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by Jay Fienberg

A paradox of online information tools

posted: Aug 21, 2003 10:25:57 PM

At my new job, I am working with Microsoft SharePoint 2 in a context where the goal is having SharePoint be a principal environment / tool for online collaboration in my division of the company. And, with that task at hand, I am stumbling on what I think is a paradox of online information tools.

The paradox I see is simply: tools that make it possible to create online information also limit information to the shape of the tool rather than cultivating that information to open to the shape of the web (e.g., as hypertext at every level, etc.).

The issue I am thinking about is that some tools limit information to the point where its online interconnections are essentially crippled—perhaps reduced down to a single dimension. Maybe all tools limit information in this way to some degree, but I think some tools are "light" enough that people do a lot, creatively, with them.

The core issue, I think, is that some tools are all about the things created by those tools, and some tools are really more environments where their tool-aspect (i.e., utility) is transparent. As an analogy, a cookie cutter is a tool that produces cookies shaped like the tool; but the cookie pan is more like an environment for making cookies than a tool (though it is, nevertheless, a utility tool in some sense).

Perhaps that analogy can apply directly to online tools in this sense: things that sit underneath information serve as an environment for it, but things that surround information are, one way or another, like cookie cutters.

I think there is an orientation in the tradition of IT and software development through which the Internet is seen as a tool and Internet use as tool use. The other, more "media" view, is the Internet is a medium, and even more accurately, an environment of many media. If you think about it, those ideas aren't necessarily compatible with each other.

Microsoft has a powerful tool strategy. They make very sophisticated tools. And it seems like they provide tools for all the many facets of information use, and also truly integrate those tools.

In this sense, Microsoft is logical. SharePoint works with Office and Internet Explorer and Outlook, and, in some organizations, everyone is using Office and Internet Explorer and Outlook. Makes sense, right?

But, I think there is a paradox here, because the tools that enable all this information and interaction with it are also in the way—they effectively disable the same information. (And, I say this as a general observation about a lot of systems in a lot of contexts rather than merely as a statement about where I work or about the tools in use there.)

When I use SharePoint, I have to admit that I actually admire the sophistication of the tool. It impresses me, because I have built web-based document and content management systems, and Microsoft packed a lot of features into SharePoint and got them to work in a way that I know is not easy to do.

At the same time, I see SharePoint not getting the information. It is just too square! The information is over its head. It is almost like its sophistication as a tool is its problem.

This situation just reminds me of the dozens of systems I have used, whether open source or commercial or in-house developed, that are way too square for that free spirited independent information that maybe just needs a place to rest once in a while as it boogies around the town.

So, the paradox: making your information tools too good may make your information not too good.

I guess this fits into my general motif here: Information isn't managed, though data can be managed. Information is art.

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