The Social Life of Information John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

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Published in 2000 and reissued in paperback with revisions in 2002, The Social Life of Information attempts to clear some of hype about the "information age," and to offer alternative ways of thinking about the future.

Click here for the book's table of contents and links to chapters available on line.

Below are extracts from reviews, both favorable and unfavorable, that the book received. (Where possible, there are links to the original review.) Reviews and reader reactions can also be found at the Amazon.com web page for the book.

Bartolome Gamundi, vice president of manufacturing for Electro-Biology, Inc. published his review under the title "El Rol Social de la Tecnologia" in El Nuevo Dia in San Juan, Puerto Rico. "Este importante libro," he argues, "discute uno de los puntos mas importantes de esta epoca," containing a clear message for "las personas que integran la academia, los negocios, el gobierno y la sociadade."

Lisay O'Malley of the University of Limerick reviewed the book for the Journal of Marketing [2002, 66(4): 124-127]. "The book," she argued, "carries a simple message: Information does not and cannot exist in a vacuum but is socially, spatially, and historcally situated." O'Mally goes on to explain how issues in the book address fundamental questions in marketing. Modern marketing, she argues, "seems particularly susceptible to falling into the trap of believing that data equal customer knowledge, in an unproblematic fashion."

Bill Hair, acting dean of libraries at Baylor University, reviewed the book for the Journal of Religious and Theological Information. He argued that "The Social Life of Information may well be the first important look at the effects of the new technologies on our social lives in the new millennium."

Sandra Gleson, associate dean at The Pennsylvania State University, reviewed The Social Life for Planning for Higher Education [2001, Summer, 38-39], where she is associate editor. The review concludes, "Although the authors note that this is 'more a book of questions than answers,' academic planners and change agents striving to make informed decisions to guide their institutions will find it helpful to understand the myths and realities associated with the implementation of information technology."

Sir John Daniel, formerly vice-chancellor of Britain's Open University and currently assistant director general for Education at UNESCO reviewed the book for a new journal, Education, Communication & Information [2001, 1(1): 115-7]. The article calls the book "welcome, timely, and important" and concludes, "I thoroughly recommend [this] book."

Tim Tripp of University Health Network reviewed the book for Bibliotheca Medica Canadiana [2001, 22(4): 168]. He begins, "Finally! A book that takes an in-depth look at the over-inflated balloon of hype around the information revolution and bursts it." He concludes that should librarians "add this book to [their] collections," they should leave it where their "Director, CIO or CEO will spot it."

In an article called "Idee buone nelle reti sociali," Mario Benassi of the University of Trento reviewed the book for the Italian economic newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.

Michael F. Winter, a librarian at the University of California, Davis, reviewed The Social Life for C&RL: College and Research Libraries Journal [2001, 62 (1) 2001]. His essay noted that "the analysis abounds in useful and memorable distinctions" and concluded that "there is much to admire and learn from here" though he detected "a kind of Victorian faith in progress."

Charles A. Seavey of the School of Information Resources and Library Science at the University of Arizona, wrote a review for The Library Quarterly [2001 71(1) pp 94-95]. The book is, he argues "spot on about the changing nature of education."

Peter Watson-Boone, of the University of Milwaukee library, reviewed the book in an essay for Portal: Libraries and the Academy [2001 1(2) pp 180-12]. He concluded that "For its insights into the human aspects of institutional information flow, this work would be useful reading for higher education administrators and researchers with an active involvement not merely in information technology policy, but information policy as a whole."

M. Paatricial Harmon reviewed the book in Harvard Educational Review [2001 71(1) pp 151-2] concluding "Educators will find Brown and Duguid's book an informed perspective on the wise use of technology."

Richard Hall of the University of Durham Business School (UK) reviewed the book for Futures [2001, 33(2) pp 205-7], judging it "one of the better offerings in the current wave of publications on the subject of information and knowledge management."

Barbara E. Nye, of Ictus Consulting, reviewed the book for Information Management Journal. She concluded that "This work is a considerable undertaking, an each of the large and complex topics could easily form the basis for an entire book."

Stuart Hannabus, of the School of Information and Media, Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland, reviewed the book for The Journal of Documentation. Though he occasionally praised its good ideas and witty identification of paradoxes, like many academics, he seemed predominantly irritated that the book was not sufficiently academic.

