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Social Life of Information, The [Paperback]

John Seely Brown , Paul Duguid
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)

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Book Description

March 1 2002
All New Preface by the Authors



"Should be read by anyone interested in understanding the future." -The Times Literary Supplement



For years pundits have predicted that information technology will obliterate everything-from supermarkets to business organizations to social life itself. But beaten down by info-glut, exasperated by computer crashes, and daunted by the dot com crash, individual users find it hard to get a fix on the true potential of the digital revolution. John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid 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. The Social Life of Information shows us how to look beyond our obsession with information and individuals to include the critical social networks of which these are always a part.

AUTHORBIO: John Seely Brown is the Chief Innovation Officer of 12 Entrepreneuring and the Chief Scientist of Xerox. He was the director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) for ten years. Paul Duguid is affiliated with Xerox PARC and the University of California, Berkeley.


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How many times has your PC crashed today? While Gordon Moore's now famous law projecting the doubling of computer power every 18 months has more than borne itself out, it's too bad that a similar trajectory projecting the reliability and usefulness of all that power didn't come to pass, as well. Advances in information technology are most often measured in the cool numbers of megahertz, throughput, and bandwidth--but, for many us, the experience of these advances may be better measured in hours of frustration.

The gap between the hype of the Information Age and its reality is often wide and deep, and it's into this gap that John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid plunge. Not that these guys are Luddites--far from it. Brown, the chief scientist at Xerox and the director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), and Duguid, a historian and social theorist who also works with PARC, measure how information technology interacts and meshes with the social fabric. They write, "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."

The authors cast their gaze on the many trends and ideas proffered by infoenthusiasts over the years, such as software agents, "still a long way from the predicted insertion into the woof and warp of ordinary life"; the electronic cottage that Alvin Toffler wrote about 20 years ago and has yet to be fully realized; and the rise of knowledge management and the challenges it faces trying to manage how people actually work and learn in the workplace. Their aim is not to pass judgment but to help remedy the tunnel vision that prevents technologists from seeing larger the social context that their ideas must ultimately inhabit. The Social Life of Information is a thoughtful and challenging read that belongs on the bookshelf of anyone trying to invent or make sense of the new world of information. --Harry C. Edwards --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Publishers Weekly

From the chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and a research specialist in cultural studies at UC-Berkeley comes a treatise that casts a critical eye at all the hype surrounding the boom of the information age. The authors' central complaint is that narrowly focusing on new ways to provide information will not create the cyber-revolution so many technology designers have visualized. The problem (or joy) is that information acquires meaning only through social context. Brown and Duguid add a humanist spin to this idea by arguing, for example, that "trust" is a deep social relation among people and cannot be reduced to logic, and that a satisfying "conversation" cannot be held in an Internet chat room because too much social context is stripped away and cannot be replaced by just adding more information, such as pictures and biographies of the participants. From this standpoint, Brown and Duguid contemplate the future of digital agents, the home office, the paperless society, the virtual firm and the online university. Though they offer many insightful opinions, they have not produced an easy read. As they point out, theirs is "more a book of questions than answers" and they often reject "linear thinking." Like most futurists, they are fond of long neologisms, but they are given to particularly unpronounceable ones like "infoprefixification" (the tendency to put "info" in front of words). The result is an intellectual gem in which the authors have polished some facets and, annoyingly, left others uncut. (Mar.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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LIVING IN THE INFORMATION AGE can occasionally feel like being driven by someone with tunnel vision. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
By Dan
Format:Paperback
I just finished reading The Social Life of Information, by John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid. This was not the quickest read; it's a business book with the obtuseness of vocabulary that implies. However, if you're a computer person with any desire to see your work in a larger context, this is a book you should read. In it, they examine eight separate areas in which computers, and the internet in particular, have supposedly changed our lives (this is typically called 'hype', though the authors don't use the word) in the latter years of the 20th century. (This book is copyright 2000.) You probably remember some of these claims: the death of the corporation, of the university, of paper documents, of the corporate office. In each chapter, they review one claim, show how the claim's proponents over-simplify the issue, and look at the (new and old) responses of people and institutions to the problem that the claim was trying to solve. They also examine, in detail, the ways in which humans process information, and how the software that is often touted as a replacement simply isn't.
I really enjoy 'ah-ha' moments; these are times where I look back at my experiences in a new light, thanks to a theory that justifies or explains something that I didn't understand. For example, I remember when I started my first professional job, right out of college, I thought the whole point of work was to, well, work. So I sat in my cube and worked 8 solid hours a day. After a few months, when I still didn't know anyone at the office, but had to ask someone how to modify a script I was working on, I learned the value of social interaction at the office. (Actually, I was so clueless, I had to ask someone to find the appropriate someone to ask.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Valuable idea towards the new IT century Sept. 12 2003
Format:Hardcover
Living in this new century, Information Technology plays a very important part in our daily life. However, as the world is flooded with information, meaningless of the mass information become a questionable matter in return.
This book is just about some ideas concerning the new technology and the new world information. People nowadays know the importance of information but they always missed the limitation of it. As mentioned by the author, increased in information is not necessary equivalents to increased in the value and meaning of it. Controlling the flow of mass information became a critical issue and solutions like better processing and improved data are suggested for improvement.
The book raised an essential element in the IT world, that is the social network, which in fact is playing the core role in this new technology world. Without the help of socialization, technology cannot grow so fast into our daily life. Think about facing problems about how to operate a new version of Microsoft windows, majority of new users would seek advice from those they knew rather than seek helps from the ¡§help¡ menu or instruction guidelines on the internet. Therefore, social context plays an important role in helping information and technology become more valuable to human.
It is the truth that even the professional technicians cannot solve problems by themselves sometimes and what they would do is to discuss with colleagues and share experience and knowledge with each other.
I agree that information itself has little meaning; it becomes valuable only after we digested and changed them into knowledge. Without doubt, technologies can ease our learning of knowledge and save much time. Therefore, they all have close relationship with each other.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Lets go forward to the past Jan. 12 2003
Format:Paperback
This is a remarkable book, not simply in terms of its insights on how technologies can be misguided if they do no recognize the underlying social structure that they are there to support, but also with regard to the release of this book in March of 2000 at the height of the dot-com boom.
In this book you will not find technological evangelicalism or ideas about how the Internet can change the world, but you will find thoughtful discussion about why online universities need the value of the offline university, why a knowledge economy cannot be understood in terms of a manufacturing paradigm of inter-changeable parts, why Chiat-Day's unstructured office design was an interesting concept but a failure in supporting the social structure of an office, and why groups of like-minded businesses will cluster in the same geographical area even though new technologies would elminate the need for proximity.
This book is positive about technology, but asks to look first at the real impact and real opportunity. While this is an amazing book that I would highly recommend to everyone interested in this subject, I did think the delineation of new technology and existing social context did not explore emergining social patterns as a result of technological change. We can only hope for a book in the future on this topic by these authors
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5.0 out of 5 stars myths of information technology Sept. 4 2002
Format:Paperback
Remember those predictions about the paperless office? Or the electronic cottage, where workers become telecommuters and never have to change out of their pajamas? And what about those claims by Internet enthusiasts who predicted the end of the "old economy"?

