to one another through continually changing social practices. If so, one consequence of the Internet might be a whole new sense of community as both real and imagined. This thought is crucial as Slevin considers what groups of people might find themselves qualified or marginalized in the new cultural arena.

On the whole, Slevin articulates an understanding of our emerging future as carefully as a medical student lays out a skeleton in anatomy class. Generally, he succeeds by offering the reader a number of "windows" (the allusion is intentional and well explained in the book) through which one can view the Internet and the new social experience it mediates.

One doubts this is a book for the ages, but it certainly is one for the present and immediate future. As one who is fast wearing out a perfectly good pair of eyes on fuzzy fonts, I approached the book through a weary ennui. I found myself quickly captivated by a rigorous and perceptive thinker offering a new language for interpreting what is for many of us an anxious experience. While Slevin sometimes falls into jargon, he quickly gets back to a thought that is fresh and original. The writing of this book was a wonderful effort, and well worth the read.

Terrell Seaton is a student in the Ph.D. program for Leadership Studies at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA.

A persuasive theoretical attempt to grasp of cyberspace, April 1, 2002
If you look for a empirical and graphic illustration of cyberspace, this is not your choice. This book is intended to contribute to theoretical founding of cyberspace. So most pages are devoted to reviewing and elaborating various existing theories, researches. That is, this is a meta-theorizing. His founding theoretical orientation is not fashionable postmodernist but Giddens??s theory of structuration, particularly the knowledgability of actor, and modernity. The author manages to bring about a persuasive extension of Giddens??s approach to cyberspace. He argues there is no reason to see that online community is not that different from offline day-to-day life from totally discrepant angle as postmodernists claim. Online community also assumes the development of the integrity, trust and shared stock of knowledge. What is needed to assess the experience of this brave new world is the proper theory of media and modernity.
The overall outline of the book is like this:
Ch.1: dealing with the nature of ??risk society?? depending on Giddens and Habermas.
Ch.2: illustrating the technological and institutional features of internet.
Ch.3: theoretical founding of internet as media based on Thompson??s conception.
Ch.4: arguing that the virtual community is not that far cry from actual (offline) community. So we can cope with it based on existing framework.
Ch.5 arguing that mobilizing IT into organizations like the enterprise, i.e., restructuring, should be reconsidered in the light that IT changes the settings of interaction for IT is a form of media. This chapter tackles the cases of government and NGO??s IT adoption too.
Ch.6: focusing on how the internet enriches and transforms the nature of the self and experience in everyday life. His position is like this: ??the self is not being transformed by forces that operate exclusively behind the backs of individuals??.
Below are comments I posted on the bulletin board of a graduate class. Most are complaints. Yep. It??s not fair to the author. But the reader I presumed are those who already read the text. So there was not much reason to recapping the text and writing down praises. And some are not that relevant to the book directly. But I think it would be helpful to get what is like the real line of the book.

1. (On Ch.1) This introductory chapter on founding concepts borrowed from Giddens and Beck, in the tint of Frankfurt??s conception of life world, is much more graphic than Castells??s. But the sketch of time-space distanciation or modernization, in the light of uncertainty and risk is not figurative. And that, there is no definition of ??risk??. Yep. Risk is well known concept and widely used. But the writer mixes it with life world in the sense of Frankfurt??s. he should have suggest the definition of those concepts to place in the context. And worse, he omits various ancillary concepts like danger vs. security, disembedding vs. reembedding, ontological security and so forth. Yep. Recapping whole line of ??The Consequences of Modernity?? is not reasonable. But such a skipping causes confusion.
2. (On Ch.3) I can??t understand why the author uses the ambiguous concept of culture, while he devoted a few pages to theoretical problems of that concept. He doesn??t substantiates the intangible word at all. I??m not sure what would be his object in this chapter. Frankly, I couldn't distinguish Geertz??s conception from functionalist??s. For that reason, Giddens expelled that word from his theorizing. I couldn't see any benefit to use that word. Culture is no more than a conceptual umbrella, at least in sociology, which unjustifiably conflate seemingly compatible phenomena, though actually discrepant in practical research. Its notoriety doesn??t fall short of one of ??society??. For this reason, Giddens restrains himself from the temptation to sue that word, rather confined it only to ??the locale of interaction??. Thompson??s analytic framework of ??cultural transmission?? is awesome. In my opinion, his framework is wholly compatible to Giddens??s. For Giddens himself doesn??t offer sufficient theorizing on media or technology, his framework could complement the shortfall. But I don??t think Giddens??s stratification model, especially power, could go hand in hand with culture. Instead, why not replace ??modality of cultural transmission?? with ??media?? ? I suspect author??s use of ??culture?? is no more than the inflation of concept.
Besides the conceptual glitch, the intention of ch.3 seems successful: to link the internet to publicness or public sphere. It has been discussed for long. But the author??s attempt to theoretically found it has a point in sketching out the field.
3. (On Ch.4) On the first section of ch.4, I wonder why the author simply ignore the very condition of those various citations he bombarded. Didn??t he fail to be reminded that it could cause confusion? I won??t say he should have reproduced the emptiness of postmodernists, but he should have sensitized, at least, and articulated what is his opponent. It??s the way of discussion. Yep. He illustrates their position in ch.6. but ch.6 is not ch.4.
4. (OnCh.4) the author follows the line of Giddens to attack the babbles of postmodernists. As well known, postmodernists take the stance of poststructuralists in the conception of the self. It has some points in the sphere of philosophy. But it??s hard to be so in sociology. As Giddens puts it, the agency should be conceived as knowledgable actor. This is the point of late Wittgenstein too. In this vein, the babble of postmodernist should be rejected. In this regard, author??s sketching out of IRC, in the fashion of Goffman, is much more persuasive than empty discussion of postmodernists.

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