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Bonnie A. Nardi and Vicki L. O'Day Information ecologies: using technology with heart. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. xiv, 232 pp. ISBN 0-262-14066-7 19.50 $27.50

Information ecologies are defined by the authors as those 'local habitations', such as schools, homes, libraries, hospitals, etc., within which we have various roles and for which we may use information technology. Nardi and O'Day suggest that our use of IT will be more effective if we take the context of our local habitations into account.

The authors begin with an illustrated account of Fritz Lang's famous film, Metropolis (1927), which provides the basic message of the book, that is, the conflict between the untrammelled capitalistic exploitation of technology and the needs of the human heart - and, one might add, stomach. This theme is developed in chapter two, which considers the argument that the 'progress' of technology is inevitable and the alternative views of the consequences as either utopian technophilia (represented by Negroponte's Being digital, 1995) and the dystopian view (Stoll's Silicon snake oil, 1995) that information technology's effects upon society will be deleterious. The authors propose a middle way between these extremes, one that takes on board the ideas of grass-roots political action and seeks to build information ecologies that consist of '...human activities that are served by technology.' The emphasis, of course, is on the words, served by.

Nardi and O'Day reach this point by way of a discussion of the metaphors that are used to explore the application of technology. The most common is that technology is a tool, which is useful for '...questions and discussions about utility, usability, skill and learning', but post-modernists also view technology as text, a '...carrier of meaning that may be reinterpreted as the technology passes through different social situations'. The authors find the view of technology as a system '...the richest, most troubling, and most mind-altering' perspective, drawing upon Ellul (The technological society, 1964) and Winner (Autonomous technology, 1977) to explore the role of technology as a drive to efficiency and a phenomenon that conditions the choices we make for the kind of society we wish to create.

The key features of the ecological metaphor that Nardi and O'Day espouse are those of the ecology in the biological sciences, namely:

An ecology is systemic - marked by an inter-relationship among parts.

An ecology embodies diversity - 'In an information ecology, there are different kinds of people and different kinds of tools. In a healthy information ecology, they work together in a complementary way.'

The social and technological elements of an information ecology co-evolve - 'People's activities and tools adjust and are adjusted in relation to each other, always attempting and never quite achieving a perfect fit.'

Information ecologies have keystone species - individuals with skills without which the ecology cannot perform effectively.

Finally, an information ecology has a place and a name - a local habitation, its '...location within a network of relationships.'

These ideas are developed in the rest of Part I of the book, and Part II offers a set of case studies of information ecologies. From the point of view of this journal, the first, 'Librarians: a keystone species' is the most eye-catching. The authors' view of librarians in this way was formed by ethnographic studies they carried out in the libraries of Hewlett-Packard and the Apple Corporation. There, they were able to record and analyse the way reference librarians interacted with their clients, carrying on their role unobtrusively and doing far more than their clients generally realised. The authors conclude that:

'With the advent of the Internet, we believe librarians are more important than ever. Librarians are information consultants who are oriented toward quality information service. We need more of this in the Internet world! Librarians are becoming actively involved in the design and provision of Internet services, and we hope this trend continues and intensifies.'

Note, however, that this is just a hope - unfortunately librarians, because their work is carried on unobtrusively, have been overlooked in many Internet developments and whether or not they can change to become more prepared to tout their skills remains to be seen.

The other case studies deal with the virtual world of Pueblo - a virtual extension of the real-world classroom; the role of 'gardeners' in enabling teams to get the best out of CAD and spreadsheet software (gardeners '...are people who can translate concepts and mechanisms back and forth between the domain of the work and the technology itself'); the use of digital photography in the Abraham Lincoln High School, San Jose, California; and a 'dysfunctional ecology' in a teaching hospital where:

'With the introduction of the new monitoring system, the information ecology experienced a severe and wrenching realignment. Information was taken out of its original context and presented in a new context without the buy-in of the people who generated the information.'

Following the case studies, Nardi and O'Day review the opportunities in and threats to the Internet - '...a riveting global phenomenon with important implications for local information ecologies.' Those implications include the fact that the Internet connects people to information, to services, to goods, and to other people. The threats are perceived to come mainly from the increasing commercialisation of the Internet and the fear that the non-commercial applications to not fit with Bill Gates's vision of the Internet as 'friction-free capitalism'.

This is an important and useful book and the authors are to be congratulated in bringing together the highly practical examples of the way information ecologies work and theoretical insights into why they work and what prevents them from doing so. The final message is contained in the conclusion: 'With a heightened awareness of our surroundings, we can know more about what is happening and understand better what actions we can take ourselves." Amen to that.


Professor Tom Wilson
Publisher/Editor-in-Chief
19th November 1999