What's New About the Information Age?

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, "What's New About the Information Age?" A review of John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

The belief that world is about to tip into a new phase of history is a near-permanent feature of modern life. Enlightened, optimistic Europeans began the last century thinking that the railroad and telegraph had made advanced nations too interdependent to afford armed conflict. By mid-century, it seemed clear that radio, cinema, and mass media were transforming society as profoundly as steam power and factories had transformed industry in the 1700s. Today, it seems beyond dispute that we are at the beginning of an "information age." Digital libraries and encyclopedias render their physical ancestors obsolete; dot-coms create value (or at least valuations) in defiance of traditional laws of economics; and a host of new cyberactivities-- data mining, knowledge management, and information warfare-- take old, familiar verbs that used to apply to solid objects, and apply them to an ephemeral world of zeros and ones. According to Long Now Foundation co-founder Stewart Brand, even the nature of change is changing, thanks to the combined force of Moore's Law (which states that the processing power of microprocessors doubles approximately every 18 months) and Metcalfe's Law (which describes the increasing returns of expanding information networks).

Nonetheless, in some ways ours bears a striking resemblance to past ages, most notably Europe in the wake of the printing press. In both periods, information technologies seem to be driving history. Francis Bacon declared the printing press, invented by Johann Gutenberg in the early 1450s, one of the three great inventions of all time (gunpowder and the magnetic compass being the other two). Today, dot-commentators describe computers, the Internet, and the World Wide Web in similar grand terms. Likewise, in both cases the impacts of these technologies was ambiguous. Printing increased the availability of desirable classics and lowered the costs of spreading new knowledge, but the unscrupulous used it to publish scurrilous, heretical, pornographic, or simply inaccurate works. Access to information created its own problems. Sorting truth from falsehood could be a full-time activity, and savants worried about spending a lifetime in information overload. It's a lament that would fit all too comfortably in the pages of Wired or Fast Company.

Some historians (most recently Anthony Grafton in his elegant 1992 book New Worlds, Ancient Texts) argue that the challenge of dealing with all this information did more to undermine faith in ancient learning than the discovery of the New World: it may even have provided impetus for the rise of the scientific method. According to this line of reasoning, Galileo, Bacon, and other philosopher-scientists sought to construct a simpler, more secure foundation for knowledge based on direct observation of nature-- in sharp contrast the endless, contradictory stream of published works vying for attention and making unverifiable claims of authority-- in which scientific facts might be few in number, but would be more trustworthy than their squabbling scholastic kin. Today, attempts to explain the impact of computers and the Internet on the economy, education, and society, have recreated the early modern problem of information abundance. Bookstore shelves are filled with bold predictions about the impending obsolescence of everything from the printed book, office, career, corporation, and university, to the nation-state and geography. The Internet, these argue, makes all of these obsolete, by driving down transaction costs, closing the distance between workers, and making it possible to coordinate activities around the world. A smaller number of books try to place the changes we're witnessing in the larger scope of human history. Thus Michael Hobart and Zachary Schifflin's Information Ages argues that ours is the third great age of information, the first two being marked by the ancient world's invention of writing, and the development in the early modern period of mathematical approaches to understanding nature. Albert Borgmann's Holding On to Reality offers a different, but equally stark, tripartite division. Pre-digital societies possess two kinds of information: natural information, worldly signs-- clouds, tracks, landscapes, the position of the stars and phases of the moon-- that offer clues about the abundance of game, the progress of the weather, and so on; and cultural information, which explains how to create everything from recipes to architectural plans to musical scores. Today, however, virtual reality, digitally-recorded music, 3-D walkthroughs, Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), and video games have recast the relationships between humans and information. So dense has the digital world become that the information it contains no longer refers to an external reality, but instead it "rivals and replaces reality."

