The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid is an info classic. It’s one of those delightful books that manages to be very erudite, cover a huge range of theory, but reads effortlessly and even had me laughing out loud from time to time. (My favourite anecdote was that BT’s answer to homeworkers’ sense of isolation was to pipe a soundtrack of canned background noise and chatter into their offices!)

Essentially, the book argues that information and information technology cannot be separated from its social context and ignoring the human factors in technology adoption and use leads to fundamental misunderstandings of what it can and does do. This may mean overestimating the potential of information technology to change pre-existing institutions and practices, on both a personal and collective scale, and underestimating the ability of people to adapt technology to suit their ends rather than those envisaged by the technologists.

The authors argue that many “infoenthusiasts” miss subtleties of communication, such as the implicit social negotiations that take place in face-to-face conversations or the social meanings conveyed by a document printed on high quality paper or a book with expensive leather binding. Such nuances are easily lost when the words from such communications are removed from their original context and placed in a new environment – such as an electronic database.

Similarly, although personalisation is often touted as a great advance – you can have your own uniquley customised version of a website or a newspaper – such personalisation diminishes the power of the information source to act as a binding-point for a community. If we all have different versions of the newspaper, then we can’t assume we share common knowledge of the same stories. We then have to put additional work into reconnecting and recreating our knowledge communities, so the benefits of personalisation do not come without costs.

The importance of negotiation, collaboration, and improvisation is argued to be highly significant but extremely hard to build into automated systems. The social nature of language and the complexities of learning how to be a member of a community of practice, including knowing when to break or bend rules, are also essential to how human beings operate but extremely difficult to replicate in technological systems.

The theme of balance runs throughout the book – for example between the need to control processes while allowing freedom for innovation in companies or between the need for communication amongst companies and the need to protect intellectual property (knowledge in companies was often either seen as too “sticky” – hard to transfer and use – or too “leaky” – flowing too easily to competitors). At an institutional level, balance is needed between the importance of stability for building trust and openness to evolution (the perception of the value of a degree is bound up with the established reputation of an educational institution).

I found this very interesting, as my brother has been trying to persuade me that Daoism with its emphasis on things moving gradually from one state to another is a more productive way at looking at complex systems than the Aristotelian view that something can be in one category, or its opposite, but never both at once. (Here is a sisterly plug for an article he has written on the application of Daoist ideas to environmentalism). It also fits in with the idea of balancing the stability of an ordered taxonomy with the fast-flowing nature of folksonomies and of finding a way of using social media to support rather than compete with more formalised knowledge management practice. Brown and Duguid say: “For all the advantages of fluidity, we should not forget that fixity still has its charms. Most of us prefer the checks we receive and the contracts we write to remain stable”, which seems particularly apt given the global credit crisis!