The Social Life of Information

[This post is a reading reflection written for UNL’s Digital Humanities Seminar. This week’s readings were John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s The Social Life of Information, Jean-Baptiste Michel et al.’s “Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books,” and Roy Rosenzweig’s “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era.”]

John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid attempt to inject realism into the often idealized study of new technology. Particularly striking is their assertion new technology can “learn from the old” (3). Too frequently we get swept up by the possibilities of new technology rather than thinking about what new technology will actually mean. Brown and Duguid’s best example of new learning from old was their examples of socializing new technologies. The authors point to Apple’s indoctrination of Mac users through donating their machines to schools (my school had Macs) and IBM and Microsoft’s benefits from corporate preference as modern examples. However, the authors remind the reader, Alexander Graham Bell first used this method to acclimate people to telephones by placing them in hotels (87-88).

Brown and Duguid argue that technology does not rely solely on itself but also the social life around it. Michel et al.’s project with the Google Ngram Viewer is perhaps the greatest example of this argument. The Ngram Viewer is the peak of ease of use, attractive design, and social power, through Google. By putting the tool into the hands of users across the world, text analysis, a rather traditional digital tool, became known to a wide variety of people.

Roy Rosenzweig’s piece also supports Brown and Duguid’s assertion that the old can inform the new. Though a transition to digital data means an abundance of some types of information, preservation of historical sources is still very much a pressing issue. The exact preservation issues may be different. Rosenzweig names the short lifespan of software and hardware as the most pressing issue for the preservation of materials for future generations.

Understanding that information and institutions do not exist on an island, as Brown and Duguid argue, is key for digital humanists. In order for the broader acceptance of the digital humanities, scholars skeptical of the digital medium must be shown how the social life of this new technology. When digital humanists showcase the promise of digital technology in a way that connects the technology to its background. For example, the Ngram Viewer and the milions of books which it surveys may seem daunting. However, its methods are intended to replicate the close readings that scholars have been practicing for centuries, just on a larger scale. Perhaps, when presented in this light, new technology in the humanities will not be greeted by the usual group of neo-luddites.

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