Wade Rowland, Canadian author of Spirit of the Web - Internet History

Spirit of the Web - a new book on Internet history

"...remarkable...poetic...(a) renaissance sweep of imagination...SPIRIT OF THE WEB is an engaging hybrid of popular scholarship: part archive, part science textbook, part philosophy, part polemic about the nature of authority and the control of information in all ages."
The Globe and Mail "Review of Books",

"...a delight, an informed and intriguing compendium of stories and information presented in an effortless prose."
The Globe and Mail - May 1999

Buy the quality paperback release of "Spirit of the Web" online.

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Spirit of the Web - a new book on Internet history

Spirit of the Web:

Excerpt from Spirit of the Web - Chapter 31, The Promise of the Age of Information:

Copyright ©1999 Wade Rowland. All rights reserved.

"Computers and computer-mediated communication technologies are also tools which support in very direct and immediate ways fundamentally human traits such as the desire to communicate, the desire for freedom from arbitrary authority, a resistance to uniformity and a preference for diversity, a love of the unexpected and the serendipitous. They do this, or can in principle, while assisting in the maintenance of the social fabric through richness and fluidity of communication, access to information and the provision of tools to make information useful and meaningful.

It could be said that, as a meta-machine, the computer and its networks are paradoxically putting into the hands of people the instruments they need to break the bonds of the machine age and regain their threatened humanity.

Access to information; the virtual corporation; global, multimedia communication; new tools for creativity of all kinds and in all media - all of these developments seem to militate toward redressing the imbalance between the subjective and the objective, the rational and the intuitive, the yin and yang, that has grown progressively more troubling as we have fallen more and more under the spell of our machines and machine-derived management techniques and social structures.

In the end, it is the networking of computers that has made the difference, that has differentiated their impact from that of ordinary machines. Or one might say the difference derives from the fact that computers are the first machines that can actually communicate with one another autonomously, making the construction of networks feasible.

Communication being the most human of attributes, it might be said that we have finally invented a machine that operates more in sympathy with us, one that we can adapt to our rhythms and preferences, rather than the reverse, as has been the case with most machine technologies.

The machine age that preceded our own, and lingers still, dictated economic processes and values that meshed with machine processes. It meant humans were to be considered in the undifferentiated aggregate, i.e. not as employees or even workers, but as "human resources", the civilian counterpart to "cannon fodder". The army was the ideal organizational model toward which machine society impelled its masses.

The factory, as the hub of production and employment, simplified the logistics of production and permitted the regimentation of workers according the the dictates of the manufacturing process. It demanded mobility of labour - workers had to locate themselves near their place of employment - which instigated a breakdown of traditional family and social relationships and values. It demanded collective effort, uniformity, order and obedience.

Frederick Taylor was the patron saint of machine-age management and his ideas on efficiency and productivity dominated the era. His contributions may be summarized in three principles: a) dissociation of the work process from the skills of the workers - managers alone should be responsible for organizing the processes of labour; b) separation of conception from execution, so that workers can be confined to performing a series of management-prescribed actions, and c) the strict maintenance of management's monopoly on knowledge of each step of the production process and their labour requirements.

As Mumford observed at the height of the machine age in 1930, the most noticeable feature of the era has been its punctuality. Every facet of the daily rhythm is governed by the clock. The household arises at a set time, no matter how tired or apathetic. If one arises late, there is a frantic rush to "make up time". We dine at intervals set by the clock, regardless of appetite. Our entertainment is dictated by the television time-listings. Millions observe the same schedule, so that only perfunctory provision is made for those who have to perform these functions at different times.

And looking back from his own vantage point to the previous century, he painted a picture which is startling in its relevance to our own time of obsessive concern with quantitative. Mumford wrote:

"The leaders and enterprisers of the period believed that they had avoided the necessity for introducing values, except those which were automatically recorded in profits and prices. They believed the problem of justly distributing goods could be sidetracked by creating an abundance of them; that the problem of applying one's energies wisely could be cancelled out simply by multiplying them; in short that most of the difficulties that had hitherto vexed mankind had a mathematical or mechanical - that is a quantitative - solution. The belief that values could be dispensed with constituted the new system of values."

