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No "byte" in worldwide bestsellers despite dotcom deluge by Dr D. C. Misra

By dcmisra ·
There is no "byte" in the worldwide bestsellers. There is a remarkable omission of any book on information and communication technologies (ICTs) from the latest list of bestsellers on science. This glaring omission stares at your face blankly when you look at the list in the light of the oft-repeated assertion that we are living in the information age or in an era of ongoing ICT revolution.What happened then to the deluge of books on ICTs in the days of dotcom boom, the last decade of the twentieth century (followed no doubt by books explaining the dotcom bust as well)? Does the omission mean that we have no popular writers on ICTs producing bestsellers or classics (the two need not be same of course) and people(read lay readers) are not interested in ICTs but are interested in, say, mathematics and physics?

Commenting on the list The Economist, London, which has compiled the list and published it in its issue of 2nd October, notes that science writing for the lay reader is getting better and better,and the best explains even the most complex subjects without condescension.It notes that the books by the populariser, Bill Bryson, and by Richard Dawkins, evolutionist,predominate. But classic works continue to sell well,years after publication.

What happened then, for example,to Brook's Mythical Man-Month or Bill Gates' The Road Ahead (or, for that matter, to his Business@The Speed of Thought) or Tim Berners-Lee's Weaving the
Web or Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital or Makimoto and Manners' Digital Nomad or indeed to George Gilder's Telecosm, just to mention half a dozen or so rather familiar titles in ICTs? Does it mean that there was no paradigm shift and that the book that invented the term- The Structure of Scientific Revolutions ? merrily finds a place (rank 10)in the list despite having been published way back in 1962 when many of the present day geeks were not even born? Or,does it mean that people's initial enthusiasm and curiosity in ICTs have just waned, perhaps unnoticed?

The list has another surprise- the size of books. The size of a number of bestsellers ranges from rather formidable 500 to awesome 1,000 pp. The slot for the slimmest, at 240 pp, is co-shared by Hawkins and Kuhn.This is against the popularly held belief that people do not like "tombs" of scholarship. Apparently people are prepared to spend time (and money as well) on lengthy books if
interesting content is offered to them or does it mean that such bestsellers are only "must have, read later" books and those who can afford buy
them and then put them on the shelves, never to be read? And who is this "lay reader" who buys these books on esoteric subjects in science?

Whosoever this "lay reader" may be, no one should deny him the access to Sir Roger Penrose's The Road to Reality: A Complete Guide to the Laws of the Universe (rank 4). The Economist describes it as "An extraordinary account of the underlying mathematics of the physical universe. Not for the lay reader." Pray, why not? If "lay readers" are not reading these bestsellers then how does
Sir Roger's book attain a very honourable rank 4? Or does it mean that only libraries buy these bestsellers and individual "lay readers" have no role in the `making' of these bestsellers?

And how can any one forget Sir Roger's classic The Emperor's New Mind, a very powerful attack on 'strong artificial intelligence (AI)' whose proponents continue to remain unshaken in their claim that it is just a question of time when human beings will be replaced by computers and Sir Roger showed that human thinking can never be emulated by a computer. It certainly is surprising that this book is missing from the list of bestsellers, a case of missing another
"byte"! Or its sequel The Shadows of Mind, described as 'one of the most important works of the second half of the 20th century' by The Times,London which provided more rigorous proof of consciousness far beyond the `computational activity.'

Here is then the list of top 15 Amazon worldwide bestsellers on science (with figures following the author indicating the number of pages): 1.A Short History of Nearly Everything (Bill Bryson 560),2.The Ancestor's Tale (Richard Dawkins
520), 3.Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond 512), 4.The Road to Reality (Roger Penrose 1,000), 5.The Fabric of the Cosmos (Brian Greene 569), 6.Stiff (Mary Roach 303), 7.The Elegant Universe (Brian Greene 464), 8.The Selfish Gene
(Richard Dawkins 366), 9.A Brief History of Time (Stephen Hawking 240), 10.The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Thomas S. Kuhn 240), 11.Eine kurze Geschichte von fast allem.(Bill Bryson 672), 12.The End of Oil (Paul Roberts
389), 13. Kosmos Himmelsjahr 2005 (Hans-Ullrich Keller 288), 14.The Secret Life of Lobsters (Trevor Corson 289), and 15.How the Mind Works (Steven Pinker 672).(Read the complete list, together with the comments of The Economist, at

But what happened to the books which enthused us,techies and non-techies alike, those which tried to demystify the ICTs and those which simply excited us, some of which even forcing us to lose our sleep and read them from A to Z? What happened, for example, to Isaac Asimov's I,Robot, which, among other things laid down the three laws of robotics? Or to former Stanford professor Robert X. Cringely's Accidental Empires which became the basis for PublicTV's miniseries Triumph of the Nerds? Or to Matt Ridley's Genome, appropriately sub-titled the autobiography of a species in 23 chapters? Or to Where Wizards stay Up Late giving us the origin of Internet or to K.Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation on the coming era of nanotechnology?

The proprietary versus open source debate continues unresolved.Both sides appear to have only strengthened their respective defences with the passage of time.Yet Glyn Moody's rebel code dealing with Linux and the open source revolution has failed to make to the list.While security continues to be an over-riding concern, The Art of Deception by Kevin D.Mitnick, who is described
as `a cyber-desperado and fugitive from one of the most exhaustive FBI manhunts in history' did not find favour with the readingpublic. Mitnick,understandably,is also described as `one of the most sought-after computer security experts
worldwide.' Or may be these books do not fall under the category of "science"?

Whatever may be the reason, there appears to be lull in the field of ICTs today. Absence of books on ICTs from the bestseller list perhaps only indicates the present lull.This, however, may only be partly true as age appears to have no
bearing on bestsellers otherwise Kuhn's book,for example, published in 1962,would not have found a place in the bestseller list. Perhaps a classic in ICTs is yet to be written. Any takers,techies
or non-techies?


Dr D.C.Misra*
October 9,2004
* Dr Misra is a New Delhi, India-based Independent IT and eGov Consultant. He moderates the cyber quiz group at Yahoo!
from which this piece after some editing has been taken and posted here for discussion.

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