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Society, and the Future:
Interview from IBTE Ethix with David W. Gill
19 Sept-Oct 2001 rev: 8 Aug 01
Seely Brown divides his time between being the Chief Scientist of
Xerox Corporation and the Chief Innovation Officer of 12 Entrepreneuring,
a recently formed entrepreneurial operating company headquartered
in San Francisco. From 1990 to 2000, he was Director of the Xerox
Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). There, he expanded the role of corporate
research to include such topics as organizational learning, sociological
studies of the workplace, complex adaptive systems, and micro electrical
mechanical system (MEMS).
personal research interests include digital culture, ubiquitous computing,
design, and organizational and individual learning. His views are
distinguished by a broad view of the human contexts in which technologies
operate and a healthy skepticism about whether or not change always
represents genuine progress.
a member of the National Academy of Education, a Fellow of the American
Association for Artificial Intelligence and a trustee of the MacArthur
Foundation. He also serves on numerous boards. He has published over
100 papers in scientific journals and was awarded the Harvard
Business Review’s 1991 McKinsey Award for his article,
“Research that Reinvents the Corporation.” In 1997, he
published the book, Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation
by Harvard Business Review Books. He was an executive producer for
the award winning film, “Art · Lunch · Internet
· Dinner,” which won a bronze medal at Worldfest 1994,
the Charleston International Film Festival. He received the 1998 Industrial
Research Institute Medal for outstanding accomplishments in technological
innovation and the 1999 Holland Award in recognition of the best paper
published in Research Technology Management. With Paul Duguid, he
co-authored The Social Life of Information (HBS Press, 2000).
a graduate of Brown University (BA, mathematics and physics) and the
University of Michigan (PhD, computer and communication sciences),
and has been awarded honorary doctorates by both Brown University
and the London Business School. He is an avid reader, traveler, and
recent book, The Social Life of Information, injects
some realism into today’s discussions of technologically-transformed
futures. How have people reacted?
when I am speaking on topics like nanotechnology, people invariably
ask about the book. That’s what they really want to hear
about. People see me as a high tech type so when I say things
about the softer side, the social dynamics of the work place,
and so on, it gets heard slightly differently than if an anthropologist
were to say it. Much of the modern world discounts these matters
but at a subconscious level we all seem to know that they are
Albert M. Erisman:
a recent conference for technology officers I attended, the evening
panel discussion on the future of technology mutated into a discussion
of the social impact of technology. Rather than predictions about
technology the major concerns were about how people will be affected.
I was being recruited to Xerox PARC in the mid-70s I remember
saying that technologists will be able to build virtually anything
in the future. Our constraints will not be determined by what
technologists can build but rather by what people can successfully
understand, appropriate, and comfortably use in their lives.
have been right in the middle of the high-tech revolution. How
is it that you have managed to step back and see some of its weaknesses
in a broader perspective?
Xerox PARC, we hired anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers,
ethicists, and artists, along with the mathematicians, physicists,
and computer scientists. We created the tremendous disciplinary
breadth of a university but all located in one relatively small
building, a compact physical, social and intellectual space.
But why did you do that? What motivated you?
Since I first came to Xerox PARC I have been interested in radical
innovation But for really radical innovations, where do you
look? I suspected that a lot of the action would be in the white
space between disciplines. Corporate research centers generally
lack suitable breadth for this because they concentrate on pure
technology. Conversely, universities have many disciplines,
but each works in an isolated silo.
radical innovation changes social practices. So you have to
understand what social practices are, and how society accepts
and rejects changes to its practices. We are in a co-evolutionary
game where technology influences society, and society influences
technology. Once we break out of simplistic (or sophisticated)
views of technological determinism, we find that we must understand
better how individuals, organizations, and societies appropriate
also had the good fortune of meeting Paul Duguid, a historian
of 17th and 18th century Portuguese commerce. Our two intellectual
worlds are quite different but we have developed a great respect
for each other and have built a productive long-term collaboration.
We both believe that theory should emerge from practice. Paul
brought the practices of the historian and I brought the practices
of both the technologist and of someone who has run a complex
organization. So, through this collaboration I have had a chance
to marinate in the richness of real technical and institutional
issues but from the purchase of social theory.
You mentioned the synergistic way that technology impacts society
and society impacts technology. Isn’t a business a microcosm
of society? What advice would you have for a business trying to
use technology effectively? Xerox, Boeing, GM and many others
have had problems taking ideas from the lab and actually getting
them into the business.
First, it is very easy to see why something won’t work.
