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The Social Life of Information Hardcover – February, 2000
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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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In eight chapters, Brown and Duguid explore the limits to information and to the reductive focus on it, the limitations of software agents or "bots", the mistakes in thinking that information technology means the end of the traditional location-based workplace, the dangers of re-engineering around information processes without considering social practices and communities, and the limitations of info-centric thinking about learning, organizational innovation and knowledge management, and education.
All of this is well worth reading and paying close attention to. Yet this reviewer got the feeling that the authors often set up straw men to more easily make their points such as taking the most extreme statements of information technologists and futurists then presenting them as universal views among those groups. In some places they weave their arguments out of flimsy material that makes for a good story rather than for solid evidence. For example, they tell the story of how the scent of vinegar on old paper revealed information not contained in the words themselves. The point is well made, but the reader is left wondering how broadly this applies and why the authors do not mention information technology that at least attempts to achieve similar results (such as versioning, and meta-commentary Web tags). Some of the shortcomings of the info-centric view may also result from the immaturity of the technology. Certainly the authors have strong points about the value of physical proximity, though many workers are already finding technologies that allow remote work, and as broadband and eventually virtual reality become pervasive, more of the social cues currently missing may return to our tech-mediated interactions. Overall, this is an important book that identifies a real problem in thinking. In an infotech-saturated world, the authors may be forgiven for going too far in the other direction.
According to its pundits, the onset of such incredible communications technologies as the Internet, cell phones, ubiquitous wireless connections and increased miniaturization will transform our world and society. We can look forward to the demassification of companies as "virtual" companies emerge, amalgams of independent specialists working from homes across the world. E-learning will transform the university. Bots will serve as our personal agents, scouring cyberspace to meet our needs. And so on, ad infinitum.
Well, I'm still waiting--and will be waiting for a long time, according to John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in The Social Life of Information.
In this well-written and thoughtful book, Brown and Duguid draw us away from the "tunnel vision" promoted by infocentricity, an outlook that fails to see the social context of information. By commodifying information, they say, we are in danger of "tunnel design," creating technologies that not only fail to serve us effectively but "bite back," creating as many problems as they solve.
Admitting that their ideas may pose more questions than answers, Brown and Duguid embark on an exploration of some of the latest trends and buzzes of the infoenthusiast. They state their purpose well:
"We include prognostications about, for example, the world of information, digital agents, the home office, the paperless office, the virtual firm and the digital university. From here we try to explain why so many confident predictions remain just that, predictions. Too often, we conclude, the light at the end of an information tunnel is merely the gleam in a visionary's eye. The way forward is paradoxically to look not ahead, but to look around."
And that's exactly what they do in an energetic and enthusiastic romp that is rich with meaning and practical implications.I thoroughly enjoyed their efforts and highly recommend this book to everyone involved in the information disciplines.
The book was released in 2000 and has a refreshingly wise view of "the
information economy", avoiding and almost repudiating hyper-used terms
like "disintermediation", etc. Brown is a well-known scientist at
Xerox PARC, the place where some of the most important innovations in computing
were created (the mouse, the hard drive, GUI interfaces, early ethernet adapters,
and other things PARC brilliantly conceived but forgot to monetize) and has
much to offer us in the way of an anthropologists view of knowledge. The book
makes compelling arguments for continued relevance of "being there"
to learning, that concepts like distance learning or telecommuting will undoubtedly
have a profound change on us, but "being there" is fundamental to
how we learn, often in ways we never expected. The book is not your typical
"futurist" tome extrapolating the future based on linear thinking,
rather the authors provide a rich, contextual background on human behavior
that teaches the reader almost as if it were an anthropology class, only better.
The book also devotes a chapter to higher education and the challenges faced
by universities competing in the increasingly Darwinian world of customers
seeking the most efficient means to acquiring the knowledge they seek, at
the best price, without sacrificing the importance of the degree granted by
the institution. Execs of all stripes, marketing people, product development
people, and customer service types will find The Social Life of Information
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