Posted by Lori Ayre on July 16, 2006

I recently read The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid. While it wasn't the best book ever written, it did have a few interesting snippets that I thought I'd share. The premise of the book, and the writing style, is captured in this statement:

This book is particularly concerned with the superficially plausible idea...that information and its technologies can unproblematically replace the nuanced relations between people."

The authors argue that we, as a society, are obsessed with information to the point that we are ignoring the underlying social relationships that connect people. They call it "information fetishism" and relate it to the "commodity fetishism" of Marx's day.

My favorite part of the book was the Preface where I found several good nuggets. The following excerpt provides a useful context for our current struggles with copyright, digital publishing, blogging and journalism: is well worth remembering that the early days of printing produced an overwhelming profusion of junk. Reputation and reliability in books did not come automatically. Authors, printers, and booksellers fought -- sometimes among themselves, sometimes jointly -- to create ideas of coherence, credibility, and authority for growing, diverging, and increasingly sophisticated reading publics. The printing revolution, in short, involved social organization, legal innovation, and the institutional creativity to develop what appears now as the simple book and the self-evident information it contains. Contrary to assumptions that all it takes is technological innovation, a digital revolution too will need similar nontechnological innovations to fulfill its potential.

Later in the book, the authors address the role of newspapers. They point out that the death of newspapers has been predicted at various times and yet the presses keep on humming along. Newspapers, they quote Alexis de Tocqueville as saying, maintain civilization by placing the same ideas into the minds of thousands of people at once. They create a common activity. They also quote Dutch historian Johan Huizinga who says that Americans become aware of their spiritual unity through the newspapers. After a trip to the U.S., Huizinga said:

The millions, as they do their careless reading every day at breakfast, in the subway, on the train and the elevated, are performing...a ritual. The mirror of their culture is held up to them in their newspapers.

This last bit is interesting because I'm also reading A History of God by Karen Armstrong which talks about the development of Christianity, Judaism and Islam. In this book, the theme of communal unity comes up frequently. In her book, it isn't newspapers that bind people together, it is monotheistic religions. Believing in a single God helps ease the problems associated with tribal or clan rivalries. Not sure where I'm going with this but thought it was an interesting juxtaposition: God and the daily newspaper as unifiers.

One chapter from The Social Life of Information made me think of Infopeople and understand some of the reasons why Infopeople workshops have been so successful. In "Learning - in Theory and in Practice," the authors talk about learning about versus learning to be, or put another way know that versus know how. In other words, there are two dimensions of knowledge. One needs information, but one also needs to know how to put that information to use. One learns how to put the knowledge to use by practice. The authors state that "unenlightened teaching" isolates people from the ongoing practice of work itself and focuses too much on information.

Infopeople is primarily a training organization. Librarians train librarians. One of the strengths of Infopeople workshops is the emphasis on implicit (practioner) knowledge (aka know how), contributed by all the people in class practicing librarianship, in combination with the sharing of explicit knowledge (know that) that is presented by the workshop instructor. In taking an Infopeople workshop, the attendees are becoming a member of a community of practice and shaping their identity as members of that community in the process. Workshop attendees don't simply ingest information, they absorb information in context, learn the practice of librarianship and build upon their identity as librarians.

One final note about the book. Ironically, it was written before the proliferation of social networking websites like and the popularization of phenomena like tagging and data mining. I'd like to see a short article by these two authors on what they make of these latest developments. It seems to me that the social life of the information age is just now starting to develop. One of our jobs as information professionals is to ensure that information serves people. How we organize, manage, manipulate, display and interact with information becomes more critical as the amount of available information continues to explode. Perhaps a good title for the sequel to this book would be The Social Mandate of Information.