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From The CriticsAnton Chekhov suggested that when writers finish a story, they should tear off the first and last pages. Readers, he believed, shouldn't have to slog through the gimmicks the writer used to get into and out of the story. Had Evan Schwartz followed Chekhov's advice, he might have spared his readers a misinterpretation of Darwin that makes his otherwise sound book feel like a gimmick.
In the opening paragraph of Digital Darwinism, Schwartz erroneously attributes to Darwin the ideas that organisms must "learn with whom to cooperate and with whom to compete" and must "develop new skills and traits or perish." The problem with the first assertion is that the traits on which Darwin focused are inherited, not learned.
As for the second, sharks have developed no new skills in 400 million years. Nor have they needed any. They evolved a good way to eat, and since then have had the field pretty much to themselves. No other fish has tried to copy the shark in order to put out a more efficient version.
In the business world, of course, copying others can be essential. One could argue that Bill Gates has made it his life's work.
Fortunately for the reader, Schwartz confines his Darwinian musings almost entirely to the introduction and epilogue. It's also fortunate that he knows much more about the Internet than he does about natural selection.
He illustrates an examination of dynamic pricing, for example, with well-chosen anecdotes about Band-X, a market for data-network capacity; Priceline.com, which offers customers a way to pick up leftover airline seats; and eBay, the now-legendary auction site that began as a way to help the owner's girlfriend trade Pez dispensers.
Schwartz has spoken with the right people, and his clear prose navigates well the complex conditions of the Web. As he details the concepts to which the Web has given new life affiliate marketing, bundling, customization Schwartz shows what's necessary to take a business to the top.
He also shows how hard it will be to keep it there. More than any other quality, he emphasizes constant vigilance. Baseball great Satchell Paige told those who sought to duplicate his longevity, "Don't look back someone might be gaining on you." Schwartz' message is colder: On the Web, someone is always gaining on you. Watch them, or die.
Code Breaking: A History and Explanation by Rudolf Kippenhahn (Overlook Press, $28)
Adetailed, if disjointed, series of code-breaking escapades, ranging from the work of such famous cryptographers as Julius Caesar, Thomas Jefferson and Edgar Allen Poe to the modern era of computer- mediated encryption.
Smart Business: How Knowledge Communities Can Revolutionize Your Company by Dr. Jim Botkin (Free Press, $26)
If knowledge is power, knowledge withheld is power, too. Smart Business explores the source of a company's knowledge base, and finds it at every level in the chain of command.
Civic Space/Cyberspace: The American Public Library in the Information Age by Redmond Kathleen Molz and Phyllis Dain (MIT Press, $30)
American libraries get more than a billion "hits" a year from a public that, as this book explains, increasingly needs "organizers and navigators, consultants and guides to the new information age."