The Daily Deal, February 21, 2001 |
Industry Insight Technology
by Susan Webber
dated, and marred by errors, "A Nation Transformed" falls flat in its
effort to tell the story of information in the U.S.
Nation Transformed by Information: How Information Has Shaped the United
Stated from Colonial Times to Present," represents a truly singular
achievement. The book takes one of the most dynamic phenomena in business
history and renders it a soporific. Editors Alfred D. Chandler, Jr.,
a renowned and now-retired Harvard Business School professor best known
for his seminal work on structure in modern organizations, and James
W. Cortada, Executive Consultant with IBM Corp. Global Services and
author of several books on information technology, take a broad historical
view of the information industry. For them, that's primarily information
transmission (the mail system, the Internet) and manipulation (typewriters,
filing systems, computers) rather than content.
The essays, all written by academics, start with the conveying of news
and political tracts during the American Revolution, and advance through
the evolution of communications infrastructures to the Internet age.
They depict linear (more accurately, hyperbolic) progress as one new
technology replaces another, with a sense of manifest destiny. Americans,
by virtue of their entrepreneurship, tinkering bent, geographic distances,
and good patent laws, inexorably became world leaders.
This paean to American superiority is reminiscent of Fascist art, where
all truths are absolute and the human figures are handsome, muscular,
and devoid of personality. It conveniently overlooks the fierce competitive
battles, the inflection points, the touted technologies that bit the
dust (who remembers Atari?), and the catastrophic reversals, such as
the bankruptcies of the early railroads and the eclipse of former leaders
like Wang, Burroughs, Novell.
With its Norman Rockwell-esque portrait of a munificent technology industry
led by wise and energetic men, "A Nation Transformed" also omits the
innovations led by the sex business: videotape rentals, commercial websites,
and chat (why do you think America Online Inc., which popularized chat
rooms, is the lone survivor of the early dial-up services?).
Nation Transformed" could have been an antidote to the insistence, now
dulled by the bearish technology market, that the new businesses spawned
in the 1990s have no antecedents. However, the authors embarked upon
an ambitious survey without a road map. Lacking both theories, beyond
that of divine ordination, and fresh observations, they offer a recitation
of familiar facts that quickly grows dull.
And dullness is a terminal failing. Merely bad books can be stimulating.
Haphazard reasoning will elicit a counterargument, erroneous statements
call for correction, and sloppy writing begs for a more elegant formulation.
But plodding, pedestrian writing may be the worst offense of all, because
it is an anesthetic.
The book often dumbs down its content. To illustrate: "The most basic
and fundamental observation that one can make about software is that
computers cannot operate without it. It is the fuel that drives computers,
just as coal made trains operate, and gasoline ran motor vehicles. But
unlike coal and gasoline, software represents instructions transmitted
electronically through computers, making it difficult for people to
understand exactly what it is. But no understanding of software makes
sense without some appreciation of it." One emerges with the impression
that the writers have no real feel for their subject, and not a high
opinion of their readers, either.
Moreover, "A Nation Transformed" does not even do a particularly good
job with the one thing it has in abundance, facts. Some tidbits stand
out - for example, that Western Union's fear of being nationalized like
its European peers fostered a short-term focus and led it to overlook
the emerging technology of telephony or that the federal government
funded 85% of the research into communications and information technology
in the second half of the 20th century. But there is too much replay
of the early days of computing, of the rise of knowledge workers and
flatter, more flexible organizations.
The nadir is a chapter on the impact of the new technologies on the
home, composed entirely of mundane observations like more time spent
on the computer implies less time for interpersonal relations.
Mistakes abound, from calling the Universal Product Code the Universal
Price Code, to surprising number of typographical and grammatical errors.
But this sloppiness did not result from a rush to publish, for much
of the data is badly dated. The closing chapter, for example, discusses
convergence as a winning strategy and cites AT&T Corp.'s now-failed
foray into broadband as evidence.
Why did this book miss the mark so badly? With a noteworthy exceptions
like Chandler and Peter Drucker, virtually all the top scholars in the
business arena study finance and economics. Entrepreneurship was a backwater
until not long ago. (One symptom is a dearth of peer-reviewed journals).
So Chandler and his cohorts, who relied on secondary sources, lacked
a high-quality foundation on which to build. They turned to second-rate
academics, journalists, industry participants, consultants, and even
popular writers (incredibly, a bibliographic essay puts futurologist
Alvin Toffler on the same footing as sociologist Daniel Bell).
The authors have left ample opportunity for an ambitious and careful
thinker to draw out the lessons of the Information Age in a still-to-be-written
book. "A Nation Transformed" is at best, an illustration of how not