Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age
Rutgers University Press, 1996, $17.95
xiv + 268 pp, ISBN 0-813-523-702
This is a Book Review published on 27 February 1998.
Citation:Muir A, 'W. Wresch's Disconnected: Haves and Have-Nots in the Information Age', Book Review, 1998 (1) The Journal of Information, Law and Technology (JILT). <http://elj.warwick.ac.uk/jilt/bookrev/98_1muir/>. New citation as at 1/1/04: <http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/law/elj/jilt/1998_1/muir/>
Wresch is an American academic specialising in mathematics and computing. He was inspired to write this book on a teaching exchange trip to Namibia where he became aware of the vicious circle created by poverty and unemployment and the resulting lack of access to information. He also became aware of how even people in more privileged positions may not be able to get hold of the information they want or need.
In the first part of the book, Wresch breaks information down into different categories: public; personal; professional; and commercial and explores the barriers to accessing each type of information. He goes beyond saying that new technology can overcome barriers restricting access to information, and that information and communication technology should be implemented in a way that sectors of society do not have their access to information restricted. Some of these barriers are such that technology alone will not solve them. Indeed, even if the whole world had access to information and communication technologies, these barriers would still exist.
The second and third parts of the book look at problems in transmitting and receiving information, political, economic, social and psychological, in more detail. Two chapters in the second part, Tyranny and Information Criminals are likely to be of interest to JILT readers. These chapters give some shocking examples of censorship carried out all the way down the line, from killing journalists and writers to intercepting broadcasts and email traffic to banning books from libraries. One especially interesting culprit is the American Library Association which apparently endorsed the decision of American library authorities not to buy books from publishers who had dealings with Apartheid era South Africa. Examples of invasion of privacy, abuse of intellectual property rights and electronic fraud are also given.
Since the book is written by an American and is published by an American publisher, it inevitably has a US bias. The author makes one claim for the country that at first seems not to be true. Apparently, the US is responsible for compiling the world's first database: the results of the 1880 US Census. It is not until later on in this particular chapter that the reader realises that the author meant that the results of this census were the first to be analysed using mechanical means. The author also annoyingly thinks that the words England and Britain are synonyms.
The book would have benefited from more rigorous editing. There are several typographical errors. He refers to the banning of the film, Schindler's List because it shows Germans in a bad light and the Jewish people involved as 'south hearted'. This would not be so bad if the words were not quoted from another source. There is a bizarre citation system in use, with some mysterious numbers in brackets which do not seem to refer to anything at all. On one or two occasions, there was no reference for works mentioned in the text. One of these was by a colleague Wresch thanks in his preface. Wresch does not make any reference to recent books in this area, such as that by Haywood. Some of the statistics used seem out of date for a book published at the end of 1996. An example is statistics on the number of databases produced by various countries that date back to 1991. The reader wonders whether there was a more up-to-date source available at the time of writing.
This book is extremely readable and full of anecdotes, culled both from his time in Namibia and from news reports from all over the world. The use of anecdotes undoubtedly livens up the text and gives it colour. However, at times the reader feels that Wresch almost uses too many stories. The result is that the reader sometimes feels there is a lack of real substance. Part four of the book, entitled Solutions, consists of one chapter entitled, Reasons for hope. Here Wresch gives some anecdotal evidence of information getting through. The author's conclusions only merit two paragraphs at the end of the chapter. The categories of information are defined more by example than by isolating specific properties. One definition that is given, for professional information, seems too narrow. The author seems to be saying that professional information comprises solely that written down in the professional literature.
The book gives an interesting overview of the issues for anyone who is not familiar with the subject. It does not really say anything new. In fact, reading this book is like consuming a Chinese meal: enjoyable at the time, but one feels less than satisfied not long after finishing it.