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 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

Vol 9|No 9|May|2000

 The Social Life
of Information

Authors: John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

John Seely Brown is Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Paul Duguid is a research specialist in Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of California at Berkeley.

Reviewed by Jamie McKenzie
about the author

Brown and Duguid are insiders. They spend their lives where information technologies do their best and their worst. Fully acquainted with the hype and promises of information cheerleaders - a group they call infoenthusiasts - Brown and Duguid warn that ". . . it can be easy for a logic of information to push aside the more practical logic of humanity." (p. 18)

They fear that an obsession with information can lead to a kind of tunnel vision with planners ignoring much of what lies within the periphery.

 Hammering Information

Caught in the headlights of infologic, it occasionally feels as though we have met the man with the proverbial hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. If you have a problem, define it in terms of information and you have the answer.

Page 19

Brown and Duguid are eloquent story tellers, but story tellers with a mission. They chronicle the excesses and absurdities of a technological obsession that sometimes rushes through organizations like a freight train screaming down a mountain grade without brakes. They ask probing, perceptive questions that cut past the hype and the inflated bombast of the information spin merchants.

Cathedrals would fall down if it were not for the flying buttresses - structures extending horizontally to prevent the soaring towers and spires from thrusting out and away.

We might learn from the architects of cathedrals when building new futures.

More photographs of Notre Dame.


Brown and Duguid seek balance. The human touch. New technologies and information resources bolstered by the flying buttresses of culture, savvy, community and learning.

They offer eight chapters that stand as powerful essays.

1. Limits to Information

Seductive though it may sound to promise a river of information at each desktop, the resulting flood may choke, overwhelm and drown. More is often less. B&D provide vivid examples of how one may suffer from too much of the wrong information. They critique what they call the 6-D vision of the infoenthusiasts, a set of beliefs that they label "infocentric."

  • demassification
  • decentralization
  • denationalization
  • despacialization
  • disintermediation
  • disaggregation

In each case they show that the predictions of the infoenthusiasts are unlikely to come true, and they also challenge the presumed value of each of these trends.

They point out that Microsoft preaches "despacialization" (the end of a need to be spatially close to the action) while buying office space at the heart of Silicon Valley in order to be close to the action. They demonstrate the sustained value of informal, cultural contacts within a geographical region.

"You had to have been there!"

2. Agents and Angels

We are promised intelligent agents to do our bidding, but B&D raise many issues about the reliability, the independence, the judgment and trustworthiness of these agents and angels.

3. Home Alone

The end of the office? Everyone working from home? B&D contrast the optimistic projections of infoenthusiasts with actual corporate experiences and experiments that turned out to be less than heavenly.

4. Practice Makes Process

While it is fashionable in the corporate world to identify and codify effective practice as a way to maximize profits and optimize outcomes, B&D demonstrate that routines may never capture the essence of success and may actually stifle effective and improvisational response. They share tales of Xerox repair people frustrated by the limitations of "expert systems" meant to routinize the response to customer problem calls.

The gap to be bridged lies between reality and process and it is bridged by the improvisation inherent in practice - so deeply inherent that the practitioners themselves are barely aware of it.

Page 108

Even though this emphasis upon process and codification has failed to deliver on all of its promises for the corporate world, this has not stopped erstwhile corporate leaders from suggesting it as a way to "reform" schools. Simplistic and stiff, this fondness for routine is unlikely to work the magic promised.

5. Learning - In Theory and In Practice

In this chapter, B&D take aim at the trend of knowledge management and show its limitations when it comes to learning in actual practice. B&D complain that "information theory" holds information independent of meaning.

"Attending to knowledge, by contrast, requires attention to people, what they know, how they come to know it, and how they differ."

The central challenge, they claim, is to create conditions that "make it possible for knowledge and best practice to move." Basic to this process is the formation of communities and the asking of questions. They draw a clear distinction between "knowing that" on the one hand and "knowing how" on the other. They explore the social dimensions of this knowing and learning, outlining how "communities of practice" can support and sustain learning.

6. Innovating Organization - Husbanding Knowledge

B&D explore the challenge of innovating and inventing within a context that allows for a huge amount of information leakage. They point to the difficulties inherent in developing an organization that might explore the outside and yet foster the implementation of new strategies and ideas.

"For while, as we argues earlier, information technology is very good at reach, it is less good at the sort of dense reciprocity to make and maintain such strong and informative informal links. And it is these informal links running along networks of practice that allow knowledge to flow to where, from an ecological perspective, it belongs." (p. 169)

They illustrate their points with stories of Xerox PARC's failure to make good use of some of its innovative discoveries and they demonstrate how Silicon Valley represents a clustered knowledge ecology that allows for the flow of ideas, as it did with the MAC interface.

7. Reading the Background

In this chapter B&D contrast the new electronic information sources with more traditional sources to show their limits. They argue that we will continue to need information that has withstood the test of time but that current trends give preference to fluidity over fixity. They emphasize the importance of "framing" information, of providing context, without which the information may not be intelligible or reliable.

8. Re-education

B&D explore the potential of distance learning strategies to provide education on a par with existing university systems. While they see potential for these strategies to augment what exists already, they point to the communities provided by universities for learners and predict that many of the face to face experiences provided in the past will survive the pressure for change.

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Credits: The photographs were shot by Jamie McKenzie.

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