This is the 8th book for my 12 Books, 12 Months Challenge.
Short version: Librarians, and others in any “information industry,” should read it and ponder its critiques of “information fetishism.”
I bought this book back in May 2005 and finally got around to reading it. I am following it up with Nardi and O’Day’s Information Ecologies which I bought in May 2006. Where this book focuses on the binary rhetoric of “information,” and thus of information technology, Nardi and O’Day focus on the binary rhetoric of “technology.” Nardi & O’Day is 1-2 years older, is cited by Brown & Duguid, and I am hoping they’ll make a nice complementary pair.
- Preface: Looking Around
- Introduction: Tunneling Ahead
- 1 Limits to Information
- 2 Agents and Angels
- 3 Home Alone
- 4 Practice Makes Process
- 5 Learning—in Theory and in Practice
- 6 Innovating Organization, Husbanding Knowledge
- 7 Reading the Background
- 8 Re-education
- Afterword: Beyond Information
This book lived up to what I thought it might be after seeing so many references to it over the last 6 years. Originally released in 2000 (my ed. from 2002) I would say that it has held up quite well. Although I would love to see it updated, I truly doubt that much of the analysis would actually change. But with the changes in higher ed, and all of the mergers of massive media conglomerates over the past decade plus, it would be interesting to see if and how their take on the issues might change.
Optimism and pessimism “are both products of the same technology-centered tunnel vision. Both focus on information and individuals in splendid isolation. Once agents are set in a social context, both conclusions—sublime and despairing—seem less probable” (xi).
“This book is particularly concerned with the superficially plausible idea … that information and its technologies can unproblematically replace the nuanced relations between people. We think of this as “information fetishism”" (xvi).
“Our underlying argument in the discussion of education and the common thread that runs throughout … this book is that change is not necessarily occurring where, how, or when predicted, nor for the reasons most commonly cited. Hence, we suspect, many people have become increasingly unhappy with the binary simplicities of predictions about new technology” (xxii-xxiii).
Ch. 2 is primarily about bots, ch. 3 about telecommuting, ch. 4 business process reengineering, ch. 5 knowledge management and learning, ch. 6 knowledge as sticky and leaky, ch. 7 paper and documents, and ch. 8 higher education.
Ch. 7 “Reading the Background” provides excellent examples of what documents do, of the social roles they fill, and of the societies that they help to create. Seeing as I approached this primarily as a librarian that is the area I will focus my excerpts on.
“Among many things relegated to history’s scrap heap by relentless futurism have been, …, paper documents. Here, focus on the information they carry has distracted attention from the richer social roles that documents play—roles that may sustain paper documents despite the availability of digital ones. … …, we believe that documents, like other older technologies, probably will not be replaced (when they should be) or augmented (when they could be), if their richness and scope are underappreciated (xix-xx).
Argues that until we understand what documents do—physically and culturally—we will not understand what they are and how to replace or improve them. A narrow focus on the information that documents carry will fail to result in useful change.
“Documents not only serve to make information but also to warrant it—to give it validity. Here again, the material side of documents plays a useful part. For information has trouble, as we all do, testifying on its own behalf. Its only recourse in the face of doubt it s to add more information” (187).
“So documents do not merely carry information, they help make it, structure it, and validate it. More intriguing, perhaps, documents also help structure society, enabling social groups to form, develop, and maintain a sense of shared identity” (189).
“Documents then contribute not only to forming and stabilizing the worlds but also, …, to reforming, destabilizing, and transforming them. The presence of heretics reminds us that the “information” is not the sole contributor here. The orthodox and the heretics both form around the same information or content. They are distinguished from one another by their unique disposition toward that information” (193-4).
“The political scientist Benedict Anderson provides yet another example of the way groups form around documents. He considered networks so large, so diverse, and so spread out that individual members could not possibly know one another. They nonetheless may develop a sense of membership and belonging if they can create an image of the group as a single community with a single identity. Anderson described the communities as “imagined” and claimed that shared documents play an essential part in this imagining.
Anderson argues that such a document culture made a key contribution to the creation of independent nations” (194).
This is an important work and is still highly relevant. I am going to let it simmer for a while in the back of my mind. But I do think it fits well with my slowly awakening thesis that “information” as a foundational concept for libraries and librarians is a dangerous one.