Peter Morville (blog) and his
book have been
getting a lot of play lately. He was a guest on NPR's On
Point; he did an interview on Very Spatial's last podcast;
and he'll deliver the keynote at the GeoTec
Event in Ottawa this June.
Morville is not a geographer; he's an information architect and refers
to himself in the book as a "librarian who lives on the Web." That
description should help you realize that the book is not so much about
knowing the location of people or items in the real world and its
implications, but rather about the challenge of finding information. I
feel confident in saying that, because Morville, in the preface,
chooses not to define what the book is about, or at whom it is aimed.
At first that annoyed me, but as I dug into the small book, just 179
pages, I realized that he was pulling together a number of perspectives
on a topic that perhaps information architects ponder but that we, on
the "finder side" of things, rarely do.
It's a fascinating ramble, one that will tickle the interests of those
with or without a geography background. I loved the chapter on the
history of wayfinding (complete with the mention of Kevin Lynch's Image
of the City) which, when you get down to it, is about
"finding." But Morville is quick to point out that the physical
navigation metaphor, while helpful in the search for information, has
its limitations. Morville "poo-poos" search sites (Antarti.ca, Kartoo,
Grokker) that try to map information, describing them as less than
useful. (I had the same response
some years ago.)
A full chapter titled Intertwingled covers geospatial technologies
including GPS, radio-frequency identification tags (RFID), and wearable
computers. It offers up an up-to-date litany of uses, from Wherify's kid tracking bracelet, to SmartMobs, to live
webcams, to chipped folks paying bar tabs. I've tracked those stories
from a variety of sources. It's valuable, while a bit overwhelming, to
have them all in one place.
Librarians and other information people will eat up this book. My
mother was a librarian so I sympathized with Morville's memories of
studying at the library before inputting a query into Dialog, an early
dial-up search service. Publishers of print and online content will
find insight as well. Despite the offerings of tools to "pull" selected
information from Web sources, we still depend on personal links, often
the grapevine of unofficial sources (blogs, etc. in today's world),
over official ones. And, of course, we need to build "serendipity" into
search, since, as we all know, sometimes its the book next to the one
you are looking for, or the article next to the one of interest that
changes your world. Marketers (and everyone else with a website) will
benefit from a short chapter on mixing the "push" of marketing with the
"pull" of valuable information. No surprise, the best at it, both in
balance and design: Google.
The book includes many big, important topics to ponder (or not). What
is information? Morville suggests that we not worry about it too much.
How do people deal with too much information? They don't bother to go
looking, per Calvin Mooers. What is the
Semantic Web? Is it useful? What of taxonomies, ontologies, and
folksonomies? These last few topics will take some time to ponder, but
Morville does a fine job making sense of what can seem like
overwhelming and distant ideas. I only found myself having to think
hard in the chapter on the Sociosemantic Web. I've promised myself to
read that chapter again, very soon.
I do have one quibble with the book. The graphics need improvement.
When a friend noted the color cover (most of OReillys early, geeky
programming books have black and white line drawings of animals), I had
to show him my disgust at the graphic on page 9, a hard to read,
"jaggy"-filled pie chart which appeared to be straight out of Excel.
(You can see it, and read the entire first chapter in PDF.)
Some graphics are simply computer screen shots of home pages squeezed
to such a size that text is not readable. I believe I also saw a
PowerPoint slide with the same issue. I expect better from O'Reilly.
The book, Ambient Findability, is two things. It's an introduction to
the ideas of finding and using information for those who have not
pondered it before. It is also a tidy update and exploration into the
future for those who've dipped their toes in the past. The broad range
of topics (I suspect one chapter or another will be review for nearly
anyone interested in the topic), the readable style, and connections to
real life make the book a surprisingly amusing jaunt into a topic that
few outside the information architect community ponder.