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Author: David J. Staley
Title: The Social Life of Information (John Seely Brown and Paul Duquid)
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2000

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Source: The Social Life of Information (John Seely Brown and Paul Duquid)
David J. Staley

vol. 3, no. 2, August 2000
Article Type: Book Review

The Social Life of Information

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

"Looking beyond information"(135) might be a more appropriate title for this book. The authors debunk the "myth of information:" the belief that the increased availability of and access to data will eliminate the social institutions that currently house information. They reject "endism"—that technology will lead to the "end of the nation-state" or the "end of universities"—and instead argue that institutions have a way of persisting, even when faced with forces for change. This volume is part of a growing body of literature that insists that the skills and aptitudes of human beings remain the most important part of any technological system. To that end, the authors wish to focus on the "social context of information," the ways in which humans employ information. They urge readers not to fall victim to "tunnel design," where the needs of information outweigh those of human beings and the knowledge they possess.

Most of the examples in this book relate to the social context of information in the business world. While perhaps not of direct interest to readers of this journal, these sections are thought-provoking and should not be skipped over. Of interest is the chapter titled "Learning—in Theory and in Practice." This chapter is devoted to "knowledge management," a current fad in the business literature. Interestingly, the authors distinguish between "knowledge" and "information." Knowledge is much more difficult to manage, they contend, because it is embodied in the skills and know-how of people, while information is merely stored in databases. "It's been said," they observe, "that if NASA wanted to go to the moon again, it would have to start from scratch, having lost not the data [the information], but the human expertise that took it there last time." In another case, "when Ford wanted to build on the success of the Taurus, the company found that the essence of that success had been lost with the loss of the people that created it. Their knowledge was not stored in information technologies. It left when they left."(121-22) Knowledge refers to the abilities and habits of mind of a skilled practitioner. Doctors and nurses have access to the same information, but because of differences in knowledge, the doctor is a different user of information than the nurse. While making information more widely available, technology has done little to alter the institutions of human knowledge.

These observations have clear implications for the university as an institution, the subject of the final chapter. While perhaps an unpopular perspective, the authors hold that the "core competency" of the university is as a credentialing institution, that is, an institution that validates knowledge. Because knowledge is so slippery an attribute to manage, as they argued above, universities must continue to exist in order to provide an important service: validating knowledge in order for the society to more easily identify people with knowledge.

Acquiring knowledge means more than accessing information, therefore they are not swayed by arguments that the university exists simply to "deliver content," an approach that elevates information above knowledge. They favor a liberal arts approach to education rather than a narrow technical approach. "An extraordinary amount of creative outburst that has generated this technology," they observe, "has come from people who used the slack in a university to explore new avenues." By slack, I believe they mean the creative freedom, exploration and intellectual serendipity universities offer, often missing from the corporate world. These qualities contribute to individual knowledge, but are hard to instill when one's education is focused on information. "Much digital innovation has come from people who spent their time on campus wandering around in the arts, theater, psychology, and the humanities—areas not well supported in the unplug-and-pay model of education."(218) It seems that our own discipline, then, has an important role to play in the creation of knowledge.

The authors are wary of distance learning. If the goal of education were merely to access information, then distance learning would seem appropriate. However, cultivating knowledge often involves direct consultation with skilled practitioners. They favor an "apprentice model" of education, insisting that knowledge is developed in the context of learning communities. If technology serves as a means of broadening those communities, so much the better, but they insist that distance learning technologies must compliment face-to-face instruction.

Further, the authors distinguish between "geographical distance" and "social distance." There are very few cases where physical access to schooling is not possible, so the argument that distance learning helps to alleviate the problems of geography seems antiquated. A bigger concern is access to those institutions, especially among those traditionally denied such opportunities. If technology opens up access to learning communities, narrowing social distance and widening access to knowledge, the technology will have served an important function.

David J. Staley