The Social Life of Information
First Monday


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

Chapter Three: Home Alone

Monday: Cannot access personal e-mail box from home using company's Internet access. Call company. Unbeknown to me or support services, I have been accessing my personal e-mail for four years through a leak in the company's firewall. Will no longer be able to access this e-mail account, where most of my mail accumulates, an e-mail message tells me, adding a smiley face for consolation. Suggests opening a third ISP [Internet Service Provider] in addition to company and remote site in order to dial locally and use remote mail address. (The alternative is to close the remote account and lose mail from people who still have that 10-year-old address or who continue to get it from records remaining on the Web, over which I have no control.)

Tuesday: After a little research, choose local Baby Bell as a cheap, reputable ISP from a large enough company with a large enough interest to do it well. Go to their Web site to download Internet access software. Download crashes my machine. Try again. Successful after two more crashes and an hour. Next, install software. Crash. Try again. Success. Reboot. New software starts automated registration process. Crashes. Reboot. Recrash. Have to remove ISP sign-up software to start machine successfully. Try to install once again. Same problems. Same crashes. Same process to remove. Call service center. Polite confession, download is "a little buggy." Recommended the more reliable CD kit. Will send. In all about 5 hours lost. CD takes 5 days to arrive. The provider's compelling slogan "How will you use it?" remains moot.

Monday (following week): Try to install Internet kit using CD-ROM. Invokes Crashguard (designed to prevent crashes) and brings everything to a halt. Remove Crashguard. Load Provider kit successfully. Start installation again. Crashes. Repeat. Repeats. Use a second computer to reach ISP's "Help me find a solution" Web site. Apparently if the version of Netscape already on your machine is newer than the one in Provider's kit, a Java bug may cause installation to fail. Discard my better version of Netscape. Run registration kit. Refuses to recognize modem. Contact provider. Apparently, if the modem is very new, the installation kit doesn't contain initialization information. My modem is two years old; the company that made it has long been taken over. About 4 hours lost.

Tuesday: Call ISP. Tell them I would prefer to do my own manual installation if they would let me have the necessary details. Service center discourages this, politely but firmly. I tell them the troubles I have had with their automation, tell them I believe I am competent to do a manual installation but cannot find details (phone numbers, TCP/IP numbers) on their Web site. The details are not there. They exist on an automated fax system. Obligingly, provider representative agrees to fax them. Sit, wait. Nothing happens. Call provider. Tell details to a new (equally polite) provider representative, who again tries to discourage me from going it alone, who again agrees to fax, but who acknowledges automated fax system can sometimes take a long time-even days, apparently. Kindly agrees (probably against rules) to copy the details into an e-mail message and send it to the one account I still have easy access to. Sends it. Insert details. Log on successfully. Open an account successfully. Try to log onto 'Net. Fails. All settings work for registration only. Must remove all settings, reinsert a new list to use for all other purposes. Finally, 9 days later, with the help of two computers, three e-mail accounts, phone, fax, and the best part of four days lost, I'm on the 'Net. It's just a click away.

Thursday: Automated fax with details for manual installation chugs slowly through my fax.

- Home Office Diary

Information, as the phrase has it, "wants to be free," and that freedom, it is widely hoped, will in turn make people free. In particular, many people hope that it will free them from the ties of the office and the firm. The era of "organization man" may be coming to an end, and a society of entrepreneurs emerging. There are certainly many reasons to hope for this and some to believe it might be possible.

The idea that the individualized technology of the information revolution will undo the massification produced by the technology of the industrial revolution underlies most such scenarios of disaggregation. Steam mills brought people together to work at single sites. They thus helped to drain the countryside of its inhabitants and concentrate the population in factory towns. Information technologies, many hope, might at least halt this two-century-long process. Supported by the 'Net, people can drift apart to hot desks, home offices, and telecenters. The drain from the countryside appears pluggable with technology.

Yearning to Breathe Free

Thus Microsoft, for example, emphasizes the value of its technologies to the survival of the small town (pop. 1,500) of Lusk, Wyoming. "The people of Lusk," Microsoft's Web site proclaims, "are using Microsoft software and technology as a means to preserve their way of life." [1] Others hope that this trek from country to city may not just stop, but reverse. In the view of some futurists, information technology will help rediscover gemeinschaft, the sort of small, local, community-based way of life broken down, according to some sociologists, by industrialization. Hence the quasi-rural talk of "televillages" and "electronic cottages." [2] Somewhere in here, then, is that familiar hope that the road to the future will somehow take us back to the simplicities of the past.

Yet other enthusiasts see no reason to stop at the village. The cyberguru and writer John Perry Barlow extols the nomadic life. He was a rancher in Wyoming, but now believes his laptop and cell phone, allowing him to work anywhere, free him from ties to place or community, making him an itinerant citizen of the global village of cyberspace (for which he issued a declaration of independence). [3]

In all of this, there is a mixture of hype and hope with some quite reasonable forecasting. The idea that technology can untie the unwanted ties that bind people together seems to have been around since those ties started to bind. The canal, the railway, the telephone, and rural electrification were all taken as signs of hope. With the Internet, that hope seems more reasonable. Now, people truly can reach colleagues, correspondence, conferences, customers, and so forth instantly and remotely.