Why is it that organizational models for running a business keep going in and out of fashion? What was wrong with total quality management? Process reengineering? Flattened organizational structures? Computer scientist John Seely Brown and social scientist Paul Duguid have some thought-provoking answers to these questions.

Brown has long been associated with Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) and is currently its director. Duguid is a research specialist in Education at UC Berkeley. And they're neither cranks nor nay-sayers. Both are firm advocates of change. They just want to point out what they consider to be some myths about information technology.
Brown and Duguid suggest that information technology's enthusiasts don't honor the difference between information and knowledge. Some people "know" what they're talking about; some don't. Knowledge is information with a context, which includes the person or people who have it. As Brown and Duguid say, you can't separate knowledge from the knower.
We forget that communication involves negotiation and then don't understand why others can't always accept what we say at face value. To illustrate, Brown retells the story of how the graphic user interface (GUI) developed at Xerox PARC was misunderstood and unappreciated by the rest of the company -- only to be embraced and taken to market by Apple.

The truth about learning is that it's social. You may read something in a manual or book or newspaper.
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Most recent customer reviews
3.0 out of 5 stars Engaging Introduction to a Neglected Topic
This book offers a counterargument to the claim that more information (and more Information Technology) will magically make life easier. Read more
Published on Dec 31 2002 by Beth Gallego
5.0 out of 5 stars Unique message
One of the best business books of the 1990s. Only now is the message getting heard.
Organizations and businesses cannot be programmed like computers. Read more
Published on Oct. 30 2002
5.0 out of 5 stars First the "Good News"...and Then the "Bad News"
As I read this book, I realized I was again engaged in one form of what the authors refer to as "the social life of information": They shared their own ideas with me; I then... Read more
Published on May 2 2002 by Robert Morris
4.0 out of 5 stars The pitfalls of infocentricity
Remember those fantastic predictions of the future from the 50s and 60s? Well, life in the 21st century doesn't quite measure up to these adventurous fantasies. Read more
Published on Jan. 11 2002 by David E. Rogers
4.0 out of 5 stars Healthy Skepticism
All too often we forget that every implementation of a technology is based on a model of human behavior. Read more
Published on Jan. 4 2002 by Vince Kenyon
5.0 out of 5 stars Jack Welch Should Have Read This
This is a must read for anyone envisioning a business world of increased dependence on artificial intelligence at the expense of people, human relationships, and worker... Read more
Published on Jan. 2 2002 by R. BraytonBowen
5.0 out of 5 stars Jack Welch Should Have Read This
This is a must read for anyone envisioning a business world of increased dependence on artificial intelligence at the expense of people, human relationships, and worker... Read more
Published on Jan. 2 2002 by R. BraytonBowen
5.0 out of 5 stars Mandatory for executives of all stripes
Really an excellent collection of essays on information, learning, and knowledge.
The book was released in 2000 and has a refreshingly wise view of "the... Read more
Published on Dec 20 2001 by portolavalley
5.0 out of 5 stars The best book on KM practice
I use "The social life of information" almost daily. I have read a lot of literature on Knowledge Management, but this is the best one I've come across when it comes to... Read more
Published on Nov. 11 2001 by Kare Antonsen
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