Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Social Aspect of Knowledges

The first edition of The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, was published 10 years ago. It somehow seems less … and I do wonder what influence it has had outside that seemingly small circle of people employed in “knowledge management.”

Here’s a bit about the book:

Brown and Duguid discovered – or re-discovered – that while “knowledge” is something an individual possesses, “information” itself is largely social. That’s to say that it is generally something which is derived through the combination of various experiences as described through shared language.

I wrote “re-discovered” because the idea of “information” (a subset, as it were, of “knowledges”) being social is an old one. There is also an important library/librarian connection: the development of the concept of “Social Epistemology” by Jesse Shera:

Of course, when we talk about “Web 2.0” or “Web 3.0” we’re availing ourselves of the social aspects of information … that’s what tagging is all about. That, in my view, has both advantages and disadvantages.

The great advantage is that ideas, events, etc., can be described in the contemporary terms that individuals actually use. The great disadvantage is the likelihood that these will change over time.

Consider: I was the corporate/research librarian for Masonite Corporation in the early 1980s. One of my tasks was the re-indexing of all the old research reports. These went back to the 1920s.

By the time the late 50s came along the company (by far the largest in that particular branch of wood processing) was beginning to experiment with what it came to call “low density hardboard.” This was the “index term” used within the company. Much later, a new index term was being used … by younger researchers unfamiliar with the previous work. The new term (one you may recognize since it’s now a generic product name) was “medium density fiberboard.”

The previous work was ignored because no one knew to look for it. And this was within the largest company that specialized in manipulating wood fiber. The “corporate memory” had failed and millions of dollars were wasted recreating previous work.

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