Brown, John Seely
John Seely Brown
Office—Xerox Corporation, 800 Long Ridge Rd., Stamford, CT 06904.
Assistant professor, University of California at Irvine, 1969–73; senior scientist, Bolt Baranek and Newman, Cambridge, MA, 1973–78; principal scientist in cognitive and instructional sciences, Xerox Corporation, Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), 1978–84, Intelligent Systems Laboratory director, 1984–86, vice president for advanced research, 1986–90, corporate vice president and PARC director, 1989–2000; associate director, Institute for Research on Learning, 1986–90; chief scientist, Xerox Corp., 1992—; Batten fellow, University of Virginia Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, 2003; fellow of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence, fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, trustee of Brown University, trustee of the MacArthur Foundation.
Industrial Research Institute Medal for outstanding accomplishments in technological innovation, 1998.
John Seely Brown bears the impressive title of "chief scientist" at the Xerox Corporation, the American imaging–technology giant. Brown directed the company's celebrated Palo Alto Research Center, known as PARC, until 2000. Usually described by interviewers as both engaging in his conversational style and exhausting in his intellectual range, Brown is considered one of the leading contemporary thinkers on how technology impacts modern life.
A native of Utica, New York, Brown was fascinated by computers even as a teenager in the 1950s. While still in high school he became proficient on an IBM 650, one of first units ever built for commercial use. He participated in a summer business–training program at Colgate University in New York State before entering Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, where he finished in 1962 with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and physics. He then spent the rest of the decade at the University of Michigan, where he earned a math degree and a Ph.D. in computer and communication sciences. One of his first jobs was teaching both computer science and psychology courses at the University of California at Irvine. In 1973, he joined Bolt Baranek and Newman, a prestigious technology–consulting firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It devised the "@" symbol signifying a domain name in the digital era, among many other innovations, and Brown served as senior scientist there for five years when it was perfecting the ARPANET, the forerunner of the Internet.
Brown moved to northern California in 1978 to take a post with the Xerox Corporation's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). The legendary spin–off of the copier maker had a lavish budget and a mission to define what it called "the office of the future." At PARC, Brown served as a principal scientist in its cognitive and instructional sciences division, when PARC was developing the first prototypes of the spell–checking and thesaurus applications that would later become standard features in word–processing programs. In 1984, he was named director of PARC's Intelligent Systems Laboratory, which worked on developing the artificial–intelligence programming systems. He became a vice president for advanced research two years later, and by 1989 was serving as PARC's director. In this post, he commanded a staff of some 400 scientists and programmers who were renowned as some of the brightest minds in the field. PARC teams had already developed the laser printer and the graphical user interface (GUI), and by the time Brown took over were working on the first generation of handheld devices like the Palm Pilot.
Brown's leadership and visionary ideas earned him another job title in 1992: chief scientist at Xerox. His time in the job coincided with a crucial developmental period for the company, and his ideas helped re–focus attention back to its core business as "The Document Company." Back in the early days of his career, at the onset of computer–technology boom, experts predicted a "paperless office" of the future. This was an illusory goal, Brown argued. "Paper itself is one of the most wonderful media that we have ever created," he told Management Review interviewer Barbara Ettorre. "It is lightweight. It has high contrast ratio. It has no power requirements. There's no chance in the near future that we will find a digital replacement for paper."
At the time of that 1995 interview, Brown also predicted that increased networking capabilities would soon bring what he called a virtual social reality. He explained to Ettorre, "It is the question of how you start to have fairly in–depth social relationships in this digital cyberspace world and how you actually complement the physical world with the virtual world.… There's a sense of coming together in this digital space with the kind of full–blooded interactions that you have associated in the past solely with shared physical space." Brown further explored such ideas in his 2000 book, The Social Life of Information, written with University of California—Berkeley researcher Paul Duguid. The chapters discuss what the authors term "communities of practice," the setting in which knowledge is shared. Innovation, they contend, is often not the result of individual genius, but rather an improvisational process that originates inside a group and meets a need. Brown and Duguid provide examples of technological advances that failed in practice, but also recount one intriguing success story: when investors in the fledgling telephone company founded by Alexander Graham Bell's device became leery about its potential for catching on with the public, Bell had telephones placed where people could see others using them—in offices with heavy foot traffic, for example, and near busy lunch counters.
At PARC, Brown devised workable ideas that illustrated his theories about "communities of practice." For example, he once wired the office coffeemaker so that engineers at their desks received alerts when a fresh pot was ready. Electronic white boards near the coffee station served as a notepad so that employees could discuss current projects. "I am looking for ways that we don't have to attend so many meetings by creating technologies that appeal directly to people," Brown explained to Financial Times journalist Philip Manchester. As an observer of the modern corporation, he was adamant about how companies fail their employees when they implement the latest management strategies du jour, such as project teams. This, combined with a new era of information–overload from e–mail, creates a form of tyranny within a corporation, he believed. "I am getting angry about the profound flakiness of many modern systems and I think we will have a backlash against technology unless we make it better," he asserted to Manchester. "We must make technology that fits people—rather than expect people to fit the technology."
Brown served as director of PARC until 2000. He is a trustee of Brown University and the MacArthur Foundation, and is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Married to an architect, Brown enjoys sailing and motorcycle trips in his spare time. The holder of several patents in document imaging, he was once asked Forbes ASAP's Karen Southwick about his "favorite technology;" Brown confessed that it was "a very, very lightweight printer. It weighs about an ounce. It never runs out of batteries, even though it's portable. It prints at astounding resolution.… I spend a lot of time finding good pens."
(Editor) Seeing Differently: Insights on Innovation, Harvard Business School Press (Boston, MA) 1997.
(With Paul Duguid) The Social Life of Information, Harvard Business School Press (Boston, MA), 2000.
Economist, April 15, 2000, p. 4.
Electronic Business, May 2000, p. 146.
Financial Times, January 19, 2000, p. 10; September 7, 2002, p. 11.
Forbes ASAP, March 25, 2002, pp. 46–47.
Inc., March 2000, p. 119.
Information Outlook, June 2000, p. 39.
Management Review, February 1995, p. 9.
Training, September 2002, p. 28.
"Batten Fellows," Darden—University of Virginia, http://www.darden.edu/batten/btr_fellows_fellows_s–brown.htm (July 21, 2003).