So it’s very easy to kill something. But it’s hard
to step back and question whether the basic assumptions that
show it won’t work are any longer relevant. Very few of
us are able to question our own understanding this way. But
as we move from managing in an era of continuity to an era of
discontinuity, executives that can challenge background assumptions
will really thrive.
organizational unlearning is much more difficult than organizational
learning. Part of that has to do with the fact that so many
of our practices are distributed across the enterprise and are
embedded in the tacit fabric of the organization. Most of us
are completely unaware of this level even with regard to our
own individual work. This is why so much of the business process
reengineering didn’t work out. We are unaware of how real
work really gets done — as opposed to what the formal
descriptions of work processes describe.
is, paradoxically, both sticky and leaky. Knowledge flows on
the rails of shared practice. Within a community practice it
flows seamlessly. Through joint work, shared practices evolve,
enabling us to share tacit knowledge and to trust each other.
This is not some squishy kind of trust but a very fine grained
understanding of “what John really does know.” When
he says “I’ve got this instrument calibrated”
I feel confident to act on that belief.
consider two different communities of practice. When I call
the engineering community at Rochester from the research lab
at PARC and say we’ve invented this great new technology
that is really robust, they say well maybe but “tell me,
John, what was the last product you delivered?” I say,
“… I’ve never delivered a product.”
“Well, what is the last manufacturing plant you ran?”
“Never ran a manufacturing plant.” “Well,
tell me about your quality assurance methodology.” “Well,
in research we don’t have a quality assurance methodology
but we have lots of data that we have analyzed.” You can
imagine what he thinks — “why should I trust a researcher’s
judgment that this new technology is robust?”
come from two different communities. Knowledge flows well in
mine and knowledge flows well in his but it sticks as it tries
to jump from my community of practice into his. We need help
at the boundaries, knowledge brokers to help bring mutual understanding.
Constructing boundary objects and bridges between communities
of practice can start to create shared trust for what we mean
at a particular moment in time around a particular point. It
is a kind of negotiation, bringing two practices together, constructing
a set of shared assumptions between our two sets of practices.
But the bridge-building process somehow has to rise above an individual
technology and an individual practice because both the technology
and the business practice will be changing in a year.
kind of social negotiation in practice is always ongoing and in
a state of flux. Done right, it leads to continuous and productive
Is it a knowledge management fallacy to think that we can capture,
store, and later reuse some particular knowledge without paying
attention to the assumptions (that are not necessarily explicit)
and without acknowledging that the world is changing?
Knowledge management doesn’t understand very well why
knowledge sticks and why it flows. We can store information
in machines but this is not really storing knowledge. We can
store some of the artifacts that knowledge has produced and
we can build linkages between people who can reconstruct the
knowledge but a simplistic notion of knowledge storage and retrieval
doesn’t work. Knowledge lives in people.
real challenge is to accelerate the ability to dynamically construct
shared frames between communities that will allow knowledge
to flow more readily. It is not a formulaic game. Am I willing
to listen deeply not just to what is said but to what is unsaid?
Great negotiators, remember, spend more time listening to what
is not said.
How do you make the case for such patient listening in a business
and technology environment that likes to challenge us to get up
to “warp speed”?
“Slow can be fast.” To get the fastest possible product
development, spend time up front. Nothing appears to be getting
done except for bringing a team together and getting a gut understanding
of what the product is and what the real challenges are in building
the product. It may take weeks and seem like a waste of time but
being slow up front often enables much more interesting and ultimately
productive (asynchronous) improvisation to happen later on.
Was the dot-com melt-down an illustration of too rapidly pushing
things out to market and throwing money at things without taking
the time to look at the context in which these ideas would have
to be implemented?
I think that the dot-com blow-up could be partially understood
as a failure to understand that information out of context doesn’t
carry much meaning. Think about the futures market in wheat.
It took years for everybody to come to agreement on how to describe
and judge the different qualities of wheat. Without such a common
framework a commodity market can’t reliably work. Nor
many retrieval systems. The dot-com world didn’t understand
how the context of information gives meaning to information
or how humans interact and create value. For example, B2B exchanges
trying to cut out the middle man often ignored what distributors
do. They’re not just box (or bit) pushers. They actually
add value through their interpretive structures. A distributor
of produce, for example, understands the vagaries of ripeness
of fruits and how these actually depend on the season. The distributor
also knows how each farmer describes their produce and how to
broker what he says to the needs of the market – that
generally, we see a value migration from products to solutions
to services and eventually to sense making. Each of these depends
increasingly on bringing ‘text’ and ‘context’
Do you see any companies doing a good job in sense making?
The company I’m closest to that does a pretty good job is
Corning. They have been hit pretty hard in the telecom collapse.
Nevertheless the company is not panicking or blaming folks or,
worse yet denying reality, but they are trying to get to understand
what is really happening and to figure out what new strategic
opportunities set the stage for tomorrow.
