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Information Excess
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John Seely Brown

      . . . Xerox Corporation‚s Chief Scientist, Director of Xerox‚s Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) since 1978. Dr. Brown is co-founder of the Institute for Research on Learning, a member of the National Academy of Education and is a Fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence.  He‚s been involved in leading edge technology since the days of the ARPAnet. Dr. Brown and Paul Duguid explore the co-evolution of technology and society in The Social Life of Information.

Excerpts3:22 secs

      The future is a co-evolutionary system between technology and people, says John Seely Brown, Xerox‚s chief scientist and director of their famed XeroxPARC (Palo Alto Research Center). What‚s shaping our future? A creative dance that‚s between the physical and virtual world as society and technology co-evolve, a dance that creates the space in which new things start to emerge. Don‚t leave your future to anyone, he urges, neither anthropologist nor technologist.

      Fundamental to understanding the 21st center is a profound shift in thinking, Dr. Brown (JSB) is confident. It‚s away from a focus on lone individuals to understanding that we are all socially constructed. „I think, therefore I am,š is out. Enter, „We participate, therefore we are.š

      XeroxPARC is cutting edge today, but tomorrow, they will be the norm for a knowledge work-scape, Dr. Brown believes. A culture of learning will be required, one which fosters an ecology of knowledge, a culture in which we must all participate. Passive is also „out.š

      How do we get there? Information -- inert and largely in computers -- gives way to knowledge, which lives in and between people and their experiences. In this unfolding future, everyone‚s a thinker, capable of creating knowledge, of innovation and invention. Where‚s the action?  Where the rubber meets the road, with those who „do.š „Diversityš became critical. It‚s the essence of pioneering research, what allows the creation of industries, not products.

      Think of communities of interest, Dr. Brown urges, communities of practice. The power of the World Wide Web is that it fosters and supports communities, he observes. And because we are always members of multiple communities of interest, an ecology of communities of interest begins to become apparent. How do the virtual and the physical augment each other? Think Silicon Valley.

      From his arrival at XeroxPARC in 1978 to today, JSB has assumed that the fundamental constraint on technology‚s future is how we can adapt it to work practices and societal practices. That requires a deep understanding of his dance between the social and the technical. So he enhanced PARC'shard-core physicists, mathematicians, computers scientists, engineers and psychologists with avante guarde artists, and linguists, anthropologists and sociologists, people with the talent, courage, intuition, respect and taste to go beyond the norm.

      The key, says Dr. Brown, is to build technology that fits like an old shoe.  People shouldn‚t have to think about technology.  It should be transparent, disappear.  Hence, a focus on design within a technology‚s social context, making things interactive, basing technologies on the architecture of experience, whether work-scape, learning-scape, or livingroom-scape.

      There is order in Dr. Brown‚s universe.  He talks readily about Metcalf‚s and Moore‚s Laws. But he believes we may now be jumping over some of them, reaching around and beyond them. So don‚t be stymied by today‚s technological straight-ahead tunnel-vision and technological determinism. Look around. Use your peripheral vision. Resist fear by becoming engaged. The future, Dr. Brown assures us, is ours to create.

Conversation 1

John Seely Brown describes what he thinks will be the major influences on the business environment for the 21st century to Paul Gordon and Bill Russell. Dr. Brown points out the danger of assuming that the road ahead of us is straight, bemoaning technological determinism. He describes the co-evolution of people, technology and society.

Conversation 2

Dr. Brown suggests alternatives to fearing the future, suggesting that instead we should fear our own tendency toward tunnel vision. He describes enormous opportunities to influence the future‚s shape, with caveats. He shares Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC)‚s mantra, using the technology of books and movies to make his point: context helps frame content.  He explains why he thinks every high technologist should spend at least half their time thinking about design. He distinguishes explicit from implicit elements of design, noting architects‚ influences on his and his co-author‚s lives.

Conversation 3

Technology that fits like an old shoe is the goal for Dr. Brown and his XeroxPARC colleagues.  He explains the processes by which they seek a dance between the social and the technical, to push the limits of any genre. He introduces the concept of a knowledge ecology, with examples from XeroxPARC.  He explains what will be„normalš in the workscape of the future, confident the diversity fostered at Xerox PARC will be vital. He describes the essence of pioneering and radical research. He distinguishes between creating products and creating home runs.  He compares managers in top-down organizational structures to those in a knowledge ecology. He contrasts innovation and invention, considers the inherent tensions between structure and spontaneity, with examples.

Conversation 4

Dr. Brown distances himself from mechanistic metaphors, offering biological ones including populations, husbandry and ecologies, with Silicon Valley examples. He gives examples of grand opportunities available when we resist technological tunnel vision and design. He explains the importance of communities of interest. He explains why geography is still critical. He argues for the end of end-ness, with examples, offering instead the enormous utility of peripheral vision. Disintermediation is dismissed, with examples of new kinds of intermediaries.  The importance of editors is affirmed, with examples from the economy of attention.

Conversation 5

The importance both of education and of life long learning are considered, with examples. Dr. Brown affirms social intelligence, showing why traditional, passive distance learning is not the solution for educating the masses in the future. He offers viable alternatives, then distinguishes information from knowledge. He points to enormous implications in the next century of a profound shift from „I think, therefore I amš to „I participate, therefore I am.š  He reiterates the importance of context for both individuals and information.  He dissolves the industrial model‚s artificial and incorrect distinction between people who think and people who do.  He suggests how a culture of learning can be achieved and argues for its benefits.

Conversation 6

Dr. Brown considers the difficulty of measuring success, with examples of how businesses might think differently about this challenge.  He reminds us of how central our nature as social creatures is to the design and goals of technology, learning and organizations.


John Seely Brown welcomed us into his (beautiful) Silicon Valley home, between trips, on a Sunday afternoon. His graciousness was matched only by that of his wife, Susan, who was willing to share him.

Janice Heiler, Dr. Brown‚s executive assistant, made it possible for us to connect with the extraordinarily busy Dr. Brown. She was the epitome of courtesy and efficiency.

Susan Muller at Harvard Business School Press went out of her way to be sure we had copies of Dr. Brown and Dr. Duguid‚s book in record time. Her help was the final piece in putting this puzzle together.

We thank them all.

Related Links:
The Social Life of Information, by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, is published by Harvard Business School Press
You can learn more about the Xerox Corporation at their website.

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