Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart.
Nardi, B.A. and O’Day, V. L. (1999), The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA. 232 p. ISBN 0-262-14066-7 $27.50 Available:The MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, MA 02142-1399; Tel: 800 356 0343, Fax: 617 235 1709
The first seventy five pages of this book plead for a more self-conscious approach to information technology, while the remainder of the book presents case studies of information work, study and use. The case studies present information ecologies: Complex systems of people, practices, values and information technologies in particular local environments. The argument of the text is that the appropriate focus should be on human values, endeavors and ambitions, and not on the technology. In short, the authors assert that information technology is a means and not an end in itself.
That a book should be written asserting that information technology be mediated by “the human heart” is interesting by itself. It reflects the totality of the information revolution that has destroyed old forms of work, knowledge and relationships among people – even the relationship people maintain with their own tasks – and replaced them with new information technologies. “The book is a personal response to the prospect of increasing technological change” (p. 14). One can hardly quibble with their thesis that more emphasis should be given to the human consequences of information technologies, and their claim that people too often accept new forms of information technologies with an unnecessary inevitability.
The virtue of the authors’ thesis, however, is not matched by any new or critical method that would help us analyze or evaluate what information is, or how we might evaluate it, control it or shape it. The call for a new awareness of information technologies is not new. Winograd and Flores
(“Understanding Computers & Cognition: A New Foundation for Design”) presented a much more sophisticated version of the same thesis based on Hegelian “breakdowns” in ordinary life. The authors also consider technology as metaphor, text and system, but the treatment is discursive. It is evident that the basis of their plea for more heart is more emotional than intellectual.
The case studies in the latter two thirds of the book reveal their expertise in sensing the information ecology of the special library. Reference librarians are described as a “keystone species.” These are individuals immersed in a particular information environment who form vital links with others who have more tangential relationships with that particular information environment. The case studies represent a series of participant observations meant to illustrate the central metaphor of human ecologies. A sense of history would have strengthened the central argument of this book. One can imagine folks in the fifteen-century who probably wished that the advocates of moveable type printed their books with more heart.
Terrence A. Brooks
School of Library and Information Science
University of Washington