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The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

2000; 336 pp. $25.95. Harvard Business School Press

The most memorable parts of this book were the stories about the vinegar-soaked envelopes, the copier repairmen's breakfasts, and John Seely Brown's wars with "the tonerheads." The first story finds coauthor Paul Duguid in an ancient archive, hacking and wheezing from the dust and longing for digitized documents. In walks a medical historian who, to Duguid's utter astonishment and disgust, starts sticking letters under his nose and inhaling deeply. It turns out that when cholera struck in the 1700s, a town's outgoing mail was disinfected with vinegar to prevent spreading the disease. By sniffing for faint traces of vinegar and noting the date and source of the letters, the researcher was able to chart the progress of cholera outbreaks.

The authors use this story to cast a jaundiced eye at "endism"?technology-driven predictions of the end of everything. Paper, of course, endures?even thrives, with the fax and computer printer?because documents are more than carriers of information. They help shape it, and in the process, help shape its readership. They socialize information.

Consider copier repairmen. These are not the lone rangers but intensely social beings who talk shop at breakfast, lunch, over coffee, after work. Why? Their repair manuals are fatally flawed, explaining what to do but not why. The machines are so insanely complex that the reps are forever exploring uncharted territory. So they structure their jobs into social ones and share stories. Finally, there is Xerox PARC's legendary fumbling of the future. In the 1970s its pioneering scientists virtually developed the personal computer, from the mouse to the desktop. Yet, a couple of kids ended up commercializing the technology because Xerox scientists, engineers, and executives just weren't talking. The problem was not one of technology, but of socialization.

When you've finished underlining, dog-earing, and drawing exclamation marks, you find that you've not simply read this book, you've allowed it to change your mind.

" Strange things happen when a gift economy and a market economy collide.

" Since the nineteenth century, when the economist Thomas Malthus gloomily predicted that the geometric growth in population would outstrip the arithmetic growth in resources, predictions appear regularly that humanity is on the edge of destroying itself. Most of these predictions take humans to be, like insects, relatively passive in the face of such problems. Whereas, of course, humans are capable of reflecting on such problems and taking collective action against them.

" From the eleventh century on, the spread of the written word and literacy together allowed "textual communities" to organize themselves. The most distinctive of these were groups of heretics or reformers who organized around new interpretations...developing new ideas of how to live."

 

ISBN: 1578517087

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