Skip to main content

“The Social Life of Information. ”

With all the hype surrounding new advances in information technology, what is truth and what is fiction? Paul Duguid (DO-good), co-author of “The Social Life of Information,” (Harvard Business School Press) helps us answer that question. Duguid is a Research Associate in Social and Cultural Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and consultant at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. In their book, Duguid and co-author John Seely Brown, distinguish between the predictions of pundits and ‘futurists’ (those who predicted that paper communication would be obsolete and home offices would be the norm,)and the reality of today’s offices and work spaces.


Other segments from the episode on July 11, 2000

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 11, 2000: Interview with Paul Duguid; Interview with Ben Katchor.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Analysis: Distinguishing between the predictions of pundits and
futurists, and the reality of today's offices and work spaces

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We've heard many predictions in the past few years about how the new
information technologies will change our lives. The book will become
obsolete. The university campus will be replaced by courses on the Internet.
And more than half of American workers will work out of their homes.

My guest, Paul Duguid, is the co-author of the new book, "The Social Life of
Information," which attempts to separate the cyber-hype from reality. Duguid
is a historian who is a consultant at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center,
which his co-author, John Seely Brown, directs. Their book expands on a
series of essays they wrote about how the design of new technology affects how
people learn and work. Duguid disagrees with people who predict the book will
soon become obsolete.

Mr. PAUL DUGUID (Author, Historian): Well, I think one of the things to get
clear first is that, you know, the book has for a long time held together a
great many different sorts of objects. It's held together railway timetables
or airplane timetables or car parts catalogs. And there is no doubt in my
mind that if I needed to consult a car parts catalog or have someone do it for
me, I'd much prefer them to do it using a CD-ROM or an online database, than
flog back and forth through a book. So in some sense, what seems to be
happening is some of the things that are really not very well adapted for
pages bound together between covers have now left the book. And that seems to
be well worth it for everybody.

But in some ways, the way a book contains, within a certain length, what the
author has to get across--and as you read it, barely noticeably, you know,
your left thumb and finger are getting closer together, telling you that the
story is winding up without any conscious interruption to the way you're
reading. Or the way, conversely, the short story will suddenly come to an
end, clunk, and you won't have realized it's winding up. The things that
authors use in order to get their story across, to convey their meaning, to
evoke certain circumstances, and those are the sort of subtle aspects of a
book, I think, that is very easy to miss or underestimate.

Also, of course, as people like John Updike recently talked about, you know,
books do furnish a room. If you have them on the walls of your house, people
can somehow understand what you read, where you come from. They're great ways
of signaling our own intellectual background in learning. That doesn't quite
work with a row of CD-ROMs. So there are a lot of subtle effects of books
that I think will probably keep it in play for a long time.

GROSS: It's been predicted that people won't have to go to the office
anymore, because we have so much office and information technology that we can
use at home, that can interconnect us to the other people that we work with.
And I think it is true that many more people are working at home, and many
more people are working with colleagues who live in other states or other
cities or other countries, because they can interconnect through e-mail and
faxes and phones and so on. But you raise a lot of the problems that you have
if you're working at home alone, technological problems even. What are some
of the problems that you see?

Mr. DUGUID: Sure. Well, here I have to say I speak from the heart, because
I do most of my work at home alone. And there are many reasons that I would
never want to go back into an office life of nine to five, and that feeling of
sort of trapped, that your time is someone else's possession during the day.
But I think that some of--the talk that, you know, by now we would all be
living in electronic cottages and some predictions by the year 2000 downtowns
would be dead have clearly not come true. And I think the reason for that
again is that those making the predictions have underestimated what it is, on
the one hand, that keep people together in the offices and, on the other, that
make work at home alone rather an isolating and difficult experience. And
strangely, much of the technology that is meant to help us get from the
congested office out into these wonderful electronic cottages seems to me in
some ways to have been a good deal of the problem, where a lot of us have been
sent home with what I think of as industrial strength technology and assume
that alone we could somehow survive on that. And people who work in offices
know that when a software upgrade comes through, it can be something like a
dose of the flu, laying people out for months, for weeks on end. And, of
course, if you have to manage that alone without IT managers, etc., etc., and
so on.

GROSS: IT is information technology.

