Review by Dennis Schleicher (August 15, 2000)

The Social Life of Information

"It's the people, stupid!"

After reading this refreshing book, that's what I expect would be Brown and Duguid's reworking of Clinton's famous mantra of 1992.

The authors posit this over and over as they explore the difference between information and knowledge. They argue that a straightforward definitional approach gets us nowhere (and is as bankrupt now as it was 2500 years ago).

Instead, they offer a unique inquiry stating that "the way forward is paradoxically to look not ahead, but to look around."

They ask us to focus not on information nor technology, "but to look instead to things that lie beyond information." This broader context is composed of both a social world and a world of practice.

They denounce the "blinkering (of) humans as just a connection to the computer," and warn us not to "address people as information processors or to redefine complex human issues such as trust as simply information."

Arguing that instead of making the social world a function of the mechanical world in which everything human must be digitally encoded/decoded to be valid, we should understand technology through the complexity of the social world of which it is just a part.

Over many pages they champion Julian Orr (author of Talking About Machines and one of my personal heroes) for studying practice, which they contrast throughout the book with process.

Success, they insist, does not occur through "best practices" or "reengineering" but with education through communities of practice.

This book could be seen as a banal echo harkening back to the human relations school, but I prefer to think of it as a small voice calling out for us not to forget the man in the machine.

The authors encourage us to use information technology tactically not strategically, noting that "one of the most powerful uses of information technology seems to be to support people who do work together directly and to allow them to schedule efficient face-to-face encounters."

Remember the mantra:

"It's the people, stupid!"
Though this is clearly not a "how to" book, I would recommend it to all information architects as a good reminder of who we're doing all of this work for in the first place.

We must always keep in mind that we are not organizing information so as to have organized information, but for people to easily learn from it, modify it, and add to it.

Quotes from the Text

On bots (p. 52):
"Development will be ill served by people who merely redefine elaborate social processes in terms of the things that bots do well."

On Xerox's copier repair persons and practice (p. 101):
"So when machines did something unpredicted, reps found themselves not just off the map, but there without a compass or tools for bushwhacking."

On how people use information (p. 107):
"For it is not shared stories or shared information so much as shared interpretation that binds people together."

On information and knowledge (p. 119):
"First, knowledge usually entails a knower. That is, where people treat information as independent and more-or-less self-sufficient, they seem more inclined to associate knowledge with someone."

On libraries (p. 181):
"It has become increasingly clear that libraries are less collections than useful selections that gain usefulness from what they exclude as much as what they hold. They are reflections of particular groups of users and their needs."

On information architects (p. 121):
"Increasingly, as the abundance of information overwhelms us all, we need not simply more information, but people to assimilate, understand, and make sense of it."