Wisdom from Xerox PARC

May 9, 2001

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

The Social Life of Information. By John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2000, 336 pages, $25.95.

A reader who has been steeped in cyberfiction, and who celebrated the spring equinox by imbibing too much May wine, might conclude from the title of this book that certain bits of information residing on the Web have formed societies of their own and spend their time whooping it up amongst themselves. But no: The authors are concerned with how these bits whoop it up in their interaction with people or, as some cyber-vulgarians put it, in "meatspace."

Until recently, John Seely Brown was chief scientist at Xerox Corp. and director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). Paul Duguid is a research specialist in social and cultural studies in education at UC Berkeley. Unusual among those who deal on a daily basis with off-the-wall types in the world of infofreaks, these authors are conservative, bland, and seriously introspective. Their bottom line: people, not money or machines. Hurrah! Could this become a plank in a 2004 political platform?

One of the main goals of the book is to describe and to counter the "overreliance on information [that] leads to . . . '6-D vision.'" 6-D vision---the authors' term for how things will be in an anticipated future---comprises "demassification, decentralization, denationalization, despacialization, disintermediation, disaggregation." These visions are parts of the "myth of information" that "isolates information and the informational aspects of life and discounts all else."

The authors run through these six "dimensions" one by one, discussing the extent to which the anticipated phenomena have been observed in the business world and in education. In point of fact, most of them to date have been contradicted or seriously compromised. Thus, demassification and disaggregation appear to be pipe dreams. Today's agglutinative economy has already seen mergers involving "Amoco, AT&T, Bankers Trust, BMW, BP, Chrysler . . ." and probably hundreds more. As I write, the symbols AOL have just been juxtaposed with Time Warner, and American Airlines is taking over the thrice-bankrupt TWA. In the world of publishing, where I am a player of magnitude epsilon, Birkhäuser, one of my publishers, is now owned by Springer, which in turn is owned by Bertelsmann. And who knows whether my editor will soon be pressured into accepting only manuscripts with demonstrated blockbuster potential.

Regarding despacialization, a large fraction of the workforce is now involved only in processing data. Are these people working on their PCs at home, thus contributing to substantial reductions in traffic jams at commutation time? If they are, I haven't noticed it.

Regarding disintermediation---the notion that having hot flesh between you and your computer network is not necessary: The fact is that my department is like many others in having associated with it a full-time computer maven.

There is one "dis" not on the authors' list that I think is alive and well: mis- and disinformation. A recent AP release (Providence Journal, January 15, 2001) reports:

"Science texts are a study in errors, survey finds. The errors range from experiments that don't work to misstated scientific theories."

The article goes on to say that texts are often cut and pasted together by publishers' staffs who (in my words) have no way of distinguishing information or misinformation from knowledge.

On the other hand, Brown and Duguid, who make good livings from the information business, are not inclined to bite the hand that feeds them too hard. They recognize and describe the awesome power of the new forms of information delivery to fashion or reshape social units. In the chapter titled "Innovating Organization: Husbanding Knowledge," they present some of their experiences and some of the wisdom they gathered at PARC and in the nearby Silicon Valley, including one serious fumble at Xerox. Given recent rumors of a possible application for bankruptcy by Xerox, and of a move out of Xerox PARC, the chapter teaches us that information, knowledge, rationality, wisdom, perhaps even brilliant technology, cannot by themselves guarantee success in the competitive world.

The authors pay particular attention to universities and their future. Have the universities now been "dissed" in the 6-D sense of Brown and Duguid? The trends seem to be mixed. In the 1970s the gargantuan university and its chancellor ran into trouble. Not so long ago, the noted management guru Peter Drucker gave the universities 30 years. Today, responding both to technology and to demand, we have mega-universities, constructed and operated on a basis different from that of traditional institutions. The for-profit University of Phoenix (77 centers, 66,000 students, and 450,000 alumni) has been sending shivers up and down the spines of many a university president.

"From the free lancing professor to the junk bond king Michael Milken," the authors write, "people are realizing that there is serious money to be made in education."

There is the British Open University, now in open competition with our own educational clones in the USA. And as reported in The New York Times:

"From Petrozavodsk near Finland to Vladivostok on the Pacific Ocean . . . Russia is embracing modern distance learning with all its potential for making education more accessible and with the attendant debates about quality and philosophical implications" (Sophia Kishkovsky, January 7, 2001).

There is a TV university in China that is said to have more than 580,000 students. (Who wants to plant rice when you can become an infomandarin?) Brown and Duguid write of World Campuses where "books and libraries are containers, education is infodelivery, learning is infoconsumption." These structures offer thousands of different on-line courses, some of which would raise the hackles of the sort of scholar who tends to be more interested in teaching the use of the subjunctive in the dialect of Brabant.

Competition has pushed universities to think like businesses, to consider primarily markets, products, customers, productivity, and survival. Pressure on the university has come from technology---how are the university's products to be produced, distributed, and consumed? But over the years, the university in the United States has picked up so many social, civic, intellectual, vocational, and research functions that the whole can hardly be conceived in terms of the raw transformation of information.

Brown and Duguid are not loath to indulge in a bit of educational futurology. In addition to noting the above trends, not entirely with disapproval, they foresee, for example, the development of independent degree-granting bodies (DGBs) to satisfy society's need for professional credentiation. Educational subsidiaries of AOL Time Warner will surely get into the act.

How do I view the future of the universities from where I sit? Projecting linearly from what I see around me (and hardly a quarter of an inch beyond my nose), I see more women and fewer men both as students and as faculty. I see fewer native-born American students in science and technology. (Who wants to beat one's brains over a hard problem in math or physics when there's more money to be made more easily in the business world?) I see emphasis in the humanistic areas shifting away from Plato and Shakespeare and toward instruction in getting along with disparate groups of people.

Finally, I see the university moving steadily, in juggernaut fashion, toward total webization. A conference held recently at Brown, under the aegis of the provost, and duplicated, I'm sure, at many other places, had been publicized as an event that would

"provide a wealth of information on the many ways technology can enhance teaching. . . . The conference is designed to be helpful to those who have not incorporated new technologies in their teaching and those who are seasoned veterans in the use of these tools" (from the conference announcement).

I attended the sessions, and heard and saw numerous instances of state-of-the-art multimedia productions targeted for university instruction. I learned of the layers of craftspeople necessary for such productions. I heard how the "classical lecture" was now dead as a doornail, except when used to convey personal interpretations (of which I think there is a surfeit on the Web). I heard a plea for $10 million (I don't exaggerate) to produce an instance of "Rolls-Royce" quality in one specialized field. I heard pleas that professors go back to their offices and find uses for all the new magic demonstrated at the conference.

I came away from the conference thinking that gradually, willy-nilly, professors are being converted into impresarios, producers, directors, script writers, set designers, in some ways different from but akin to their Hollywood confrères. I came away asking myself not what the educational use of all this magic could be, but what, in this new world, the human use of the human professor would be.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.


Renew SIAM · Contact Us · Site Map · Join SIAM · My Account
Facebook Twitter Youtube