Being Shallow

Written by: Grant Campbell

“It is important to consider the balance between breadth and depth in your taxonomy.”

—Lou Rosenfeld and Peter Morville, Information Architecture for the World Wide Web 2nd ed., p. 67

“Deep down, I’m a very shallow person”

—Charles Haughey

We’re all painfully familiar with flame wars. But they’re not always marks of dysfunction. Watching flame wars over a period of time can make one aware of patterns within a profession. After witnessing a few acrimonious threads, you start to notice the personalities that play different roles in that community: the elder statesman (usually one of the younger ones), the enfant terrible (usually one of the older ones), the one who tries to make everyone get along, the one who delights in poking people with a stick. You can watch allegiances form and re-form as circumstances change, and glimpse the darker and less friendly thoughts of all those smiling faces at a conference. Above all, you can find the hot buttons: the statements and accusations that will always provoke a hostile response in the community.

In my lurking on various IA lists over the past 4 years, I’ve noticed that some accusations can always be relied upon to get IAs angry and vocal:

* IAs are history. They used to be cool, but they got caught on a few irrelevant issues, and have lost their chance to gain and hold a central position in today’s information environment;
* IAs are insular. They are unfamiliar with, and indifferent to, things going on outside the world of wireframes, facet analysis and web analytics;
* IAs are shallow. They may be flashy and indeed intelligent, but they don’t think deeply about things, and they have failed to reach the subterranean profundity that other fields have attained.

These are serious accusations: so serious that it’s easy for IAs to forget how easily one can make such accusations about anything, and how common such accusations are. In my 20 years on the academic conference circuit, I’ve seen many speakers punctured during question period, not by a loud-mouthed bully (although they show up, too), but by a weary, kind-looking figure with a gentle voice, who is normally reluctant to make a fuss, but cannot, simply cannot let such intellectual prostitution take place without raising an objection.

But these accusations, while easy to level at another, are not so easy to deflect. If you refute them, you sound defensive; if you get angry, you lose the moral high ground. And if you let it go, people might think the accusations are true.

And what if they are?

Let’s face it: the accusations are serious. So, let’s take them seriously. What’s more, let’s assume for the moment that they’re true, take them in reverse order, and delve into them more deeply.

1. IAs are Shallow.

Long before Dorothy Parker accused Katherine Hepburn of “running the gamut of emotions from A to B,” we’ve all been terrified of having a narrow range, or of having no hidden depths. The terror arises from that gnawing suspicion that it’s true, together with a hideous fear that other people span the whole alphabet.

Here’s a suggestion to begin with: recognizing your shallowness is perhaps the most profound act of your intellectual life. It’s the recognition that you’re mortal, that you’re busy, that you’ve got to survive in a cruel world, and that there’s more to read, more to write, more to think about, and more to solve, than you could ever possibly manage in your lifespan. I suspect that most of the standard disciplines begin with this recognition of shallowness. My doctoral program in English, which I thought would open doors onto a wild orgy of knowledge acquisition, forced me to close all kinds of tantalizing doors, and confine myself to a tiny, tiny, tiny patch of ground that I could master in four years. I’m a Doctor of Philosophy, and if you want to know how much money Juliet Granville had in her purse on page 254 of Frances Burney’s The Wanderer, I’m your man. But like most Ph.D.s, I emerged from my final thesis defense, not empowered by a sense of mastery, but horrified at how little I knew.

I sometimes wish that IAs were more shallow, that they were less insistent about staying at that giddy nexus where your small activities resonate across the entire networked world. I’ve been known to hide in my hotel room at the IA Summit, rather than risk being invited to dinner, simply because I don’t have the energy to hold up my part of an intense conversation. I sometimes wish we were less eager to leap from visualization to facet analysis to web analytics to information scent to pace layering before I’ve even had a chance to look at the menu. What some people would call shallow, I would call a fear of being shallow, which translates into a frenetic inability to calm down.

What’s more, this inability to relax and be shallow is a formidable barrier to IA curriculum development. A field has to have patches of stability: areas that stay constant, not because the world is constant, but because people are sufficiently mule-headed to insist on not changing. Ranganathan’s Colon Classification foundered, at least in part, because he kept tweaking it massively from edition to edition, making it impossible for libraries to keep up. And a curriculum of study can only develop when a field hits a good mix between navel gazing and stubborn obliviousness. Questioning is good; questioning is necessary. But there have to be times when you fold your arms and say, “Because, that’s all. Just because.” ( I teach cataloguing, and I’ve grown used to saying that. ) The fear of being shallow could prevent IAs from reaching a working consensus on what constitutes an adequate skill set.

