Book Review: What We Find Changes Who We Become

book cover Ambient Findability
By Peter Morville
O’Reilly, 2005

Ambient Findability is the second book written by Peter Morville. His first, Information Architecture, was co-authored with Louis Rosenfeld. While Information Architecture provided a basic overview of a new field of knowledge and design practices, his second book looks far ahead in the field, trying to set new frontiers for both practitioners and academics. It is definitely worth reading and, as it is an intense 188-page book, it might be necessary to read it twice, perhaps more slowly, to better taste the different flavors and perspectives suggested to the reader.

I found many interesting theses, observations, new inspirations, and reflective views. Some of them are just confirming, I believe, the state-of-the-art of current research in the fields of interaction design and information architecture; others are new views opening potential new fields of investigation and even helping us to better understand the current limitations of ideas, concepts, and cultures that characterize the intersection of usability and interaction design today. In fact, it is more a book of vision than a book of recommendations to follow in your work.

This book claims that “findability is going ambient,” which means that all we know about helping people find information on the Internet will also be of value in helping people find things in their physical environments—that is, as soon as ubiquitous computing transforms the “Web into both interface and infrastructure for an ambient internet of objects.” (Ubiquitous computing moves computation into the environment and everyday objects, rather than having computers as distinct objects.) This very valuable observation immediately raises a question for information designers: “Can users find what they need from wherever they are?” The book sets out to answer this question.

Ambient Findability contains seven intense chapters. In the first, “Lost and Found,” Morville starts from observations of our everyday lives. He shows us that we can already find our ways with mobile devices and that we are always connected to our network of people. As soon as the infrastructure we use to connect to others meets the digital infrastructure of our physical environment, “the histories of navigation, communication, commerce, and information seeking converge,” Morville argues.

The second and third chapters, “A Brief History of Wayfinding” and “Information Interaction”, illustrate the new concept of ambient findability: In the author’s words, “Ambient findability describes a fast emerging world where we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.” In pursuing this idea, the book reinterprets the language and the concepts of the ubiquitous-computing paradigm and provides many new inspirations for design.

The fourth chapter is titled “Intertwingled” from the word used by Ted Nelson to explain hypertext, hypermedia, and the fact that things, information, and ideas are connected in a non-sequential way. The chapter refers to current practices that support way finding (i.e. tagging objects with RFID and wireless technologies) on one side, and metadata-tagging on the Web on the other. “How will we Google our way through a trillion objects in motion?” asks Morville. How will we trust information? With whom will we share information in a world where physical positions are converted into symbolic locations and, more generally, physical data do have corresponding symbolic information? Of course, the answers to these complex questions are left to ongoing research.

While the final chapters present some immediate answers, this chapter suggests a faith in the changes that digital and wireless technology will bring to us. “Our destination lies shrouded in fog, but our direction is clear. We are on the yellow brick road to ambient findability and we’ve got magic slippers to help us find our way.” But only a few pages later, Morville asks: “Do we really want to go there? This is a question we must continue to ask as we intertwingle ourselves into a future with existing benefits but cloudy costs…Our enthusiasm for [ubiquitous computing] will undoubtedly be tempered by reality. Our future will be at least as messy as our present. But we will muddle through as usual, satisfying under conditions of bounded rationality.”

I find this view a bit undetermined. I believe it does not completely take the position I would have expected from a findability evangelist. Isn’t it our responsibility to envision and to design reality? We do not need to espouse idealistic views to be able to help user-centered innovation perspectives to take place. As a matter of fact, that is our mission. There are already many researchers, practitioners, managers, designers, and bloggers who are advancing proposals and views to make ubiquitous computing and innovation user-oriented. Morville is well aware of that; he acknowledges and openly refers to them. It may be that these words of caution are devoted to the larger community of techno-evangelists who do not care about the impact generated by technology on everyone’s life.

I think I understood these words of caution better in the fifth chapter “Push and Pull,” which courageously embraces search engine advertisement and search engine optimization. Morville brings his readers into the marketing realm and connects us to the most interesting approaches for the usability community, I believe. So, besides the influence of the “Cluetrain Manifesto” (the classic view that “market are conversations”), you will find intuitions like, “as technology disrupts and transforms the marketplace, only those who listen carefully will profit from this persistent disequilibrium between supply and demand.” That is great!

But all in all, I found the sixth chapter, “The Sociosemantic Web,” the most interesting. I deeply agree with the author, who is skeptical about the future of the Web as the semantic web but has a strong belief in the future of so-called “folksonomies.” The skepticism is justified by the observation that “hyperlinks subvert hierarchies” and that “the design of shared classification systems is complex, messy, and expensive.”

Unlike large standardized classification systems, folksonomies are respectful of participatory tagging and classification systems. This is of great interest for the usability community, which can help these peripheral and local knowledge systems gain their legitimate role in the world and global markets. As Morville observes, “things get interesting when many people apply different tags to the same object and when many people apply the same tag to different objects.” I believe views like this balance the standardization approach in the usability community. Globalization can be detrimental if it just means sanitization and reduction of diversities and differences. As Morville writes in his elegant English, “Folksonomies flourish in the cornucopia of the commons without noticeable costs.” Ontologies, taxonomies, and folksonomies are not mutually exclusive, and there is a promising future for folksonomies.

Finally the seventh chapter, “Collective wise decisions” closes one of the many loops which were opened in the very first half of the book. I will quote some of the contents which I believe are masterful:

  • “We should proceed cautiously before placing our lives in the invisible hands of smart mobs.”
  • “What we find influences what we do.”
  • “Internet end-to-end architecture locates intelligence at the ends rather than the center, allowing for an innovation of commons that’s central with respect to applications and controls.”

And what I find most interesting: “Findability is at the center of a fundamental shift in the way we define authority, allocate trust, make decisions, and learn independently.” To me, this means that we, as a usability community, have a role in facilitating this shift. Good practices stem from thorough observations and sound theories.

Visciola, M. (2006). Book Review: What We Find Changes Who We Become. User Experience Magazine, 5(4).
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