Yet the slow pace of transformation to, for example, the home office suggests that some critical challenges are being glossed over and some important questions left unasked. Is it, for example, only "path dependency" (the legacy of history) and inertia that keep people together in conventional offices? Can innovation pick apart the uncomfortable social ties that bind, but leave the wanted ones intact? Can it undo the unprofitable ties, but leave the profitable ones? Are these two goals the same? And, to return to the question we raised in the last chapter, is the current approach to technology design leading in the right direction, or may it again be focusing too tightly on an idealized view of information and how it - and individuals - work?

Just a Click Away?

The home office may seem little more than a click away, but predictions have put it just over the horizon for some time now. In 1980, Alvin Toffler predicted that within our lifetime urban downtowns would "stand empty, reduced to use as ghostly warehouses or converted into living space." Yet a 1998 survey shows that the office vacancy rate dropped to single digits for the first time since 1981, despite office completions doubling in 1997. [4]

Another prediction claimed 66 percent of workers would work from home by the millennium. [5] Though reliable figures are hard to find, it would take a startling burst between now and 2000 to reach even 6 percent. And the greater part of the jobs would probably still be in farm work or child care. In the late 1980s, the pace was so timid that one disgruntled researcher (who had tried a home office and found how difficult it was) claimed, "if things go well for high-tech homeworking, we may get back to 1950s levels of self-employment some time in the 21st or 22d century." [6] Going forward to the past can be slow work.

The data on which such assessments are made, we need to stress, are highly ambiguous, and it is easy to make the proportions look much more favorable. Figures for home workers in the United States swing wildly from one million to 41 million, depending on how the category is defined. The low-end figure comes from government data (and includes 300,000 self-employed, the balance working at home but for someone else). [7] Higher figures (which usually come from people with something to sell) tend to bundle in anyone who takes any work (except their own housework) home, including, for example, teachers who take home papers to grade. [8]

Even the direction of trends can be hard to read. Some people trace a rise in home working in the early 1990s to the explosion of the Internet and related technologies. Others attribute it to the last major round of corporate downsizing. If the latter explanation is right, this trend may have gone into reverse with the "upsizing" of the late 1990s. What little valuable research there is shows that even for those who triumphantly set themselves free from the prison of the office, recidivism is quite high. One study of a telecenter found that 25 percent of the participants gave up within the first five months, and 50 percent within a year. [9]

Leaving Home

A couple of articles in Wired, emblematically in issues 2.07 and 7.02, illustrate such reverses. The first profiled a company restructuring its offices to accommodate the new wired future in 1994. [10] Five years later, in 1999, Wired reported on the same company's retreat to conventional offices. [11] The two stories both looked at "hot desking," the strategy of abandoning fixed desks and providing laptops, cell phones, and Internet connections so employees can work where they choose. Though some may have chosen to take their hot desk home, hot desking is clearly different from the canonical home office. But it provides some insight into the difficulties of getting out of the conventional office and offers some explanations of why some who return home to work leave home again before too long. [12]

First, many of the difficulties reflect a misunderstanding of office work, which is too easily painted as information handling. [13] This sort of redefinition drives Toffler's analysis. He built his argument for the "electronic cottage" on firms that had seen significant shifts from manual to managerial work. At one such firm, Toffler was told that "fully half of the 2,000 workers now handle information instead of things, and much of their work can be done at home." Others firms concluded, "fully 75 percent could work at home if we provided the necessary communications technology." [14] The idea of managers working remotely with information inevitably ignores the much more difficult, intangible, but inevitably face-to-face side of management, the management not of things or of information, but of people. [15]

Second, bold predictions about the spread of hot desking and electronic cottages may also ignore the frailty of technological systems. [16] The more cavalier futurists sometimes appear to work with a magical brand of computer not available to the rest of us. It's hard to believe that if they had to deal with the inexplicable crashes, data corruption, incompatibilities, buggy downloads, terrifying error messages, and power outages that are standard fare for most, they could remain quite so confident about the ease of hot desking and home working. As the home office diary we began this chapter with shows, simply downloading Internet software can lose many billable hours and cause nightmares. [17]

And third, by overlooking both the social aspects of work and the frailty of technology, design that attempts to replace conventional work systems may often merely displace the burdens of work. In the transition to home offices, these burdens pass from the social system, where tasks are shared, onto the lap of individuals. The desire to show that with a computer one person can do everything may look not forward, but back to the stage in social evolution before anyone noticed the advantages of the division of labor.

In all, to achieve the goals that technologists themselves set out, it will become increasingly important both to reconceive work and to retool design. In particular, design needs to attend not simply to the frailty of technological systems and the robustness of social systems, but to the ways in which social systems often play a key part in making even frail technology robust.

No Room of One's Own

The Wired hot desking stories that we mentioned earlier covered the famous attempt by the advertising company Chiat/Day to reconceive work in a new way and a new building. The first story followed the firm into its new offices. [18] The second, five years later, watched its retreat to a more conventional way of working. [19] The agency is well known for producing Apple advertisements, including the famous 1984 Superbowl ad, which portrayed Apple as champions of individualism, and the later "Think Different" campaign. The new offices of the early nineties (in Los Angeles and New York) suggested that Chiat/Day, too, could both champion individualism and think differently.