Global Business Network chose the book for its Book Club Selection. Reviewing the selection, Joel Garreau, while admonishing the authors for some wobbly cultural history, concludes that "when you've finished underlining, dog-earing, and drawing exclamation marks, you find that you've not simply read this book, you've allowed it to change your mind."


Garreu also put the book on Reason's"Presidential Reading List." Other end-of-year (2000) accolades included

The "Best Business Books of 2000" Harvard Business Review
Barnes & Noble's Ten "Best of 2000" Business Books
Amazon's " The Year's (ten) Best in Business"
Amazon (UK) "Recommends": books on Computers & Internet
A "Book for Bosses" Financial Times
Second Place Winner in ForeWord Magazine's business book of the year selection


Robert Preston reviewed the book for The Standard (Europe) in a piece called "Dealing in Delusion,"and didn't like it. He felt irritated by its "patronizing prescriptions." (This may suggest a low threshold for irritation, as most people suggested that the book failed to offer much by way of prescriptions.)

Bruce Schatz, of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Chapaign, reviewed the book for Science. In an article entitled "Learning by Text or Context," he focused on it as an "even handed" view of learning" and praised the "insightful analysis of universities" and the "thoughtful context to the emerging Net Millennium," though he regretted that in ranging widely, the authors did not take a more systematic approach.

Choice, which reviews books for academic libraries on behalf of the American Library Association, concluded that the book is "An excellent resource for academic audiences, upper-division undergraduate and up. The authors' accessible and entertaining writing style will also appeal to business practitioners and general readers."

Harvard Business Review(November-December 2000) chose the book as one of the (10) best business books of 2000. (The only one in the 10 to come from Harvard Business School Press.) It describes the book as "funny, graceful, subtle, and insightful" and its argument as "extraordinarily compelling."

Tom Zillner reviewed the book for Information and Technology Libraries [200 19(4) pp. 209-211], and concluded that "All in all, The Social Life of Information is a good read for all of us who work with information. In particular, technologists will benefit from the copious reminders that information without context is often not very useful and is someverdana worthless. This point is brought home over and over, and reinforced with plenty of pointers to research."

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a historian and Web developer at the Stanford University Library (and designer of the "Making the Macintosh" online exhibition), reviewed the book for the Los Angeles Times. (The article appeared on the cover of the book review on September 3, 2000.) In arguing that The Social Life of Information set the "age of information" in social and historical context, the review, called "The Human Touch," also set the book in its own social and historical context.

David McIntosh reviewed the book for the Ernst & Young Center for Business Innovation. The review ( available as a pdf download) concluded, "The Social Life of Information makes a real contribution to our collective knowledge. ... We believe that war is too important to be left to the generals. Similarly, this book suggests, the information revolution is too important to leave to the technologists. Communicating the content is easy, while understanding the context is harder. And there is a lot more social context out there than any of us had realized.

The Financial Timesof August 5th, 2000, listed the book first in its pick of "Books for the bosses on the beach."

While Business Week of August 28th, 2000, listed it as "Essential reading for modern managers".

The July/August 2000 issue of Lingua Franca included The Social Life of Information in its list of "Breakthrough Books" in the area of Digital Technology and Higher Education.

Technology Review for July/August 2000 called the book "a technological reality check" that comes "not a Swatch beat too soon."

Slashdot ("News for Nerds. Stuff that Matters") gave the book an enthusiastic endorsement in a review posted to its site by Cliff Lampe on June 27th. The Social Life of Information, the review argues, is "one of those rare books that informs without preaching, advocates without subjecting, and entertains without pandering. It is a smart attempt at stepping away from the technological roller coaster (without getting out of line) and seeing how the social systems enveloping the technology batter it about. This is an important read for any person involved in information technology to read." In particular, he concludes, the book "has a message for the Open Source movement."

Professor Judith Donath, director of MIT Media Lab's Sociable Media research group reviewed the book for the June-July 2000 issue of ID (International Design) and clearly didn't like it. Above all, she found the book's focus on the technological challenge of the home office shallow compared to her own concerns with the unbounded workday. Her point is well taken (though in fact the book does discuss the latter issue and notes its relation to the former). Underlying the book's argument, however, is the belief that futurists, academics, designers, and a few cutting-edge design magazines tend to overlook or to trivialize the profound demands that new technologies place on those who work at home alone and are not "power users." So, while ostensibly disagreeing with us, Professor Donath's review perhaps serves usefully to make our point.

