Reading On The Train
I have spent the last three weeks consulting up in San Francisco. Since I live in San Jose, this means I either have a long drive or I do the train. After experimenting with driving and BART, I opted to take CalTrain the last two weeks of this gig.
What this left me was over 30+ hours of uninterrupted time to myself. So I have been reading and catching up on the pile of books that I had been collecting and wishing I had time to read.
Having large chunks of time to read like this has allowed me to move from one book to another fairly quickly and when you do that, it allows you to see parallels and contrasts in the nature of the content.
I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Interface Culture and Richard Saul Wurman’s Information Anxiety 2 back to back. This was an interesting way to experience these two books. Interface Culture is terrific and Johnson mulls over and surmised about the future of things and experiences in the wired world. This book was published in 1997, so it is cool to look back at what he thought was groundbreaking and reflect on all the things that have and have not come to pass. We have not come as far in the past 4 years, as I think he projected we would, and other experiences that he mentioned as being the beginnings of something new downright flopped or disappeared without really being replaced. He spends a chunk of time discussing the Palace and Microsoft’s Comix Chat and looking at the nature of these spatial metaphors and the limitations they impose when applied to hundreds or even thousands of participants. Unlike my earlier references to Jessica Helfand’s thoughts about these community spaces, he is less confident of their ultimate success.
Wurman’s book reflects on the current state of things and seems very fresh, with quotes from books just published (Jeffrey Veen’s The Art and Science of the Web), essays by notables (Nathan Shedroff, Nigel Holmes, Eliot Christian, Ramana Rao) and illustrations and charts from Hugh Dubberly, Nigel Holmes, and others– it definitely is a book of the times. He moves back and forth from subjects that I found extremely compelling – the nature of the interface and the wealth of information people need to wade through and strategies for it’s presentation and organization – to preaching about himself and his work and the nature of boss employee communication. I felt that there were really two or three books here. One whole section on corporate communication and employee/boss relationships should have been it’s own book. The anecdotal information about his own work was best when used to illustrate a point about clarifying information or organizing in new meaningful ways, but when it sounded like an advertisement for his achievements, I couldn’t help thinking he was a bit too conceited for my tastes. (Note: This link goes to Understanding USA, a project of RSW's that is actually quite interesting.)
The most interesting thing about the two books and the fact that I read them one after the other – is that many of the themes are the same. Information and information retrieval are key and the interface – created by designers – is key to defining the clarity of this information in our lives at this time. Both authors talked about filters for data and filters for information. The distance of time and practice on this theme was also worth noting. Wurman’s book, published this year is very current. He is a designer and director of designers so has a hands-on perspective for creating these types of filters and interfaces. Johnson’s book is four years old – light years in Internet time – and he is an objective observer. However, many of the issues Johnson talks about - such as agents – continue to be evolving and worth careful discussion. Johnson devotes a whole chapter to agents and the evolution of smart agents. He observes the trend of developing agents and multiple views across information as aids in retrieving and understaning that information. We are still just starting to see this type of feature and functionality become part of our everyday computing lives. I have spent the last two months job hunting and if it weren’t for the jobsite agents bringing me job listings everyday I probably would be out of my mind with the endless research I would have had to have done. Wurman cautions against the uses of agents as they add to the amount of information a person must wade through everyday, thereby contributing to their overall information anxiety. He also cautions against customization as it takes away the serendipitous nature of exploration. The "I didn't know I was interested in that until I saw it" factor. I tend to agree with him on this point - I miss the old card catalogs of the libraries past for that same reason. When browsing the drawers, I would often find books that seemed interesting, only because they were similar by location or alphabetization. Now when I go to the library and search, it is based on keywords and what I get is very focussed. So while I get what I asked for, I have lost the random, unplanned discovery. The lesson here, in the use of agents is context. The appropriate context will deliver the best results. Using an agent to find job listings is good. Using one to deliver News is probably filtering out stories that I otherwise would be interested in reading.
Wurman criticizes graphic designers and the graphic design education arena for not preparing and teaching designers enough about information design and information architecture. In many ways I think he is right, there a lot of schools teaching style or software, but I also take issue with this, in that this is an exploding field and many schools are just now catching up. The programs and masters programs that specialize in information design and information as communication are doing well by their students and have been for a long time as corralling information is not really anything new. Think about the designers designing encyclopedias or multiple media communication systems with branding and style guides and suites of collateral, advertising, and internal and external communications. Many of the skills and techniques are the same.
While Steven Johnson’s book is a celebration of the interface and looks to the future as a bold and bright one worth exploring, I felt more cautious, overwhelmed and less optimistic reading Wurman’s book. I think this was in part due to the uneven nature of his book’s structure as well as the more critical nature of his observations of the world around him. Despite this, both books were excellent reads and offered much to think about as we travel along this wired adventure. (Ammendment: Wurman's book has some good chapters that I touch on here, but overall the book as a whole is very disjointed and difficult to follow. It is uneven in it's main thesis and the content is very self serving. In my discussions above, I am mostly concerned with a few early chapters and the guest written essays)
Next: Discussing Philosophy of Design
Then: More thoughts about Community and what that really means on the internet