The exterior design of the Los Angeles building (by the architect Frank Gehry) expressed the forward-looking approach directly - it resembled a pair of binoculars. But inside, it was even more unconventional. Arrangements were based on the simple principle that no one should have a room of his or her own. Instead, if they came to the office, employees could check out a laptop and a cellular phone and then look for somewhere to sit. At the end of each day, they had to check these back in again-so there were no tools of one's own, either. In a curious way, then, Chiat/Day managed to be individualistic and collectivist at the same time.

Not only did people not have offices, they also were not supposed to sit in the same place on consecutive days. Jay Chiat, the CEO, occasionally walked the floors asking people if they had been where they were sitting on the day before and, if they had, would move them on. Anything not stored in digital form on the company's servers via the laptops - retrograde stuff like books, papers, and files - had to be put away in hall lockers at the end of each day and taken out again in the morning. There were meeting rooms for formal meetings, but all other deskwork and communication was to be done digitally.

Cooling Off

With hot desking, Chiat/Day sought to keep people on the creative edge of the business. All reports suggest that it primarily just kept them on edge. Chaos rather than dynamism was the most noted result. But for observers, the Chiat/Day experiment (which the company's new owners abandoned) exposes to view some of the underlying needs of people working together that the infocentric view too easily overlooks. [20]

First, it made some simple material needs clear. Desks are useful things and provide more than a surface to balance a laptop on. Moreover files, documents, and even those wobbly stacks people build on their desks often have a useful sequential order in their disorder (which is why tidying can be so disruptive). Similarly, people customize phones and laptops to fit personal ways of working. Having to rebuild your conventional or your digital desktop every morning is a highly disruptive chore that ignores the needs of work and the nature of technology.

Second, the experiment also showed that, constraining though they sometimes are, offices keep people together for good reasons as well as bad. Good office design can produce powerful learning environments. But much of that power comes from incidental learning. For example, people often find what they need to know by virtue of where they sit and who they see rather than by direct communication. At Chiat/Day people were spread around roughly in the order in which they arrived. People who worked together didn't necessarily sit together or see each other. (Chiat/Day account managers reported coming back from client meetings and being unable to find their department.) With such lottery seating, incidental learning is much harder to come by. As a result, the need for more cumbersome formal learning and informing processes increases.

Third, the Chiat/Day experiment also showed that, despite the power of technologies, robust work patterns are hard to disrupt. To get things done, people rebelled. They filled their lockers and the trunks of their cars with the files they needed. They refused to turn in their laptops and telephones. And they used various strategies to build "virtual" departments. Here, being virtual was not an aspect of the digital realm. These were physical areas of the office that people tried to occupy collectively so that they could re-create the useful connections of conventional departments.

Finally, accounts of this office-based civil disobedience throw an interesting light on other social implications of office design. One metaphor for the Chiat/Day office was the campus. Students on a college campus don't have offices, the masterplan argued. They move from classrooms, to libraries, to lounges. The same model was expected to work for the office. As some employees pointed out, however, at Chiat/Day the result was more like high school. In particular, the redesign appears to have unleashed the office equivalent of high school bullying. The daily unsettled space created daily turf wars. Departments tried to pull rank on each other, each claiming favored areas because it was "more important." Account executives and creative departments went to battle over pecking order. People with sufficient authority and power pulled rank on those without, seniors shooing juniors away from comfortable spots. Executives with assistants would order the latter in early to hold a place for their boss. And so on.

Petty though this might seem, the turf wars remind us that offices involve much more than the simple flow of information. Office space is not neutral ground. Everyone who works in one knows that, for better and for worse, offices are dense with highly charged social relations. Power, tension, authority, and insecurity are all closely interwoven. They can help get work done, and they can hinder it. The troubles at Chiat/Day indicate how the structure of the conventional office, while it may pander to petty fiefdoms and yearnings for a window or a corner office, helps keep social tensions and turf war in check. Any one settlement may appear less than optimal, but it may nonetheless be better than no settlement at all.

Breaking up such a settlement has different consequences, depending on where you stand (or sit) in an organization. The urge for radical reorganization, such as tearing the walls down and throwing away all badges of rank, generally comes from the top. But it is usually those in less secure positions who bear the adverse consequences. Bosses lose little else when they lose their space. Their status is usually still quite evident. Others lower in the pecking order, where authority and control are far more tenuous, may find they lose a good deal more. Middle management, one of the most insecure points in any organization, may find managing increasingly difficult.

Undoubtedly, making people justify their position and authority, challenging old alliances and divisions, and generally trying to transform office culture by transforming its infrastructure can be a good way to destroy inertia and drive new thinking. Breaking from a structured office to hot desking, however, suggests that the only two alternatives are closed stables or a stampede. Between these two lie more subtle uses of office space that can enhance working conditions, build channels of coordination and communication, and improve the quality of work done.

