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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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Top Customer Reviews
As is my custom, I provide here a few highlights from my flyleaf notes, and then link to ten books that can be used to study discrete aspects of the digital age as I have come to understand it.
This is one of the best books I have found that makes the case that "fiber to the forehead" is next to worthless, it is not about acquiring more information, but rather about the nuanced networking and social interpretations of information in context.
Indeed, they say that with all the technologies now pushing and creating digital information, consumption of this information is only increasing among individuals by 1.7 percent a year.
I value this book, in part because I have seen the U.S. secret intelligence community lose its mind, today spending $60 billion a year of the taxpayer's hard-earned money, to create monstrous and often counter-productive technical program that access the 4% of the information we can steal, while ignoring the 94% that is in 183 languages we do not speak, and more often than not, NOT online.
The authors write well, and gifted turns of phrase about, such as "the radical instability of infopunditry."
They do a superb job of addressing the ills of technology-centered tunnel vision, a point that Peter Drucker made in Forbes ASAP 28 Aug 98, and I repeated in my keynote in Vegas to the National Security Agency (NSA) IT conference, in the early 2000 timeframe. We've spent the past 50 years on the T in IT, we need to start focusing on the I now.
The authors are eloquent in saying that more of the same is not the answer, and I totally agree. Returning to the secret world, I paraphrase an Australian journalist commenting on the pathologies of secret programs, who said that giving more money to dysfunctional secret agencies is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Right on. I want to reduce the secret budget to $12 billion a year, and redirect everything else to US education, global access to open sources in all languages, and free on demand education to the five billion poor via a network of 100 million volunteers with skype and internet access who can answer a cell phone question in any of 183 languages: education "one cell call at a time."
The authors point out that at its best, technology augments and enhances human capabilities, it does not replace them (less the truly repetitive mechanical aspects).
They observe (in 2000) that 1-2 exabytes of information per year are created, but that much of this is not useful, and there is a major short-fall in sense-making and precision access.
They discuss, most usefully, the reality that designers underestimate what people do (and I would add, what they want or need).
"Information fetishism" is defined as the belief that information and information technology can replaced nuanced relations among people and their individual and shared insights. In Body of Secrets, link below, Jim Bamford ends his second book on NSA by saying that with all the trillions they have spent, they have still not built the ultimate computer, one that runs on a tiny amount of energy, weighs less than a few pounds, and can make petabyte calculations per second: "the human brain."
The authors respond to earlier criticism about not addressing LINUX, and point out that LINUX is social innovation, not technical innovation. See Wealth of Networks below.
They note that the primary advantage of IT is that it enhances both local and global access. On the downside, it neglects periphery and context.
The authors reassert, compellingly, the value of intermediation, and I am reminded of our earlier criticisms of the Internet, still valid, in that most information is unedited, unformatted, unpaginated, undated, and lacking in source bias insight. This is still true, and Google is making it worse.
By the authors own account, this book addresses:
1) Limits of infopunditry
2) Challenges of software agents
3) Social character of work and learning
4) Limits of management theory
5) Resources for innovation
6) Unnoticed aspects of the document
7) Implications for design
8) Future of information, especially for university
I have a couple of nits, but not enough to warrant removal of one star. This is clearly a seminal work of lasting value.
Nit #1: Organizational Intelligence (Wilensky, 1967) is not to be found in this book. The authors do not go past Quadrant III (see loaded images).
Nit #2: While they have a superb bibliography and include works by Barlow, Kelly, Strassmann, Toffler, and Turkle, they do NOT include the seminal works directly relevant to this book, specifically, Barlow's seminal manifesto, and the following:
Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, & the Economic World
Powershift: Knowledge, Wealth, and Power at the Edge of the 21st Century
The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit , Twentieth Anniversary Edition
Amazon limits us to ten links. See my earlier lists (the first ten) for 300+ books covering information and intelligence. Here are six more:
The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past
Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency
Fog Facts: Searching for Truth in the Land of Spin
The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom
I regret the limitation on links. See also such gems as Forbidden Knowledge; Voltaire's Bastards; Age of Missing Information; etc etc.
This book is a unique mix of psychology, organizational behavior/psychology, information science and how manage gets managed (or doesn't get managed) in organizations. If you work in the information sciences, HR or in some sort of knowledge management capacity, this book should be on your reading list. It is a staple for those working in these industries.
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.
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