Mr. DUGUID: I'm sorry, information technology, yeah. Without somebody who
is an expert in managing that, but you're really trying to install new stuff
on your own, following these wretchedly inadequate manuals and Web pages. It
can be enormously difficult, very frustrating, and drives some people back
to the office from whence they thought they'd fled for good.

GROSS: I think with all the new technology, a lot of companies want to be
sure that they're on the cutting edge. And they want to rearrange the
corporation in a way that Conger went with all the new technology, that suits
and reflects the new technology. And some companies end up making some big
mistakes along the way. And you cite at least one of those in your new book.
Talk about the hot desk.

Mr. DUGUID: Well, the hot desk was really this idea that not only did we not
really need to work in offices, but if for some curious reason people would
still have to come to a central place, they would no longer need to have their
own particular work space, their own particular wall on which they would pin
up paintings or their children's drawings or their diary or whatever; that
they could simply come in in the morning and pick up a laptop and a cell phone
and go off to a little cubicle on one side and do all their work there. And
if you look at things through what we call the logic of technology, this
seemed, actually, a wonderful idea.

But the logic of humanity, which tends to work rather differently, undermined
it. One of the things that they discovered in the office was that, while
people will often say that offices instantiate a certain sort of pecking order
and the hierarchy is very heavily mapped, when you pull away all restraints,
the turf wars are even worse. So people would fight over the best places in
the office. People would try to send in their assistants early in the morning
to get the best hot desks, no doubt with the sun or nearest to the coffee.
And there was every day a reformed turf war, which really made people very
unhappy. And the notion that this would lead to an egalitarian office, I
think, was very quickly undermined.

GROSS: Now where was this tried?

Mr. DUGUID: This was tried at Chait/Day, the great advertising agency that
created much of the Apple `Think different' advertising. And they clearly
were thinking different in some interesting ways. But I think that they came
unstuck and realized, after five years, that this wasn't the way the office
was ready to work. And they had to go back to an older and more established
form of office.

GROSS: Let me get to another prediction that we've been hearing, which is the
traditional university will be replaced by cyber-universities, where you'll be
connected to the information that you need or the teacher that you need online
and through the Internet.

Mr. DUGUID: This is one that has interested us a good deal. And in the book
we open with an example from the celebrated IBM advertisement of an elderly
grandfather talking to his daughter in a vineyard in Italy, and it's a very
elegant set-up, and they have English subtitles when they talk in Italian, and
he reveals to his daughter that he has just received his PhD from Indiana
University, which is very nice reversal. You would expect it to be the
granddaughter who would announce this. And then he announces the reason he
was able to do this was that the university had put its library online. And
that struck us as extraordinary in its conception of what education is, what
the university is, what changes will do. It seemed to say that really getting
a PhD is simply a matter of having an access to a library. And perhaps in
that, the theory or idea that really getting an education is simply a matter
of getting information and that what teachers do is simply ship information
to you and we can probably do that better technologically.

And anybody, I think, who sits and pauses for a little while about their
education will realize that simply being informed was only a minor part of it.
Becoming socialized, meeting your peers, learning from them, watching people
who were perhaps not very articulate, but expert in their fields, carry out
their job--the whole social world of schools and universities is suddenly cut
out of the picture and all you get is this thin stream of information. And
it's easy, but very misleading to believe that that's the core of education.

GROSS: So I guess one of the points that you're making here is that there's
a big difference in receiving information and actually learning, actually
comprehending and having knowledge.

Mr. DUGUID: Yeah. I think there really is. The psychologist, Jerome
Brunner, I think makes a wonderful distinction between what he calls learning
about and learning to be. And learning about is the way that we pick up bits
of information here which sound interesting and we pass on and we can chat
about but we can't really do anything with. I can watch a program about
penguins in Antarctica, as I did last night, but I'm never really likely to
become an Antarctic or a bird fancier on the basis of that. But the other
thing that Jerome Brunner says we do is we learn to be. That is, we acquire
an identity. We become writers or scholars or radio interviewers or
engineers. And that's a much more intense process, which involves our entire
identity, which brings in our whole personality, brings that to bear on what
we're learning. And I think that's the sort of thing that genuine education
starts to get at. And that's why it's very different from simply picking up
bits of information here and there.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Duguid, co-author of the new book "The Social Life
of Information." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is historian Paul Duguid. He's the co-author of the new
book "The Social Life of Information."

