The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. 330p. $16.95 ISBN: 1-57851-708-7. LC 99-049068.
The principal argument of this book is that no amount of technical wizardry can overcome neglect of the human-side of technology. Our lives are littered with maladroit gizmos with steep learning curves and payoffs in very limited domains. In short, many information technologies require humans to adapt to them, not the other way around. Anyone who has been frustrated programming a videocassette recorder, telephone answering machine, or a digital alarm clock (and this probably includes nearly everyone) can hardly disagree with the major premise.
The authors illustrate their argument in a number of domains such as softbots (independent programs that can shop or find information for you), home offices (workers would not need to travel to a central work location), business practices (workers need not collaborate and share information to develop new practices), distant education (learners would not need to travel to a central learning location), and business knowledge bases (information resides in people or in databases?). Their arguments and examples are extensive and impressive. Their arguments gain force both from the compelling strength of a social, psychological and cultural perspective, but also, the evident underdeveloped state of artificial intelligence, knowledge management, information retrieval and so on. It still is difficult to completely specify and mechanize how people learn, how they interact, how they communicate and how they base many judgments on matters of taste. This book argues that no activity where human beings bring a complex mix of emotional and analytical thinking, and face-to-face interaction will ever be successfully reduced to isolated keystroking.
The original edition was published in 2000 and was re-issued in 2002. In Internet time, this was a while ago and some historical remoteness is evident here and there. An example is an examination of a World Wide Web search that would have different results if done today. Another is comment on the pending court case between Microsoft and Netscape. That court case is in its final stages and has spawn other legal action. So many things have happened in the last two years that such specific references historicize (and weaken the force) of their arguments. In general, when the authors deal with larger social trends their argument is more impressive and suffers least from irrelevancy. When the authors bolster their argument with current events or examples of technology, the book begins to show its age.
One of the more interesting chapters is "Reading the Background," which is a survey of the digital effects on reading and writing. There have been extraordinary changes in this area with the application of extensible markup technologies, distributed metadata and the semantic web. Authors, both established (i.e., Stephen King) and novices are putting work on the Web. This chapter would be a good candidate for elaboration in any future edition where the topics of hypertext, digital libraries, semantic web and metadata could be assessed.
This is a significant book that adds careful argument to the recognition that the success of technologies depends as much on clever algorithms as fitting comfortably in the sociology of human activity. It is beginning to show its age, but at this moment it remains a primary text.
Terrence A. Brooks
Information School, University of Washington