Finding Morville’s Ambient Findability

I just finished reading Peter Morville’s new book Ambient Findability. The book is exquisitely written, with innumerable tidbits about information retrieval curiosities, such as the obscure, but as Peter nicely points out, very significant Mooers Law (not to be confused with Moore’s Law, the one about microprocessors doubling in speed every few years), which describes the relationship between the use of an info retrieval system in relationship to the pain a user must endure to use it. Three chapters into the book, Morville makes a brilliant connection between Moor’s and Mooer’s laws:

Fast, cheap processors powered a personal computer revolution and enabled the information explosion we call the Internet. Five exabytes of information. Half a million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress. That’s how much information we create in a year, 92% of it stored in magnetic media. It’s time we shifted our focus from creating a wealth of information to addressing the ensuing poverty of attention.

Hear! Hear! The siren song of the war against information overload! Or is it? Upon reading this, I was expecting to read about how we are pumping unfettered volumes of content (such as this gratuitous blog entry) down the throat of the poor Internet, drowning it with endless streams of folksonomized info ooze. And, yes, Peter does deliver on that front, but not in the way I expected. Rather than pointing a finger at the easy target of Bad Technology, he chooses to explore that nebulous space between human quirkiness and technological stodginess, and the unending friction between the two.

Yes, the amount of information being amassed is mind-bending, and yes trying to retain any notion of findability within that seemingly horizon-less sea of increasingly ambient (as in anywhere anytime access) information seems insurmountable (except for Google, of course, but back to planet Earth…). Instead of getting caught in that ever-tempting desire of the infonaut to provide Solutions to Problems, to say “read this book and you too can be an Organizer of Content,” Morville takes us on a journey through his ambivalent musings (well-researched musing at that) of this intertwinglingly complexificated place which is all at once our own technological creation and continuing source of mystery, beauty, frustration and fear, a world of McGoogle information dysliteracy and what Morville calls “Graffiti Theory” (Google Hawkins and neocortex for more on that), information that flows through us changes our minds, physically, Peter claims.

In some ways, his book is no more than a Faberge Egg of exquisite gems about the latest and greatest in technological tres cool (reminding me somewhat unfortunately of Nicholas Negroponte’s crowd-pleasing doozy, “Being Digital”), but toward the end, it seems that was just beef for the stew, and the work seems to take on a more somber tone, intertwining politics, economics (er, Levitt Freakonomics, actually) to mold what in my view is less a book that belongs in the technology section (where you will inevitably find it, after all it’s an O’Reilly with obscure animal on the cover and all), but might be better placed in the sociology section, or maybe anthropology section, or possibly the ethnography section, no, maybe the…

Another great IA retreat

I just returned from the New Challenges IA Retreat, which was held at the Edith Macy Conference Center. As the main organizer of the event, I would probably be somewhat biased to say that it was a huge success—but it was a huge success! After arriving late on Friday (we got rear-ended on the highway, and the car that hit the car that hit ours drove off, so suddenly the whole thing turned into a crime scene and oodles of paperwork), I had to call ahead to make sure someone would actually be there. Crystal and the “Philly Van” were there to cover for me. What a relief it was to arrive to a crowd of smiling faces and an amazing dinner, after having gotten lost in the maze of highways criss-crossing Westchester county. It was great to see a lot of familiar faces, like Jorge Arango, Peter Van Dijck, Livia Libate, Wendy Cown and Victor Lombardi (who I rode up with and also had to fill out oodles of paper work at the car accident “crime scen”), as well as several new faces, like Todd Warfel of MessageFirst, and Marcelo and Mary-Lynne from Razorfish.

The IA Retreats have been an ongoing tradition for a few years now, but as far as I know all have been held on the west coast at the Asilomar Campgrounds, a gem of a retreat venue on the Northern California coast. After attending last year’s amazingly great Asilomar retreat, I thought it was time to do this on the east coast, if nothing else for a change of scenery, but also to attract people who may not want to travel all the way across the country for a retreat.

