revisiting The Social Life of Information

I liked this book the first time I read it some years ago, but this weekend at the cottage among the almost fall leaves I decided to read it again with the view to finding ideas relevant to the GRAIL project. Because their central concern is the social, Brown and Duguid’s ideas here seem to have particular relevance to issues of usability and sustainability –questions I am concerned about as we try to determine the nature and design of the central coordinating structure of the environment.

So here are some memorable quotes that I want to record and look back on.
This first one I like because it brings together a whole bunch of theorists I like and respect, as well as making an important point:
In the chapter: Learning–in Theory and in Practice (p 134-5)

“In making his distinction between implicit and tacit, Polyani argues that not amount of explicit knowledge provides you with the implicit. They are two different dimentions of knowledge, and trying to reduce one to the other is a little like trying to reduce a two dimensional drawing to to one dimension. This claim of Polyani’s resembles Ryle’s argument that “know that” doesn’t produce “know how” and Bruner’s idea that “learning about” doesn’t, on its own, allow you to “learn to be”. Information, all these arguments suggest, is on its own not enough to produce actionable knowledge. Practice too is required. And for practice, it’s best to look to a community of practioners.”

Shortly after, p136.

People learn in response to need. When people cannot see the need for what is being taught, they ignore it, reject it, or fail to assimilate it in any menaingful way. Conversely, when they have a need, then if the resources for learning are available, people learn effectively and quickly.
In an essay we wrote about learning some years ago we referred to this aspect of learning as “stolen knowledge”. We based this idea on a short passage in the biography of the great Indian poet and and Nobel Prize winner Rabindranath Tagore. talking of an instructor hired to teach him music, Tagore writes, “He determined to teach me music, and consequently no learning took place”.

I love this quote, so elegant in its brevity, with such an important message (I love to sing and have lessons, and this seems so apt and relevant to me!!) that all teachers need to remember–learning is not a “supply-side” matter as Brown and Duguid call it, but rather a demand-side one–the needs of the learner.

Another good one, about learning and identity and how they shape one another: Page 138 (so far these quotes are mostly from the chapter on learning).

Bruner with his idea of learning to be, and Lave and Wenger, in their discussion of communities of practice, both stress how learning needs to be understood in relation to the development of human identity, In learning to be, in becoming a member of a community of practice, an individual is developing a social identity. In turn, the idenitity under development shapes what that person comes to know, how he or she assimilates knowledge and information. So, even when people are “learning about”, in Bruner’s terms, the identity they are developing determines what they pay attention to and what they learn. What people learn about, then, is always refracted through who they are and what they are learning to be.

Ain’t that the truth!! And speaking of identity I saw an amazing play at the Factory Theatre yesterday at Bathurst and Adelaide in Toronto called “Bigger than Jesus”–a one-man play with the most stunning stage work and effects–it is a play about Jesus–he is the protagonist and the play does this wonderful historical wending and blending of ancient and modern culture, is irreverant and poignant and momentous and hysterically funny. Quite riveting, but only one week left in Toronto. I bought the script I liked it so much. Perhaps I will do a separate blog entry on that….. It’s about passion–the passion of Christ: “pass your “I” on” is the motto of the play….

And here is a nice one that captures the essence of distributed cognition–always a tricky idea. They present examples from Robinson Crusoe and from Satre’s description of the waiter playing out his waiter “script” even when alone, then sum it up (p 140):

So, while people do indeed learn alone, even when they are not stranded on desert islands or in small cafe’s, they are nonetheless always emeshed in society, which saturates our environment, however much we might wish to escape it at times. Language, for example, is a social artifact, and as people learn their way into it, they are simultaneously inserting themselves into a variety of complex, interwoven social systems.

Shortly after this they present their two types of work-related networks important for understanding “learning, work and the movement of knowledge”: P141.

First, there are the networks that link people to others whom they may never get to know but who work on similar practices. We call these “networks of practice”. Second, there are the more tight-knit groups formed, again through practice, by people working together on the same or similar tasks. These are what, following Lave and Wenger, we call “communities of practice”.

Potentially, GRAIL should allow the development and interrelation of both of these types of networks–the former through FOAF and the latter through within-institution groupings–such as classes, research groups and the like.

Later on, P219.
A highly “targeted” view of learning can be equally narrow. We all need to learn things we didn’t set out to learn. “Distribution requirements” are the formal way that conventional education provides this for students and for society. But the collective experience of colledge and what the German sociologist Karl Jaspers described as the “creative tension” generated by the mingling of people from different backgrounds, and different expectations makes a critical contribution. Among other things, such experience helps provide not only knowledge and information that people don’t know they need, but also the skilll to judge the worthwhile from the worthless–an increasingly important skill in an age of ubiquitous and often unreliable information.

This is the other part of the challenge of the online environments that can be tailored entirely to the needs of the learner–where is the serendipity? I remember this as being an oft-discussed consideration in the design of all the instantiations of CSILE and later Knowledge Forum–and an increasing challenge as technology becomes more user-defined.

TIme to ponder……