The Name Is Not the Terrain.
Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, Dec/Jan 2004*
Apparently I struck a nerve in my last column when I pointed out how little overlap there seems to be between the DL and IA communities. That little observation alone produced more email in my inbox than any recent full column. The general response seems to be that we need to work harder at encouraging free exchange among professional societies and that, in particular, I might take the lead in attracting IAs to the annual ACM DL conference. It is a sad day when the best hope we have for dissolving disciplinary barriers is my power of persuasion, but I have agreed to try – just don't blame me if the results are hard to measure.
I was further reminded of this when I gave a keynote talk recently at a conference for technical communicators in which I outlined how IA might be relevant to their lives. This was an easy sell. Like many IAs (Big IAs, that is), the members of the Society for Technical Communication (www.stc.org) are a fairly diverse bunch and mention of the importance of the organization, structure and usability of digital design spaces was certain to resonate with them. Perhaps more interestingly, I learned from this talk that many of STC's members enter the technical communication field in order to apply their skills as writers, educators, designers, artists, etc., exploiting their education in the liberal arts or the social sciences, just like so many IAs I know. The conference program also had as many papers on usability or interface design as one might expect to find at an ASIS&T conference, suggesting similar backgrounds, similar concerns, just slightly different areas of application. And like many people in the IA and ASIS&T communities, members of STC expressed concern for their professional futures in these rapidly changing technological times.
There is more than superficial interest here. STC publishes a regular newsletter which in 2001 produced a special issue dedicated to the original ideas of Richard Saul Wurman on information architecture and invited commentaries from a list of respondents (myself included), most of whom had no affiliation whatsoever with STC (see the results at: www.stcsig.org/id/whatis6.html). I like to think that we in ASIS&T are equally open to outsiders and the IA Summit is a case in point – I took the initiative and invited the STC group to participate and am delighted that several attendees promised to do so, but as IA seeks to develop, are we doing all we can? There is little hope that we can ever form a professional society or conference that will attract all interested parties to one location, but I confess to being mighty impressed by what I heard at STC, and I know that some of these people need to be involved in shaping the future of IA, if we can only find the best way to do this.
Imagine if all the professional groups with an interest in designing better information spaces for human and social use could put their voices together. Would the result be to push a better agenda for design, a sharing of the best ideas and models, or a Tower of Babel? I cannot answer that one definitively (though I can offer odds on the results!), but I am increasingly convinced that the marking of professional boundaries within which we will include IA and outside of which we will place the myriad related disciplines results too often in a narrowing of perspective that may serve a small group of protectionists but does little to advance our knowledge.
I do not believe there is anything sinister at work here, despite the impression some posters on SIGIA-L have of recent moves in this field, such as the emergence of AifIA (www.aifia.org). I think it is more the case that we cluster and affiliate as professionals and develop networks that are extensible with effort but not replaceable without significant costs. The obvious costs are financial, but there is more at stake. Professional societies sponsor or produce publication venues and outlets that form our identity as professionals. The forces are powerful in producing a set of standards and expectations for work and career advancement and it takes a brave person, academic or practitioner, to move in and out of these societies without making a commitment to one or other.
Of course the big problem for us is that there are just so many damn information-related professional societies. ASIST, ACM and STC have been mentioned but we have a host of related library groups (ALA, SLA, MLA, etc.), the business school-type information groups such as AIS, and the various HCI type groups outside of ACM, such as UPA and HFES. All of these groups contain professionals for whom the design of information could be claimed as a central concern. And I have not even started on the graphic design community, which has similar interests, e.g., AIGA. It is clearly impossible for any one person to be a member of all the groups with whom she might share interests and the result is the continual splintering of effort that otherwise might really advance our overlapping concerns.
After the STC talk I had conversations on this topic with others who suggested a federation of appropriate information societies might be a good move forward. I agree it would help but it would take more than goodwill to make this occur, and right now I do not see a lot of enthusiasm for this on the IA lists. Of course, such federation requires belief in the Big IA perspective of a field that addresses more than navigation structures for websites. Furthermore, despite the continued rhetoric of development, information architecture's place in academia is somewhat difficult to locate (see a fairly complete listing at www.asis.org/Board/educationprograms.html), but that is another issue for another column. In the meantime, if federation has appeal for you, or if you just feel that the boundaries between societies is unhelpful, raise your voice and come to Austin in February 2004 for the 5th IA Summit. It's been four years since the first one and we really need to remember that the name of the field does not give it ownership of the ideas. Perhaps IA can take the lead in showing this to be true.
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*This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 30, No. 2, December/January 2004, a publication of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 1320 Fenwick Lane, Suite 510, Silver Spring, MD 20910 USA. Phone 1 (301)495-0900 http://www.asis.org