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The Social Life of Information

 
3/28/2000
Can information technology alone carry us forward into a new age? Do today's innovations make traditional ways of doing things obsolete? Are social resources simply along for the ride? No, say John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, authors of the The Social Life of Information (HBS Press). In this interview, they tell why the real power of information depends on the social context and why technology must adapt to society, and not the other way around.

The Social Life of Information

In The Social Life of Information (HBS Press, 2000), John Seely Brown, Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and Paul Duguid, a research specialist in Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of California, Berkeley, argue that instead of catapulting relentlessly forward on the back of new technologies, it's time to glance sidelong and take account of what lies in the periphery.

Infoenthusiasts have so convinced us of the power and promise of technology, say the authors, that we've forgotten about things like practice and purpose. So focused on blowing up the world of atoms, we've blinded ourselves to the very things that give context and meaning to the world of bits — namely: social life, human networks, and cultural institutions. In this interview, Brown and Duguid discuss some of their ideas.

Q: We've just closed a millenium that has seen huge advances in information technologies — from the pen to the telegraph to the PC to the World Wide Web. Yet the title of your book implies that there is more to this phenomenon than processing power and global access. What does The Social Life of Information refer to?

A: We believe that all the hype surrounding the capabilities of information technologies has led us to develop a dangerous form of tunnel vision regarding where the new technologies can take us and so how they should be designed. We've become so focused on driving relentlessly forward, that we have pushed aside all the fuzzy stuff in the periphery — context, background, history, common knowledge, social resources — that helps frame human activities. Though vital to how we all live and work, consideration of things like communities, organizations, and institutions are too often missing from the design stylebooks of the information age. It is to help draw attention to these hard-to-see (and hard-to-describe) resources that we gave our book the title it has. We contend that attending too closely to information overlooks the social context that helps people understand what information might mean, why it matters, and how it can truly enrich our lives.

Q: Futurists insist information technology will empower us and make us "free". Yet most of us still pull our hair out dealing with "infoglut," computer crashes and "FATAL ERROR" messages. Which outlook should we believe — unbridled enthusiasm or gloom and doom?

A: Information technology has undoubtedly been wonderfully successful in many ways. Even those people who continue to resist computers, faxes, e-mail, the Internet, and the like can hardly avoid taking advantage of the embedded microchips and invisible processors that make phones easier to use, cars safer to drive, appliances more reliable, toys and games more enjoyable, and the trains run on time. But such successes have extended the ambition of information technology without necessarily broadening its outlook. Futurists want us to take it on faith that the very problems created by information technology will somehow be solved by more information — what we call "Moore's Law" solutions. But we don't believe that more information, better processing, faster connections, stronger cryptography, are the answers. They may in fact create still more problems. As information technology tunnels deeper into everyday life, it's time to think not simply in terms of the next megaflop of processing power, but to look instead to things that lie beyond information. It's time to retreat from exuberance (or depression) at the volume of information, and to consider its value more carefully.

Q: What do you mean when you say that well designed technologies "fight back"?

A: It's been said that poorly designed technologies — those that create as many problems as they solve — "bite back." We think this is because designers are often blind to the resourcefulness that helps embed certain ways of doing things deep in our lives. Generations of confident videophones, conferencing tools, and technologies for tele-presence are still far from capturing the essence of a firm handshake or a straight look in the eye. Conversely, good technologies — those that take into account resources that people care about — refuse to die. Tools and institutions fight back when they offer people worthwhile resources that may be lost if they are swept away. Yet such tools are in remarkably short supply. How many computer applications that you've bought, borrowed or downloaded over past five years would you actually fight for? On the other hand — how many of us are willing to part with physical books, fax machines, our local library?

Q: What about the "endism" — the end of paper, of distance, of organizations — that has proliferated among infoenthusiasts for so long? Are all the futurists wrong?

A: The strong claim seems to be that in the new world individuals can hack it alone with only information by their side. Everyone will return to frontier life, living in the undifferentiated global village. Here such things as organizations and institutions are only in the way. But we contend that for all information's independence and extent — resources like paper and companies are far more than just information containers and coordinators. In spite of pundits' predictions, the fax, the copier, and paper documents hang on for a very simple reason: people find them useful. The same goes for institutions. From firms to libraries to universities, all provide wonderful resources that go well beyond information itself toward helping people to work, communicate, and think together. Certainly many of these organizations will need to undergo some radical changes — but the question should be not how we can get rid of the old, but how the new can learn from and complement the old.

Q: There has been a lot of excitement surrounding the development of "bots" — software agents that may one day be capable of everything from shopping to administrative tasks to developing "personality." How much of the hype should be believed?

A: Digital agents will play a central part in future developments of the 'Net — but to pursue their development needs more cold appraisal and less evangelism. First, we must recognize that designing bots to replicate human actions introduces both moral and social-institutional questions. Our willingness to put a paycheck into a slot in the wall is in many ways remarkable — but it relies on much more than the instrumental reliability of the ATM. Instead, we look for reliability in the organizations represented by the ATM and by the institutions regulating those organizations. Second and most important, bots and humans operate in different, if overlapping spheres. Some futurists seem anxious to replace humans with bots in certain tasks without appreciating how people accomplish those tasks. Despite the difficulty of understanding what these agents might actually do or why, people are being asked to put everything from the food in their refrigerators to their cars, houses, assets, reputation, and health into digital "hands." If human agents are simply redefined as digital ones — bots will end up with autonomy without accountability, and their owners, by contrast, may have accountability without control.

