Mohammad Al-Ubaydli’s blog

Socializing software

Posted in Books, History, People / organisations, Technology by Dr Mohammad Al-Ubaydli on July 30, 2008
Book cover for The Social Life of Information

Book cover for The Social Life of Information

I am currently reading The Social Life of Information, another Harvard Business School text that critiques the IT industry. It is annoying me like IT Doesn’t Matter did, but is full of interesting historical background like The Big Switch is, so as a history junkie I am hooked. I guess the fact that I find the book annoying marks me as the techno-jingoist that they are critiquing.

The book’s main thesis, so far in my reading, is that there is a lot more social context around information and its technology than information technology enthusiasts (e.g. me) would claim. Furthermore, that social context is important and overlooked leading to problems in deployment. I will not be cruel enough to say that MIT invents the future while Harvard publishes scholarly critiques of it (oops, but Dan Bricklin’s audience agrees with me).

There are, as you might expect from the strong praise the book has received, lots of good stories and fair points. For example, there is the hilarious account of the attempt by Chiat/Day’s senior management to create the office of the future, documented by Wired News in issue 2.07, and then fittingly recanted in 7.02. The dystopian visionary CEO created office space with no offices, where hierarchy was “eliminated” as each employee had access to any desk at the beginning of the day that they wanted to take.

The reality was the employees had to rush to grab desk. Field staff would arrive in the middle of the day with no idea where the rest of their team had sat. Team members could not sit together, and turf warfare began as senior managers tried to pull rank over junior members of other teams so that they could get their own team members to sit together. These same post-hierarchical managers sent their secretaries to grab desks for them in advance. Amongst all this bullying the CEO would walk around asking people if they were sitting in the same place they had sat yesterday. If they answered yes, he would move them to another place.

And the computers, of course, were a pain to recustomize each day for each worker’s preference. No employee had any personal computer, instead they would pick up a fresh device each day. And it turns out that desks are more than just place on which to pile paper, instead the location of each pile of paper had meaning and value. You get the idea.

By contrast, I was surprised to learn how keenly socially aware Alexandar Graham Bell was with the new technology he invented, the telephone. His investors were dismayed at how useless the telephone seemed compared to the telegraph and tried to sell the patents to Western Union at rock-bottom prices. Western Union turned them down and I recently discovered (see Brunelleschis Patent in the sharing medical techniques post) that these are still the most valuable patents to date.

Instead, Bell tried to get his telephones into hotels and encouraged hotel guests to use the phones to call reception staff. He also put the phones into offices so that office staff would experience the advantages of telephones. Such social interactions must have been great for creating his market of home customers.

It is interesting to me to contrast Bell’s approach with Day’s when thinking about doctors learning and the Department of Health’s plans for modernising education. Six years ago, as I was beginning my residency, Modernising Medical Careers included bold talk of restructed teaching that fit the increasingly unstructured schedules of doctors. As junior doctors worked fewer hours with fewer overlaps with other doctors’ shifts the idea of time- and place-shifted teaching was attractive. Each doctor could watch each lecture alone.

At the time it sounded good and I was heavily in favour of it. But now, after reading this annoying book, I am annoyed to admit that I am rethinking the advantages.

As I read the rest of the book I am curious to see what else it covers. Certainly, the index does not include Google, and it has only one mention of GNU, and thus open source software, a highly social technology endeavour. And as far as I can tell, there will not be any mention of social software as the book was published in 2000, around the same time that web 2.0 began to crystalize. Social software may not fix the social problems that the book describes, but it does provide a variety of social solutions to problems that were previously intractable.


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  1. […] are priceless, and the discussions between Dean Jay Ellison are fascinating illustrations of The Social Life of Software’s descriptions of how restrictive digital communication is. I should add that Aaron hates […]

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