First Monday

The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid

For years pundits have predicted that information technology will obliterate the need for everything from travel to supermarkets to business organizations to social life itself. They have heralded the coming of the virtual office, digital butlers, electronic libraries, and virtual universities. Beaten down by info-glut and exasperated by computer systems with software crashes, viruses, and unintelligible error messages, individual users tend to wax less enthusiastic about technological predictions. Amid the hype and the never-narrowing gap between promise and performance, they find it hard to get a vision of the true potential of the digital revolution.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid in their book The Social Life of Information (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2000) help us see through frenetic visions of the future to the real forces for change in society. Arguing elegantly for the important role that human sociability plays in the world of bits, this book, and the chapters published here in First Monday, gives us an optimistic look beyond the simplicities of information and individuals. The authors show how a better understanding of the contribution that communities, organizations, and institutions make to learning, knowledge, and judgement can lead to the richest possible use of technology in our work and everyday lives.


The idea that information and individuals are inevitably and always part of rich social networks is central to this book. Nowhere has the role of such networks been more obvious to us than in the support, help, and contributions - both direct and indirect, explicit and tacit - that we have received from friends, colleagues, and others whose work has inspired us. First and foremost we must acknowledge the contributions, both central and peripheral, of our wives Susan Haviland and Laura Hartman. Both are architects, and in their practice have taught us so much about good design, from a designer's and a user's perspective. We dedicate this book to them, but our gratitude for their support, kindness, and love lies beyond words.

The ideas of Jean Lave and Etienne Wnger, who were colleagues with us at the Institute for research on Learning, have had an indelible effect on our thinking. Julian Orr and Geoffrey Nunberg from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) have also made particularly important contributions, which will be evident in the essays that follow. We hope in acknowledging them that we do not slight the many other colleagues at PARC who have helped us in a variety of ways. They are so many that we simply could not mention them all. We must, though, mention Janice Heiler, Mimi Gardner, and Merin Eglington, whose support has been invaluable.

There are many others to whom we are deeply indebted. Among them Paul Adler, Phil Agre and his invaluable RRE Internet Filter, Bob Anderson, Danny Bobrow, Scott Noam Cook, José Afonso Furtado, Mary Griffin, Bernardo Huberman, Bill Janeway, Martin Kenney, Bruce Kogut, Teresa da Silva Lopes, Peter Lyman, Shawn Parkhurst, Larry Prusak, Dick Rosenbloom, Sim Sitkin, Brian Smith, Frank Squires, Susan Stucky, Roy Tennant and his colleagues at Current Cites, Mark Weiser, and Jack Whalen. Ursula Hines provided useful research help, as did Pam Stello with chapter 8 in particular. Softbook Press kindly lent an electronic book. None but ourselves, of course, can be held to account for what we say here.

We are also very grateful for the enthusiastic support of Harvard Business School Press. We thank in particular our energetic editor Hollis Heimbouch, who made us think we could write a book and stuck with us when we thought we couldn't, but also Marjorie Williams who graciously took over the project at a very difficult time and was tactful enough not to sigh aloud with relief when she handed back the reins.

Some of the work in this book develops articles and essays that first appeared elsewhere. In particular, chapter 7 revisits ideas first published as "The social life of documents," and chapter 8 also looks back at an earlier paper, "The university in the digital age." [1]

About the Authors

John Seely Brown is Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

Paul Duguid is a research specialist in Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of California at Berkeley.


1. See Brown and Duguid, 1996a, 1996b.


John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, 1996a. "The Social Life of Documents," Release 1.0 (October, special issue), pp. 1-19; First Monday (May), volume 1, number 1, at Also available at, retrieved 21 July 1999.

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, 1996b. "The University in the Digital Age," Times Higher Education Supplement (10 May, multimedia supplement), pp. iv-vi; Available at, retrieved 21 July 1999.


This text is an excerpt of The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, published in March 2000 by Harvard Business School Press. Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business School Press. Copyright © 2000 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College; All Rights Reserved.

The book is available from Harvard Business School Press directly, fine bookstores everywhere, and other sources such as Please also visit the Social Life of Information Home Page at

A public forum to discuss The Social Life of Information can be found at

Contents Index

Copyright © 2000, First Monday

"Acknowledgments," In: The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
First Monday, volume 5, number 4 (April 2000),