The Times Education Supplement (TES) of London reviewed the book favorably on June 9th, 2000, in a piece called "The Perfect Riposte to All Those Pub Bores." Merlin John called the book "thoughtful, informed, and perspective, and it puts technology where it ought to be - at the service of human process."

The Spring 2000 issue of Sloan Management Review (Vol 42 no 3) carried a review by Allen Burton Jones called " Mindful Change."

The Chronicle of Higher Education in a piece called " Authors Argue that 'Distance Education' is an Oxymoron," reviewed the book, focussing mostly on the chapter on education. As the title caused something of a stir, it should perhaps be noted here that the phrase was the book's, but the reviewer's (or perhaps even the sub editor's).

Though she may only have read the review in The Chronicle of Higher Education Carol Twigg of the Center for Academic Transformation reviewed the book for On the Internet. She took strong exception to the idea that distance education is a an oxymoron and took several other bold swipes at ideas not found in the book itself. Indeed, she could find nothing good to say. She also objected when this page responded to her comments, and, in a curious suspension of scholarly netiquette for a proponent of online education, asked that a link provided to her review be taken down while simultaneously claiming that her argument had been quoted out of context. Though we cannot link to it, the review does provide as useful lens onto the scholarly practice and antagonistic attitudes of certain proponents of online education.

Fast Company listed the book as its " FC Recommends" title in its June issue, concluding, it's "time for you to reckon with the sensible arguments put forth in this book."

The May 26th, 2000, edition of the Times Literary Supplementcarried a long review of the book by Luciano Floridi, a fellow of Wolfson College, Oxford, and author of Philosophy and Computing. Floridi described the book as "a circumstantial and constructive reminder of the importance of all the semantic and social constraints that we need to respect in order to build a better infosphere" and praised the book's "wealth of brilliant intuitions."

Current Cites, the excellent digest of recent publications on information technology put out by the library at the University of California, Berkeley, published a brief review, calling the book "a refreshing focus" and concluding it was "an excellent read."

The Economist in its issue of April 15th-21st, 2000, reviewed the book enthusiastically in a piece called "It isn't nigh." The Social Life of Information, it argued, is not only an "antidote to digital silliness," but also"an important description of the complexities of innovation."

Upside of April 18th, 2000, carried a review called "Making Software Social" and described the book as"thoughtful and provocative."

The Industry Standard of April 14th, 2000, carried a review of the book, concluding, "In a world of ready-made answers, it's refreshing that authors like Brown and Duguid are instead asking the important questions."

The Financial Times reviewed it enthusiastically on March 27th, 2000, in an article called "Technology versus the human touch." The book offers, it concluded, "a common language for discussing the impact of technology on our workplaces, our communities, and our lives."
[This review has been posted to the Social Life of Information pageon the Amazon.co.uk website.]

The Asia Wall Street Journaland the Wall Street Journal On Line reviewed the book on March 27th, 2000. It called the book "indispensable" as "a cool and lucid examination of the way technology and people interact" that shows how "forces unseen by futurists will emerge from the social webs that people weave."

The March/April issue of Worldlink, the magazine of the World Economic Forum, carried a review of the book, concluding "it is a delight to find a book where the authors wear their wide-ranging knowledge widely and elegantly."

The Italian online newsletter Apogeonline carried a review, "Internet no pu┌ cambiare il mondo."

CIO of March 1, 2000 has an extract from chapter 4 of The Social Life of Information, "Practice Makes Process," which analyzes business process reengineering from the perspective of social practice and knowledge management. In the same issue, Michael Hammer, the foremost champion of reengineering, responds, noting it was "a pleasure to encounter John Seely Brown's and Paul Duguid's intelligent analysis of reengineering and its limitations."

Salonreviewed the book in an article called "Maybe the Net doesn't change everything." The review concludes that the book's "quiet tone of reflection ... manages to puncture much of the hype around where technology is taking us." An abbreviated version of this review appeared in The Guardian.

INC reviewed it in its March, 2000, issue under the title " Insights into why one product fades when another prevails."

Amazon.com's business books editor, Harry C. Edwards, reviewed the book for Amazon. He called it "a thoughtful and challenging read that belongs on the bookshelf of anyone trying to invent or make sense of the new world of information."

Amazon UK also wrote an editorial review. It concludes "The Social Life of Information is a diverting addition to cyberculture's growing bookshelf and recommended reading for all who cling to the coat tails of the online world's fastest globe-trotting star."

Publishers' Weekly, in its review called the book "an intellectual gem."


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