Standing in contrast to these authors is a circle of researchers who have backed away from such lofty pronouncements, and looked for enlightenment by asking simpler questions. How, they ask, have information technologies really affected workplaces, organizations, and society? How are people and institutions actually integrating computers and networks into their everyday work, and how do they find new uses for these technologies? Behind this work is a rejection of the sort of technological determinism that argues that the World Wide Web spells "the death of the book," or that the Internet is inherently democratizing and decentralizing. Rather, they see technologies, institutions, and everyday practices-- reading, interacting with coworkers, teaching and learning-- as equal players, sometimes mutually supportive and reinforcing, at other times in conflict. The design of information technologies is influenced by social forces, and their impacts upon society and culture is not determined by their internal properties or creator's plans, but arise out of a complex dance between people, institutions, and artifacts. Research schools are usually associated with universities; this one is located at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC, as it's usually called), the famed R&D center located in Palo Alto, California. Research schools don't normally spring up in corporate campuses, but ever since its founding in 1970 Xerox PARC has been unusual. In its first decade it produced the laser printer, Ethernet, and the influential but commercially ill-fated personal computer, the Xerox Star. More recently, a number of staff have examined the world PARC-developed technology helped create. Linguist Geoffrey Nunberg has studied the ways information technologies shape cultural institutions such as libraries, dictionaries, and the book. Both technological enthusiasts and bibliophiles alike assume that the material nature of books or the electronic nature of digital media will drive the future of book culture; Nunberg looked at the impact of digitization in a variety of contexts-- reading, publishing, printing, in various kinds of communities of readers-- to get a more nuanced (and in many ways optimistic) view of a world of "print culture after print." Sociologist Julian Orr revealed that even apparently straightforward technical work like copier repair actually requires a degree of informal learning and judgement. Machines that are identical when they roll off the assembly line acquire their own characters in the field (thanks to variations in the environments they operate in, and the ways they're used): manuals can help to identify problems in machines, but can't exhaustively describe every possible problem. Anthropologists Jean Love and Lucy Suchman examined the impact of information technologies on workplaces, office communication, and collaboration. In essence, just as Galileo and Francis Bacon argued for the priority of disciplined observation over published authority, the PARC school has emerged as an advocate of direct observation of computers, networks, and the people and organizations that use them.

The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, 2000), by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, is the fullest and most detailed expression of the PARC school's perspective. Whether analyzing claims that information technology will lead to the devolution of governments and corporations, the promise of the virtual industries and home offices, or distance learning, Brown and Duguid (the chief scientist at Xerox PARC and an historian at University of California, respectively) find that technological enthusiasm (or pessimism, for that matter) are inadequate to describe the complex realities of the workplace, classroom, and state, or to predict how new technologies affect them. For example, the notion that computers and the Internet have created a world of frictionless information movement leading to "disintermediation" (the breakdown of large organizations and middlemen), the growth of virtual and home offices, the death of the book, and replacement of the university by distance learning, ignores two essential facts. First, digital information is as dependent on physical systems-- hard drives, servers, monitors-- as the printed word is on books. This explains why we're facing the prospect of a "digital dark age" (as Stewart Brand puts it) brought on by the rapid pace of technological change and decay rates of magnetic storage media. Second, and more important, digital enthusiasts underestimate the degree to which information is encoded into organizations in the form of collaborative work, tacit knowledge (ideas so familiar they're never expressed formally), or exists not as a set of formal rules and content, but as a set of practices. Learning and remembering are creative, social activities that can't really be reduced to ones and zeroes, poured into databases, and retrieved by search engines. Some knowledge can be harnessed but not captured; some knowledge can't be harnessed, but only performed.

Brown and Duguid apply these basic principles to a variety of contexts, with some fascinating results. Downsizing and reorganizations, it turns out, save money on payroll costs, but can be terribly expensive in lost collective knowledge and organizational memory: more than one company has discovered that essential intellectual capital left was lost in the last round of layoffs. Even ordinary attrition can take a great toll: "if NASA wanted to go to the moon again," Brown and Duguid report, "it would have start from scratch, having lost not the data, but the human expertise that took it there the last time." Likewise, advocates of home offices and "hot desking," the practice of eliminating fixed offices in corporate headquarters, assume that white-collar work is just "information handling" that can be done anywhere. But while home offices eliminate commutes and give workers more flexibility in their schedules, it can deprive them of the informal networks that help them create ideas and solve problems; telecommuters also absorb some of the substantial costs of computer maintenance normally borne by employers. Hot desking, which is intended to promote innovation and cross-fertilization of ideas, keeps people from customizing their working spaces and tools, and actually increases the need for "cumbersome formal learning and informing processes"-- i.e., meetings. And both telecommuting and hot desking rely on the kinds of easy-to-use portable computers, flawless network connections, and instantly-accessible databases currently available only on the starship Enterprise. Databases of "best practices" can't capture some of the most important or elusive aspects of successful work-- they're often almost impossible to describe-- nor can such practices be replicated through dry formulas and descriptions. (The head of Hewlett-Packard summarized this problem with the lament, "If only H-P knew what H-P knows.") In fact, many kinds of technical work resist distillation to formal rules. Jim Sachs, one of the designers of the Macintosh mouse and now CEO of Softbook Press, speaks of "the Zen of a product," qualities that are impossible to capture in diagrams and parts lists, and can only be communicated face to face-- usually with a few prototypes close at hand.

