Technology Brings Change, Not Endings
Book Review by Nancy Harrington
The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

Cover of The Social Life of InformationLook only backward and you're a Luddite; look only forward and you risk tunnel vision. But if you really want to understand the reality of how information technologies integrate into society and its institutions, look around. This, briefly stated, is the message of the interesting, if somewhat unsatisfying book, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

Those who believe, much to their chagrin, that nerds now rule the world, will find validation and support for their concerns that technologists see information (and more information) as providing the ultimate and only correct answers to all problems, in the total absence of asking the right questions. The authors contend that this "tunnel vision," seeing only one way ahead (if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!), has led to erroneously simplified and unrealistic expectations of what our future in the information age will be like. We're all familiar with predictions that once told us that the telephone would replace all letter writing, that computers would make typewriters obsolete, and so on. Right. Yet the reality is, that older technologies, rather than disappearing, often become adjuncts to the new technologies. Why does it turn out this way?

The advent of computers and the information age have certainly generated a group of new "endisms" -- the commonly held view that information technologies will spell:

  • The end of the press, television, mass media.
  • The end of hierarchical organizations.
  • The end of need for paper documents.
  • The end of universities.
  • The end of centralized workplaces.

Seely and Duguid contend that "endism" is predicated on the basic belief that the institutions named above are mere delivery systems for information, when in reality, those institutions are considerably more complex.

The authors devote an entire chapter to examination of the traditional university vis-a-vis the talk of marketplace pressures to apply technology to distance learning, referred to by the authors as the unplug-and-play model of education. Among the traits of traditional, trusted university systems that go beyond mere delivery of information, say Seely and Duguid, is a "useful kind of misrepresentation" that attaches to a university degree (p. 216), a cross-subsidy that allows slack in the educational process. That slack has, ironically, provided the opportunity for creation of " innovation [by] 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-play model of education." (p. 218). The authors contend that movement toward distance learning that isolates the individual and puts education at the mercy of the marketplace will eliminate that useful slack. They extend their analysis to other aspects of the long-lived model of education, as well, namely: the credentialing function, the role of peer support in learning, and the organization of students and faculty vis-a-vis the institution.

Aside from analysis of how information technologies may or may not play out in revamping education, Seely and Duguid discuss the unreality of the "endism" philosophy as applied to newspapers (" the surprise of even their editors and proprietors, the inefficient and outmoded newspaper hangs on..." p. 178), the workplace (" overlooking both the social aspects of work and the frailty of technology, design attempts to replace conventional work systems may often merely displace the burdens of work." p. 70), and other institutions.

In the last analysis, the authors tell us they have few solutions to offer, and it took them 240 pages to realize it. Perhaps this is why the book left me unsatisfied. The issues they raise have validity. I would welcome a sequel that offers concrete steps to assure that information technologists use more tools than the information hammer in designs that affect our social institutions.

 Other Resources

 About the Authors
John Seely Brown is the Chief Scientist of Xerox Corporation and the Director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Paul Duguid is a Research Associate in Social and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and consultant at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.


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