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Book details of 'The Social Life of Information'

Cover of The Social Life of Information
TitleThe Social Life of Information
Author(s)John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
PublishedFebruary 2000
PublisherHarvard Business School Press
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Reviewer wrote:
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.

Reviewer Rob Slade wrote:
The book is not very clear about the social life of information, or why we should care about it. For example, the introduction notes that digital communications removes clues that we would ordinarily receive in a conversation, conveyed through body language. It also asserts that there are a number of people involved in the infrastructure behind accessing a piece of printed information, such as publishers and librarians. The irony of these statements seems to be lost: books hide body language just as effectively as email, and the Internet is the product of a number of communities of people, the cultures of whom are apparent to those who choose to examine the net closely. Chapter one examines the information glut, as well as touching on the fact that knowledge may lose its value as it is atomized into mere data. However, it is difficult to find any central theme, other than a reaction against some of the more facile assertions that are being made about the information age. Agent technology and other forms of low level artificial intelligence are noted to be imperfect, in chapter two. Starting with telecommuting, chapter three looks at other aspects of computers and work. Chapter four discusses the failure of business process re-engineering and the triumph of informal practices of work and socialization. (I can fully agree with the comments on the business-term-du-jour.) Social factors involved in knowledge and learning are addressed in chapter five. A "seed in good soil" model of technical development structures the presentation of knowledge ecologies in chapter six. Chapter seven seems to feel that there is some inherent validation of printed knowledge, but I can certainly attest to the fact that a lot of books are a waste of good pulp. Chapter eight finishes off with a look at higher education, and also provides the only solid suggestion of the work--the "distributed" college, with separation of the various functions. The book makes one important point; that trying to remove information from its social context is fraught with peril. The text is readable, and the material is erudite and even, at times, insightful. Unfortunately, this single message, and a bit of tutting at those leaping into digital waters without looking, doesn't seem to be able to carry interest in the volume all the way through. The content is neither new, nor presented in any novel way. Questions or intents are not very clear, nor strongly pursued. The result is probably worth reading as a reminder not to get too caught up in the techno-hype, but is not earth-shaking. copyright Robert M. Slade, 2000

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Book description:

To see the future we can build with information technology, we must look beyond mere information to the social context that creates and gives meaning to it.For years pundits have predicted that information technology will obliterate the need for almost everything-from travel to supermarkets to business organizations to social life itself. Individual users, however, tend to be more skeptical. Beaten down by info-glut and exasperated by computer systems fraught with software crashes, viruses, and unintelligible error messages, they find it hard to get a fix on the true potential of the digital revolution.John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid help us to see through frenzied visions of the future to the real forces for change in society. They argue that the gap between digerati hype and end-user gloom is largely due to the "tunnel vision" that information-driven technologies breed. We've become so focused on where we think we ought to be-a place where technology empowers individuals and obliterates social organizations-that we often fail to see where we're really going and what's helping us get there. We need, they argue, to look beyond our obsession with information and individuals to include the critical social networks of which these are always a part.Drawing from rich learning experiences at Xerox PARC, from examples such as IBM, Chiat/Day Advertising, and California's "Virtual University," and from historical, social, and cultural research, the authors sharply challenge the futurists' sweeping predictions. They explain how many of the tools, jobs, and organizations seemingly targeted for future extinction in fact provide useful social resources that people will fight to keep. Rather than aiming technological bullets at these "relics," we should instead look for ways that the new world of bits can learn from and complement them. Arguing elegantly for the important role that human sociability plays, even-perhaps especially-in the world of bits, The Social Life of Information gives us an optimistic look beyond the simplicities of information and individuals. It shows how a better understanding of the contribution that communities, organizations, and institutions make to learning, working and innovating can lead to the richest possible use of technology in our work and everyday lives.

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