The social structures dictated by the machine, in encouraging collective exertion, greatly amplified the impact of human effort, but only at the sacrifice of much that is essentially human. And we have carried on in the misguided belief that there is a useful or workable "value-free" approach to solving human problems, available to us through the use of technology.

The Information Age, due to the distinctive nature of its economic demands and consequences, has much less need for formal structure than the mechanical age with its factory paradigm and characteristic corporate hierarchies. Digital communication networks make it possible, even economically desirable to disperse workers, who no longer need access to machinery that in earlier times could be provided economically only at a central factory location.

Most of the tools needed by the information worker are available to him or her via digital networks connecting computers. And "information worker" can be very broadly defined here: Hollywood film editors can and do work at home thanks to high-speed fibre optic networks and digital editing software, as can just about anyone else whose on-the-job raw materials can be reduced to digital format and whose needs for most personal communication can be met by telephone and video conferencing.

Sales reps need no offices at company headquarters and companies may need no headquarters; teachers need no classrooms to house their students. Most bureaucratic processes, where they survive, can be dispersed. In a very broad sense, decision-making and responsibility can be dispersed in novel ways and very widely throughout society because of the new possibilities for continuous communication between the providers and users of services and products of all kinds.

In the Information Age, in the era of distributed networks, machine age values are out of place and counterproductive. Creativity is valued over corporate loyalty in workers, who in turn have little or no tolerance for the regimentation of traditional factory systems. Excellence is not achieved by division of labour and isolation of tasks as on an assembly line, but by small groups, sometimes only two or three, working intensively as a team.

Significantly, the the tools and the raw materials of production, principally information, computers and access to networks, can be possessed or at least tapped by any individual worker: the capitalists have lost their historic monopoly on the means of production, along with the power that came with it to set wages and determine working conditions. Their challenge is now, to be able to identify the young men and women who are likely to come up with the next bright idea and to get them under contract.

In the information age, it's a seller's market for labour, and labour often arrives equipped with its own tools of production, its own "factory". Capitalism is not dead; it is being democratized...."

Praise for "Spirit of the Web"

"...remarkable...poetic...(a) renaissance sweep of imagination...SPIRIT OF THE WEB is an engaging hybrid of popular scholarship: part archive, part science textbook, part philosophy, part polemic about the nature of authority and the control of information in all ages...Like life, digital networks are an emergent system; Rowland helps put their past and future in perspective."
The Globe and Mail "Review of Books"

"...thoroughly and trenchantly chronicles the vagaries of information technology ...a spirited, stimulating and sophisticated network of stories...philosophical and original."
Winnipeg Free Press

"...colourful and compelling...enlightening new history...Without hype or hyperbole, SPIRIT OF THE WEB provides its readers with an informed context with which to understand the implications of their actions in the Age of Information."
Quill & Quire

"Spirit of the Web is an excellent examination, not just of the invention of these technologies, but of their economic, social and cultural impact...fascinating...definitive...highly recommended."
The Leader Post

"Required reading."
The Literary Review, Globe and Mail

"A brilliant book. I couldn't put it down."
Norm Bolen, vice-president, programming, History Television

Spirit of the Web:
The Age of Information
from Telegraph to Internet

by Wade Rowland

Revised Edition, published 1999
416 pages - trade paperback
ISBN 1-894433-02-5
Retail price $26.95 Cdn
Key Porter Books (416) 862-7777

Order Spirit of the Web online.

Wade Rowland is available for lectures and readings, contact by email or by phone at 905-753-2405.

Encyclopedic in its scope, Spirit of the Web is destined to become required reading in business and education, a fixture in every wired household.

Learn more about Spirit of the Web

Spirit of the Web Table of Contents


Wade Rowland is one of Canada's most respected literary journalist. He has worked for the Winnipeg Free Press, the Toronto Telegram and both national Canadian television networks: CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) and the CTV Television Network. Rowland writes and lectures extensively on the new media, ethical issues, and science and technology.

Rowland is the author of a dozen other books including Spirit of the Web, a popular history of communications technologies that was selected as Required Reading for 1997 by The Globe and Mail. Other recent books by Wade Rowland include "Ockham's Razor", published April 1999 by Key Porter Books, and "Galileo's Mistake: The Archaeology of a Myth" published October 2001 by Thomas Allen Publishers. He lives with his family near Port Hope and is a principal in an Internet-based corporation.

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