The social life (and scent) of information

I’ve just finished reading ‘The social life of information’ by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, an oldish book (published in 2000) that too many people have recommended to me recently for me to ignore any longer.

It is always slightly shocking to me how dated the technology sections are in these kinds of books even after only 8 years. However the basic premise being that we are entranced by information and neglect the social context within which it operates.

My favorite anecdote from the book is a little story where a historian was reading through dusty old correspondence from the archives of a medical corporation and not finding the insight he was looking for. That is until he noticed the faint smell of vinegar on some of the letters, which he then realised was a reminant of the disinfectant used by the postal service from all post coming from towns or villages with a confirmed outbreak of cholera. This additional context clearly changed the rather cheery text contained in the letters, to something all the more interesting.

The authors also quashed much of the evangalism which is still rife about technology and the web signaling the death of distance, organisations, politics, institutions etc. Technology is having a huge impact on all of these things and more and yet they exist for a reason and the important question for me is how they will adapt to a world where information is plentiful and free.

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