I have to admit I was a bit nervous on Saturday morning.  How would the presentations turn out? Would the fact that the pouring rain was forecast for the entire weekend put a damper on the whole thing? (Part of the reason for picking Edith Macy was all the little winding walkways and outdoor areas, and the thinking that we maybe could hold a session or two outside.) But after a quick welcome talk, and getting the first presentation (“Global IA”) underway, the retreat sort of went on auto-pilot.

One of the things I really love about retreats like this, which sets them apart from larger conferences, is that you’re not really married to whatever schedule you’ve come up with for the event. If you’re at a conference, and there is an interesting presentation, which inevitably leads to discussion afterwards, it equally inevitably gets cut short, because there is another presentation scheduled and people have to clear out of the room. Not so at a retreat. We all attend the same sessions, and being very much aware that IAs tend be of the discussion-intensive ilk, we padded our schedule with about an hour and a half of unscheduled time spread out across each day. By the end of Saturday, every last minute of that padded time had been filled with intense discussions about global enterprise intranets (I mean really global, as in deploying them to offices in virtually every major country on the globe), how to best produce wireframes (I say standards-based, you say drawing-based…), the tantalizing possibilities and elusive pitfalls of applying prototype theory to content management, or navigating Enterprise IA through the unpredictable waters of mergers and acquisitions (and coming out on top.) Even the lunch break was intermingled with a “Women in IA” session, held by Livia (put together after we realized that almost all the presenters that had been selected were male.) While we were having drinks in the lounge that evening (we were supposed to be out on the patio, but that was out due to the unending downpour), several people came up to me and said they were really enjoying the retreat. I can’t even begin to express how nice it was to get those compliments. After all, putting together a retreat like this was a much bigger undertaking than I had expected. But I am so glad we made it happen.

Peter Merholz, the current president of the Information Architecture Institute, which sponsored the retreat, has said that one of his major goals is to place a greater emphasis on events. Just as last year’s retreat at Asilomar was a huge inspiration for me, I hope people attending this year’s event found it equally inspiring and go on to organize events of their own, and that the IA Institute can be there to support them in their efforts.

To read more about the retreat, check out this article I wrote about the retreat at Boxes & Arrows.

Movable Schmovable

Well, it’s been over a month since my last entry, but ironically there’s been a lot to write about. I had this crazy idea that I was going to upgrade to the new version of MT, but what supposedly was a painless upgrade turned into a technological Pandora’s box. For anyone familiar with Movable Type, you know it’s basically designed for geeks and tinkerers. But there was quite a bit of fanfare relating to how much more user-friendly upgrading to this new version was supposed to be. And it’s possible that in a perfect world, upgrading would’ve been simple, but the world of computers is about as far as you can get from perfect, and I certainly got a taste of some of those imperfections in the last month. If only updating blog apps could be as simple as, say, the Windows updater (yes, I was once a hard-core Mac-head, but these days it’s Windows all day long, for better or worse), which is basically a run-and-forget-about-it process (except for the annoying message at the end of the installation process that shows up nagging you to restart your computer with no way of making it stop.) The MT people seem in every possible way to be very mindful about usability so it strikes me as a bit of a mystery that the upgrade process should be so Draconian. I just can’t stop myself from thinking of apps in which all you need to do to update them is to replace the dll files (sorry, more Windows talk), rather than to have to undergo the grueling MT upgrade exercise. And to add insult to injury, whenever I went to the help files, I’d see a description of some pretty’d up automatic installation process. Hmmm, I never came across that one – instead, I ended up finding myself basically completely locked out of my own blog after having attempted to upgrade (even MT Medic would not get me back in), to the point where I decided to switch to a host with dedicated MT support, so that I don’t have keep banging my head against the wall every time they release an upgrade. Yes, I’m sure there were several things I did incorrectly when attempting to complete the upgrade, but that sort of makes my point – just as with the software itself, upgrades need to be well designed and fool-proof. What’s even more ironic is that what is being installed is in fact online (or at least residing on a hosted box), which means that, if I were designing the MT installer, I’d set it up so that the user could point the installer to the location where the current version resides, give the installer permission to write to my files (such as log in to my app instance), and then go have a cup of coffee – ironically, I think that’s how this upgrade supposedly does work, but apparently it wasn’t quite fool-proof..