Blog all Sticky-tabbed pages: The Social Life of Information

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000) is about a lot of things. Conveniently for me, they explicitly state what they think it’s about:

P xvi: This book is particularly concerned with the superficially plausible idea […] that information and its technologies can unproblematically replace the nuanced relations between people. We think of this as “information fetishism.”

Through many examples, Brown and Duguid show how making use of information alone is not enough to change situations. Social factors, often complex, are essential to the success of an innovation. For example, Linux and the distributed model of open-source development:

p xvii, xviii: Unsurprisingly, this sociological innovation has produced a technology that, whole certainly not for the uninitiated, is remarkably well socialised among its users. As we argue throughout the book, designs that ignore social issues lead to fragile, opaque technologies. By contrast, Linux, drawing as it does on social resources, has produced technologies that are remarkably robust, and, at least for the network of practitioners developing it, transparent.

Brown and Duguid do not attempt to say how to create these social systems. Their purpose is to show how essential these systems are and how a focus only on informational aspects of innovation are a partial approach.

p 1: This central focus [on information] inevitably pushes aside all the fuzzy stuff that lies around the edges — context, background, history, common knowledge, social resources. But this stuff around the edges is not as irrelevant as it may seem. It provides valuable balance and perspective. It holds alternatives, offers breadth of vision, and indicates choices. It helps clarify purpose and support meaning. Indeed, ultimately it is only with help of what lies beyond that any sense can be made of the information that absorbs so much attention.

p 9: But it is to society and social resources to which many designs are blinkered, if not blind.

p 31: [On “the myth of information”] First, it isolates information and the informational aspects of life and discounts all else. This makes it blind to other forces at work in society. Second, as our colleague Geoffrey Nunberg has argued, such predictions tend to take the most rapid point of change and to extrapolate from there into the future, without noticing other forces that may be regrouping.

In some instances, a book published in 2000 can seem remarkably prescient.

p 52: The research suggests that frictionless markets, run by rationally calculating bots, may not be the efficient economic panacea some have hoped for. Social friction and “inertia” may usefully dampen volatility and increase stability.

As the book progresses, Brown and Duguid argue again and again that the utility of many systems is not only technological in origin but social.

p 62: Your willingness to put your paycheck into a slot in the wall is, in many ways, remarkable. But it relies on much more than the instrumental reliability of the ATM. Indeed, for most people a particular ATM isn’t transparent enough for us to judge whether it is instrumentally reliable or not. Instead we look for reliability, both instrument and moral, in the organisations represented by the ATM and by the institutions regulating those organisations.

I’m (re)reading Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy at the moment and one of the themes of that is the establishment of fiat currency. Fiat currency is currency that has value simply because people believe it does, because they believe in the basic stability of the issuer — that is, the state.

The effort involved in establishing and then sustaining any sort of social system is staggering. And the ways in which the non-technical effort can be glossed over is damaging.

p 80: The apparent “ease” offered by these technologies hides much of the extra work they involve. So teachers are encouraged to “put their materials up on the web” as if that task too were merely a click away.

Though this seems to indicate that Brown and Duduig are somewhat disdainful of experts:

p 88: To a great extent, the experts put their faith in the telegraph because the telegraph was in the hands of the experts.

They are actually greatly in favour of expertise which is gained through practice.

p 97: By practice, of course, we do not mean the sort of rote exercise people associate with phrases like piano practice. Rather we mean the activity involved in getting work done […].

The Social Life of Information was written before the current enthusiasm for Service Design, yet it has a lot to say about how to understand complex processes.

p 97: These contrasting sources of meaning and understanding [the process view and the practice view] present business process reengineering and process views of organisation with difficulties for several reasons. First, business process reengineering tends to be somewhat monotheistic. There is not much room for variation in meaning in its camp. The process view is expected to explain all.

p 99: Yet the tensions between process and practice, between the structure provided by one and the spontaneity provided by the other, are key structuring forces in an organisation. Consequently, you can’t redesign process effectively if you don’t understand practice.

It’s hard to talk about practice without talking, eventually, about tacit and explicit knowledge. There are many (long, often tedious) explications of tacit and explicit knowledge, but at the simplest, explicit knowledge is know what and tacit knowledge is know how. Sometimes tacit and explicit knowledge are presented as two different things; sometimes they are points on a continuum. Brown and Duguid have an interesting way to consider tacit and explicit knowledge as complementary.

p 134: But if you lack the tacit dimension required for spelling, shelves of dictionaries do you no good. For being able to use a dictionary (the explicit part) is not enough. You have to know when to use a dictionary. A good speller will say, “I just know that doesn’t look right”. This is the tacit part. One it has done its work, you can turn to the explicit information in the dictionary.

p 134: In the end, paradoxically, you only learn to use a dictionary by learning to spell.

Extending the reach of the tacit-vs-explicit (or should that be tacit-AND-explicit) dichotomy, Brown and Duguid say:

p 171: Markets help society escape the rigidities of planning. Planning, meanwhile, preserves markets, providing the regulation to maintain competition and prevent monopolies.

[Compare the p171 clip with that from p52, above.]

But this tacit-explicit distinction can be taken further, deeper:

p 243: […] new techniques and technologies often aim to remove a surface constraint (objects, organisations, practices, institutions) without appreciating their submerged resourcefulness.

As Brown and Duguid say, their book is about “the superficially plausible idea […] that information and its technologies can unproblematically replace the nuanced relations between people”.

There is always, inevitably, some nuance of a situation that is not captured in a re-design of a system where there are social components. And some unexpected nuance that will arise in a new socio-technical system. For me, as a researcher of soci0-technical systems, this is a good news — there’s always something new to discover. As someone who would make recommendations to consider in the (re)-design of socio-technical systems, this is deeply troubling. How can I know if I’ve really seen into the nature of the system I’m looking at, and how can I know my recommendations take the substance and nuance of that situation into account.


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