Monday, August 14, 2006

How I found Ambient Finadability

We are said to live in "The Information Age". But unlike say, "The Bronze Age" when Bronze was valuable, its not information that's valuable. Its attention. Your time (which has always been finite) is now considered a precious resource.

So I was almost immediately disappointed by this passage from the preface of Peter Morville'’s Ambient Findability:

So, what's this book about? That's a tough one. I could tell you it's about information interaction at the crossroads of mobile computing and the Internet, or claim it opens a window onto the singular cultural revolution of our time... But I won't. Instead, I'll ask you to read it, for aboutness lies in the eye of the beholder.

That was the first warning sign. If the author can't be assed to give you a good reason to spend some time with his thoughts, then why should you? I was also off-put by the matter of citing the Internet as the "signular" cultural revolution (umm... 9/11 anyone?). I bristle at technology inspired hubris.

But I did preserver and read this book because I was captivated by the book's tagline: What We Find Changes Who We Become (which is way sexier than the line that I use when teaching about online searching, What you ask for is what you get so be careful what you ask for). And it should also be said that I gave the book a chance because of Morville's reputation. Peter is considered as a "founding father of information architecture" and he is a librarian to boot.

So I read this 179 page book. The only part of the book that addresses the promise of the tagline can be found on page 169:

Which brings us to graffitti theory, my corollary to both memory-prediction and broken windows, which suggests that all information that flows through our senses continuously and unconsciously shapes our memories, beliefs, predictions, decisions and behaviors. We are born with instinct, but in matters of intuition, we are lifetime learners. Information is data that makes a difference, literally. It changes our minds, physically.

Peter is not a cognitive scientist. I'm not either, but that's not going to stop me from saying that this is flat out wrong. From what I learned from Daniel Gilbert, we don't perceive everything and we don't remember everything. The only way Peter's theory works is by circular logic: if we define information as something that changes us, then all information changes us.

So what is the aboutness of this book? I'd describe it as a buffet table of stories from the disciplines of computer science, linguistics, urban planning, library science, graphic design and others, done in the name of Information Architecture... err sorry, Ambient Findability. Search engines, information literacy, web page navigation, maps, ants, city design, the semantic web, are invoked in this book. It's a quick tour, written for the business man as opposed to the academic, the is writing light and lively, and one is sure to find at least a couple items that will amuse (my fave: Info-overload harms concentration more than marijuana).

But, on the downside, I found the whole exercise very gimmicky. Morville litters the book with interesting excerpts from books popular in the blogosphere. That's fine but sometimes, like when he summarized stories from Freakonomics and The Tipping Point, they feel like diversions from the topic at hand. And the irrational exuberance for all things Internet frequently made me cringe. Nowhere does the cultural-name dropping and techno-cheerleading gets as painfully silly as this passage:

We hear this same rebel yell in the ancient markets of the cluetrain manifesto, the mobile thumb tribes of smart mobs, and the disruptive technologies of peer-to-peer. We embrace the hidden power of social networks and the emergent wisdom of crowds. We are small pieces loosely joined in persistent disequilibrium, gloriously and gladly out of control.

What I couldn't find in this book was the reason that brought all the stories and examples together. I couldn't find an argument being made or a point of view being advocated. I got the feeling that Morville was taking Williams Gibson's "The future is here. Its just not evenly distributed yet" as a guideline to structuring his book.

I found this book a waste of time.

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