Indeed, while Chiat/Day has taken many of the headlines, both euphoric and damning, elsewhere modern office design has proceeded along much more interesting lines. Plans more closely relate physical structure and social structure, revealing the pecking order without either reinforcing it or concealing it behind a faux egalitarianism. External models have been internalized, so that the floor plans of some offices now resemble town plans with streets, squares, parks, and locales. While the accolade "community" is often used to make the most tawdry design seem respectable, this "community-based planning" at its best can both reflect and magnify the social resources for getting work done. [21] Forward-looking companies are finding that designing a new company and designing its offices are intricately related processes, with each feeding off and into the other. Such designs are expected to be dynamic as well, with businesses looking for designs that do not lock the company into a single model of work but can grow with the company. [22]

At their best, such design reflects the social character of work - the way in which people act as resources for one another, rather than just as one another's information provider. Given the nature of this resourcefulness, severing the ties that bind people together in work may be as damaging as binding them together more tightly. Finding the balancing point between the mix of centrifugal and centripetal forces needs to be the goal. It is admittedly a challenging one, which may involve alternative or even shifting points of equilibrium.

Maintaining Balance

Information technology undoubtedly must play an increasingly important part in this balancing act. Yet none but an evangelist could claim that technology will find the balance point automatically. Introducing new technologies and overestimating what they could do played a role in the imbalance felt at Chiat/Day, as it has elsewhere.

More generally, new technology often threatens not to help find a new equilibrium but rather to unsettle equilibria whenever they are found. The rapid innovation endemic to the technology can be destabilizing, even for large organizations with copious resources. In well-supported offices, users often look to the next upgrade with much the same relish with which they greet the annual visit of the winter flu. They know it will precipitate crises and shortages, increase the burdens of those still up and running, and take weeks for the headaches to pass. They also know that just about the time that things return to balance, another disruptive strain will come through. Where there aren't technicians to manage the transformation or peers to share the burdens with, the weight of continuous product innovation can be unsupportable. [23]

The instability that rapidly changing technology brings, however, often lies less in the technology itself than in enthusiastic expectations that everything being "just a click away" or "at your fingertips" will make life easy. Battered by such hype, it's easy to believe that everyone except you knows how to use this stuff without a problem.

We saw this pressure at work on a new employee at Xerox PARC. She was intelligent and hard working, but got mired in difficulties with the office computer system. That system came with the usual promises of "usability" and self-explanatoriness, but she found it impossible to use or understand. Being a newcomer, she was reluctant to keep asking for help. Suffering in silence, it seemed daily more likely that she would have a breakdown if she didn't quit.

Then chance moved her desk from an isolated office into the center of a group of offices. There she immediately benefited from the incidental learning that we mentioned earlier. She saw that these "stable" machines crashed for everyone. She saw that there was no more "ease" for experienced assistants, long-time employees, or PARC's hallowed computer scientists than for her. And she also saw that when a machine did crash, its user would without shame look around for help from someone else who, whatever their status, had successfully steered around that particular problem. No one person knew how to handle these temperamental machines. But spread around the office was enough collective knowledge to keep them up and running.

Office help systems, this story indicates, are not limited to manuals, vendor Web sites, IT departments, or on-line files. The office social system plays a major part in keeping tools (and people) up and running. The "geek" who understands the network, the secretary who knows the secrets of Word, the one colleague proficient with databases, the other who has learned Java in her spare time, and the one who knows how to nurse the server all contribute.

Most systems, amalgams of software and hardware from different vendors, rely on social amalgams of this sort to keep everything running. (One of the first people mentioned on the Microsoft Web page about Lusk, the Wyoming town, is a teenager who "doesn't mind sharing his expertise.") In this way, the facts of office life reveal a combination of technological frailty and social resourcefulness. Infoenthusiasts, however, tend to think of these the other way around, missing the role of the social fabric and assuming that individuals in isolation can do it all.

Paul Strassmann, former vice president of Xerox's Information Products Group and onetime chief information technologist for the Department of Defense, argues that most businesses that are well endowed with computer technology lose about $5,000 a year per workstation on "stealth spending." Of this, he argues, "22% [is] for peer support and 30% for the 'futz factor.'" The second includes "time users spend in a befuddled state while clearing up unexplained happenings [and] overcoming the confusion and panic when computers produce enigmatic messages that stop work." [24]

Home office workers usually lack this sort of cash. More significantly, they lack necessary peer support. Consequently, with current technology, money-losing futzing, late at night and early in the morning, is endemic to the home office. Lacking the boundaries and structures provided by office life, work spills relentlessly over into private and family life.

Invisible Hands

Within organizations, this stealth spending is readily hidden from those at the top. Unfortunately, so is the need for such spending. Life at Xerox brought us face to face with this issue, too, this time over the matter of copier design. Xerox has long made usability a critical issue for the design and marketing of its photocopiers. With one series of copiers, however, reports came back from the field saying that machines were proving unmanageable for most people. Management disregarded these reports, however, because when they used the copiers, they found them thoroughly usable.

