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10 Ideas I Found in ‘Ambient Findability’

July 3rd, 2006 · 3 Comments · Archives Access Systems, Collective Memory, Web 2.0

On the plane ride to and from the ACA 2006 conference in St.John’s, Newfoundland I finally got a chance to read Peter Morville’s much lauded book Ambient Findability (O’Reilly, 2005).

In this book, Morville studies the latest Web trends and technologies from the perspective of findability, which he defines as the “the degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate.” He notes that the Web is changing how we live, work and interact with each other and that the findability of information on the web has a profound impact on who we are and who we will become.

Ambient Findability provides a timely overview of information retrieval and its role and relationship to the Web. I was familiar with many of references and concepts but the book does an excellent job of acting as a “boundary object” for these various ideas and practices while stringing them together into a cohesive and very readable narrative.

A number of the discussions in the book are applicable to my research into web-based archives access systems. I have summarized the most relevant in a list called, 10 Ideas I Found in Ambient Findability:

1. The Web is about human cooperation
2. The Noosphere is real…dude.
3. Information flows through us, and changes us
4. This is your brain on information overload
5. Too much is not enough is too much
6. Ignoring ignorance is bliss
7. Information systems are not irrational enough
8. Words, Meaning and Scale: The problem with Information Retrieval
9. A Folksonomy Is Better than No-onomy
10. Semantic Web and Web 2.0 Are Not Mutually Exclusive

Of course, this list is no substitute for the book itself. As Morville himself might say, the genre of the paper-bound book will affect how you experience the content he has written. If you are at all interested in information retrieval and the future of the Web you should get yourself a copy of this book.

1. The Web is about human cooperation

In the year 2000, David Weinberger wrote in his book Cluetrain Manifesto: “We don’t know what the Web is for but we’ve adopted it faster than any technology since fire.”

Five years later, Morville concludes that, at its core, the Web is about human cooperation and it is hard to argue with that assessment given the explosion of social software and online community building.

Morville quotes a blog comment by Michael Pusateri: “The change isn’t occurring in software, it’s occurring in people’s minds. Finally the guy who loves to make wooden ships in the bottle is realizing there’s a ton of other ship builders out there and some of them live in his town.” (p.135).

Communication is the backbone of all human society and the Web is one big conversation.

2. The Noosphere is real…dude.

“A Jesuit palaeontologist and philosopher by the name of Teilhard de Chardin popularized the notion of the noosphere or “sphere of human thought” back in the early 1900s. Similar to the atmosphere and biosphere, the noosphere is composed of all the interacting minds and ideas on earth.” (p33)

The information we find and the activities we participate in on the Web have a very real effect on our daily lives. Cyberspace, the noosphere, are not virtual. They are real.

(p42) “When we talk about navigating the noosphere and wayfinding on the Web, we are not just using metaphor. The worlds of words and ideas are in a very real sense, real. When we enter these spaces, we bring our senses along for the ride. We rely on geocentric and egocentric strategies that have served us for millennia. We become disoriented. We get lost. We find our way. We learn. Our virtual experience change us physically.”

3. Information flows through us, and changes us

“Most of our knowledge is pushed at us by the highly personalized mix of influences that composes our surrounding environment: People…Organizations…Geography…Media… Every day, we are exposed to stories, news, images, songs, billboards, presentations, speeches, jokes, warnings, analysis, opinion and advice. As these messages and experiences flow through our doors of perception, they leave us with fragments of memory and insight.

As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once noted, ‘No man every steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river, and he is not the same man.’”
(pp116-117)

4. This is your brain on information overload

“a recent study at King’s College in London showed that information overload harms concentration more than marijuana.” (p165)

“information and decision overload induces stress-related problems while simultaneously reducing our ability to identify and manage root causes.” (p166)

“It’s time we shifted our focus from creating a wealth of information to addressing the ensuing poverty of attention.” (pp44-45)

5. Too much is not enough is too much

“Because our trust in authority has eroded, we must find our own solutions. We select our sources. We choose our news. But since we’re swimming in information our decision quality is poor. So, how do we stop from drowning? We fall back on instinct. We retreat from data. We drop pull and endure push. We pay attention only to messages that find us. And when we do search, we skim. A keyword or two into Google, a few good hits, and we’re done. We satisfice with reckless abandon, waffling back and forth between too much information and not enough. And, we make some very bad decisions as individuals, organizations and societies.” (p166)

6. Ignoring ignorance is bliss

It turns out there’s another Moore’s law. The most well know law is attributed to Intel founder Gordon Moore in 1965. It states that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits will double every year.

The other Moore’s law is actually spelled Mooers’ law and, in many ways, I find it even more interesting than its better know homonym. In 1959, Calvin Mooers stated that “An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.’ Sometime we don’t want new information, he argued – less is more.” (p44)

Mooer’s Law hits on a fundamental characteristic of how human’s interact with information. It’s true, many times I deliberately don’t search for information because the answer might be inconvenient, cause worry, or lead only to more work and investigation. Ignorance is bliss. Or rather, ignoring ignorance is bliss.

