Being Shallow

“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.

Posted in Big Ideas, Professionalism, Workplace and Career | 11 Comments »

11 Comments

  • Burt Brumme

    June 13, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    This was a really enjoyable and stimulating article. It’s a rare treat to have someone write about the larger view of an industry in a clear and approachable manner. I am curious to see how it is received though. I have a quote by Machiavelli that I keep handy for when things get a bit tough:
    “And let it be noted that there is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful in its success, than to set up as the leader in the introduction of changes. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm supporters in those who might be better off under the new.”

  • Richard Dalton

    June 14, 2007 at 1:46 am

    Nicely written article Grant, I want to take one contrary point about the “insular” tag though – your description of the summit is very accurate – but being a strong community does not necessarily go hand in hand with being insular. I have seen many occasions when people or techniques from “outside” the IA community have been embraced and many occasions when people new to the “IA community” have been welcomed at the summit. Almost every summit lunch/dinner i’ve been to (many!) has included someone new to the summit or the community.

  • Eric Reiss

    June 14, 2007 at 8:02 am

    This is the most intriguing piece I’ve read in ages. Simply wonderful, Grant. Do you have any thoughts on what the common denominator is for the people who call themselves “information architects”? For my part, I’ve long suspected it’s our particular way of observing the world around us – our peculiar way of thinking, our ability to find the “eye of the hurricane.” Perhaps this is why “IA” difficult to define and even more difficult to teach. And it makes me wonder, is information architecture a discipline or a lifestyle?

  • Grant Campbell

    June 14, 2007 at 12:01 pm

    You’re quite right, Richard: I didn’t make that point as well as I’d hoped. A better analogy would probably be having dinner with your in-laws. While there’s no question (hopefully) that your in-laws care about you, and welcome you, and want you to be there, they have a rapport with your spouse that goes way, way back, and to some extent you have to be a good sport and listen to that history play itself out in anecdotes, news of people you’ve never heard of, and old jokes that don’t split your side the way they split everyone else’s. That’s what I mean by “insularity”: I was trying to rescue the word from its negative connotation, and suggest that the awkwardness a newcomer feels is not the result of deliberate exclusion, but simply the inevitable discomfort at being among people with a history that he or she hasn’t yet begun to share. And frankly, I’d rather have that then the reverse phenomenon: being fastened on to voraciously by veterans who are lusting for new blood for their task forces and committees.

  • Colleen Jones

    June 14, 2007 at 2:36 pm

    Reading this article was a pleasure. It raises substantive issues in an articulate and personal way. On shallowness, I think that’s a challenge several related fields face. One factor I’ve noticed is that we tend to propose or use new names for our fields, our roles, and more–frequently. I’m not saying we should completely avoid new labels. But to grow in our establishment academically and professionally, we need some labeling constancy.

    Related to that, I greatly appreciated the points on history, and not just because I like T.S. Eliot. I’m getting “older” in this field and am amazed at how often I have seen colleagues (or even myself) discussing an insight as new, when it really isn’t. It may have a new application or permutation, but the essence is the same. It’s our awareness, not the insight, that’s new. Understanding our history can help us identify our true innovations.

  • Madonnalisa G. Chan

    June 14, 2007 at 3:41 pm

    Grant, very well-written, engaging, and thought provoking article. In some funny way I started thinking about the Meyers Briggs Test while reading the 3 accusations. Somehow I’ve noticed we all exhibit varying degrees of them and it really effects interactions with other IAs (and even non-IAs) because there’s some sense that I’m right, you have to listen to me attitude. While I was away from the “scene” for a couple of years and stepped back in, I arrived when all these accusations were flying around as topics of writings/conversations. At first not at all encouraging for me, however at the same time I believed there were opportunities that were forming and in some way your article has summed up some of my gut feeling when you described that “stillness.”

  • Terry Bleizeffer

    June 14, 2007 at 8:20 pm

    Any article that makes me laugh out loud is a-okay in my book, and “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” made me laugh out loud. As Homer Simpson would say, “It’s funny because it’s true.”

    As someone who is new to IA (I visit here to extend my user experience background gently into the IA arena, which I think is a valuable skill), I’ve noticed the insular nature of the community – but not in a bad way. Any vibrant community is going to have a natural case of insularity, and as others have pointed out, this doesn’t mean newcomers aren’t welcome, it just means newcomers have a motivation to join the group. Completely distributed, non-insular communities are not attractive to join.

  • Theresa Putkey

    June 14, 2007 at 9:47 pm

    In all my networking, I’ve found a lot of IAs who don’t know many other IAs. But this is more human nature than IA nature: not to get out there into the palm-pressing when other things are more pressing, so to speak.

    I also have a fear of being shallow – there are so many things to know, how can I know them with enough depth to be good enough? Yesterday I did a compilation of some IA job descriptions and found that the skill set required ran the gamut from business analysis to interaction design. How can you have depth with that kind of breadth?

    Also, in all my non-IA community networking, I’ve found that most people don’t know what any of our titles mean. Right before I read this article, I was thinking about my new business cards and questioning whether I should put a job title on them. I use any skills to create usable products, and the most heavily used skills are communication skills (i.e. face to face discussions or email threads).

  • Adam Polansky

    June 15, 2007 at 7:44 pm

    I really enjoyed your article. I like the way you’ve taken the most common knocks and essentially validated them by changing the context around them. You’re musing on the appeal of Information Architecture was particularly on point for me. It gave me another way to know why I love what I do.

    When it comes to being shallow, I’ve talked about maintaining what I call a “willful ignorance” when it comes to back-end systems. By that I mean I try to envision somthing without immediately tearing it down with a knowledge of system constraints. If I can communicate it to someone who is as creative and passionate about software development code as I am about UX, there’s a better chance that vision will be realized. I’ve seen it work.

    We’re all such junkies for external validation. Thanks again for what I thought was an afffirmation.

  • Donald W Moore

    June 28, 2007 at 3:59 pm

    Grant, your English background shines wonderfully through in this thoughtful story. I often get burned out from reading so much of “the literature,” but I was able to sail through your article. I am an IA wannabe that simply does not have the time to get involved (“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” [amen]).

    I especially appreciate your notion that there must be be apoint at which a curriculum of study can be developed for a discipline. We IA voyeurs need the “informationarti” to let us know what do do without us having to go through the pain you have already experienced. I, for one, am ready to learn from the historical tale of our IA forefolks.

    Thanks for the experience.

    Don Moore

  • laurie kalmanson

    August 29, 2007 at 7:52 pm

    deeply superficial

    really good

    web 2.0 or web 102.0 > matching user experiences and business goals was and is the name of the game

    rock on

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