Only in time did it become clear why. The most common encounters between senior management and copiers came when new machines were presented for their inspection. Inevitably, in such encounters, the managers were surrounded by people whose jobs depended on all going well. Consequently, as managers experimented, the right finger was edged toward the right button at the right time, in a thousand barely perceptible ways. What everyone took to be a successful encounter between an individual, instructions, and the copier was actually an encounter made successful by an informal and almost invisible social network working hard to prevent the embarrassment of failure for all.

Like the story of the Xerox assistant, once again we see that the office help system is significantly a social system. It is also something that home office workers don't have. But instead of trying to overcome this deficit, futurists and technologists instead lead people to believe that they don't need to rely on social systems and would be better without them. "Put a computer in people's homes," Toffler insists, "and they no longer need to huddle," [25] as if huddling were always a waste. But it isn't. It's often a way of getting things done through collaboration. At home with frail and fickle technologies and unlimited configurations, people paradoxically may need to huddle even more, but can't. After all, as Craig Mundie, a senior vice president at Microsoft acknowledges "there's no IT manager in the home" - though much of the technology seems to require one. [26] These cumulative problems may lead to the curious paradox that information technology, by ignoring the role played invisibly by the social system, is keeping people out of the home and in the conventional office, and not the other way around.

Concentrated Effort

In a home office the only IT manager is the person who wants to spend time working with the tools, not on them. When tools fail, home workers have to provide their own variety of the peer support Strassmann mentions. All problems and all futzing, shared elsewhere, fall into the lap of the idealized, individualized entrepreneur. Nor is this concentration limited to malfunctions. In attempting to replace outmoded ways of doing things, new technologies also displace work tasks that were once successfully shared across a group. These are now concentrated on an individual.

Desktop publishing, for example, tries to put in a box on the desktop all the tools that previously were distributed among authors, editors, copy editors, proofreaders, designers, typesetters, and printers, each with their own embodied, inarticulate skill and judgment built out of experience. On the one hand, concentrating tools like this produces enormous benefits. An individual gains, at least potentially, tremendous freedom and control. On the other, that individual now lacks the experience and support that was distributed among those different roles. Inevitably, much of this sort of concentration takes place on the assumption that the task involved, typesetting for example, is purely "mechanical" so the experience is of no interest once the mechanisms change.

The purely mechanical is rarely so pure. There's a story told of a typesetter working on a Greek text at the Oxford University Press who announced he'd found a mistake in the text. As the typesetter couldn't read Greek, his colleagues and then his superiors dismissed his claim. But the man insisted. So finally an editor came down to the compositing room. At first, she, too, dismissed the idea, but checking more closely, she found there was an error. Asked how he knew, the typesetter said he had been hand picking letters for Greek texts for most of his professional life and was sure that he'd never made the physical move to pick the two letters in that order before.

The story may well be apocryphal, but it does illustrate the diverse sorts of knowledge, including the "embodied" knowledge, which people in different roles possess. (And may account for the absence of cogent editing or design in many modern books.) Putting this all on the desktop, while supporting the individual in some ways, ignores the support and knowledge latent in systems that distribute work. The apparent "ease" offered by these technologies hides much of the extra work they involve. So teachers are encouraged to "put their materials up on the Web," as if that task too were merely a click away. Anyone who tries will quickly find how demanding making and maintaining a worthwhile Web page can be.

The displacement and concentration provided by digital technology may be a legacy of its design. The legend of the 'Net, after all, is littered with stories of people "hacking" around the clock, oblivious to time or sleep. It's still a young person's medium, calling for intense concentration and few distractions. [27] Andrew Odlyzko, a mathematician at AT&T who has pioneered studies of Internet design and behavior, argues that most systems development serves the interests of such dedicated users. In so doing, it ignores the demands such development places on ordinary users. In consequence, there has been, he argues, a "migration of administrative and maintenance duties" toward the edges of the system - to the individual user, who is the person least equipped to deal with these problems. When that person is isolated in the home office, the migrants all beat a path to a single door. [28]

Something for Next to Nothing?

For the home office, one of the most significant things displaced to the margin is cost. We all know that the cost of hardware is dropping precipitously. The $500 computer with Internet access already looks expensive. It's easy, then, to imagine setting up a home office for a few thousand dollars. But infoenthusiasts, who tend to underestimate many challenges, often underestimate costs, too. Odlyzko estimates that capital costs are only about 20 percent of total costs for a networked environment; as Strassmann argues, many of the true costs are often hidden "stealth" fashion, in budgets.

Even without the stealth portion, costs are high for both conventional and unconventional offices. Figures for the 1990s show Microsoft spending $16,000 per annum for each of its workstations on maintenance and upgrading. [29] (Given these expenses and the difficulties, it's not surprising to read that some companies are "downgrading and 'de-automating'; Chrysler Financial Corp. and Pacific Gas & Electric, among others, search for perfect blend of manpower and technology.") [30] These figures are not that different from those provided by the California advertising agency CKS (now USWeb/CKS). It had about one quarter of its employees working at home, but estimated that new technologies there cost the firm between $10,000 and $15,000 per employee per year - though employees were still paying half the costs of the hardware. [31]

Not only are these costs hard for a small office to bear. It's hard, too, to bear the hype which claims that a principal advantage of the home office is that it's cheaper. "The reason why companies are going towards telecommunications is simple," one advertisement argues: "They save millions." They usually do not. Indeed, some people have claimed that many of Chiat/Day's problems followed from its unwillingness (or inability) to meet the true costs, visible and invisible, of hot desking.

