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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

How many times has your PC crashed today? While Gordon Moore's now famous law projecting the doubling of computer power every 18 months has more than borne itself out, it's too bad that a similar trajectory projecting the reliability and usefulness of all that power didn't come to pass, as well. Advances in information technology are most often measured in the cool numbers of megahertz, throughput, and bandwidth--but, for many us, the experience of these advances may be better measured in hours of frustration.

The gap between the hype of the Information Age and its reality is often wide and deep, and it's into this gap that John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid plunge. Not that these guys are Luddites--far from it. Brown, the chief scientist at Xerox and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and Duguid, a historian and social theorist who also works with PARC, measure how information technology interacts and meshes with the social fabric. They write, "Technology design often takes aim at the surface of life. There it undoubtedly scores lots of worthwhile hits. But such successes can make designers blind to the difficulty of more serious challenges--primarily the resourcefulness that helps embed certain ways of doing things deep in our lives."

The authors cast their gaze on the many trends and ideas proffered by infoenthusiasts over the years, such as software agents, "still a long way from the predicted insertion into the woof and warp of ordinary life"; the electronic cottage that Alvin Toffler wrote about 20 years ago and has yet to be fully realized; and the rise of knowledge management and the challenges it faces trying to manage how people actually work and learn in the workplace. Their aim is not to pass judgment but to help remedy the tunnel vision that prevents technologists from seeing larger the social context that their ideas must ultimately inhabit. The Social Life of Information is a thoughtful and challenging read that belongs on the bookshelf of anyone trying to invent or make sense of the new world of information. --Harry C. Edwards

From Publishers Weekly

From the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and a research specialist in cultural studies at UC-Berkeley comes a treatise that casts a critical eye at all the hype surrounding the boom of the information age. The authors' central complaint is that narrowly focusing on new ways to provide information will not create the cyber-revolution so many technology designers have visualized. The problem (or joy) is that information acquires meaning only through social context. Brown and Duguid add a humanist spin to this idea by arguing, for example, that "trust" is a deep social relation among people and cannot be reduced to logic, and that a satisfying "conversation" cannot be held in an Internet chat room because too much social context is stripped away and cannot be replaced by just adding more information, such as pictures and biographies of the participants. From this standpoint, Brown and Duguid contemplate the future of digital agents, the home office, the paperless society, the virtual firm and the online university. Though they offer many insightful opinions, they have not produced an easy read. As they point out, theirs is "more a book of questions than answers" and they often reject "linear thinking." Like most futurists, they are fond of long neologisms, but they are given to particularly unpronounceable ones like "infoprefixification" (the tendency to put "info" in front of words). The result is an intellectual gem in which the authors have polished some facets and, annoyingly, left others uncut. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business Review Press; 1 edition (February 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0875847625
  • ISBN-13: 978-0875847627
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.8 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (57 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #247,620 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

It's cool write one, yes, in the way that scratching my name on a tree used to feel cool.
James Bach
While the second half of the book doesn't redeem the first, to me it made the book as a whole worth the read.
John Thomson
This book is great on reflections about the use of information technology and knowledge building.
Jose A. T. Guerra

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

206 of 220 people found the following review helpful By James Bach on October 19, 2000
Format: Hardcover
If you would like proof of the authors' thesis in the Social Life of Information, all you have to do is read all the reviews for the book. Take a moment and do that, then come back here...
Finished? Any thoughts?
Okay, here's their basic thesis: most interesting information is socially situated, socially constructed, or otherwise impossible to tear from its human roots and package into transferrable units of "knowledge". This has major implications for the viability of certain kinds of information systems, educational programs, and the evolution of an "information society". Yet, most information workers and information products appear to be oblivious to these implications.
The proof? Ask yourself how you feel when you read a book review on-line. How do you feel when one review raves about the book and another review lambasts it? How do you feel when a reviewer gives you instructions that he expects you to follow, as I just gave? Do you follow them? What point is there to my asking "any thoughts?" when obviously you can't answer?
You don't know me. You can't trust me. I'm not a part of your social system. The only way I can participate in your learning at all is if you see in these words something that touches you... and if so, that is little more than a happy coincidence: neither of us could have planned it.
My point is that these reviews offer an illusion of a social system, but there's nothing much behind that illusion. It's cool write one, yes, in the way that scratching my name on a tree used to feel cool. But I find it very difficult to put these reviews to any practical use. I can't know who to trust. Isn't that how you feel, too? Consequently, these reviews are not capsules of knowledge pouring into your thirsty head.
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84 of 87 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 24, 2000
Format: Hardcover
This is one of the few indispensible books of the new information age, one that tempers the misleading fantasies of cyberutopians and rebuffs those who fear technology. By putting technology into its social context, the authors clear away the tunnel vision of so many people involved in the development of new technologies. By bringing together case studies from Xerox and other companies, they show why some technologies catch on and others don't, why imposing technology on workers is counterproductive and how people use technology to reinforce their social webs. Far from undermining our social, human world, technology ends up bending to it. They show why the Internet will not destroy universities, cities, nations and other institutions in the way so many people predict. This is a lucid, well-written book, mercifully free from technobluster and dreary jargon. A really excellent read.
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29 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Steven K. Szmutko VINE VOICE on April 6, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book is an excellent study of the limitations of information technology and should be read especially by those technocrats who believe that any organizational problem can be solved by stuffing more and more information into a computer database. The authors remind us that these technologies should be tools, the means to an end ... but not the ends in themselves.
Advances in technology have, in many ways, been wonderful. Taken to an extreme however, the mindless application of technology for the sake of technology does not nothing but reduce productivity and raise tension levels in organizations. The Authors rightly point out that information is best when it is the servant, enhancing the abilities of people rather than forcing them into narrow constraints.
I would recommend this book highly to anyone who must deal with the increasing deluge of information in any organization. After all, any technology is best when it incorporates the humanity of its creators and users.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Karen T. Muraoka on September 21, 2000
Format: Hardcover
I enjoyed reading this thoughtful book, which evaluates and analyzes the role of technology in a balanced social context. I learned to appreciate a different perspective - a perspective where information technologies are placed in a balanced contextual relationship to social values, and to human needs and relationships. Other books I have read survey technology from the standpoint of technological determinism, or as the book says, from the standpoint of the "blinkered euphoria of the infoenthusiast." This book is a good reading and it seeds deeper discussion and thought.
Since I work in the field of distance learning, I found Chapter 5, "Learning - in Theory and in Practice," Chapter 6, "Innovating Organization, Husbanding Knowledge," Chapter 7 - "Reading the Background," and Chapter 8, "Re-education," particularly interesting and relevant. The authors identify three differences between information and knowledge: 1) knowledge usually entails a knower (the person who knows), 2) knowledge appears harder to detach (than information), and 3) knowledge requires assimilation. So these days, with all the talk about hot distance education trends and increasing on-line and other technology-mediated educational programming, we need to remain mindful of the need for technology-mediated programming to empower folks to learn, i.e., acquire and assimilate knowledge.
I also appreciated Brown and Duguid's insightful discussion regarding changes in higher education. It is true that an opportunity exists to provide greater access to higher education through the expanding use of information technologies. But, it is important to distinguish the current hype about distance learning from the reality of what really is currently available and accessible. The authors also draw distinctions between social distance and geographical distance and the dangers of polarization. I also agree that the goal should be access to higher education.
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