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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Social Life of Information

John Seely Brown
Paul Duguid

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To purchase The Social Life of Information

Title: The Social Life of Information
Author: John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 254 pages
Availability: The Social Life of Information - US
The Social Life of Information - UK
The Social Life of Information - Canada

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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting points, well-presented.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist A 15/4/2000 .
The LA Times A 3/9/2000 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
Salon B+ 9/3/2000 Katharine Mieszkowski
The Standard A- 10/4/2000 John Fraim
Upside Today . 19/4/2000 Stephen E. DeLong
Wall St. Journal A+ 27/3/2000 Robert Templer

  Review Consensus:

  All enthusiastic (to varying degrees), and consider it a welcome antidote to usual Internet and Information Technology prognosticators.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The book is more than just a welcome antidote to digital silliness. It is also an important description of the complexities of innovation." - The Economist

  • "The Social Life of Information'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." - Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Social Life of Information is curiously bloodless for a work that's trying to bring the messiness of real life and human behavior back into the conversation about technological innovation. (...) In the end, though, its quiet tone of reflection is probably for the best, since it manages to puncture much of the hype around where technology is taking us, without making any bold pronouncements about the death of punditry." - Katharine Mieszkowski, Salon

  • "In a world of ready-made answers, it's refreshing that authors like Brown and Duguid are instead asking the important questions." - John Fraim, The Standard

  • "(T)houghtful and provocative." - Stephen E. DeLong, Upside Today

  • "(I)ndispensable (.....) (O)ne of the most intelligent works on the impact of technology that I have come across." - Robert Templer, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Information Age, and all the technological advancements that come with it (at a seemingly ever increasing pace), promise great and radical change. The way we live, the way we work, the way we interact -- all of it has changed and continues to change as we are able to take advantage of new technologies. However, as the authors of The Social Life of Information point out, 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.
       Many changes expected by experts and popular opinion alike have not taken place. What seemed obvious a few years ago -- the idea of a paperless office, the rise of tele-commuting and the fall of the university (as we know it) -- has turned out to be completely mistaken. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid give a convincing explanation of other factors that determine what catches on and what doesn't, focussing primarily, as the title suggests, on the social life of information. They show that what matters as much as the actual information or data itself is the environment surrounding it.
       With entertaining and well-presented examples they 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. As anyone using even the simplest of these -- Internet search engines, for example -- can attest, success here is still limited (and those with the human touch -- directories assembled by real people, for example -- tend to fare much better).
       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 can not 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 show 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. Humans can learn these variations and apply them to similar problems in the future; computers and manuals tend not to adapt so quickly or well (if at all). Doing things by the book (or by the computer) is, in fact, often counter-productive.
       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. Xerox's invention of the GUI (graphical user interface) again serves as an example: an inability to communicate between the scientists who developed it and management and engineers made it difficult to find a proper way to utilize the invention. Tellingly, even after Apple's Steve Jobs saw the GUI (and recognized its potential) it took him years (much of it facing considerable resistance at Apple itself) to make full use of it.
       The authors also address the continued use of paper, even in those offices expected to go paperless. As they show, paper has advantages that other media do not. Most importantly, paper provides both information as well as context and background. Paper allows for annotations and similar personal touches in ways that most modern data transfer methods do not (yet).
       The authors also consider distance learning and the place of the university in the Information Age, suggesting that there will be changes, but also offering that there is a continued place for the campus-hubs where large numbers of people meet and interact.

       The Social Life of Information shows that 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. Automation and all sorts of simplifications may look good on paper, but put into practice they often don't work out so well. 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.
       An entertaining and well-presented book. Recommended.

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The Social Life of Information: Reviews: John Seely Brown and Xerox PARC: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       John Seely Brown is director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corp. He is the recipient of numerous awards and has authored many papers.

       Paul Duguid is an historian and social theorist affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley and Xerox PARC

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