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I'm not a professional educator, and haven't taught a class of any size for several years, so I often find it difficult to judge the effectiveness of an introductory text. Where does one draw the line between issues covered in the book and those to be found in supplemental readings? How do class discussions and term papers figure in the mix? I did have a definite opinion regarding William Mitchell's City of Bits, but I'm often at a loss.
With regard to Cyberliteracy, however, I do feel confident that Laura Gurak, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and author of Persuasion & Privacy in Cyberspace, has created a valuable primer that will help Internet users critically evaluate what they see on the Web and in their email inboxes. While this book is most useful for new Internet users, either in a classroom setting or read independently, Gurak's analysis of a wide variety of net-based communications should offer experienced users plenty of new insights as well.
Much of what makes this book appealing is the author's eschewing the typical "how to" approach to analyzing Internet content. While she does offer tips on identifying hoaxes and urban legends, Gurak spends the bulk of the book showing readers how to divine the hidden assumptions in an online communication. One example, discussed on page 24, is a corporate spokesperson's description of the Internet as a biological entity that "evolves" out of the control of its constituent users and technology providers. The statement abdicates responsibility for the effects that a company's Internet-enabling software has on the environment, when in fact the software will have a tremendous impact on the everyday business of running the Internet. (Paulina Borsook also criticized "bionomics", a radical view which casts the economy as a biological system, in Cyberselfish.)
Other topics Gurak addresses include how gender affects online communication, the role of privacy and individual rights in cyberspace, and, amusingly, how the speed of computers can evoke rage in users when things don't happen fast enough. (As a broadband subscriber, I can tell you how frustrating it is to drop down to a 56k modem.)
In Cyberliteracy, Dr. Gurak distills the essence of what readers need to be intelligent consumers of Internet information. I don't doubt the book will find its place on the reading lists of net-related courses in quite a few universities.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of three online courses and nine books , including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books.