Are there leaders of companies who have read your new book and
are now trying to incorporate these perspectives? Are there universities
that are modifying the way they train technologists to help them
understand the social life of information?
We are delighted that our book still has “feet”
— still selling and being used by an ever expanding set
in professional communities. It’s been reported back to
me that the CEO of Hewlett Packard has talked about this book
on national television as an example of things that HP has to
take into consideration. And it is being picked up more and
more by universities, especially in schools of information,
and now percolating into schools of product design and architecture,
and so on. It’s not that our book says anything incredibility
deep but it does pull a lot of things together and in a way
that makes the subject matter very approachable. It unleashes
people’s intuitions and gives voice to what many have
been thinking. It uncovers invisible social resources that we
all use to get work done but that many of the new technologies
Earlier, you referred to a kind of simplistic technological determinism
that expects technology to automatically apply itself and solve
our problems. There is also a species of pessimistic, negative
technological determinism, even fatalism, in some quarters. But
doesn’t this view also underestimate the influence of the
social context of technology?
You can see this in Wired where one month they sing the
praises of intelligent agents, suggesting that software agents
will be our trustworthy butlers — nearly a utopian vision.
Then precisely one month later, they sound the alarm of doom.
Nanobots will take over the world and destroy civilization. A
dystopian view in the extreme. Both of these extreme technological
predictions left society out. Society and technology co-evolve.
Each helps to shape and constrain the other. Together they form
a complex, co-evolutionary system. We have seen that in nuclear
power, in genetic engineering, in stem cell research and we will
see it again in nano research. The accelerating speed of some
of these advances demands that we strive harder to develop social
and institutional mechanisms to keep the co-evolution intact and
insure that the right feedback loops are in place.
What happens to the university as the really interesting problems
become interdisciplinary? The university doesn’t seem prepared
Universities by and large fail to understand that traditional
disciplinary boundaries have outlived their usefulness. Some campuses
are trying to drive fundamental change and look at things in brand
new ways, but the academy in general is incredibly conservative.
In today’s world we must question the assumptions that led
to the specialization of various fields of study. We must also
ask what does it mean to be educated for the 21st century. This
is not a throw away question but a rather deep question, I think.
Is there a danger that interdisciplinary work will become soft
in some of the technical areas, like mathematics, for instance?
If the mathematics is not superb, the whole interdisciplinary
project can fail. How do we maintain rigor and excellence in the
individual components while bringing them together?
It is critical to make sure that that doesn’t happen.
If we bring the disciplines together in order to crack some
fundamental issue, we must let the problem guide us. Pursuing
a problem to its root may well perturb some our cherished beliefs,
stress our methodologies and require us to master new techniques
and retool our intuitions. I see this all the time in mems (micro
electrical mechanical systems), organic electronics and so on.
you honor the world and listen to its backtalk, you become a
little less likely to navel gaze and indulge in second rate
And get locked in for a very long period of time.
You build your own communities, your own terminology, and you
talk to yourself. Corporations are prone to this, to believe
their own PR, engage in denial, and construct a shell around
Universities and their disciplinary organizations, for all the
weaknesses noted, also have helped people organize and evaluate
the sea of information around them. In a somewhat tattered and
chaotic social and cultural context, with outmoded universities,
must we invent new ways of filtering and evaluating information,
whether as workers in companies or as citizens?
Before the Web there were all kinds of institutional warrants
that usefully filter. If I read a book from Stanford University
Press I know what kind of editing and review process it had
been through. I know how far to rely on a story from the Wall
Street Journal or a plane built by Boeing.
the Web, where there’s plenty of junk, this sort of warranting
is hard to find. So the ability to make good judgments becomes
more important than ever. The literacy of tomorrow has to do
with judgment — how to triangulate on multiple sources
and determine for ourselves how much to rely on what we find.
We may be returning to the original need for education, to insure
an educated public for safe guarding our democracy, a public
that can make judgments.
means that the social fabric is more important than ever. The
books that I buy are books that other people (and not the Amazon
recommendation system) tell me to buy. The papers I read, others
have sent me (and the parts I zero in on are the parts they
have been annotated). Our ability to rely on others, to reach
out to divergent sources, check things with others, and have
focused and focusing dialogues will be increasingly important.
helped create a lot of paper copies of things. Whatever happened
to the paperless future technologists predicted?
As part of creating the paperless office (back in the late 70s)
we created the bit map display. Once you have a bit map display
you can draw anything you want. But without a bitmap printer,
how can you print out what you have in front of you? The laser
printer gives you that capability—the bitmap display and
the laser printer are complementary innovations. So they led
to the radical proliferation of paper.
technologists have never quite understood the social importance
of paper. Consider the book. Open the cover and feel the weight
of the paper. Look at the font and the overall design. You may
be amazed just how much you have reliably discovered about that
book. So the book “affords” all of these peripheral
cues. It’s much more than just a carrier of information.
