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I recently read the The Social Life of Information by Brown and Duguid. Compared to the technology-related books that I have read lately, Brown and Duguid are less enthusiastic about the promised blessings of technology. They are skeptical of the tendency, which they name “endism”, to predict the end of everything from paper to traditional workplace and they caution against “infologic”, the tendency to believe that every problem can be solved simply by putting it in terms of information, or more information. Brown and Duguid encourage a cautious examination of the social and psychological issues that put problems in their proper context.
The book is set up as a collection of essays touching on topics as varied as who should be held accountable for the actions of autonomous bots to a proposal for the redesign of higher education. A recurring theme involves the unintended consequences of eliminating traditional social interactions from the workplace. Technology is often implemented in ways that remove social support systems, causing isolated individuals to bear the burden of responsibilities once shared by a group.
I found the latter chapters to be the most interesting. “Learning in Theory and Practice” pointed out that the presence of a knower is what distinguishes knowledge from information. Brown and Duguid refer to definitions of knowledge by Bruner, Kyle and Polanyi that lay the framework for their argument that learning is a social process as well as a process that helps shape individual identities. People with similar knowledge and resources have similar identities. For example, people who identify as engineers identify as engineers largely because of what they have learned in the process of becoming engineers. Similarities in identity help create ties between people occupying similar roles within and across different organizations. Each tie is part of a larger network of practice. The concept of networks of practice is related to Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice. However, I believe that networks of practice is a better concept for describing informal learning in online environments than communities of practice.
I’m now looking for articles that examine the networks of practice idea more closely. Any suggestions?