Notes on Formal and Informal Knowledge
From Computers and Social Change
Key Concepts for Midterm
- work to the rule
Formal, written procedures can be usually be implemented in computer and communication systems using algorithms.
Frequently formal procedures are slow
tedious compared to
people showing or telling one another something. People who attempt to reduce complex human activity to linear
sequences of simple steps can make major errors by omitting some crucial action. The introduction to
Jorge Luis Borges' poem La Luna
is an interesting comment on the reductionist impulse.
Informal actions are negotiated in an ad hoc fashion. While they frequently fail to be as efficient as
rationalized procedures, they are usually better at dealing with unanticipated problems. They are also subject
to abuses like bribery, favoritism, and discrimination. For example, in informal communications, people have to
convince a human gatekeeper to let them in. When gatekeeping is implemented in technology, gatekeepers have
fewer options for action. Gatekeeping procedures can be frustrating and even
Formal and Informal Knowledge in Bureaucratic Organizations
The use of computers to rationalize factories and other organizations was anticipated by Babbage in the mid 1800's.
was a workpace design philosophy introduced in Frederick Winslow Taylor's book
The Principles of Scientific Management.
Many of our efforts to computerize work in bureaucratic organizations has produced computer models of inefficient
bureaucratic procedures. Often these are less efficient because they remove the possibility of
informal communication and problem solving.
Work to the rule
is a way to bring most organizations to a halt. Yet this is precisely what the worst of our
computerized businesses have been designed to do.
Even when software algorithms do implement the desired actions,
the result tends to be so buggy as to be embarrassing according to computer science theorist