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Being Virtual – Davey Winder ***

This is one of a small series of books linked to the Dana Centre at the Science Museum in London. I’m a great fan of the Dana Centre – it’s a stylish cafe bar, where most evenings there is an informal and interactive session on once science topic or another. Like the Café Scientifique movement, it’s a great way of getting the science message across in a non-threatening way.
However, there is a problem with the Dana Centre – and it comes through to some extent in this book. When I look at the Centre’s programme, there’s rarely anything I would want to go to. There is very little hard science – although I’ve taken part in couple of excellent hard science events there, their brief is strongly around science and society, which means the topics are often so soft they are positively mushy.
That’s really why this book only scores three stars. It is highly enjoyable to read, but contains very little science, and doesn’t even, I would suggest, go to the heart of the topic it is covering – the online virtual world. Like the Dana Centre itself, there is an element of style over substance in the way the book is constructed. It has glossy pages with colour illustrations – which is great – but the pages are often dominated by really irritating multicoloured pull quotes, which make it harder to read and provide no benefit to the reader.
What we get is a very personal guide to this world by Davey Winder. It tells us a fair amount of history – though it tends to be limited to the aspects he has experience of. So we hear, for instance, about CiX but Compuserve, where I got my first experience of online networking, isn’t even mentioned. Perhaps there is just a bit too much of Davey himself in the book – interesting though he is – I’d rather the space had been used to fill out more of those missing details.
Although we hear very sensible concerns about the more dubious aspects of the virtual worlds and identity theft, the general tone is positive and supportive. In fact, if anything I’d suggest Winder over-sells virtual life. While he has a very valid point about the opportunities for those with some sort of disadvantage in the real world to overcome that virtually – the majority of his case studies are people who are, in one way or another, damaged goods – what’s less clear is the accuracy of the argument that many people aren’t wasting huge amounts of time in their virtual lives. It might be easier to stay virtual, but I found it difficult not to think how much better they would be putting all that time and effort into achieving something in the real world that will be more lasting and ultimately more fulfilling.
All in all, not a bad book at all – a good introduction to modern virtual worlds and what is possible (and not possible) there – but a little overloaded with feely stuff, and not enough science to back it up.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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