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The Social Life of Information

Author: John Seely Brown, Paul Duguid
Publisher: Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000 (reissued in 2002)
Review Published: August 2003

 REVIEW 1: G.C. Gupta

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information attempts to clear some of hype about the "information age," and to offer alternative ways of thinking about the future.

Drawing from recent research and practical examples across a range of organizations, The Social Life of Information dispels many of the futurists’ sweeping predictions that information technology will obliterate the need for everything from travel to supermarkets to business organizations to social life itself. The authors examine the potential and limitations of technology with regard to intelligent software agents, the automated home office, and business reorganization for innovation, knowledge management, and work practices, the paperless society, and the digital university. Arguing eloquently for the important role human sociability plays in the world of bits, Brown and Duguid give us an optimistic look beyond the simplicities of information and individuals. They show how a better understanding of the contribution that communities, organizations, and institutions make to learning, knowledge, and judgment can lead to the richest possible use of technology in our work and everyday lives.

Following the Preface, Acknowledgements, and Introduction, the book is organized around eight chapters. In the Chapter 1, "On Limits of Information, or Limits of Infopunditry," the authors scan a wide canvas, not presenting a formal definition of "information" as has been given to it by the information scientists. The core concern is to present a vision of information as something that has many states. Some kinds can be crystallized in formal rules, stored in databases, or tagged with metadata. Others -- usually the most valuable kinds -- are more like living things, and have co-evolved with individuals, social networks, media, and institutions into rich ecologies. Even the definition of "information" is somewhat context dependent, the result of social processes and negotiation. All of this is delivered using less jargon than you see in a trendy academic journal’s table of contents.

The challenge of understanding how information technologies really work in the real world is a critical one. The book points out that technology can only transform to a certain extent and other factors exert great influence in the utilization and eventual success or failure of new concepts and technology. In the wake of computerization, it provides a cautionary lesson against expecting big gains to come naturally from these machines. Understanding the limits of information technologies can help us use them more wisely, just as appreciating the social nature of information can keep us from putting untoward faith in the belief that the next turn of Moore’s Law will solve all our problems. The book offers some clues to how we can better place today’s age of information in historical context. After all, the challenge of producing, storing, and managing information is as old as civilization itself; the term "information age" threatens to be as meaningless as "architecture age" or "transportation age." Most attempts to describe today’s information age have drawn most strongly from either intellectual history or philosophy. The book’s emphasis on the importance of organizational learning and tacit knowledge suggests that to a degree that no one has yet appreciated, the history of information is an institutional history, rather than an intellectual one: it needs to be told at the level of libraries and archives, businesses and publishers, universities and corporate research labs.

In Chapter 2, "Agents and Angels," the authors argue for Autonomous Agents or Chatterbots or Bots -- software programs that will simulate a human response to a typed question (36), that will play a critical role in social interaction and in organizational life. Eliza is an example of a software program, administering therapy when asked for. If such bots take decisions and advise, who takes responsibility for their decisions? Can Eliza or its programmer be held legally responsible for their decisions? In the next chapter, "Home Alone," the argument is that "in order for the people to be able to work alone, technology may have to reinforce their access to social networks. The home worker, from this perspective, resembles not the frontier pioneer, striking out alone and renouncing society, but more a deep-sea diver. The deeper a diver works alone beneath the ocean, the more the connections to the surface have to be" (89).

"Practice makes Process" highlights that "Practice suffers from the opposing danger -- of allowing itself to evolve too independently and so become too loosely ‘coupled’ to the organization. The balancing act, as we shall see, requires developing coupling loose enough to allow groups to develop their own new knowledge, but tight enough to be able to push that knowledge along the lines of process. The idea that all that matters here is information woefully underestimates the challenges involved which are ultimately, as we shall see challenges of organization, knowledge, and innovation" (115).

The authors note again and again how important social interaction is in the performance of many tasks. They usefully begin with a look at areas where computers -- information technology in its purest form -- are thought to be able to take the place of humans, bots and agents designed to help customers and consumers find what they are looking for. The importance of a social work environment is also shown with several examples that explain why working alone out of the home -- or without a fixed space at the office -- can be problematic. The authors show how even the seemingly casual interaction in a workplace environment can be of enormous help in getting work done. The input from colleagues, many of whom have likely faced similar problems, is especially helpful with the many minor issues that arise daily. The experience of others can readily be called upon, as it cannot in an isolated setting. Many of the problems are often trivial, but if the solution is not readily accessible it can mean a great amount of time and productivity is lost.

The authors’ concern that reliance on manuals or computerized systems -- when problem X crops up look it up in the manual or punch it up in the computer, which then provides solution Y -- is, in practice, remarkably ineffective, even though it sounds like such a logically sound method. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately) it turns out that life (and machinery and business and everything else) really is not that simple: it can’t be reduced to "if X then Y," as there tend to be all sorts of variables that make almost every situation unique and demand a slightly different approach.

Similarly, workers learn from one another: technicians exchange war stories, managers share stories about the success (and failure) of various approaches and ideas, and so on, in a continuing and reciprocal learning process. Both information and knowledge are shared, whereby the authors point out that information (pure data) is easily shared but knowledge (including how to apply the data) often does not transfer or travel well. One great difficulty companies have is in utilizing the knowledge they have: using it elsewhere, or reaping the full benefits from it.

