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Social Life of Information, The [Paperback]

John Seely Brown , Paul Duguid
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1 Mar 2002
All New Preface by the Authors

"Should be read by anyone interested in understanding the future." -The Times Literary Supplement

For years pundits have predicted that information technology will obliterate everything-from supermarkets to business organizations to social life itself. But beaten down by info-glut, exasperated by computer crashes, and daunted by the dot com crash, individual users find it hard to get a fix on the true potential of the digital revolution. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid argue that the gap between digerati hype and end-user gloom is largely due to the "tunnel vision" that information-driven technologies breed. We've become so focused on where we think we ought to be-a place where technology empowers individuals and obliterates social organizations-that we often fail to see where we're really going. The Social Life of Information shows us how to look beyond our obsession with information and individuals to include the critical social networks of which these are always a part.

AUTHORBIO: John Seely Brown is the Chief Innovation Officer of 12 Entrepreneuring and the Chief Scientist of Xerox. He was the director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) for ten years. Paul Duguid is affiliated with Xerox PARC and the University of California, Berkeley.

Product details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard Business School Press (1 Mar 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1578517087
  • ISBN-13: 978-1578517084
  • Product Dimensions: 21 x 14 x 2.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 82,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Amazon Review

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From the Publisher

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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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LIVING IN THE INFORMATION AGE can occasionally feel like being driven by someone with tunnel vision. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Psst! . . . Pass It Along! 13 May 2004
This book is a thought-provoking look at the limits of information. I liked the book because it focused on many things that I don't normally think about, and raised important questions about my own use of information. For example, how can a software program find my preferences on the Web when I'm not sure what I'm looking for? How should I compare offers when I know very little about the people making the offers?
Many aggressive pundits who favor the development of electronic communication and information tend to project that certain products and services will be totally replaced. For example, I have read forcasts that predict the end of printed books, universities, and various kinds of retail outlets in the next few years.
The authors point out that many solutions and institutions will continue because they offer a social context that makes information more valuable. A historical analogy of the telephone is described in the book. Bell first put telephones in hotel rooms so people could call the front desk, a convenience over walking to the front desk to have the conversation. Later, he put telephones next to the counter in diners so that people could watch others using the telephone to learn how and why people were using it.
Many people who see distance learning as replacing the university are forgetting that much education takes place outside of lectures, writing papers and taking tests. The university's social context will continue to be helpful with these other types of learning. How can that context to added to distance learning?
One of the most interesting ideas in the book was the way that structure and structurelessness in information and uses of information can complement each other in creating bodies of perspective and experimentation.
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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars putting information in context 20 Sep 2000
By A Customer
Very readable. Highlights the importance of knowledge as opposed to information and clearly identifies why knowledge is inextricably intertwined with people. Identifies reasons why information has been put on a pedestal and attempts to shift the focus towards its useful application. (ben hyde, multimedia researcher)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars It's all about context 31 Dec 2008
The book has some excellent points even though it at times feels a little old (It's only 6 years old). I would recommend it to anyone interested in how we should approach implementing (into a social context) new technology and how we shouldn't get to cut up in the hype that new technology often brings :)
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4.0 out of 5 stars Reconsider some of your ideas 24 Sep 2009
Found it well worth reading. Made important points about information only existing in a context (much as words take their meanings from the sentence they are in) and that when we change the context of information, we may change its meaning without recognising it.
Felt a little outdated as the technology is moving so fast, but many of the ideas could apply to any culture, not merely the Internet age.
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Amazon.com: 3.8 out of 5 stars  57 reviews
202 of 216 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Social Life of Reviewers 20 Oct 2000
By James Bach - Published on Amazon.com
If you would like proof of the authors' thesis in the Social Life of Information, all you have to do is read all the reviews for the book. Take a moment and do that, then come back here...
Finished? Any thoughts?
Okay, here's their basic thesis: most interesting information is socially situated, socially constructed, or otherwise impossible to tear from its human roots and package into transferrable units of "knowledge". This has major implications for the viability of certain kinds of information systems, educational programs, and the evolution of an "information society". Yet, most information workers and information products appear to be oblivious to these implications.
The proof? Ask yourself how you feel when you read a book review on-line. How do you feel when one review raves about the book and another review lambasts it? How do you feel when a reviewer gives you instructions that he expects you to follow, as I just gave? Do you follow them? What point is there to my asking "any thoughts?" when obviously you can't answer?
You don't know me. You can't trust me. I'm not a part of your social system. The only way I can participate in your learning at all is if you see in these words something that touches you... and if so, that is little more than a happy coincidence: neither of us could have planned it.
My point is that these reviews offer an illusion of a social system, but there's nothing much behind that illusion. It's cool write one, yes, in the way that scratching my name on a tree used to feel cool. But I find it very difficult to put these reviews to any practical use. I can't know who to trust. Isn't that how you feel, too? Consequently, these reviews are not capsules of knowledge pouring into your thirsty head. This review system is an example of the sort of shallow informationism that the authors complain about in their fascinating book.
So why am I writing a review if I don't think it's likely that you'll find what I say useful? Well, I'm really writing to my students and colleagues, with each of whom I already have a connection. You know who you are. I teach software quality assurance and testing. This is a wonderful book that I recommend as a tool for making sense of how a process specialist's place in the social order influences his prospects for getting anything useful done.