While much of The Social Life of Information focuses on corporations and the workplace, Brown and Duguid also subject higher education and electronic publishing to critical scrutiny. They tend to be skeptical of distance education programs, on the grounds that they isolate students from the social environments in which learning happens most effectively, or make it impossible for such supportive environments to develop in the first place. At the same time, while some academics worry that university alliances with private IT consortia to "leverage" online course content threaten academic freedom and professorial power, it is clear that the corporatization of higher education and marginalization of academics are not caused by technologies: those trends have been going on years, and the Internet could be used as effectively by opponents of these developments as by opportunists. Newspapers and books, dismissed by trendy, wired academics as mere containers of information made irrelevant by the Internet, turn out to be the building-blocks of communities of readers as small as academic specialties and as large as nations. Even libraries, which a decade ago were being eulogized as obsolete warehouses of unwanted goods, have been staging a remarkable comeback. Why? They provide all kinds of formal and informal means of finding information, and discriminating between material that is useful and not: even the layout of reading rooms can provide subtle cues that help readers find useful things. Librarians are also far more accommodating than search engines of the circuitous ways people go about looking for information. They have to be: any reference librarian will tell you that patrons almost never ask direct questions, but start a few degrees of separation from what they really want to know and work their way in. Humans can take such oblique queries in stride; computers can't.

What emerges from The Social Life of Information is a vision of information as something that has many states. Some kinds can be crystallized in formal rules, stored in databases, or tagged with metadata. Others-- usually the most valuable kinds-- are more like living things, and have co-evolved with individuals, social networks, media, and institutions into rich ecologies. Even the definition of "information" is somewhat context dependent, the result of social processes and negotiation. All of this is delivered using less jargon than you see in a trendy academic journal's table of contents.

What do we learn from all this? The challenge of understanding how information technologies really work in the real world is a critical one. Billions of dollars are spent annually by corporations and universities on computers, and two decades of flat productivity in the wake of computerization provide a cautionary lesson against expecting big gains to come naturally from new machines. Understanding the limits of information technologies can help us use them more wisely, just as appreciating the social nature of information can keep us from putting untoward faith in the belief that the next turn of Moore's Law will solve all our problems. These are the main reasons The Social Life of Information was written, but it also offers some clues to how we can better place today's age of information in historical context. After all, the challenge of producing, storing, and managing information is as old as civilization itself; the term "information age" threatens to be as meaningless as "architecture age" or "transportation age." Most attempts to describe today's information age have drawn most strongly from either intellectual history or philosophy. The Social Life of Information's emphasis on the importance of organizational learning and tacit knowledge suggests that to a degree that no one has yet appreciated, the history of information is an institutional history, rather than an intellectual one: it needs to be told at the level of libraries and archives, businesses and publishers, universities and corporate research labs. (Perhaps it's no coincidence that the first book on library management and the last book on classical memory systems, which had been used for millennia by orators and scholars, were published within a few decades of each other in the 1600s.) It also suggests that the really significant technologies driving large-scale social and economic change today may not be those created to assist individuals, but tools for organizational learning, creation, and memory. The information age is represented for most of us by consumer products like the cell phone and Palm Pilot, but perhaps it's enterprise-level databases, project management and collaboration software, and data mining and knowledge management tools will be the real levers that move the world. These tend not to figure prominently in either enthusiastic or pessimistic works on the information age, but that's not surprising: as Brown and Duguid show, seeing the present clearly is far harder, but far more rewarding, than making grand pronouncements about it.

Document created on 7 December 1999;