Trying to transform the way work is done and simultaneously save money is usually a mistake, even when moving from cost-laden atoms to near-free bits. The demands of turning work that has been well supported by the local social system into work produced without most or any of that system requires a commitment to transformation, not a commitment to cost cutting. For when costs are not met up front in the home office, they are deducted, stealth fashion, from the unbudgeted and unbillable time of the home worker.

Paradox Lost

Frailty, displacement, and cost, then, are significant and continuously underestimated factors in the evolution of work. Consequently it's no surprise that the introduction of computers has caused widespread economic disruption not only locally, but nationally, limiting growth in productivity. While multifactor productivity (which takes labor and capital into account) produced a growth rate of 2.5 percent from 1948 to 1973, it produced a rate of growth of 0.7 percent from 1973 to 1990. The numbers may seem abstract, but their significance can be directly grasped from average earnings. Had growth continued at the 1948 to 1973 rate, U.S. average income in 1994 would have been $47,600. It was, in fact, $35,300. [32] Economists refer to this surprising decline in productivity growth despite massive investment in computers as the "productivity paradox."

Paul David, an economist at Stanford University, has argued, however, that the paradoxical slowdown was not such a paradox at all. Looking to the past, he points out that a slump in productivity followed the appearance of industrial-strength dynamos in the 1880s. Economically beneficial effects of the dynamo, David shows, did not appear in productivity data for another three decades. Over those decades, industry underwent a major retooling as the old, heavily centralized, steam-driven processes gave way to methods that took advantage of dispersed, localized electrical power. A similar process has been underway with the computer, David suggests. It has taken time for society to transform the "mature, ossified, Fordist regime of mass production" to the new regime of digital tools and demassification. [33]

Productivity remained stagnant for almost a decade after David first made this argument. But recent productivity figures lend support to his case. Manufacturing productivity has been especially high, and for the economy as a whole, the figures for 1995 to 1998 show a return to about 2 percent growth. Those for 1999 may approach 4 percent, a much more impressive rate, though still some distance from the sustained boom of the 1950s. [34]

In less careful hands, however, the thesis about a lag can be quite misleading. It's easy to find people claiming that society falls behind while technology streaks ahead. Writing during the period that David studied, the early technological futurist H.G. Wells (who admired the dynamos at Niagara Falls more than the falls themselves), for example, already claimed to see society falling behind electrical technology. [35] It's harder, by comparison, to find explanations for how society catches up. Yet catch up it must, if only to be in a position to lag again in subsequent technological waves, as, for example, the computer scientist Douglas Englebart, the inventor of the mouse, argues it is in danger of doing today:

Real social danger today is that the technology is erupting and moving so much faster than it ever ever ever has in all of our historical experience. ... [It's] time to start adapting society to this revolution in the technology. There's a lot of potential dangers ahead if we don't adapt it successfully. [36]

The business writers Downes and Mui turn this sort of argument into their "Law of Disruption," which holds that "[s]ocial, political, and economic systems change incrementally, but technology changes exponentially." [37]

The implications of this formulation depend heavily on what sort of increments and adaptation society is capable of. If society cannot make occasional, huge leaps and transformations, it will forever lag technology. On the other hand, David's argument would suggest that society did adjust. If so, we would expect to see signs of major social transformation and disruption in periods of catch-up. Yet, if we set aside the appearance of the Soviet Union and the defeat of the Axis powers as not germane, it is hard to see a major social transformation in the industrial countries between 1890 and 1920 or (setting aside the collapse of the Soviet Union, this time) in the 1980s. Change, yes; progress, yes; but not the sort of leap that would be necessary to keep pace with "exponential" growth. [38]

It may be, instead, that thinking this way about technology and society is backward. It's a wrong way, moreover, that can have serious consequences. To accuse society of lagging lets technology and design off the hook too easily. It implies, in the end, that you can tear down walls, issue laptops and cell phones, or send people home with industrial-strength technology and then blame them if they don't adjust.

Our argument, in the course of this chapter, by contrast, is that technology design has not taken adequate account of work and its demands but instead has aimed at an idealized image of individuals and information. We would argue, then, that the predictions about demassification and the home office inherent in this idealized view cannot come about until not society, but design adjusts. (At which point, the idealized view will have to adjust a little, too.)

Again, parallels with the development of electricity are worth noting. For example, the 1920s and 1930s, particularly with the development of rural electrification, also produced familiar-sounding claims that, with this new technology, work and workers would move from the cities to the countryside once they adjusted. [39] Seventy years later, cities are still growing and rural communities still shrinking.

