PAST Journal

Volume 32, 2009

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Book Review

Digital Nation: Toward an Inclusive Information Society

by Anthony G. Wilhelm

Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004

x + 161 pages. Notes, bibliographic references, and index

$27.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-262-23238-3

Anthony Wilhelm’s Digital Nation provides a critical analysis of the information society, digitalization, and the “digital divide” in the United States at the beginning of the 21st century. Wilhelm is provocative in detailing the social exclusion and the digital divide by pointing out the technological inequalities inherent in today’s society. With an analysis supported by concrete examples, he advocates the right for all to have access to the Internet, to benefit from the digital society from the perspectives of education, knowledge, health care, and government services, and to work for a better quality of life. The book reflects the contemporary landscape of information and communication technologies more within national borders than beyond them, though he does provide limited examples about linkages between countries.

Digital Nation is divided into seven chapters that are well written, concise, and accessible. The chapters range widely in subject matter and include topics such as e-government issues, paperless transactions, digital literacy, education, health care and telemedicine applications, surveillance society and freedom of information, social inequalities and divides, and e-commerce. Chapter One, “Digital Nation at a Crossroads,” presents the issues of information technology for the society by making clear that the book is “…a proposal to help decision makers and concerned citizens usher in a more productive and democratic society…” (2). Wilhelm looks at technologies solutions from the angle of political and social problems by insisting that to achieve the “digital nation,” there is a need to reconsider “the social contract.” In fact, he even proposes a “renegotiation” of that contract (8). Rousseau’s social contract certainly comes to mind in places where, historically, the government has had an important role in providing social services. Here, Wilhelm recounts an interesting debate pitting government against individuals in the United States, particularly relating to issues of information and communications.

Chapter Two is entitled “Everybody Should Know the Basics, Like How to Use a Computer.” Emphasizing that in the knowledge society “the ability to have access to information and to remain informed” is important (21), Wilhelm demonstrates that low literacy skills among “one-fifth of adults” in the United States is a major limitation (20). Access to Internet services, including high-speed Internet, still is a considerable problem. Giving the example of the telephone service that took over “eighty-three years after its invention…to approach universal levels,” the question is, from Wilhelm’s perspective, “how long it will take until the market serves everybody” (35)? Here and in other parts of the book he does not mention that the cellular phone has become a technology that could help people gain access to information and could even replace the personal computer. Mobile Internet service is a case study worth considering, but Wilhelm does not cover it well despite the fact that he brings up the success of the Finnish model in reducing the digital divide (107). He might also have mentioned that Japan, in 1999, was the first country in the world to have developed the technology of the Internet mobile, and that Japan became a country where the population has largely opted for such technology over the Internet PC.

Moreover, the issue of the “digital divide,” which Wilhelm develops in several chapters in the book and is commonly defined as “the gap between haves and have-nots” (89), is one that many governments certainly have on their agendas. Chapter Four, “The New Frontier of Civil Rights,” emphasizes this point and advocates “the right strategies to gain entry to digital opportunities on a non discriminatory basis” (59). Although the author links the digital nation with an improved quality of life, he warns in Chapter Seven (“Wire-less Youth: Rejuvenating the Net”) that the development of a digital community could have dire consequences, asking the question, “what does this homogeneity imply for overcoming difference, encouraging tolerance?” (124).

Another important topic developed in the book is the digitalization of health-care services. It is well known that the health-care sector has been very reluctant to adopt information technologies. Today it is finally beginning to catch up, although for many hospitals and physicians there is still the cost to consider. Still, electronic health records and electronic medical records are moving toward “more real-time health services” at “a lower cost than traditional health care offerings” (49).

Unfortunately, because Wilhelm scatters the important health-care issue throughout the book, he gives the impression of being poorly organized. Clearly, this constitutes one of the weaknesses of the book. Meanwhile, the discussion of the ubiquitous network society, a society where it is possible to be connected to devices and computers anytime, anywhere, is not mentioned. The same applies to the issue of education. The topic is poorly covered in the book, but Wilhelm makes reference to its importance as a “killer application of the twenty-first century” in the Conclusion (134).
Digital Nation is certainly a useful book if one wishes to read an overview of the challenges faced as in our attempts to become an optimized digital nation. Although some readers may not agree with some of the arguments developed by the author, it is worth reading. However, because of the way the content is explained and organized this book cannot be used alone in the classroom. It is recommended as a complement to others more academic readings.


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