Posted by: soniahs | September 7, 2010

Exam reading: “Social life of information”

Do ideas meet, flirt, and spawn off cute little baby ideas? Is Google a speed dating service between your computer and the object of your search? Is your credit card having an affair with that sexy Brazilian computer it met while you were on vacation?

Sadly, this book answers none of these questions. “The Social Life of Information,” by John Brown & Paul Duguid, is about the perils of techno-cheerleading in the knowledge economy. “Social life” refers to the fact that there is a strong social context to information; we are not really floating in a sea of decontextualized data.

Summary: Brown & Duguid lay out some considerations that should be made in order to avoid “tunnel design” (a focus on information & ignoring social/material context) for businesses & technologies. They believe that social interaction is crucial for businesses to function & technologies to be used effectively. They take several myths of the information age to task: “endisms” (end of politics, the press, etc.), reframing everything in an information-processing perspective (e.g., universities as information-transmitting centers), all businesses will be “flattened” & disaggregated, etc. They address the trend toward decentralized & work-at-home offices, emphasizing that social interaction is needed and we need more in our work environment than just a computer (desk, tech support, post-its, etc.) They discuss the network structure of business: both stepwise processes and the lateral links that let workers share practices are important; links within companies (e.g., between specializations) and between companies (in professional/discipline networks) are also crucial. They make a distinction between knowledge (contextual, requires a knower, needs assimilation for meaning) and information; there are also two dimensions of knowledge: explicit (knowing that) and tacit (knowing how). A big part of their discussion is communities of practice and how members learn through day-to-day interactions with more experienced members; distributed businesses had better have really good communication networks in order to facilitate even an approximation at this type of interaction.

Comments: Skipping discussion of bots & what they can & can’t do (technical capabilities, legal/ethical issues), the future of paper (yep, we’ll still need it). While their discussion of how universities will change (distributed systems with a mix of online components and physical centers) mentions that physical interactions in traditional universities are important, I think they downplay the importance of these interactions. For example, you can’t get a thorough education in a technical field or science without lab or field work; I don’t think their suggestion of internships or brief stints at research centers would work here.

Links to: Liu (knowledge work); Spinuzzi (info networks); Johnson-Eilola (knowledge work envt.)

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