Information must have some social life; nothing gets around as fast. Many observers actually believe that society's technical zeal is moving too quickly, that we are ignoring human experience in the quest for automation. In The Social Life of Information
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid attempt to moderate the high-tech medium with a human message.
No strangers to technology themselves, they argue that society is split between the entrenched positions of the technophiles and the technophobes: "Those with tunnel vision condemn the foolishness of humanity for clinging to the past. Those exasperated by tunnel design tend to cheer the downfall of new technology as if it were never likely to come to any good." Resolving this conflict is the aim of the book.
Eight distinct essays navigate the outer reaches of cyberspace from infopunditry to the limits of management theory. Intriguing case studies bolster the arguments, from the neglect of the hinge ("written out of every futuristic movie in favour of the sliding door") to comparisons between the interplay of human minds and improvisational jazz.
The Social Life of Information is a diverting addition to cyberculture's growing bookshelf and recommended reading for all who cling to the coat tails of the online world's fastest globe-trotting star. --Iain Campbell
Deserves to be one of the best books of the internet age.
Is ther anyone, in any office with computers, who does not feel an overwhelming desire to leap on the desk, punch the air and shriek "that's us!" when they read the following passage? "Users often look to the next [technology] upgrade with much the same relish with which they greet the annual visit of the winter flu. They know it will precipitate crises and shortages, increase the burdens of those who are still up and running, and take weeks for headaches to pass."
Computer "upgrades" invariable come with the assurance that they will correct all the problems caused by the previous upgrade. This time, salvation is only a mouse click away. "Battered by such hype, it's easy to believe that everyone except you knows how to use this stuff," the authors of this wonderfully stimulating book say.
Not only does the new technology - the software, the internet, the e-mail system - frequently crash but many of the bombastic claims made for the new, wired world are also demonstrably false.
Take the prediction that the rise of the internet signals the end of the large office, that incrasing numbers of employees will work at home. In fact, in 1998, the US office vacancy rate dropped to single digits for the first time since 1981, in spite of a vast increase in the number of new offices built. What of the "death of distance", the assertion that instant access to information, via the internet, means it no longer makes any difference where the companies base themselves? wrong again. High technology enterprises are as attached to their geographical "clusters" as any smokestack throwback. Think of California's Silicon Glen and the grouping of racing car designers outside London. And who as the photocopier clunks (and jams) and the laser printer whirrs, talks any longer of the "paperless office"? Business Week hailed the coming of the peperless office as long ago as 1975, much as the New York Times in 1938 predicted the death of the pencil. Yet, since 1975, per capita paper consumption in US offices has doubled. During the past decade, sales of laser printers have increased 12 fold.
All this might lead one to suppose thet this book is the work of a pair of luddites, exulting in the failure of the web and all its works. Far from it. John Seely Brown chief scientist at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Centre, and Paul Duguid, an academic at the University of California at Berkeley, accept that microchips have made "phones easier to use, cars safer to drive, appliances more reliable, utilities more predictable, toys and games more enjoyable, and the trains run on time". (note to publisher: delete last item from UK edition.)
The problem with predictions of a weird nirvana is that they fail to take account of our predominant human characteristics: sociability. Why do high tech start ups base themselves in the same neighbourhood, when they could communicate online from miles away? Because communication is more than just text messages, the authors say. It is about the trust that comes from dealing with people face-to-face, from observing the gestures, body movements and facial expressions that accompany speech. Would you employ someone on the basis of an interview conducted by e-mail, or finance a start-up without meeting its principals? And what makes the technology "upgrade" bearable if not the presence of colleagues, bemoaning the incompetence of the management and the manufacturers, and together finding a way to make these perverse machines work? The technology vendors might be at loss, the company's support staff might be barely coping with the collapsing computers, but spread around the office is "enough collective knowledge to keep them up and running".
The authors also contest the idea that the internet can provide everyone with instant acess to education - that putting the poor online will help close the gap with their more priviledged fellow citizens. Access to information is only half an education - and it is the less important half. More significant is interaction with others who are learning. "The mor isolated learners are whether physically or socially, the more they need access to peers."
Learning is a social activity. Few fof us for example, can fathom our video cassette recorders. But most adults in the developed world can operate a far more complicated machine - the car. Why the difference? Because we attempt to programme our VCRs in isolation. Driving is a social activity. We interact with other drivers, learning from their mistakes and our own.
The authors conclude by saying they have no conclusions to offer. They are too modest. This deserves to be one of the best read books of the internet age. It offers something far more valuable than a concluding soundbite: a common language for discussing the impact of technology on our workplaces, our communities and our lives.
FINANCIAL TIMES - March 2000