The Social Life of Information

The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

Finished: early August, 2000

I picked this up after reading a chapter on the red-rock-eater mailing list. The chapter drew the distinction between information and knowledge, where knowledge implies the ability to use a given bit of information. I thought it was pretty interesting, so I figured I would pick up the whole book.

I was pretty pleased with this book. It provided a different perspective than the techno-enthusiasts which infest the media these days. By sitting back and examining things from a people-centered point of view, Duguid and Brown bring a sense of sanity back to a world where we are deluged with information.

For instance, the distinction between knowledge and information alluded to above. We can picture disembodied information piling up in massive quantities, threatening to overwhelm us. However, knowledge seems to have a different connotation, one in which there is a knower. It is similar to the difference between theory and knowing how to apply that theory. The authors examine several instances where knowledge is imparted through mechanisms that lie beneath the contempt of the info-enthusiasts.

Two striking ones:

What both these stories demonstrate is that the informal methods of acquiring knowledge worked far more effectively than all the formal methods that the company had put in place. People will find a way to solve the problems that they confront, and if a formal rulebook won't do the job (which it rarely will), then they'll throw out the rulebook and find somebody who knows what they're doing.

Hence, the title "The Social Life of Information". The authors emphasize that information absent a context is unusable. If I dumped the contents of quantum mechanics on you, you would not be able to process that information in any way. Despite the fact that you and a physicist would both have the same information, one would be able to solve problems, and the other wouldn't, because they didn't have the context necessary to use that information.

Similarly, given an appropriate context, humans can absorb an incredible amount of information. The number of details that we regularly notice about our environment is astonishing: from the clothes that people wear, to their expressions when we say something, to noticing something moving out of the corner of our eye. Duguid and Brown illustrate this by posing a simple logic puzzle, which most people get wrong. When the puzzle is restated in a social context, most people suddenly get it right, because their intuition kicks in.

Thus, it is a matter of getting information to people in a form which they can use. One obvious form is that of stories. Much like the technicians exchanging war stories over breakfast, we create our own stories to explain how to solve our problems. We tell these stories to each other, thus expanding our ability to solve problems beyond those that we have solved ourselves.

Gosh, there's so much else that they talk about. A chapter entitled "Practice Makes Process" emphasizes the importance of observing what workers actually do, rather than trying to prescribe a process from theory. Throwing away the "useless" tasks workers perform will often prevent them from being able to accomplish their jobs at all, like if you prevented the copy technicians from eating breakfast together. This is similar to the angle that Bruno Latour takes in trying to figure out science in Science in Action.

Duguid and Brown cover a bunch of other topics, including a proposed system of higher education which would have more than a few universities upset. I enjoyed reading this book, and hope that a few people tear their eyes away from accumulating as much information as possible, and start to pay attention to what they're going to do with it when they have it.

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