John Seely Brown & Paul Duguid:

"The Social Life of Information" (Harvard, 2000)

(Copyright © 2011 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions - Termini d'uso )
In the digital age, as we flood our digital devices with information imported from the World-wide Web, we tend to neglect (and even abhor) the intermediaries and we tend to glorify the quantity. Intermediaries, though, still exist: the information that eventually surfaces (and accumulates) on our devices has been prepared, cataloged and uploaded by an army of people.

We do not have a direct connection to the producer of information, nor would we like to have it anyway because the producer of information is very often unskilled to make that information available in a format suitable to be consumed.

At the same time it is true that intermediaries introduce a kind of interference in the process. The intermediary is still a censor, de facto, especially when the information is "news". For example, the person who collects the information decides which information will be published, and the person who designs the user interface determines who will be able to consume it.

We get excited at the sheer amount of information that digital technology is making available, taking for granted that this represents a solution and not a new problem. In reality, information overload can be a more severe problem than lack of information. Then we exult at the technology that helps us cope with an increasing amount of information. That technology, however, is designed to increase the amount of information that we can receive and process. The more we receive, the harder it is to process. The more we can process, the more information technology can feeds us. We use technology to solve the problem that technology has created.

Atoms are the fundamental constituents of matter and bits are the fundamental constituents of information. The authors make the point that there are very many atoms in the world, but people don't perceive the world as made of atoms: therefore there is no danger of "matter overload". There exists, instead, a danger of "information overload" because people are being flooded with bits, not with structures that they can understand. The authors think that knowledge cannot be reduced to data, that narratives cannot be reduced to hypertexts. The authors do not believe that individuals can survive with information alone, that individuals don't need other individuals anymore because they have all the information they need at their fingertips. The authors believe that organization (society) is still indispensable to understand information and turn it into knowledge.

The authors are worried by the program to replace the human intermediary with a software intermediary. The "bots" (software robots) that are designed to replace human experts lack the very features that make information meaningful to us, such as common sense and morality. In general, people adopt meta-rules that can override the rules, whereas software robots can only follow the rules. People will change the rules if the rules cause damage: robots will follow the same rules no matter what, causing more and more damage. People are as good at disobeying rules as they are at obeying them. Humans see the larger context in which those rules operate. That's where common sense comes from.

A parenthesis. In my opinion, it is debatable if software robots are something new or simply the continuation and refinement of a trend that was already in place. Society has been moving for a long time towards a more and more disciplined social life, virtually disabling common sense. Decades ago you could explain to a police officer why you broke the law: now very few police officers would even listen to you. The "rule of law" has become the dictatorship of law, and common sense has become the enemy of social order. End of parenthesis.

The authors correctly point out that the future ideally will bring not a dehumanization of humans but a humanization of technology, i.e. the introduction of common sense and morality in machines.

Focusing on the workplace, the book points out how office work is not mere information processing but requires interaction among workers. Most of the knowledge is inside the workplace, not in the machines. The easiest way to learn how to do something is to ask coworkers or just to look at how they do it. The book makes a difference between "process" and "practice". Practice makes perfect, process does not.

The blind processing of information is replacing expert handling of situations, but, paradoxically, the more we automate processes the more people count: the few people left to supervise the process are now really crucial, because all common sense is concentrated in them. The difference between information and knowledge is that information can be handled by databases, but knowledge is learned by a "knower". Practice is the way that knowledge is transferred from a "knower" to another "knower". It would be hard to achieve the same transfer of knowledge (the same "learning") using only machines and databases.

The kind of learning that a human undergoes is not simple rote learning. It is in fact influenced by who the human is and by the social context.

More arguments repeat the same mantra: that information outside a social context has little value.

The authors wrote the book when the "net economy" was still young. There is now another point to be made against infoenthusiasm. All the information that permeates our lives thanks to the Internet does not come for free. We pay a price for it. Most of the information that i access both on television and non the Internet is commercials. You have to seep through countless ads in order to get the most obvious of information. I am not sure that the amount of information that i can access today via the Internet is greater than the amount of information that i was accessing in the old days of the encyclopedias. The encyclopedia has been largely replaced by a colossal amount of very visible advertising and by an unknown amount of hard to see information. Most of my friends don't read (or write) beyond the first line of an email: they are growing up in the era of texting. Whatever the amount of information that is made available by ever gigantic knowledge-bases people tend to use an ever smaller amount of it in their daily lives. Nicholas Carr's "The Shallows" is a sort of response to this issue.

The book's claim is that people and computers are complementary, not mutually exclusive. The easy objection is that computers are still very young. By the time computers are as old as, say, the printing press, it is not clear if this statement will still be true...