JASIST Information Architecture Column June/July 2002

The IA Corner.

Andrew Dillon, for the ASIST Bulletin, June/July 2002*

I have been pondering the progress of information architecture recently in the light of the planning process for the third ASIST summit meeting at Baltimore (which will be over by the time you read this). That we have organized a third summit is telling enough; the original plans for summits were for us to group annually on topics of emerging interest, each summit to be a unique event created in response to a hot issue. The plan was never to organize a running conference on one theme, but then IA ended up being of more interest to folks than was originally imagined.  While the three summits, the continuing high-traffic listserv (SIGIA-L) and the ACM SIGCHI coverage of IA at its annual conference are indicative of sustained interest and mainstream acceptance for this emerging profession, I am struck by how little impact any of this seems to have in the designed information world. 

Moving home this year involved the usual upheaval one expects in relocation. However, as I gradually unpack the piles of boxes that have arrived in my new house I am conscious of how much effort it takes to recreate an information space in another location. No doubt, having to move forces one to examine publications that have long sat on shelves, failing to attract attention, serving only to comfort the owner through their very existence as a possession. It reminded me of my undergraduate days when we all seemed to suffer the illusion that possession of information equated to knowledge. Books were expensive and journals were not for personal subscription so as undergraduates we tended to photocopy lots of papers. Many of those copies never actually were read but it sure made their owners feel more secure to know that they could be.

So, the physical artifact has psychological value in its persistence, ownership and presence at hand. But books are also heavy and take up lots of space. With this, the third such move I have made in 15 years, I began to question the merits of information technologies that have supposedly removed our dependence on paper. Sure, I could afford to jettison papers from conference proceedings that are now online at the excellent ACM DL (see www.acm.org for details), and I dumped more than a few books that really I had never needed and admitted, finally, I would never use. But these made almost no impact on the mountain of information that I seem to collect and value as part of my professional and personal life, and I know I am not alone.

Why do we still do this? Hasn't technology reached a point where 2000 literary works can fit on a CD and be sold for $14.99? (See http://www.4literature.net/). Hasn't digitization removed the need for such hoarding of paper, enabling us to print on demand? If information truly can be the province of architecture then surely there is no more need for me to ship a truckload of paper across the United States and restack bookshelves whenever I move than there is for me to pile my house onto a truck and take that with me too.

Well, all the above points are true. Technology has achieved those ends, in principle. But in practice there is so little inducement to go digital with one's personal information collection that I cannot imagine anyone seriously giving up their well-thumbed analog devices now or in 15 years time (by which time I hope I have not had cause to move three times again!). Information architecture seems to concentrate so much on new or potential Web-based information environments that one can but wonder what promise it holds for the huge repository of information that populates all our lives now. Yes, a paper may be available on line, but the need to navigate to it and the lack of certainty that one can indeed find it again are strong inducements to holding on to the paper in hand.

And what value existing media have! Moving masses of books is a chore but it is also to be reminded a hundred times of earlier times, friends, arguments, deadlines and concerns. The marks on a text betray the interests and issues of yesteryear, and unlike links on a Web page, they take you where you want to go, not where a designer imagined you might find a relationship. Bookshelves are slow to reconfigure, but their structure enables cognitive mapping, the forming of clusters that matter to you and that stay there ready for your return. There is a joy in physical artifacts that can be too easily lost or trivialized in the digital realm.

Surely the intimate relationship between humans and space is worthy of detailed analysis and attempts at design. There is no doubt that we need information spaces that are crafted to our needs, but how much progress are we really making with information technology here? Not enough apparently, when we are so wed to books and journals that a faculty member in San Antonio can be fired for, among other reasons, keeping too many books in his office! (see http://www.dailytexanonline.com/vnews/display.v/ART/2002/02/20/3c73b95e8460d?in_archive=1)

Among the obsessions and constant debates about definition, the role of usability, whether it is Big IA or Little IA, I wonder if some of the more vocal in the IA community are just losing sight of what it means to architect information spaces for real human use. The paper world is comfortingly reassuring and prone to stability and it seems that human nature values such attributes. Are we even discussing such attributes among ourselves? In the reduction of user experience to the catch-all of usability, I wonder just how user-centered our new information tools can ever be. Marrying the human virtues of paper to the power of technology is likely to yield a hybrid information environment, one that is not really like the Web as we know it and one that will raise our perspective from the screen to the world. Now, are IAs ever going to obsess about that?

Comments and reactions to this column can be emailed to adillon@ischool.utexas.edu

*This article originally appeared in the Bulletin of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, Vol. 28, No. 5, June/July 2002,, 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