Maybe the Net doesn't change everything

In "The Social Life of Information," John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid send technology futurists back to reexamine their crystal ball.

Published March 9, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

Dearly beloved, people of the information age. We're gathered here today to lay to rest the fat-cat government bureaucrat, the grizzled newspaper hack, the stock broker, the TV news anchor, the local chamber of commerce president and the crusty tenured professor.

These dinosaurs of the old world order have ruled the earth for too long. It's time to usher in the era of the individual, free at last of big companies, big government and all other cumbersome, clunky institutions. From now on, we'll each chart our own course, liberated from bothersome intermediaries, free to master information ourselves.

Yes, the future is near, but for some, alas, that means the end is nigh.

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Futurists take on the role of overeager obituary-writers, just as often as they do the job of optimistic prognosticators. The way they tell it, you would think you have to kill off the past to boldly usher in what's next. But while predictions of doom make for good sound bites -- and large consulting fees -- the bodies so often refuse to stay buried.

"The Social Life of Information" Dumpster-dives into the muck of failed predictions to show why the future isn't so likely to just let go of the past. In a measured series of eight essays, authors John Seely Brown, Xerox's chief scientist and director of the company's legendary research facility Xerox PARC, and Paul Duguid, a historian and social theorist at the University of California at Berkeley, gently deflate the most extreme claims of "the blinkered euphoria of the infoenthusiasts," as they term technology boosters.

Their none-too-radical conclusion, which could only threaten to sound radical in the current environment of hyper-hype, is that technology is more likely to mutate and shape the present than truly revolutionize or overthrow it.

The authors make the case that reducing libraries to "information warehouses," universities to "information providers" and office work to "information handling" makes it easy to vastly overstate the impact that digital technology will have on society.

(Don't think that their measured view of technology's impact means that they just don't get it: Seely Brown
and Duguid put themselves -- or at least a lunch with them at Xerox PARC -- up for bid on eBay this week.)

At the center of their argument is the observation that popular thinking about technology today is ruled by a kind of relentless "endism," which forecasts the death of everything from mass media to the nation-state, government to politics, universities to regions, even distance itself. It's the end of the world as we know it, and the techno-pundits feel fine.

But what interests Seely Brown and Duguid in these delightful doom scenarios is the causal assumptions underpinning them. They criticize the futurists' conviction that information technology unleashes forces which will necessarily bring about "demassification, decentralization, denationalization, despacilization, disintermediation, disaggregation," what the authors awkwardly term "6-D vision."

Put on 6-D glasses and you'll see a neatly packaged vision of the future that the authors argue is too extreme: "The D's too easily suggest a linear direction to society -- parallel movements from complex to simple, from group to individual, from personal knowledge to ubiquitous information ..."

So many workers use computers, but despite the predictions, we haven't all gone home to become consultants to each other. Big companies haven't disappeared; instead, through mergers, they've gotten even bigger.

Societal change doesn't happen nearly so linearly, nor so definitively, Seely Brown and Duguid argue. It's a form of tunnel vision to edit out the social factors that shape how and why new innovations actually are or aren't adopted. "The way forward is paradoxically to look not ahead, but to look around," they write.

It's from this point that the book analyzes the wealth of predictions that went nowhere, speculating about the social factors that had a hand in why they failed. Take Business Week's 1975 prediction that the "paperless office" was just around the corner. Some 25 years later, offices now consume an annual 100 pounds more paper per person than they did then. In just the past decade, paper consumption has grown from 87 million to 99 million tons a year; computers and the Net have apparently accelerated the use of paper, not diminished it.

The mistake that the seers at Business Week made was to consider paper as simply a medium for delivering information. Their excitement about technology replacing paper blinded them to the possibility that people would still need paper -- more readable printed pages, official documents bearing signatures, even sticky notes used to get a co-worker's attention in the sea of voice mails and e-mails.

Seely-Brown and Duguid point out the unseen value in many of the "artifacts" that infoenthusiasts have assumed technology would do away with. Despite all the hype about the home office, for example, big city downtowns haven't become ghost towns. What those predictions ignored were the distribution of work that takes place in an office -- you don't have to be your own tech-support staff, for example -- and the knowledge you pick up being around people doing the same type of work.

"The Social Life of Information" is curiously bloodless for a work that's trying to bring the messiness of real life and human behavior back into the conversation about technological innovation. The book is littered with neologisms, like "endism," that rival those of the loopy futurists it often critiques. In the end, though, its quiet tone of reflection is probably for the best, since it manages to puncture much of the hype around where technology is taking us, without making any bold pronouncements about the death of punditry.

But it's too bad that "The Social Life of Information" isn't written in a style more accessible to a popular audience. It's hard to imagine that the book's important arguments will succeed in wresting the headlines from the kind of rude, general claims -- the Internet Changes Everything! -- that the relentless promoters of technology so skillfully propagate.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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