If information wants to be free, where does it go when it's out? A string of Os and 1s, no matter how carefully modulated, means nothing unless it is eventually channeled, observed and understood by a recipient -- a person. As a reminder that those bits are there so that people can actually benefit from them, Cliff Lampe contributed this review of The Social Life of Information. It may make you rethink everything from your own program designs to evaluating the quality of the information (and information systems) around you.
Hemos keeps handing me these books about how information technology is shaping our lives, how the digital is leaving an indelible stamp on the analog. What Brown and Duguid have done is write a refreshing reminder that no matter how it seems, it's the analog that shapes the digital, and social systems that are steering the way we use computers. I know, it sounds like talking-head crap, but the authors are from PARC, which is not really a place where people go to sit on their hands or be flighty.
Here are some of the pithy issues raised in The Social Life of Information:
- Agents -- the technology for artifical intelligence agents keeps improving, but the social structure for them is staying put. Who controls these agents? Do we really expect Amazon to have our best interests at heart? There are already agents that go through and reap information on you for nefarious purposes; who is going to develop protection agents?
- Telecommuting -- why hasn't telecommuting taken off like we thought it would? Where are the hordes of people working happily at home? Despite the myth of the lone hacker working away, we all know that our best tricks are usually gleaned from some keyboarding compatriot who shows us a thing or two. This is true in almost every other field as well. Even given two people of equal skill, their output is usually more than the sum of their efforts. There is something to be said for working in meatspace.
- Process vs. practice -- why is it that when we try encapsulate something in documentation, it always falls short? We've all had someone hand us a manual outlining some practice that ends up propping up an uneven table. It's also common wisdom that the best way to learn how to code is to actually start writing some code. Do you think this is unique to the computer profession?
- Newspaper -- why is it that newspaper still persists when there are a host of other, more interactive ways we can absorb the news? Newspaper has resisted the attacks of televison news, but will it be able to do the same with news provided by computer? This is a great example of how social systems colliding with technological systems at the point where information is disseminated. Newspaper is a great technology in many ways (yes, newspaper is a technology), but there is a constant pressure to come up with an alternative to it.
- Education -- why does the university continue to exist? Will information technology put the final nail in the coffin of the ol' university? Not damned likely. I get my share of ribbing from the Slashdot crew about being an academic, and I think there is rightfully some skepticism in the tech sector about the value of higher education. The university system has been around for more than a thousand years, and the authors of this book put their fingers right on why it is still a successful organism, one that is growing rather than dying out. Here's the secret: You don't go to a place of higher education for the courses, you go in order to hang out with like-minded people. That is hard to replicate on the Web, and "community" has become the buzzword that "portal" was 15 minutes ago. Who cares what classes I take as a graduate student? What's important is working with people who are interested in the same questions.
The central theme of this book, never overtly spelled out by the authors, for better or worse, is that Human interaction revolves around issues of trust, and trust in the anonymous computer realm is hard (but not impossible) to come by. Reputation systems are an important components of that, but in reality we judge the trustworthiness of a person on a million different factors, and it is hard to code that many different variables. A firm handshake, a shared joke, social capital, and a legion more of these nearly imperceptible cues allows us to work together. We're an overblown troop of monkeys in some ways, and would be foolish to deny that we're hardwired for these kinds of judgments.
What Duguid and Brown point out is that we ignore our monkey-ness when designing systems that are intended to replace face to face, human interaction. As my Uncle Bob once told me, "Embrace that monkey!" Keep in mind when designing your systems what invisible threads you are missing.
Like in most books of this kind, I really had hoped for more hard statistics. Sometimes the authors make some statement about the shape of the universe that seems plausible enough, but I wonder would it hold up to the cold light of descriptive statistics. Still, it's not really the job of this book to provide information like this, and I'm just being a cranky pseudo-scientist. The only other thing that rubbed me the sandpaper way was a little repetition of the theme. A couple of chapters could have been reduced into one.
Technically speaking, the writing is efficient and readable, with lots of fine examples and an easy progression that makes this a quick and enjoyable read. This is something that would go very quickly as a free time read, and since the chapters are fairly autonomous, you can make it one of those books you just crank a few pages through before you fall asleep and absorb the meaning.
On the content side, this book is fantastic. I would like to buy a few dozen copies and pass them out in airports while I wear saffron robes. Or leave them in hotel rooms Gideon style. It's a vindication for a small, yet vocal, community of people who have addressed these issues is the past, while not blaming or talking down to the people who have refused to include the human in their design. It also gives some practical advice for people who would like to examine information from a more holistic point of view, including how to introduce a new technology into an already existing social system (Alexander Graham Bell did this). The Social Life of Information is one of those rare books that informs without preaching, advocates without subjecting, and entertains without pandering. It is a smart attempt at stepping away from the technological roller coaster (without getting out of line) and seeing how the social systems enveloping the technology batter it about. This is an important read for any person involved in information technology to read.
So What's In It For Me?
Hopefull, some humility. It is one thing to create brilliant technological systems, it is another to get people to use them. Despite the crap we usually give marketing guys, they instinctively understand some of these points. It also has a message for the Open Source movement. Often, an open source project fails because it does not adequately account for the social factors surrounding it. What are the social bits and pieces that surround a project that is trying to produce open source software?
I'm a little giddy from my tech high these days. Think of this book as intellectual and creative caffeine. A hundred ideas for projects must be outlined in my margin notes on this book. This book at the same time will reaffirm what you do, and debunk it. If you can take the cold dash of reflection, you'll be better off for it.
Other important links ...
Buy this fine text at ThinkGeek. Also, check out the Web site dedicated to this book. There's always a site for a book like this these days. You may also want to read an earlier John Seeley Brown deal called The Social Life of a Document.