The Daily Deal, February 21, 2001
Industry Insight Technology

Terminal Dullness

by Susan Webber

Plodding, dated, and marred by errors, "A Nation Transformed" falls flat in its effort to tell the story of information in the U.S.

"A 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?).

"A 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 to proceed.