Furthermore, a long view of the dynamo would start not with the first generating plants, as David does, but with the first dynamo. Michael Faraday invented this in 1831. Initially, it was too frail and too expensive for much practical use. For some forty years, its principal use was to drive the telegraph. Only by 1890 was it "tamed," in the words of the economic historian Joel Mokyr. Then electric motors and dynamos had become robust enough to make adjusting to factories and cities worthwhile. [40] (This is roughly the point at which David takes up his story.) Inevitably, that adjustment took time and proceeded in a series of feedback loops along with developments in the technology. But this was a matter not of society "catching up" with technology, but of society adjusting technology to its needs.

The computer would seem to follow a similar trajectory. Whenever we start its process of development (some would go back to Charles Babbage, a contemporary of Faraday's; others to the adding and calculating machines of the turn of the century), there follows a long period in which it also is both too expensive and too frail for widespread social adoption. Gradually, it has become more robust, cheaper, and more useful. Only in the past few years has it begun to be "tamed" for general use. For the home office, there is still some house training to do. [41]

Socializing Technology

While we don't want to let design off the hook, we must also say as forcefully as possible that good design is very hard to do. It is easy and understandable to make fun of bad technologies. It is not easy to make good ones. Given the difficulties of design, however, it is important not to misrepresent the task it faces. Too often, information technology design is poor because problems have been redefined in ways that ignore the social resources that are an integral part of this socialization process. By contrast, successful design usually draws on these social resources, even while helping them change. [42]

One way to engage such resources is to help build them, engendering a sufficient number of competent users that they can start to help each other. Apple, for example, liberally provided computers for schools. This built a loyal user base and positioned the computer in a social system that provided both formal and informal help for struggling users. IBM and Microsoft, by contrast, benefited from the corporate preference for IBM's machines. The necessary informal resources then developed within the formal workplace.

It's much harder to go into the home, a more isolated social setting. So it's also hard to be as confident as Sun Microsystems in its prediction that using Java to connect household appliances will make them easier to use. People still have difficulties with much simpler appliances like the VCR. They continue to confess (or maybe boast) that they cannot record or set the clock. Were there a social context for VCR recording (as there is for watching), the problem would probably disappear (see chapter 5).

Yet it is possible to socialize domestic appliances. Consider Alexander Graham Bell's strategy for introducing the telephone, which drew both on the office and on other situations for social resources. By 1878, Bell's English shareholders were becoming impatient with the slow development of this new technology that no one could really understand. The well-entrenched telegraph with its reach and increasingly sophisticated switching seemed far ahead of what appeared to be an interesting but limited point-to-point gadget. [43] Both Western Union in the States and the post office in Britain had refused the offer to buy the patents, though Bell's partners had been willing to all but give these away.

To a great extent, the experts put their faith in the telegraph because the telegraph was in the hands of the experts. It needed operators to encode messages at one end and to decode messages at the other end. And it worked through august organizations - Western Union and the General Post Office - that lent significant weight to the system. It was generally felt that only organizations like these could introduce the telephone to society. When they proved unwilling, the venture looked increasingly unlikely.

Bell, however, invited the shareholders to put their faith not in sophistication and organizational expertise, but in popular use. The company needed, Bell argued, to abandon specialists and specialist training and put phones in people's hands. In the right circumstances, the practicality of the device would do the rest. So he crafted the circumstances. Early on, he put telephones in hotel rooms and encouraged guests to use them in the familiar task of talking to the front desk. In engaging a regular practice, he subtly taught people the use and the ease of use of his new device. He also promoted their use for office intercoms, drawing in the resources of the office while nonetheless helping it to change. Later, to pursue new users unlikely to stay in hotels or use office intercoms, the company developed a new strategy. It put phones near lunch counters. That way, it reasoned, people who didn't know how to use them would be likely to see people who did know how and in this way learn about the phone system. [44]

As new technologies cascade into society, Bell's approach strikes us as illuminating. Though the telephone was a transforming technology, Bell nonetheless worked with the social context of his day, not against it or in isolation from it. In the collective understanding of groups, Bell found the resources for individuals. Similarly, e-mail and collaborative games have had profound socializing effects on some fairly antisocial technologies.

Paradoxically perhaps, such social resources are nowhere more important than in the home, because there they are fewest. In such isolation, the limitations of usability, self-explanatoriness, and ease and the gap between promise and performance are most cruelly exposed. People need to reach out from the home to find social resources.

Already, it has become law that the way to learn to use a home computer is to get a kid. Senior citizens are also proving adept at learning to use computers and are currently the second-fastest-growing group of customers (after kids) for computer manufacturers. Both, we should note, tend to have available the time that such learning can call for (showing that the technology is not yet quite ready for "plug and play" and that users still cut producers more slack than the latter deserve). And both tend to be fairly well tied into peer groups, who provide support. Each of these groups, young and old, is well positioned to help those in between.

These examples continue to suggest that, in order for people to be able to work alone, technology may have to reinforce their access to social networks. The home worker, from this perspective, resembles not the frontier pioneer, striking out alone and renouncing society, but more a deep-sea diver. The deeper a diver works alone beneath the ocean, the more sturdy the connections to the surface have to be.

About the Authors

John Seely Brown is Chief Scientist at Xerox Corporation and Director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).
e-mail: John@SLofI.com

Paul Duguid is a research specialist in Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of California at Berkeley.
e-mail: paul@SLofI.com

Notes

1. http://www.microsoft.com/QUESTIONS/who_motivates_us/Lusk_text.htm, retrieved 21 July 1999.