One of the big controversies now surrounding information on the Internet has
to do with copyright. You know, should recording artists and songwriters be
given royalties when somebody downloads their music? Should writers be given
any kind of royalty if somebody reads something on the Internet, downloads
something that the writer has written? Some people feel no, the great thing
about the Web is that it's democratizing information. We have a new
technology and that requires new ways of dealing with information sharing and,
you know, the ideas of ownership of information are out of date now and that's
a good thing. And I'm wondering your thoughts about that, as a historian
studying this?

Mr. DUGUID: Well, historically it has some interesting precedent, in that in
the 19th century, you may know, America refused to sign on to international
copyright laws, which, for instance, made the visit of Charles Dickens to
America in 1842 a very contentious occasion, because Dickens came along and
said, `Here you are. You're praising me. You love my work, but you won't pay
for it. It's pirated around the country.' And at the same time as new presses
were being put up, as the way in which a newspaper could be put out very
quickly and contain an entire book, if they chose, was emerging. People were
making the argument that--here again today, that the law of intellectual
property is immoral, that ideas should be free. I don't think they said
information then. That there is no reason that anybody should be paid for
what is, in a sense, God's knowledge.

So there is a precedent for that. And I think it is one of the huge
challenges we see today and is tending to push in a couple of different
directions. One, I think is it's tending to try to discover technologies that
will control minutely every interaction with information. They're now trying
to create technologies that if I download pages over the Web, they will allow
me to read them once and then the page will dissolve. If I want to pass that
page on to somebody else, I have to pay a second fee. If I want to make a
copy of it, I have to pay a third fee. And those are changing, from one end,
to regimes of extraordinary control. And those, I think, are pretty worrying.
But at the other end, as someone who lives in part by writing myself, the
idea that I can't make a living out of what I write, that it can simply be
taken from me and passed around is, among other things, going to stop me
and people like me from writing. And that, I think--well, I'm not trying to
say that my writing would necessarily be a loss to society, but I think the
general sense that if nobody is going to be interested in protecting
intellectual property, there will not be much interesting intellectual work
done, which is the other side of the minute control I think is equally
worrying. And it's going to take quite a battle, not just a technological
battle, to find a way between these two extreme positions.

GROSS: Right. And what I was talking about, too, though, is that, you know,
the Internet is not only freeing up information and democratizing it, but it's
a store. It's a big store now.

Mr. DUGUID: Yeah. And more and more things that I think in the past were,
of necessity, accessible and free are actually now being sold to us. I spoke
to a friend of mine who wrote a wonderful book about San Francisco, imperial
San Francisco, not long ago. And he said that he thought he couldn't do the
research that he did for that book, "A History of San Francisco"--that he
couldn't do that research now, because so many of the sources which were
public access not long ago, particularly to photographs, now he would have to
pay for every item. So there is a shift, in a sense, to commercialize a great
deal of what we once thought was free. And that's happening a certain amount
with libraries, who are suddenly discovering that they can make money out of
parts of their collection, and so free access is no longer being allowed. So,
yes, I think that behind those great claims of democratization there are a
lot of very savvy and rather unfortunate commercial moves being made.

GROSS: One of the things that I'm wondering about is if culture is going to
become more fragmented, if we're going to be more separated from each other
than before. And I guess what I'm thinking is this. Now that there's cable
TV and so many different options on the Internet, we're not all watching and
listening to the same things like we once did. Cultures keep subdividing and
subdividing, which is fine. It means that our special interests are getting
better addressed than ever before. The only downside of it, I think, is that
we used to have pop culture to hold us together. We'd watch the same TV shows
and read a lot of the same books and see the same movies. I think people are
still seeing the same movies because there aren't that many choices, you know,
in movie theaters, but the rest of culture is becoming so fragmented.