2. IAs are Insular

Yes, they are. I’ve never seen a field more earnestly dedicated to welcoming newcomers at the IA Summit. We have nuts and bolts; we have newcomer tables; we have baseball cards. (I tried to get my sister to accept my swimlanes card in exchange for her treasured card for Jean Beliveau of the Montreal Canadiens, but she refused.) And yet in the registration area you inevitably hear wild shrieks of joy as delegates fly rapturously into each other’s arms and start making plans for a no-holds-barred, dish-it-all dinner, far away from all these other tiresome people. And at one point in every summit, the Argus Rapture occurs, where everyone who ever worked for Argus suddenly disappears for a dinner of reminiscing.

IAs make friends. IAs love each other. IA is a community, and one with solidarity and affection and mutual respect. There are worse things to be. And I can attest to the fact that if you hang on and stick it out, you’ll get in there eventually.

But what about intellectual insularity? What about the accusation that we’re not familiar with the work being done in other fields? Here, the problem is more complex, and I think it revolves around a nasty distinction: the field of practice, and the field of study.

IA professes to be a field of practice, and aspires to be a field of study. As a field of practice, it has no great need to define an intellectual foundation of its own; as a field of study, it can’t live without one. If IA is a field of practice, it simply needs to combine ideas wherever they can be found into a set of practices and skills that others find useful. If IA is a field of study, it requires a distinct field of discourse, with both canonical and resistant texts, multiple voices, and a constellation of methods of inquiry. As a field of practice, IA can lift whatever it wants from philosophy, computer science, architecture, graphic design and library science; as a field of study, IA must appropriate and redefine those things into a common discourse.

I, for one, believe that developing that common discourse is a good thing. But imagine how it looks to outsiders. Those of you with children probably know how hard it is to watch them learn to do something you know how to do very well, and how overwhelming the temptation can be to rush in and fix things that you know will go wrong. Those of you with older children probably know how irritating it is when your children learn rapidly to do something that took you years of painful study to learn, and how disorienting it is to see them appropriate that knowledge in a totally different way.

It’s hard for experts in the fields that feed into IA to sit back and watch us stumble around, and probably harder still to watch us leap ahead unexpectedly, often at the cost of some unquestioned dogma in the parent field. And it’s hard for IAs not to snap with irritation when someone pipes up with phrases like, “you’re doing it wrong, you know.” It’s especially difficult to remember that phrases like that are infinitely preferable to the alternative: “I thought all along that you were screwing up, but I didn’t want to say anything.”

Maintaining a certain insularity is a necessary part of nurturing a common discourse; like children, we’ve got to learn to do it ourselves. The challenge lies in ensuring that cordial and productive relationships are maintained between those fields that lie outside that discourse; like children, we’ve got to learn to ask for and give help. And if we sometimes don’t get the mix right: well, what family does?

3. IAs are History.

It’s true, and I for one am glad that it’s true. Christopher Hitchens “once called”:http://www.identitytheory.com/people/birnbaum22.html North America the only culture “in the history of the world, where the words ‘you’re history’ are an insult.” Against a culture-wide disdain for history, and for longitudinal perspectives on current problems, prominent IAs are mounting a vociferous resistance. Peter Merholz, in his closing plenary of the 2006 Summit, treated us to an enlightening history of the term “information architecture,” showing us that the term has indeed a history, and that the concepts have a history longer than the actual term itself. As a profession, IA is struggling to avoid reinventing the wheel, and that can only come from a sense of history.

But what is history, anyway? T.S. Eliot once said that history is a collection of timeless moments, and that’s a very apt description of what IA is all about. Underneath all our usability studies and frameworks and paradigms and swimlanes and facet categories lies a core conviction: if you’re going to present complex information effectively, you’ve got to stop and think about it. You have to insist on your right to stop and think.

That’s not easy to do, when a chorus of voices is telling you that you’ve missed the boat, and that the world has moved on. It’s even harder to persuade an organization to do it, when its leaders are afraid of becoming history. Of course the world has moved on; the environment that produced the first edition of the Polar Bear Book is ten years in the past, on the other side of Google, the dot bomb, the Web 2.0, 9/11 and American Idol.

Information architecture at its best is not about the cool, the newest, or the latest. Information architecture is about the breath, the pause, the stillness in the eye of the information hurricane. I’ve experienced that stillness in many places. I feel it when I play Bach, and sense those incredible structures that stand like cathedral arches within the myriad notes that I’m trying to play. I feel it when I’m programming, and I sense the logic of the program I’m struggling to create emerge out of all my false starts and stumblings. I feel it whenever I see someone, from whatever walk of life, come down from the heights to figure out patiently what’s happening between A and B. IA is history, and a part of history: one class of those timeless moments in human life when we’ve stopped chasing about, one of those moments when we’ve stopped to think.