This book drove the final nail in the coffin of my hope that if I could only write a good enough process document, someone would follow the processes I prescribe. Now I know better. Not because Brown and Duguid say so (I don't know them, either) but because what they say rings so true to my *own* experience. People learn primarily by doing and experiencing in a system that includes other people. We are not merely information consumers. Process standardization, in the knowledge world, is therefore a fruitless or dangerous pursuit without considering the social context of practices.
Thanks for reading. (why am I thanking you? I'm stuck in this illusion of online society!)
For more on this, see my review of Cognition in the Wild. I can't promise that will help, but you might get lucky.
-- James
84 of 87 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Lucid, intelligent look beyond technohype 24 Mar 2000
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
This is one of the few indispensible books of the new information age, one that tempers the misleading fantasies of cyberutopians and rebuffs those who fear technology. By putting technology into its social context, the authors clear away the tunnel vision of so many people involved in the development of new technologies. By bringing together case studies from Xerox and other companies, they show why some technologies catch on and others don't, why imposing technology on workers is counterproductive and how people use technology to reinforce their social webs. Far from undermining our social, human world, technology ends up bending to it. They show why the Internet will not destroy universities, cities, nations and other institutions in the way so many people predict. This is a lucid, well-written book, mercifully free from technobluster and dreary jargon. A really excellent read.
29 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Excellent Overview of the Limitations of Technology 6 April 2000
By Steven K. Szmutko - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The book is an excellent study of the limitations of information technology and should be read especially by those technocrats who believe that any organizational problem can be solved by stuffing more and more information into a computer database. The authors remind us that these technologies should be tools, the means to an end ... but not the ends in themselves.
Advances in technology have, in many ways, been wonderful. Taken to an extreme however, the mindless application of technology for the sake of technology does not nothing but reduce productivity and raise tension levels in organizations. The Authors rightly point out that information is best when it is the servant, enhancing the abilities of people rather than forcing them into narrow constraints.
I would recommend this book highly to anyone who must deal with the increasing deluge of information in any organization. After all, any technology is best when it incorporates the humanity of its creators and users.
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A View of IT from a Social Context 22 Sep 2000
By Karen T. Muraoka - Published on Amazon.com
I enjoyed reading this thoughtful book, which evaluates and analyzes the role of technology in a balanced social context. I learned to appreciate a different perspective - a perspective where information technologies are placed in a balanced contextual relationship to social values, and to human needs and relationships. Other books I have read survey technology from the standpoint of technological determinism, or as the book says, from the standpoint of the "blinkered euphoria of the infoenthusiast." This book is a good reading and it seeds deeper discussion and thought.
Since I work in the field of distance learning, I found Chapter 5, "Learning - in Theory and in Practice," Chapter 6, "Innovating Organization, Husbanding Knowledge," Chapter 7 - "Reading the Background," and Chapter 8, "Re-education," particularly interesting and relevant. The authors identify three differences between information and knowledge: 1) knowledge usually entails a knower (the person who knows), 2) knowledge appears harder to detach (than information), and 3) knowledge requires assimilation. So these days, with all the talk about hot distance education trends and increasing on-line and other technology-mediated educational programming, we need to remain mindful of the need for technology-mediated programming to empower folks to learn, i.e., acquire and assimilate knowledge.
I also appreciated Brown and Duguid's insightful discussion regarding changes in higher education. It is true that an opportunity exists to provide greater access to higher education through the expanding use of information technologies. But, it is important to distinguish the current hype about distance learning from the reality of what really is currently available and accessible. The authors also draw distinctions between social distance and geographical distance and the dangers of polarization. I also agree that the goal should be access to higher education.
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars First the "Good News"...and Then the "Bad News" 2 May 2002
By Robert Morris - Published on Amazon.com
As I read this book, I realized I was again engaged in one form of what the authors refer to as "the social life of information": They shared their own ideas with me; I then correlated them with what my mind already possessed. One result was, that my curiosity about this complicated subject was stimulated to learn more about it even as, meanwhile, I now share information with those who read this review. There has been a "social life of information" since the first time one human being communicated with another. Over time, man has devised all manner of ways to overcome various barriers to effective communication (barriers which include distance and cost) with inventions such as the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and computer. Never before has there been more information available than there is now; moreover, never before has there been more and better ways by which to share it. In this volume, Brown and Duguid examine major technological achievements in terms of the gap between what each has contributed to society thus far, and, what each could yet contribute.
Of special interest to me is the as yet unfulfilled potential of telecommunications convergence For example, consider my situation. Atop a large table in my study, I have a computer, a printer, a facsimile machine, a DSL modem, and an adjustable lamp as well as a cordless telephone housed within a unit which records messages. Beneath this same table, there are more than 200,000 wires and cables. In the living room nearby, I have a television set; on top of it, a VCR, a DVD player, and some kind of box which AT&T Broadband installed. We need to have four different remote control devices near at hand. Only my wife knows which one to use when. Behind the television set, approximately 53,000 wires and cables. Oh sure, if I wished to spend the money, I could have someone come in and achieve in both areas the convergence to which I referred. Having read this book, I now view the current communications situation as being anti-social while conceding that at least I do not need a separate television set for each channel I wish to view.
Brown and Duguid know exactly what I am talking about. With uncommon precision as well as eloquence, they urge their reader to consider quite carefully what information is, how it can be exchanged, and why the nature and extent of that exchange are among the defining characteristics of any society. They observe, "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." This is precisely what James O'Toole has in mind when, in Leading Change, he refers to what he calls "the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom."
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Albert Borgmann's Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium, Douglas S. Robertson's The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization, and Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian's Information Rules: A Strategic Guide to the New Economy.
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