Or consider the newspaper. A newspaper uses our peripheral vision
to catch our attention to stories that we might not normally
seek out. The format of a newspaper contextualizes stories within
other stories. It opens your mind to things that you might not
explicitly know that you want to know about. It expands your
point of view. Newspapers can overcome the tunnel vision of
a newspaper is as much a social artifact that supports communities
and makes news as a deliverer of information. If every one receives
a personally and “efficiently” customized version,
the ‘newspaper’ stops making news and stops creating
a common experience for its community of readers. In fact, it
stops being a newspaper. Under a misguided notion of efficiency
we destroy its effectiveness as a social artifact.
do you think technology will do to newspapers in 50 years?
Digital technology in general will find ways to augment the
physical/social world. The virtual can augment the physical
and vice versa. On line newspapers can not only provide archives
but also a platform for discussion groups on controversial articles.
They provide ways for the public at large to bring certain issues
to the attention of the others.
Weiser and I believe that “calm” technology will
come from a balance between between text and context, the center
and periphery, the explicit and implicit. Part of why we feel
overwhelmed is that current user interface designs tend to make
everything explicit; everything demands our attention.
I drive a motorcycle I feel very much at one with what’s
happening around me; I am processing more information than I ever
process sitting in front of my computer. My peripheral vision
is processing astronomical amounts of data, keeping me aware of
unexpected changes in the surround. But it does this by pulling
my attention seamlessly from one thing to another. Well-designed
workscapes can do something similarly – enhance my awareness
of what is going on without distracting me from a state of flow.
Tunnel vision means losing sight of the periphery and that is
so important in dealing with technology.
is a physical visual periphery but there also a social periphery
and both have to be thought about.
Give us a couple of book recommendations.
Dick Foster’s Creative Destruction is an extremely
good book that just recently came out. Another great new book
is by Mitchell Waldrop on Licklider. It provides a very sensitively
written, historic discussion of the invention of the Internet
and the distributed computer revolution. A third book is by
Ilkka Tuomi called Theory of Innovation — Change and
Meaning in the Age of the Internet is just about to come
out. It is a wonderful manuscript on innovation, one of the
most expansive yet rounded books that I have read in a long
time. He argues that real innovation is something that changes
social practices. He’s one of the few technologists with
a deep understanding of the social texture of invention and
If the social fabric is so critical to technology, isn’t
the free agent work force going to be a growing problem?
In fact, recent data suggests that telecommuting is not catching
on anything like the digerati have claimed. But I think one
way to view the social fabric is to think of it in ecological
terms, namely the notion of knowledge ecology. You can think
of your own corporation as being a knowledge ecology or you
can look at the corporation within the broader region, like
Silicon Valley, as being part of a knowledge ecology.
The task of management is to create a context that fosters continual
learning and self-improvement. But a person may also get to
a point where he or she has learned enough and it makes sense
for them to go someplace else where they can jump onto a new
learning curve. But they will feel good about where they just
came from and they are moving into a world of increasing partnerships.
about Mckinsey. Most of their people don’t last all that
long, but Mckinsey goes out of its way to nurture its ‘alumni’
community. They have local reunion events continually. The ‘alumni’
are willing to help each other and even help McKinsey, itself.
How does the social life of information play out on the global
If we think globalization means imposing homogeneity rather
than leveraging heterogeneity we will have missed a great opportunity.
Just as we sought and valued many different disciplines and
sensibilities at Xerox PARC, so on a broader scale for the world:
if all the world has just one set of sensibilities it will die.
Being able to honor multiple sensibilities is going to be critical.
related challenge is to invent new types of social institutions.
When electrification disrupted and radically changed our factories
and cities, many of our current social institutions, like the
labor unions, PTA, Boy Scouts and ACLU, were created. They helped
handle the disruptions and gave voice to people who felt excluded.
we need to invent again new types of institutional regimes,
ones that can move with the speed of the technological advance,
can understand some of its social entailments. What these new
regimes are going to be we only have a smattering of understanding.
They will use the net to tap the social mind and amplify voices
that don’t get heard normally. Greenpeace, for example,
has amplified their impact through their use of the net. You
would be surprised how small Greenpeace really is compared to
the impact they have. You may not agree with all they do or
say but they certainly have used the net in a very interesting
likely, the invention of new kinds of institutions will be as
important as the invention of new technologies themselves. Social
justice does not necessarily follow from Moore’s Law.