The Social Life of Information

Chapter 7 Reading the Background

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid.  The Social Life of Information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000. Print.


This chapter examines how though predicted in several arenas, paper has not died a timely death, and why. Paper is underestimated for it’s qualities outside the simple transfer of fixed information from one individual to another. Information technology and paper consumption have grown together, at fast rates. Then there’s the newspaper, which, (while nearly obliterated now) hung on due to people enjoying the tactile experience of the material itself (seemingly, though it has other redeeming qualities). The attempt to digitize books soon was realized for the insurmountable task that it is. Libraries are useful for their selection, anyway; what they leave out is useful for the patrons. Post-its show that paper is certainly not dead, nor does it seem to be dying.

Digital books attempt to imitate the conventional ones. In the same vein, the web is organized in a document-friendly format, using web pages, bookmarks, indexes, and the like. There are drawbacks to digitization, as illustrated by the medical historian that uses the smell of vinegar to trace cholera outbreaks. Documents are described as not just a cable for carrying information, but a program used to interpret information. The medium used to carry information is not a passive vehicle shunting data around. The medium has it’s own story to tell, based on the quality of paper, notes in the margins, spills on the pages, and so on. Newspapers are also not passive carriers of information; one determines the importance of the story based on location within the paper. The existence of the paper form of a document implies it’s validity; in a similar way the quality of materials used implies the investment in the information contained in the materials.

More aspects of the physical document are the “warrants”. As mentioned above, some documents carry notes in the margin, additions, and the like which add to the value of the document and are not reproducible online. In the Web’s defense, there are programs set up to monitor things like wear and tear (measured using a record of hits and updates to sites). Documents make, structure, and validate information; they also reform, destabilize and transform information. The circulation of documents is critical to success in most organizations, but can also prove a weakness. In science they lead to “laboratories of social organization” (193). Zines, on the web, lead to the formation of interest groups on the Web, of like-interested individuals. “Imagined” communities arise from shared documents. Newspapers, and everyone reading the same stories written in the same, or nearly the same way, leads to a national consciousness and a sense of community.

Pirating and reprinting documents is much faster than setting up a webpage; it has all the fixity on its side with none of the fluidity that website updates offer. Digital personalized news can make finding common ground difficult, but in general technologies are complementary and variable, finding ways to offer both fixity and fluidity. Communication technologies are described as “time-binding” or “space-binding”, with the issue being that the current news we get today is not as time-binding as the news that is already located in an archive somewhere. Space we have in abundance (digital-wise). The output of websites is compared to the typesets used in printing presses to print books and other materials. The best way to preserve the output of the printing press before the type is destroyed? Print a paper copy.

Discussion: It is interesting how the circulation of documents, so critical to the progress of organizations like the Royal Society (or science in general), is so detrimental to business. It is put forward that while information leakage is bad for individual companies, it is helpful to larger ecologies like the organizations in Silicon Valley. I am curious if this is less the case in this decade, where parts of science (at least pharmaceuticals and other aspects of medicine) are commoditized instead of being for the public good. It would seem that businesses are finding ways of “thinking outside the box” and practicing creativity in order to lessen vulnerability to these unavoidable leakages of information. On the other hand, our genetic code is being sold off for profit, and to what end? Not a good one for humanity, one would imagine. How is the ethos of science affected by this?

The dramatisms come into play in the debate between paper and digitized documentation. Paper copies can often offer answers to the questions of Burke’s pentad in thorough ways that the internet doesn’t contain in the way of evidence. For example, how important a document is could show in how well it’s cared for. Was coffee spilled on it? Is it crumpled and torn, or pristine?

It is interesting to think of the role documents have played in, for the example used, the formation of the democracy of the U.S.A. The shared documents, such as newsletters, pamphlets, lampoons, etc. led to an audience being created for Common Sense by Thomas Paine. Which in turn leads to other publications, all of which created a rhetorical situation. The audience was ripened, so to speak, by the rhetor and their methods. This, while comparatively simple, is definitely a case of rhetorical ecologies, so many things came in to play and it wasn’t a single instance or situation.

Questions: Is the resistance to complete digitization a question of value? Does the procedure of going online undermine the source of the information provided online?

Does the audience of information, for instance how medical research is targeted to the companies that will pay for the results, affect the way the information is presented? Certainly for medicine, as for other companies that are competing for profits within the same industry, there are ways of sharing information that differ from areas where profit is not as issue (as it shouldn’t be in medicine).

Keywords / Phrases:

social worlds (190)

invisible colleges (191)

zines (193)

Context shapes content (202)

Related Reading:

Fidler, Roger. Mediamorphosis: Understanding New Media. Newbury Park: Pine Forge Press, 1997. Print.

Rhinegold, Howard. The Virtual Community:Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991. Print.


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