One of the more interesting chapters is "Reading the Background," which is a survey of the digital effects on reading and writing. There have been extraordinary changes in this area with the application of extensible markup technologies, distributed metadata and the semantic web. Authors, both established (i.e. Stephen King) and novices are putting work on the Web. This chapter would be a good candidate for elaboration in any future edition where the topics of hypertext, digital libraries, semantic web and metadata could be assessed.

Interesting Issues raised in The Social Life of Information:
  1. Agents -- the technology for artificial intelligence agents keeps improving, but the social structure for them is staying put. Who controls these agents?
  2. Telecommuting -- why hasn’t telecommuting taken off like we thought it would? Where are the hordes of people working happily at home?
  3. Process vs. practice -- why is it that when we try encapsulating something in documentation, it always falls short?
  4. Newspaper -- why is it that newspaper still persists when there are a host of other, more interactive ways we can absorb the news?
  5. Education -- why does the university continue to exist? Will information technology put the final nail in the coffin of the university?
The central theme of this book, never overtly spelled out by the authors, for better or worse, is that Human interaction revolves around issues of trust, and trust in the anonymous computer realm is hard (but not impossible) to come by. Reputation systems are important components of that, but in reality we judge the trustworthiness of a person on a million different factors, and it is hard to code that many different variables. A firm handshake, a shared joke, social capital, and a legion more of these nearly imperceptible cues allow us to work together. Information, automation, and streamlining, while essential to advancement, need to be seen within a larger context if they are truly to permit advancement. The rigidity of the structure of all things computerized -- one of their greatest strengths -- does not always blend well with flexible human needs and activity. The human element must be taken into account. The authors don’t offer any easy remedies -- indeed, as their examples show, the social life of information is terribly complex -- but their emphasis on at least being aware of it is already a useful point. Information is context bound, the size being meaning dependent, culturally creative, ecologically sensitive, information rule governed -- all these dimensions (and some more) giving information universality and time-independence.

They argue that this view of the future is hopelessly simplistic because it ignores the potent social forces that bind people into communities as well as the social contexts that give meaning to the isolated bits of information. For example, the slow growth of telecommuting despite the optimistic predictions of technology enthusiasts derives not from inertia but from a fundamental misappreciation for the importance of social interaction as a critical aspect of worker productivity. As technologies become increasingly sophisticated, people have even greater need for peer interactions in order to use the technologies effectively. The office social system plays a major part in keeping tools (and people) up and running. Paradoxically, in order for people to work alone, technology may have to reinforce their access to social networks.

The Book

The book is a "must read" for anyone who has had second thoughts about the "digital revolution." The authors combine their backgrounds in technological research and social and cultural studies (Brown is Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, while Duguid is a research specialist in social and cultural studies in education at U.C. Berkeley) to attain a unique vantage point from which to critique the excesses of the Information Technology Age.

The Social Life of Information addresses many issues related to information technology; however, the central theme and key notion of the book is that information per se does not equal to knowledge. As Brown and Duguid so aptly note, the creation of knowledge from raw information is a social activity of human beings. Much of what we recognize as learning comes from informal social interactions between learners and mentors. These social interactions are difficult to achieve in mediated instruction. Brown and Duguid recognize that technology can enhance instruction in remarkable ways; however, it cannot replace the insights that students receive by struggling to make sense of information with both peers and mentors.

Brown and Duguid emphasize the point that knowledge develops in "communities of practice." As a case in point, they relate the experience of the familiar Xerox copier "field reps" -- the men and women who come to your office to fix the copier when it malfunctions. Copiers can fail in a myriad of ways and the problems that plague an individual copier can be quite difficult to diagnose, because they depend on subtle interactions between the environment that the machine is used in and the patterns of usage it receives. Frequently, the databases of repair information that are available to the rep provide little help to the rep in solving the more difficult problems.

The reps have developed these communities to share their insights. Though they may be working miles apart, they take the trouble to get together for coffee or for lunch so that they can share their experiences dealing with the tough to solve problems. Less experienced reps are able to benefit from the knowledge of more experienced ones. Solutions to rare problems become part of the shared knowledge of the group, and contacts are made that allow reps to call each other for advice and support. This socialization takes place even though the reps have access to extensive databases of technical information about each model of copier that the company manufactures, and relatively sophisticated computer support facilities that track service issues.

The important point is that even these sophisticated "expert systems" that have been developed to help repair personnel solve problems in the field are limited by their general lack of robustness. (How many of us have puzzled over why we must click on the "start button" on our computer terminal in order to stop our computer!) The social interaction between practitioners provides an important "glue" to turn the information provided by the "expert system" or the repair manual into knowledge.

Brown and Duguid’s focus on the organizational embodiment of these social interactions that help people transform information into knowledge provides important insights about why attempts to replace many of society’s traditional institutions have failed. Though colleges and universities often are the prime targets of futurists who argue that they are becoming increasingly anachronistic in the Information Technology Age, Brown and Duguid understand that the unique role of the university is to validate the knowledge level of its graduates.

G.C. Gupta:
G.C. Gupta, Ph.D. has been a Professor of Psychology, University of Delhi, Delhi, and currently is a Visiting Professor of Cognitive Science at the Centre of Cognitive Science, University of Allahabad, Allahabadm, India.  <gcgupta@vsnl.com>

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