Sunday, October 21, 2018

Book Review: 'The Social Life of Information: Updated, with a New Preface' by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

The Social Life of Information: Updated, with a New Preface
By John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

Review by Robert Morris

This is an updated edition of a book first published in 2000. David Weisberger provides an Introduction to the New Edition. As co-authors John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid observe in their New Preface, “As we have tried to suggest in this brief attempt to set this book in a contemporary con text, one thing that remains underanalyzed in the world of technological change is the ‘social’ that we have tried to investigate. We have sought to indicate that it is more than an outgrowth of or reducible to individualism. While there is a great deal of talk of the social, what people are talking about often remains unclear.”

One of their objectives in this new edition to provide greater clarity of issues that have emerged in recent years. Social groups now play a much more important role in the context of information itself. Brown and Duguid “certainly do not pretend that this fifteen-year old book pretend that their updated edition “will in any way provide that understanding, but we hope it might still signal the need to develop it.” There is indeed work yet to be done.

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."

Almost 50 years ago in Future Shock (1930), Alvin Toffler observes, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” I was reminded of that as I began to read Chapter Eight, “Re-Education.” Brown and Duguid really nail it when commenting on the ability of a group to construct their education collectively — with collaborative learning — rather than with traditional academic approach of command and control. Consider these comments:

“The ability of the group to construct their education constructively recalls the way in which groups form and develop around documents [and shared, real-world experiences]. Together, members construct and negotiate a shared meaning, bringing the group along collectively rather than individually. In the process, they become what the literary critic Stanley Fish calls a ‘community of interpretation’ working toward a shared understanding of the matter under discussion.”

Frankly, I cannot recall a prior time when the global community was more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than it is today. That said, I agree with John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid that “one thing that does endure, despite various setbacks, is a remarkable optimism about the ability of information and its related technologies to change the social world for the better.” Change remains the only constant and our ability to understand its nature and extent is imperative. They do not pretend that their updated edition “will in any way provide that understanding, but we hope it might still signal the need to develop it.”

In this context, I am again reminded of an incident that occurred decades ago when one of Albert Einstein’s faculty colleagues at Princeton gently chided him because he always asked the same questions on his final examinations. “Quite true. Guilty as charged. Each year the answers are different.”

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of Robert Morris. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.