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Perspective on knowledge: The social life of info

This article appears in the issue April 2017 [Volume 26, Issue 4]

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Fifteen years ago, I learned something important from The Social Life of Information. In fact, it was so important that I thought I knew it all along: Information isn’t just content, and it does not move in rational, predictable ways. Rather, it follows the pathways established by our social relationships because information is social.

The classic example in that book comes from the world of photocopy repair. The authors, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, knew each other from the famous Xerox Palo Alto Research Center – PARC. To learn how knowledge is developed, they engaged in an anthropological study of Xerox. How did copier repairpeople build up their knowledge? It turns out the repairpeople’s primary sources were not the carefully constructed manuals and training sessions. Rather, it was the water cooler around which they would swap “war stories”—how they fixed a Model 9200 with nothing but a pocket comb and a rubber band, the time that a family of raccoons had taken up ?residence inside a Model 7503 and so on.

Anecdote database

On this basis, JSB (as Brown is known) and Duguid recommended the creation of a database of anecdotes and stories, for this sort of know-how is impossible to systematize. Nor can it ever be complete, for there is no end to the list of Things That Can Happen in this world.

There’s a new edition of the book out, in honor of its fifteenth anniversary. I was honored to be asked to write the introduction. It was time to re-read it anyway.

The book stands up well and is well worth re-reading. Inevitably, it bears signs of a context that has faded, but that doesn’t get in its way. In particular, the book repeatedly comes back to the business process reengineering (BPR) fad that had recently swept business, set off by the publication of the best-selling book Reengineering Work: Don’t Automate, Obliterate by Mike Hammer and James Champy in 1993. 

Contingencies that arise

The single word probably most closely identified with BPR was in the book’s subtitle: obliterate. But JSB and Duguid focus on the word in the middle of BPR: process. BPR was all about starting with a blank whiteboard (there’s the obliteration) and mapping out the optimal, most efficient processes for your business. For JSB and Duguid, this is a type of magical thinking in which we assume that a business is composed of processes, and thus it can be decomposed into lines represented on a board, and then recomposed into something far better by getting those lines connected optimally. 

Processes are fine when they work, but life is such that they rarely work the way they are supposed to. What matters then is how people figure out how to work with and around the contingencies that always arise, whether it’s a nest of raccoons or a customer who can’t wait for a repairperson and wants instructions over the phone. Instead of processes, the book argues, we should focus on business practices. A practice is where hands meet the toner cartridges. 

Business process reengineering had peaked even before The Social Life of Information hit the stands. But the book’s critique is still relevant. The knowledge that lets a business succeed exists in the minds, hands and conversations of the people doing the job. It is as unsystematizable as the world is chaotic and unpredictable.

Now, one might assume, therefore, that the book is very positive about the possibilities the Internet was opening up. After all, there has never been a better medium for sharing stories and unsystematic access to information. But JSB and Duguid are actually pretty sour about the Net. They are personally the opposite of Luddites, as their affiliation with PARC attests. But, they were reacting against the Internet utopianism and general mania of the time. 

In the preface to the 2002 edition, they get to the heart of it when they write: “This book is particularly concerned with the superficially plausible idea … that information and its technologies can unproblematically replace the nuanced relations between people.” Such relations are diminished by digitally mediated communication. And the fact that the Internet is the greatest repository of information in history is, for the authors, a danger, for knowledge isn’t a content that lives in warehouses, but is something we build together, starting with the work of our hands.

Social products

As one of the cyberutopians at that time, I can’t say that the book’s critique is wrong or even that it has become less relevant. But I do find more of the collaborative, social knowledge building on the Net than The Social Life of Information does. If anything, after the rise of social networking in the mid 2000’s, the fundamental idea behind the book is more clearly true than ever: Information and knowledge are social products that emerge from “nuanced relations between people.” If we forget that, we’ll be left with nothing but a large pile of bits. 

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