Mr. DUGUID: I think it is, and becoming particularly difficult to talk
about. I mean, maybe one thing it does is it challenges some of the old
generalities that we used to make about technology--sorry, about culture, and
assume that people were all looking at these same things together, in the same
way. And perhaps there already was something of a Balkanization. Even when
everybody was reading very little more than the Bible several centuries ago,
the different ways that they read the Bible, the different and wholly opposed
groups that formed around it, maybe in some way pre-figured the sort of
Balkanization that we're getting now. I think, as advertisers obviously tend
to think, what this sort of fragmentation does, is it puts an enormous premium
on those things that can pull people together, on the occasional big movie,
the big show, you know, CBS and "Survivors." Those things become more and more
significant, not only financially for the advertisers, but I think in some
ways more culturally significant. I think a little while ago, some of us
might never have thought of watching "Survivors." But because it is such an
extraordinarily significant program in pulling people together who have been
fragmented, suddenly it takes on a much greater interest.

GROSS: My guest is Paul Duguid. And he's the co-author of the new book "The
Social Life of Information." As a historian, I imagine one of the things that
you particularly enjoy is holding in your hands a document from another era,
which you don't get to do if you're finding information on the Internet and
everything is contained on a screen.

Mr. DUGUID: Yeah. And for me, such documents can often tell you a great
deal about how, in a sense, looking at information alone is a limiting
process. Take an example--I was working in an archive in Portugal, from--the
things I was looking at from roughly the time of the Revolutionary War, so
1770 to 1780s, and these boxes contained letters. They're about the size of a
Styrofoam cooler and they contained the entire years' intake of letters to a
firm. And many of them have barely been disturbed for 100, 150, 200 years.
And I, unfortunately, tend to suffer from asthma, so as I picked these things
out, my eyes will run, my nose will run. I will feel that the one thing I
would really like to do is scan these documents, you know, put them on the Web
and never have to deal with these layers of dust again.

And one day I was sitting there reading these documents with a handkerchief
around my face, looking like a bandit trying to keep this dust out of my nose,
when this man came in and sat down beside me and started to work on another
box. And he picked them up and he would pull out a letter, and he wouldn't
even read it. He'd put it under his nose and drag it from side to side, and
take an extraordinary deep sniff, which sent my sinuses into complete shock as
I saw him doing this. And he carried on doing this for about 10 minutes, and
once in a while he'd open a page and he'd make a small note and then he'd fold
it up and put it away again. And soon after, British resistance was overcome
by intense curiosity and I turned to him, and I said, `Look, what on Earth are
you doing?' And it turned out that he was a medical historian. And he was
tracing outbreaks of cholera in the 18th century, and when cholera broke out
in a particular town, the authorities, as the mail went out, would sprinkle it
with vinegar to disinfect it.

And so now, 200-plus years later, by sniffing the letters, he would still get
a faint trace of vinegar, and he would know how the disease had spread across
the country. But what was interesting for me was that it wasn't simply that I
now knew something about medical history, but it put a complete new
interpretation on the content of those documents, which I thought could just
be separated from the paper and the letter and the dust. Because if I opened
a letter, and it smelled a little of vinegar, I suddenly realized that
somebody saying, you know, `Business is fine. Send us your goods. Our credit
is nothing to worry about,' probably was overstating a situation which was
quite perilous. And so I began to read these letters in a new light. And
suddenly the sense that all there was was information in the writing, and
noise or interference from the paper itself came to seem a problematic
distinction, which I think is one now, as we try to transfer things from books
onto the Web, as we try to scan information and leave, as it were, this husk
behind, start to seem to me much more problematic than I had realized before.

GROSS: So did you find any correspondences with vinegar?

Mr. DUGUID: Yes, several. In fact, occasionally you would pick up a letter
and it would look like a piece of Gruyere cheese, it would be holes almost
completely because they'd overvinegared it, and almost everything had gone.
But, yes, you still do find, once in a while, you'll open a letter and there
is that sharp smell of vinegar and you read with a special new interest.

GROSS: Well, Paul Duguid, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. DUGUID: Well, thank you. It's been a great pleasure.

GROSS: Paul Duguid is the co-author of "The Social Life of Information." He's
a historian who is a consultant at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits given)

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


How Systemic Racism Continues To Determine Black Health And Wealth In Chicago

There is a 30-year gap in the life expectancies of Black and white Chicagoans depending on their ZIP code. Journalist Linda Villarosa says the disparity in life expectancies has its roots in government-sanctioned policies that systematically extracted wealth from Black neighborhoods — and eroded the health of generations of people. She writes about her family's own story in The New York Times Magazine article "Black Lives Are Shorter in Chicago. My Family's History Shows Why."

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.


Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue