Written by Books

From Gutenberg to Zuckerbeg

In 2012, I’m going to try to write a little more about books. I say this every year, but I am going to try!
First up is John Naughton’s From Gutenberg to Zuckerbeg: What You Really Need to Know About the Internet. This is a follow-up, of sorts, to A Brief History of the Future, Naughton’s 2000 book that examined the internet to date at that point. Since then, much has changed, and Naughton starts from first principles in this book. Indeed, as the title suggests, he actually starts from the introduction of the printed word. He then imagines a time – around 1470 – less than 20 years after the first book had been printed, and points out that we’re still at the dawn of a new internet era in 2012 as we try to imagine quite how the internet is changing our world.
I’d probably argue that development is much faster these days than it was in the fifteenth centry. But it’s certain that we don’t truly understand how much things will change in the future standing at this point in time. Google only launched in 1998, Facebook in 2004, and YouTube in 2005. Can we imagine a world without them in 2012?
This title feels like it’s probably going to be a text book on a number of courses. I can imagine a 15 year old reading it, never having known a world without the web. So the history presented is recent. But it also explains to the interested (and especially, the non-technical) reader things that people tend for forget like the web is not the internet, and that many webpages don’t actually exist until they’re “called”. So, for example, estimating how many web-pages there are in existance is a spurious thing to compute. The copious footnotes suggest an academic future for the title.
If anything, there are probably a few too many ideas in this book, and some of them deserve a little more attention and time. For example, the chapter on copyright and “copywrongs” is probably deserving of a book of its own. In particualar, I think Naughton missed addressing the issue of patents with regard to software. Although it might be a little directly off-topic, the issues surrounding patent trolls severly impact on just about anyone attempting to deliver a web-service these days. You only have to look at the arsenals of patents being built up by the big players like Google and Apple to defend themselves against one another, to realise that it’s a major concern for anyone attempting to built a business online.
If I had a criticism, it’s that Naughton includes slightly too many extensive quotes throughout the book. If, like me, you read Naughton’s blog, you’ll be familiar with this, many of his entries being formed by little more than brief introductions to a chunky quote, and a link to the full piece. And some authors – particularly Nicholas Carr – probably get a few too many mentions. I prefer original ideas as much as possible, rather than repeating those of others. I suspect that, again, the academic nature of the book lends to the latter approach.
But overall, this is a very worthwhile title.