I started out thinking this is going to be a technical book about how we orient ourselves in relationship with the world around us, and what internal mechanisms we employ to navigate and find our way to our destinations or goals, whether it be in the physical world or in the virtual world. It starts out discussing these things and challenges we face in information architecture, but he begins weave an interesting argument when he introduces us to Calvin Mooers and his views on how we interact with information:
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.
There is an accessibility or effort component to information. In other words, we are fundamentally lazy when it comes to information. We would prefer to sit at our desks and search Google than go to the library and browse bookstack on a given topic.
Over the short course of internet history, as we have developed organization systems and various algorithms to improve the quality of information retrieval modeled on traditional models of interaction with information, we now see new behaviors and technologies emerging to overcome the limitations of these automated and rigid systems. Crowdsourcing over AI. Folksonomies over rigid taxonomies. Thus with the digitization of information emerges a social aspect to information retrieval. Information is no longer in the control of a few institutions, and the learned. The flow of information is no longer controled by traditional media or academia. It is now controled by sites like Google who provide the path of least resistance to the retrieval of information. Findability is key in this new information environment.
This is where his book gets really interesting. He takes the concept of findability on a journey that start out as innocent and technical and turns it into a quiet manifesto for the redistribution of information wealth. He says:
Findability is at the center of a fundamental shift in the way we define authority, allocate trust, make decisions and learn independently.
Given this newly discovered freedom of access to information, he does not share the unsubstatiated optimism/idealism of some. He remains deeply cynical of extremes. Complete freedom is often crippling, where the over-abundance of choices leads to us paralysis. He compares information consumption to food and diet. One should choose carefully what one consumes and understand where it comes from in order to stay healthy. Web is not the solution. Google is fast food.
In the end Peter Morville’s book is an artfully balanced essay that seeks to reconcile the views of authoritarian control with the distributed popular intelligence of the masses. His conclusion is an uncomfortable one: we need both the cathedral and the bazaar. In an age where libraries are seen as outmoded and a symbol of control, he reminds us that the notion of the free public library was an idea hatched from the mind of a rebel, Ben Franklin, who sought the equal access to ideas and information for all, and the Oxford English Dictionary, the pinnacle of authoritarian definition, was in fact the first open-source project.
I must say that Ambient Findability was a very enjoyable read, and refreshing to see Peter Morville critially examining his information architecture background, relinquishing control and embrace a more optimistic future where both control and freedom over information needs to and is able to coexist. It is our job then, as professionals who are entrusted with the care of information, to be aware of the complexity and contradictions and to maintain the balance.
He end the book with a quote from one of my favorite authors, Jorges Luis Borges, from his “Garden of Forking Paths”:
The book and the labyrith are one and the same.