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The Social Life of Information

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

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Format: Hardcover, 320pp.
ISBN: 9780875847627
Publisher: Harvard Business School Press
Pub. Date: February 2000

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Description and Reviews
From The Publisher:

To see the future we can build with information technology, we must look beyond mere information to the social context that creates and gives meaning to it.

For years pundits have predicted that information technology will obliterate the need for almost everything-from travel to supermarkets to business organizations to social life itself. Individual users, however, tend to be more skeptical. Beaten down by info-glut and exasperated by computer systems fraught with software crashes, viruses, and unintelligible error messages, they find it hard to get a fix on the true potential of the digital revolution.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid help us to see through frenzied visions of the future to the real forces for change in society. They 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 and what's helping us get there. We need, they argue, to look beyond our obsession with information and individuals to include the critical social networks of which these are always a part.

Drawing from rich learning experiences at Xerox PARC, from examples such as IBM, Chiat/Day Advertising, and California's "Virtual University," and from historical, social, and cultural research, the authors sharply challenge the futurists' sweeping predictions. They explain how many of the tools, jobs, and organizations seemingly targeted for future extinction in fact provide useful social resources that people will fight to keep. Rather than aiming technological bullets at these "relics," we should instead look for ways that the new world of bits can learn from and complement them.

Arguing elegantly for the important role that human sociability plays, even-perhaps especially-in the world of bits, The Social Life of Information gives us an optimistic look beyond the simplicities of information and individuals. It shows how a better understanding of the contribution that communities, organizations, and institutions make to learning, working and innovating can lead to the richest possible use of technology in our work and everyday lives.


"This book punctures old information revolution myths and breaks important new ground. It will transform the way you think about information and its role in shaping both business and society at large."
-Paul Saffo, Director, Institute for the Future

"The Social Life of Information will help technologists keep an eye on the bigger picture and avoid the tunnel vision that can lead promising companies down blind alleys."
-Dr. Eric Schmidt, Chairman and CEO, Novell, Inc.

"The Social Life of Information provides a wonderfully refreshing counterpoint to the legion of information revolution gurus with their boundless confidence that the 'Net will remake the world. From management to research to universities, Brown and Duguid show how information is embedded in social relationships and institutions, and how knowledge management must therefore focus on the social dimension every bit as much as on technology."
-Francis Fukuyama, Hirst Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University, and Author of Trust and The Great Disruption

"Despite all predictions that the information revolution will bring us a bloodless workplace of machines and Dilberts, Brown and Duguid show us that human interactions, human conversations, and human meaning will still form the beating heart of business. Wonderful! A necessary read for everyone interested in the new economy."
-W. Brian Arthur, Citibank Professor, Santa Fe Institute

"The Social Life of Information makes a clear and compelling case that the social context of information will determine which tools will work and which will bite back, often in unanticipated ways. Anyone seeking to shape our new world by harnessing the power of information technology should read this book."
-John Hagel, Partner, McKinsey & Company, and Author of Net Worth

"In The Social Life of Information, Brown and Duguid help people throughout business, academia, government, and society at large to better understand that information technology can have an appropriate and positive impact only if we design technology and social systems holistically. This is a book that I have long awaited, and that should be required reading for the information technology system researchers and designers, managers, policy makers, and executives in every information-intensive organization."
-Daniel E. Atkins, Professor, University of Michigan, School of Information and Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science

"The Social Life of Information is timely and important. Brown and Duguid eloquently present a dynamic and multilayered view of the nature of learning and work and, indeed, learning in work. They show convincingly how critical issues of knowledge management and innovation rely on an intricate web of relationships between process and practice, structure and spontaneity, technological reach and personal reciprocity."
-Gary Hamel, Founder and Chairman, Strategos, and Author of Competing for the Future

"In this age of the euphoric pursuit of information for its own sake, we often forget that information is only a means to an end, not an end in itself. This extremely readable and informative book reminds us to consider the social context into which knowledge and information must be placed. We ignore its message at our peril."
-James R. Houghton, Chairman of the Board, Emeritus, Corning Incorporated

"In this important and finely argued volume, Brown and Duguid point out that technology occurs in a social context that is often overlooked: that things like habit, work environments, and human judgment play a major role in how, when, and even whether technology gets adopted. A refreshing and timely counter to the infoenthusiasts who think Moore's Law solves every problem, The Social Life of Information is a must read for the digitally endowed."-Jack Smith, Correspondent, ABC News

"The Social Life of Information starts a thoughtful conversation about the impact of information technology on our lives and our institutions. It is a richly humanistic search for context, concerned with issues of meaning, purpose, and judgment. In graceful and accessible prose, Brown and Duguid provoke sensitive and deep questions as they seek a balanced perspective about new and old, tradition and innovation, and institutions and individuals."
-Jonathan Fanton, President, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

"An intellectually honest and immensely enjoyable antidote to the scores of overly simplistic projections of the impact of information technology. While there is no doubt this impact will be immense, its precise form is yet unknowable. By raising questions about what that form might be Brown and Duguid expose the pundits' unstated assumptions and treat the reader to a wide-ranging analysis of our society."
-William Wulf, President, National Academy of Engineering

"After the endless, breathless hype about the information superhighway and how it will revolutionize society as we know it come two of America's leading technological thinkers who, in this calm and witty volume, point out that information is inevitably embedded in social relations. If you-like all of us-are living through the internet revolution, read this book"
-Robert D. Putnam, Stanfield Professor of International Peace, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

"Neither cheerleaders nor debunkers, these knowledgeable and reflective Silicon Valley insiders provide a much-needed critical perspective on the buzzwords, myths, and conventional wisdom of the digital revolution. Brown and Duguid convincingly argue that our future world is evolving from the complex interaction of powerful new technology with resistant existing structures and practices."
-William J. Mitchell, Dean, School of Architecture and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Author of City of Bits

"The Social Life of Information counters conventional wisdom by reminding us that information technology does not work unless supported by viable communities and institutions. Brown and Duguid argue that communication across distances increases the importance of place, and that the preservation of social knowledge and the art of practice are key to unleashing the economic promise of the new technologies. An artfully crafted and fascinating book that invites the reader to a conversation."
-Bruce Kogut, Felix Zandman Professor of International Management, The Wharton School of Business

"This important book provides both the layperson and the technologically adroit with a pragmatic yet visionary perspective on the profound role that information technology will play in reshaping our society and its institutions. By combining their extensive experience in computers and communications technology with an unusually broad understanding of how technology is developed and adopted by contemporary society, the authors provide a realistic yet provocative view of the future."
-James Duderstadt, President, Emeritus, and University Professor of Science and Engineering, The University of Michigan

"Fascinating and insightful. Experts Brown and Duguid argue convincingly that the context in which information is embedded is as important as the information itself. If information technology is to realize its promise, technologists must learn to take context into account."
-William H. Davidow, General Partner, Mohr, Davidow Ventures


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About the Authors

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.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Tunneling Ahead1
1Limits to Information11
2Agents and Angels35
3Home Alone63
4Practice Makes Process91
5Learning—in Theory and in Practice117
6Innovating Organization, Husbanding Knowledge147
7Reading the Background173
Afterword: Beyond Information243
About the Authors319

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