Q: Many technologists would have us believe that the home office is little more than "a click away." How close are we really?

A: The truth is the actual percentage of home workers is still extremely low. In addition, what little valuable research there is shows that many of those who do "break free" from the office environment end up back within a year. So why has the promised migration from office to home been so painstakingly slow? Many of the difficulties reflect a misunderstanding of office work, which is too easily painted as information handling. Another reason is ignorance of the frailty of technological systems. Thirdly, in the transition to home offices, the burdens of work pass from the social system, where tasks are shared, onto the lap of individuals. These cumulative problems may lead to the curious paradox that information technology, by ignoring the role played invisibly by the social system, is keeping people out of the home and in the conventional office, and not the other way around. Ironically, in order for people to be able to work alone, technology may have to reinforce their access to social networks.

Q: Many business thinkers have argued that society must learn to adapt to the exponential pace of technological change — and quickly. How would you answer this?

A: It may be, instead, that thinking this way about technology and society is backward. It's a wrong way, moreover, that can have serious consequences. To accuse society of lagging lets technology and design off the hook too easily. It implies, in the end, that you can tear down walls, issue laptops and cell phones, or send people home with industrial-strength technology and then blame them if they don't adjust. Our argument, by contrast, is that technology design has not taken adequate account of work and its demands but instead has aimed at an idealized image of individuals and information. We argue that the predictions about the promise of technology cannot come about until design adjusts to human need — not the other way around.

Q: What's your thinking about the dominant management trends of the last two decades: reengineering and knowledge management?

A: As reengineering stumbled in the mid-1990s, knowledge management quickly rose to take its place. This succession strikes us as particularly interesting. Was it merely a case of a new fad fortuitously and fortunately succeeding an exhausted old one? Or was there more than chance to the sequence? Did the focus on process overlook the increasing demand for knowledge in modern organizations? We suspect it did. While the process view is important — giving shape and direction to an organization — it always risks binding people too tightly to process, cutting them off from their "lateral" resources, blinding the organization to improvisation and new ideas. Indeed, overlooking practice risks cutting organizations off from discontinuous change — setting them on a linear course of simply lurching from one top-down "palace revolution" to another.

Q: You talk a lot in the book about the importance of community to learning and to individual and organizational success. Do the burgeoning online communities pose a threat to this?

A: It seems improbable that such networks will simply dissolve organization any more than they will necessarily damage local communities, which remain robust. New technologies may, though, spread these communities out more than before. The growing reciprocity available on the 'Net is helping people separated by space to maintain close relationships. Yet considering all the sort of implicit communication, negotiation, and collective improvisation that are essential parts of practice, learning, and knowledge sharing — it's clear that there are advantages to physically working together, however well people may be connected by technology. Indeed, one of the most powerful uses of information technology seems to be to support people who do work together directly and to allow them to schedule efficient face-to-face encounters.

Q: Why is it so important to underscore the resilience of the paper document?

A: Books and paper documents set a useful precedent not only for document design, but also for information technology design in general. In a time of superabundant raw information, they suggest that the better path in creating social documents (and social communities) lies not in the direction of increasing amounts of information and increasingly full representation, but rather in leaving increasing amounts un- or underrepresented. Efficient communication relies not on how much can be said, but on how much can be left unsaid — and even unread — in the background. And a certain amount of fixity contributes a great deal to this sort of efficiency. This is not to minimize the significance of the new fluid technologies. But social and institutional pressures that favor fixity will also have a say in the outcome of current transformations.

Q: You say that a truly "virtual" university is not only unlikely but also undesirable. Why? Couldn't a true "marketplace of ideas" finally allow equal access to education for everyone?

A: The more expensive, conventional campus, with its rich and respected resources, provides a highly effective setting for students to access multiple communities, directly and indirectly, purposefully and serendipitously. On the conventional campus, on-line activities complement, not replace, the off-line. Consequently, on-line degrees that only provide half this mixture are unlikely to be regarded as fully equivalent to those that provide the whole. And the marketplace can discriminate quite finely between better and worse degrees. In addition, despite the concern about "have-nots" lacking access to technology, there is a danger that technology will become the only access they have to experiences whose full value actually develops through complementary on- and off-line practices. Those able to afford the more expensive, conventional campuses are likely to have the best of both worlds, while those attending "commuter" colleges may be pushed onto the digital highway but remain the same distance from the benefits of the conventional campus as before.

Q: How can a consideration of the "social life" of information help us better use technological change to our advantage?

A: Forcing ourselves to pay attention to stubbornness, to what will not budge, to the things that people fight for — taking into account social resources people care about — in turn will help us to produce tools that people care about. In a heavily designed world, we all need to be able to deal with the hype that accompanies new technological designs if we want it to enrich, rather than complicate, our lives. Envisioned change will not happen or will not be fruitful until people look beyond the simplicities of information and individuals to the complexities of learning, knowledge, judgement, communities, organizations, and institutions.

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