Book Review: Digital Information Culture
Digital Information Culture: The Individual and Society in the Digital Age. By Luke Tredinnick, Chandos Publishing, 2008, ISBN 978-1843341604, 220 pages.
This is an impressive and very useful book. It is impressive in drawing on a wide range of relevant ideas (on history, society, culture, technology) to tease out the ways in which we can validly speak about the cultural aspects of digital information. It is very useful because it will almost instantly join lists of recommended reading wherever information, knowledge and library studies are formally taught (it clearly derives from lectures but is all the clearer for that in this case, with none of the pedestrianism and derivativeness associated with that origin). Luke Tredinnick is course leader for the MSc in digital information management at London Metropolitan University and this book is intended to be a companion to his earlier Digital Information Contexts .
The author is right to open up the wider landscape of culture and society, otherwise we have only a vague sense of context. The first of two parts, then, discusses culture and technology, positioning insights from well-known voices like Arnold and Hoggart in the historical side of this, moving on to technological determinism and cyberspace, hinting at dislocations between representation and reality (more perhaps expected there on simulacra, but that has been done to death and anyway it jumps in later), and explaining the importance of narrative in meaning-making in organisations, among individuals, and in the digital age. Tredinnick's point that a constructivistic approach to the ways in which digital technology has been developed and used is convincing and leads neatly to the second part of the book which deals with digital information culture itself.
This is a real elephant's trap of a subject and many books have dragged their weary way through digital information, making pretentious and unconvincing cross-references on the way. Tredinnick does a very creditable job with it, organising his thoughts under themes like textuality and knowledge, power and identity. The most impressive chapter by a long stretch is his discussion of authenticity, which in a very real sense lies at the centre of the book. He picks up this sentiment at the very end, in an epilogue on culture and tradition, when he says that we situate ourselves on new and changing cultural terrains, that cultural activity has always been a dialogue with tradition and new cultural forms, and that we're in territory where any pronouncement has only the credibility it comes with.
Authenticity lies at the heart of things – not only because digital culture appears to reconfigure (and some say undermine) traditional understandings and arrangements for authority and ownership (many of these underpinned in their turn by intellectual property rights), but also because digital culture throws up a set of problems that we cannot evade. It enables us to preserve documents from the past but we don't know how permanent digital storage is; at the same time, digital formats enable perfect reproductions, disseminate knowledge simultaneously to thousands of users, and allow for immersion and granularity and interactivity on a scale never known before.
Tredinnick debates these issues without being dogmatic. In a well-informed way he raises one issue after another in a logical way, easy to follow for someone new to the subject, but never condescending. There are times when his frame of reference gets more complex – as when he ponders the historiographic implications of digitisation (in a late chapter on memory) and, here in the authenticity chapter, where he (very cleverly) merges two traditions (aesthetic and the technology of cultural production) to examine whether digital technology has led to a loss of authenticity at the price of a gain in access and investigability.
In the knowledge chapter he explores the related issue of mediation, of the extent to which publishers/aggregators and the like do and can and should shape media consumption. Much if not most of it seems driven by highly participative and collaborative consumers keen to use MySpace and wikis, mash-ups and blogs. A principle underlying this in its turn is the paradigm shift from use value to exchange value, and this characterises both the knowledge economy and the creative industries : it is as relevant to knowledge and information as to cultural artefacts and artistic practice.
With culture in mind, Tredinnick handles the strictly cultural rather well : it can take over and it can get marginalised, and he disciplines himself to apply the cultural approach (which is partly culture in the art and literature sense and partly anthropological and sociological, as in organisational culture or demographics), making sure he targets the wider intellectual ideas on topics that genuinely relate to digital matters. He is alert, too, to the ways in which we speak not just of behaviours (eg more people using wikis, more people believing that objective truth is unlikely, more people worried about privacy in a digital age) but also of beliefs and values – a cultural analysis should highlight values and meanings and Tredinnick does this. Some way of joining up all the dots on this particular strand would have been good, but an intelligent reader – and one is needed for a book like this, snobbery aside – will do that for him/herself.
A topical and aptly-chosen bibliography ends the book. Chandos have published one of their best recent books with this one. It comes in a hardback  as well as a paperback format – the paperback was received for review – and for library use I would recommend the hardback : my Chandos books tend to fall apart rather too quickly. Certainly a winner here and, unusually for such a book, one that admirably stays this side of cliché and pomposity.
- Luke Tredinnick, Digital Information Contexts, Chandos Publishing (Oxford), October 2006, 200pp, ISBN-13: 9781843341697. Other Formats: Paperback.
- Luke Tredinnick, Digital Information Culture: The Individual and Society in the Digital Age, Hardback: ISBN 978-1-84334-170-3, £57.00.