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Volume 8, Number 7: April 29, 2002

Book Review: The Social Life of Information
John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press (2000)

Reviewed by Glenda Morgan,
Office of Learning and Information Technology

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To say that we live in the information age has become a truism--so much of a truism, legal scholar James Boyle notes, that we can get away with talking about the information revolution without using citations. In our foot-note obsessed culture, we can barely discuss evolution or the fact that the earth revolves around the sun without reference reference to Darwin and Copernicus, Boyle quips.1

In a remarkable book, The Social life of Information, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid argue against much of the hype being written about the information age and against a reliance on information for its own sake. Their argument, although subtle, poses some interesting questions for higher education, particularly about the use of technology in education. It is these implications I want to explore in this review.

First, however, let me outline the basic thrust of John Seely Brown's and Paul Duguid's argument. In thinking about information, Seely Brown and Duguid claim we are frequently guilty of tunnel vision. That is, we too often focus on the information itself and not enough on what is happening at the periphery, at the social context (or social life) of the information. Understanding the context is crucial to understanding how information is generated and shared and how it comes to play valuable roles in our society. An over-emphasis on information outside of the context in which it occurs results in what they refer to as 6-D vision. Each of the 6 D's represents an assumption we risk making when we take too much of an info-centric view:

1. Demassification--the assumption that things, for example firms or institutions, are shrinking in size and becoming more flexible, nimble, and responsive as a result.
2. Decentralization--the assumption that greater information flows, usually associated with greater use of information technology, will result in flatter and less hierarchical organizations.
3. Denationalization--the assumption that borders and national identities are becoming more important.
4. Despacialization--the assumption that place is no longer important.
5. Disintermediation--the assumption that the role of intermediaries is declining and that we can increasingly get our information from the source.
6. Disaggregation--the assumption that things get broken down into their component parts.

Implications for higher education

Seely Brown and Duguid's book gives those of us involved in teaching and learning with technology a great deal to contemplate.

The book offers two very important insights. First, the book points out the important role of information literacy.2 In talking about information and its complex nature and how we cannot rely simply on the "transmission" of information (particularly where information technology is concerned), Seely Brown and Duguid make a case for more reflexive use of information technologies and the information they help us access. One example the authors provide is a description of bots and other software tools used for finding specific kinds of information. Because these technologies and their limitations are often not readily understood by users, they frequently do not grasp the limitations of the information they obtain through these means. A vitally important part of our role in promoting the use of technology in teaching and learning needs to involve promoting the awareness of the ways particular kinds of technologies shape, constrain, and influence the information and knowledge that we obtain through theses technologies.

Naturally this has always been true. The information we obtained from books and other earlier "information technologies" was subject to similar sorts of constraints, an understanding of which all good teachers integrate, either implicitly or explicitly, into their teaching. But understanding the context of information and how it relates to the manner of delivery is even more important now, because we are faced with ever greater amounts of radically different types of information from many different sources via an increasingly wide variety of technologies. It is especially important in higher education, given the relatively poor information and information-related problem-solving skills that many students possess.3

Second, the book makes a strong case for learning, given its relationship to information and knowledge, as a social activity. This has a number of distinct implications for the authors. They see the social nature of learning as pointing to the incredibly important role played by learning communities and communities of practice. These terms have become commonplace in discussions of online learning, and they are used, or perhaps over-used, seemingly without much thought. Seely Brown and Duguid make an insightful point about the role communities of practice play in learning. Contrary to "futurologist" Alvin Toffler's claims that information technology means that you "no longer need to huddle," communities of practice become more important than ever.4

But Seely Brown and Duguid also see the social aspects of learning as having important implications for changes in higher education in the face of developments in information technology. They see huge problems involved in the sort of "plug and play" approach that many are now taking to distance education, where courses can be taken one at a time, independent of one another. They see the same kind of 6-D vision at work in discussions about higher education that they see in discourse about information in general. That is, there is an emphasis on disaggregation and disintermediation where the end of the conventional university is predicted and a future where learners can connect directly with discrete packets of information. Seely Brown and Duguid argue that this kind of view is blind to the kind of roles that universities play (in credentialing) and is based on a narrow and instrumental view of education. If we look at education as a form of training and as the transmission of closely defined skills, then we run the risk of losing all the activity on the periphery--the implicit and social learning, and the perhaps less marketable but still valuable learning. What is more, Seely Brown and Duguid argue that if we go too far in the direction of disaggregating higher education, taking out the profitable parts, then the survival of universities themselves will be in question because of the way that the more "profitable" large lecture courses cross-subsidize some of the other parts of universities and higher education.

While I think that the points that Seely Brown and Duguid make here are important, I do not think that they develop their argument especially well. If we take seriously their notion of information being inherently, importantly, and inescapably bound to its social context, I believe they have overlooked some of the more profound challenges that the growing use of technology in education poses. One such issue concerns the increased emphasis on learning objects and content objects. These are discrete chunks of content or learning materials to which learning objectives and sometimes even assessments are attached. They are seen in many quarters as being the major direction in which content provision in education is evolving. It is argued that one of the major advantages of using learning objects is their reusability. Being small discrete chunks of information, they can be stored in repositories and reused by many different faculty members in a range of disciplines.5 In the light of Seely Brown and Duguid's warning about how information cannot be understood as discrete packets independent of their moorings or social context, it is interesting to wonder what they would have to say about the move to the "learning object economy" and to consider what means we could develop to incorporate more of the social context of information into learning object repositories.

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1 See James Boyle, "A Politics of Intellectual Property: Environmentalism For the Net?" Duke Law Journal, 47 (1997): http://www.law.duke.edu/boylesite/intprop.htm.

2 Some prefer the phrase information fluency. For a discussion of the concept and the debates, see the Association of College and Research Libraries Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education (http://www.ala.org/acrl/ilcomstan.html) and the American Library Association, Information Literacy (http://www.ala.org/acrl/infolit.html) as well as the National Academy of Sciences and Engineering Being Fluent with Information Technology (1999) at http://books.nap.edu/books/030906399X/html/index.html.

3 See Janette B. Benson, "Teaching with Technology and Generation E," National Teaching and Learning Forum, 11 no. 2 (2002).

4 Seely Brown & Duguid (2000): 79.

5 See David Wiley, ed. "The instructional use of learning objects," Association for Educational Communications and Technology, (2000).

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