After Hours

The human side of the information technology revolution

Is a paperless office in your future? Will everyone telecommute in the years ahead? A new book debunks widely held beliefs about the social influences of IT.

By John Seely Brown and Paul DuguidHarvard Business School Press, 2000320 pages, softcoverISBN: 0875847625Price: $18.15 at FatBrain
One of the anecdotes in The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, relates an experience that Ethernet designer and 3Com founder Bob Metcalfe had back in his Xerox PARC days.

Metcalfe, a networking pioneer, would periodically take down the network that connected his colleagues' workstations at the Palo Alto Research Center. Traffic was so light that people usually didn't notice or care about the downtime.

But one day they noticed. "Doors opened all along the corridor" as his colleagues came out to see why they'd been disconnected. The reason they cared was that suddenly they couldn't make use of the newest PARC invention that had been added to the network: the laser printer.

It's ironic that even in the hallowed halls of Xerox PARC—the ultimate think tank for computer scientists and visionary technologists—the paperless office failed to materialize. And it's even more interesting to note that one of the first popular uses for a network was as a means to put words on paper.

Killer info?
For decades, pundits have been predicting the death of low-tech paper, along with the demise of large corporations and even society itself. The instrument to deliver the killing blow was supposed to be the information revolution.
  • Why do we cling to paper when networks can carry news and correspondence?
  • Why do we continue to work for large companies when we can afford to own the same kinds of computers and tools we use at work?
  • Why do we stay in cities when telecommunications could allow us to flee to the countryside yet still receive our data?

Because life isn't just about passing information, because we humans are social creatures, and because for information to be truly useful it must be assimilated in social contexts.

That, in a nutshell, is what The Social Life of Information is about. Authors Brown (chief scientist at Xerox and director at PARC) and Duguid (social/cultural researcher at U of C Berkeley) navigate between "digerati hype" and "end-user gloom." They deliver their message in eight scholarly essays and about 50 pages of notes and bibliographic citations.

Tunnel vision
Who are the "digerati," and what do they want?

The book is a little vague on explicitly defining the digerati but describes them as gung-ho types who point to information technology as the savior and shaper of the future. Probably not a full-time job for anyone, but a hat some of us in IT and the media don from time to time. Maybe it's someone who gets a small taste of a new technology and indulges in pie-in-the-sky speculation. (Remember push technology, which was going to deliver only the news we wanted to read? Remember Java?)

Maybe it's a department manager who redesigns data-entry procedures in an effort to save the company millions—only to find out that the new system demands too much from network resources and that the people manning the phones get lost between Point A and Point Z trying to figure it out.

The digerati, displaying profound tunnel vision, focus solely on information, ignoring the input of people or the impact on people. They figure any problems information creates can be solved by piling on more information or installing next year's faster equipment. Workers find the new database too complex? Fine—create a help screen for the help screen.

Home alone in my electric cottage
Philosophers and deep thinkers among the digerati look at information technology and see lots of ends in sight, according to the authors of The Social Life of Information. The end of the corporation, for example—we'll all strike out on our own, or at least become telecommuters.

Brown and Duguid attack each of the digerati's "end-isms" with commonsense analyses and concrete examples from within corporations (including Xerox).

One reason we haven't bolted from the office to work at home in our pajamas is that the technology we use is frail. Computers crash all the time, and software can be puzzling. But at work, there's a support system. The guy in the next cubicle may be a whiz at diagnosing hardware problems, while the woman two aisles over can make Microsoft Word bend over backward. At home, by yourself, you can call on only yourself to solve problems and find answers to questions—which means you waste a lot of time reading manuals and experimenting. And later, because you're behind, work time spills over into family time.

The authors point to a study showing that most of the people who do break free from the office eventually return: "One study of a telecenter found that 25 percent of the participants gave up within the first five months, and 50 percent within a year." Office vacancies are down, they note.

They also write about a group of Xerox photocopier repair reps who took the extra step of banding together off company time, for breakfast or lunch, to talk shop. The procedural manuals for diagnosing and fixing an ailing photocopier sometimes don't work—there are too many variables. So reps found that by getting together and talking about their day, the problems they faced and the solutions they found, they created a support system for each other and racked up another victory of "practice" over "process."

And it's not just individuals from a single company who find it beneficial to band together. Similar businesses still tend to cluster in common areas, even long after the Industrial Revolution when it made obvious sense to do so (putting steel mills near coalfields, for example). California has Silicon Valley, New York has Silicon Alley, and even Scotland has Silicon Glen.

You'd think information-based businesses would feel free to scatter, but there's a synergy that comes from people doing similar work living and working out of each other's back pockets. Knowledge "leaks." It certainly leaked from Xerox PARC to Apple, when Apple glommed onto Xerox's infant graphical operating system. (I've always wanted the inside story on how Xerox let such an important piece of PC technology slip away, and here it is, from someone close to the source.)

Just give me the fax
Paperless office? Give me a break. Over the last decade, during the PC boom and the popularization of the Internet, there was also a growth in paper consumption—“from 87 million to 99 million tons per year."

People may use their e-mail, but they've got a death grip on the fax machine and laser printer too, the authors say.

The Social Life of Information offers plenty of insight for managers and planners who are responsible for bringing new doses of technology into the office. While it's not a step-by-step guide to integrating new work processes into the practices that workers already use, it does provide common-sense guidance. If you’re planning on making changes in the way your company implements information technology, add this book to your must-read list.

Lauren Willoughby is a Web editor at The Courier-Journal newspaper in Louisville, KY, where she also writes the weekly "Technophobe" column. At night, she turns into an online auction junkie. When she's not spotting deals on refurbished 486s, she's reading a science fiction novel.

Do you consider yourself one of the digerati? Do you believe such a social entity even exists? Let us know what you think by posting a comment below or sending us a note.

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