7. Information systems are not irrational enough

The missing link between Human Computer Interface and Systems Design is the fact that “human behaviour is often not rational or optimal.”(p55)

Information systems should adapt or account for the fact that:

  • Humans often categorize things using fuzzy cognitive models, emotions, and wishful thinking rather than objective rules
  • Humans will always expend the least effort if they can get away with it. There’s almost no difference between something being a bit of an effort and it being impossible because we’ll quit or find a work-around before we complete the task.
  • Humans want to be happy. Pretty things make them happy. Compliments make them happy, even if it comes from pre-programmed code.
  • Humans want to trust. Ugly interfaces, slow response, poor findability breeds mistrust.
  • Information seeking is more like picking berries than hunting elephants.

8. Words, Meaning and Scale: The problem with Information Retrieval

“Words intended to represent concepts: that is the questionable foundation upon which information retrieval is built. Words in the content. Words in the query. Even collections of images and software and physical objects rely on words in the form of metadata for representation and retrieval. And words are imprecise, ambiguous, indeterminate, vague, opaque” (p51)

“Controlled vocabularies help retrieval systems to manage the challenges of ambiguity and meaning inherent in language. And they become increasingly valuable as systems grow larger. Unfortunately, centralized manual tagging efforts also become prohibitively expensive and time-consuming for most large-scale applications. So they often can’t be used where they’re needed the most.” (p53)

“This is the paradox of ambient findability. As information volume increases, our ability to find any particular item decreases. We’re staring down the barrel of the biggest vocabulary control challenge imaginable, and we can’t stop adding powder.” (p86)

9. A Folksonomy Is Better than No-onomy

In a folksonomy, “users tag objects with keywords, with the option of multiple tags…The tags are shared and become pivots for social navigation. Users can move fluidly between objects, tags, authors, and indexers. Things get interesting when many people apply different tags to the same object and when many people apply the same tag to different objects.” (pp136-137)

Anyone who uses tags created by others on a website such as Flickr or Del.icio.us (i.e. clicks on one to find information or uses an existing, ‘popular’ tag on a new object) is relying on the ‘wisdom of the crowd’; the idea that groups of humans can exhibit a kind of collective intelligence, when they are connected and communicating in the right ways. This is one way to deal with the information retrieval problem of words, meaning and scale.

Morville warns that there’s fine line between the ‘wisdom of crowds’ and the ‘madness of mobs’. At the same time, he quotes Clay Shirky who makes the very valid point that “the advantage of folksonomies isn’t that they’re better than controlled vocabularies, it’s that they’re better than nothing, because controlled vocabularies are not extensible to the majority of cases, where tagging is needed.”

10. Semantic Web and Web 2.0 Are Not Mutually Exclusive

So is there a way out of this mess? Clay Shirky is most renowned for arguing that the Semantic Web is an unrealistic waste of time. Most Web 2.0 practitioners seem to agree, if not in words, certainly with their actions. Semantic Web is a vision for self-describing information entities and relationships that relies upon systematically applied and structured metadata such as Dublin Core and RDF. However, even though this vision has been around for a number of years, there is a scarcity of applications and websites that have incorporated it. For the Semantic Web to work, it needs widespread participation.

Nevertheless, Morville argues, and I agree, that the “Semantic Web tools and standards [will, eventually] create a powerful, enduring foundation [for an unifying, universal information architecture]. Taxonomies and ontologies provide a solid semantic network that connects interface to infrastructure. And the fast-moving, fashionable folksonomies sit on top: flexible, adaptable, and responsive to user feedback.” (p141)

“Over time, the lessons learned at the top [layer of the unifying information architecture] are passed down, embedded into the more enduring layers of social and semantic infrastructure. This is the future of findability and sociosemantic navigation: a rich tapestry of words and code that builds upon the strange connections between people and content and metadata.” (p141)

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Steve Kwan // Jul 7, 2006 at 9:38 am

    Hey Peter,

    I was looking for library/archival blogs, and look who I bumped into! Our paths have crossed before – as of this writing, I’m currently Eloquent’s lead software engineer. Great to make your acquaintance!

    I really enjoyed Ambient Findability, although I found it was kind of vague and cloudy – nothing tangible to grab onto, just a collection of loose ideas.

    Peter Morville’s great. Have you had a chance to look at Information Architecture yet? It’s a lot longer than Ambient Findability, and as a professional archivist it probably contains a lot of things you already know. However, it does a great job of tying LIS into Web design. Most people likely aren’t aware of how closely the two are intertwined.

    I’d be really curious to see if folksonomies can be successfully applied to archives, but I have my doubts. After all, folksonomies are all about emergent patterns – the wisdom of the masses. They only work if you’ve got thousands and thousands of users in an active community, and very few archives can claim such a user base. So I guess we’re stuck with time-consuming taxonomies for now.

  • 2 Peter Van Garderen // Jul 8, 2006 at 5:05 am

    Hi Steve,

    Thanks for dropping in on my blog. Eloquent is where I started my career as a ‘techie archivist.’

    You’re right, Ambient Findability is more of a high-level summary and a bit of a prophecy rather than a textbook. However, it is great to have all this disparate information strung together into a cohesive narrative that takes stock of where we are at with Information Architecture in 2005/06 and where we are going with it.

  • 3 Stevie K // Jul 8, 2006 at 11:36 pm

    Hey Peter,

    It’s nice and cozy here. I think I’ll lurk on your blog more often.