The Virtual Bookcase Reviews of 'The Social Life of Information':
Reviewer amazon.com 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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