2. Toffler, 1980, p. 221. For gemeinschaft, see Tonnies, 1963. Some of the predictions of the new pastoral life recall the enthusiasm for "garden cities" at the turn of the century, and some the gap between promise and reality that Dickens's (1968) Martin Chuzzlewit found on the new frontier.

3. See Barlow, n.d.

4. See http://www.uli.org/pubs/LUD/landus27.htm, retrieved 17 May 1999, reporting a survey of office vacancy by CB Commercial/Torto Wheaton Research.

5. Lyon, 1988.

6. Forester, 1988, p. 229.

7. Edwards and Field-Hendry, 1996.

8. The often-repeated 41 million figure appears to come from a Pacific Bell survey. Telecommunications companies inevitably have a strong interest in promoting telecommuting.

9. See Varma et al., 1998.

10. Dix, 1994.

11. Berger, 1999.

12. Council on Environmental Quality, 1993, chapter 7.

13. See our discussion of this in chapter 1.

14. Toffler, 1980, pp. 212-13.

15. In fairness to Toffler, we should note that he claims that "social forces" are behind moves toward the electronic cottage. Yet, what he offers as examples of social forces are employees who "hate" their office, accumulate "frustration," and are "willing" to work at home. These forces are undoubtedly important, but they are individual and psychological rather than social.

16. On the release of Macintosh's system 8.5 software, newspapers quoted an Apple employee saying triumphantly, "And my machine hasn't even crashed yet." The exclamation nonetheless suggests how fragile the technology still is. (We wish, by the way, that we could say the same.)

17. In this case, an effortless installation required two computers, two ISPs, two phone lines, a fax, and significant Internet experience to get the job done. Both that technology and experience are often beyond someone trying to set up a small business. Six months later the diarist decided to change to another ISP with worldwide access numbers. While the ISP's own software was again buggy, attempts to override it were met with the response from the ISP that "if you don't use our software, we will not provide technical support for your problems."

18. Dix, 1994.

19. Berger, 1999.

20. Anderton, 1998.

21. Despina Katsikakis, quoted in Anderton, 1998.

22. Brand, 1994.

23. At the time it was introduced, some feared that the installation of Windows 95 might contribute to a slowdown in national productivity in the United States (Fried, 1995).

24. Strassmann, 1997, p. 77.

25. Toffler, 1980, p. 215.

26. Mundie, quoted in Wired, volume 6, number 12 (December 1998), p. 202.

27. The family is often one of the missing "distractions" in young people's lives. Talk about the home office often overlooks how hard it can be to work at home with young people in the house.

28. Odlyzko, 1998. The word migration is often used to describe the process whereby content moves from outdated software to a current version. It may thus conjure up the image of people with neatly packed trunks waiting on the wharf for an ocean liner to take them to a promised land. The reality of technological migration, however, often appears more like the flight of refugees grabbing what little they can while escaping marauding invaders.

29. Berger, 1999.

30. Wall Street Journal, 30 April 1998.

31. Jaroff and Ratan, 1995.

32. Harris, 1994, p. 2.

33. David, 1990.

34. Louis Uchitelle, "Productivity Set Fast Pace in Late 1998," New York Times (10 February 1999), section C, p. 1. Strassmann (1999) argues that the recent boom in productivity can be attributed almost entirely to interest rates.

35. Wells, 1902. The comments about Niagara Falls appear in Wells, 1986.

36. Engelbart, interviewed on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, 11 December 1998.

37. Downes and Mui, 1998, p. 29.

38. This argument offers another case of separating a logic of information from the logic of humanity (see chapter 1). It's hard to know who measures the "exponential" progress of technology if not humanity-unless technology is allowed to set its own standards.

39. Carey, 1989.

40. Mokyr, 1990.

41. These developments of electricity and computers show on a large scale something of the perennially difficult process from invention to innovation, during which technologies are socialized, grand ideas trimmed, and practical uses developed. The Internet has taken more than twenty years to socialize, and it too has a way to go. We take up the topic of innovation in chapter 6. These problems don't bedevil "high" technologies only. According to Prospect, a British magazine, a study by the British Department of Trade and Industry found that the time from invention to application of the ballpoint pen was fifty-eight years, the zipper thirty-two (Prospect, 5 January 1999, p. 5).

42. Occasionally the lack of social resources in the home may be recognized but not well understood. As we note in chapter 4, British Telecom tried to overcome the isolation of its home-working operators by piping the sound of background chatter into their home offices (Walsh and Bayma, 1995).

43. In his experiments that produced the telephone, Bell had actually been trying to advance the cause of the telegraph. It was almost by chance that he discovered an alternative use.

44. Pool et al., 1977; Kraut, 1994.

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Context

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 Amazon.com. Please also visit the Social Life of Information Home Page at http://www.slofi.com/

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Contents Index

Copyright © 2000, First Monday

"Chapter Three: Home Alone," In: The Social Life of Information by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid
First Monday, volume 5, number 4 (April 2000),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue5_4/brown_chapter3.html





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