Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: The Social Life of Information

Through the years, I have come across a number of books that I have used and valued. These may be new books, or they may be older ones. Each Wednesday, I will review a book that I personally feel would be worthwhile to testers.

This book came recommended by both James Bach and Michael Bolton after I told them about my interest and reflections on 'Structure of Scientific Revolutions". I noticed that the book was written in 2000, and therefore this falls into my "retro" review category (which I guess is a silly differentiation, because if this blog hangs around long enough, most of my reviews will eventually be retro :) ).

The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid goes beyond the idea of bits and bytes and the promise of the "Information Age" and looks at the reality of what actually happens. We like to look at the Internet as being some great arbiter and game changer in the way that people interact with each other, but in reality, much of what we see and how we interact with the internet and others on it match the way we try to interact with people in everyday life, and then we see what happens when many of the "social cues" that we are used to have been removed from the process. Creating new ways of accessing information doesn't bring us closer to a "more perfect world" unless the human element of that interaction is somehow enhanced or involved. This book predates the social media boom, so many of the case study examples, while interesting, just beg the question as to how they would be handled if the key "social" idea wass around in today's form when this book was written  (I wonder what a second book of its type would look like with MySpace and Facebook as case studies :) ).

The central point of the book is that information in and of itself has limited application. It's the context of that information and the context of how it is used that provides value (or worthlessness, or praise, or notoriety, etc.). The information itself does little, but the people that interact with it greatly determine its ultimate value. What's more, in the real world, information itself is of limited use without the expertise, craftsmanship and, yes, the social aspects of human beings interacting with that information. Tools are good, but the tools themselves do little in the way of actual thinking and analysis.

Personally, I found the middle chapters to be the most valuable sections. These are the ones that provide insights and contexts for testers, examples of learning and epistomology and some descriptions of real world case studies that, for best intentions, caused more problems than they solved. The case is made early in the book that the value of information is not as limitless as it's been portrayed. In short, this book gives the best value in the sections where it pleads with those who would cry with joy at the saving grace of technology and say "the technology itself is of limited value without the direct, focused and "sapient" use of the information by a person or team of people guiding that information along to useful means".

Much of the book describes situations that occur in various companies, Xerox PARC being a recurring location and focus of interest. Issues ranging from bots to operating systems, to overwrought complexity to telework are addressed, and in each case, the ramifications of decisions are demonstrated and compared. Telling is the example of an office who tried to remove all aspects of a determined corporate culture and office processes and replace it with the freedom of a college lounge. What they got instead was a classic high school style experience, complete with bullies, loners and outcasts. The goal was to make work less dependent on processes and equipment, but never took into account the human elements that makes the flow of information and the flow of work happen in the first place. Automation and distribution of effort provides a small level of breakthrough in understanding, but less than the information and tools would indicate. Instead, it's the interactions between people and the context in which they work together that provides the value in the interaction.

Bottom Line:

While much of the book is dated now, it was interesting to relive some stories I remembered hearing about and contemplating a decade ago. Some of the promise of the technology of our era has come to pass, while many other areas have been less fruitful and still have much room for improvement. The key idea is that technology and information alone are limited and limiting in what they can do by themselves. To be useful, and to grow and thrive, they need communities of actively engaged people to use that information and the technology to its fullest advantage. It would be interesting to see an updated version of this book to take into account the changes the past decade has given us (wonder what the authors would have thought of the iPhone and iPad, social media in all its glory, and the bursting of the dot-com bubble, which this book *just* misses).
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