Ambient Findability

February 7, 2007

By Gall, James E

Ambient Findability. Peter Morville. (2005). O’Reilly Media. 188 pp. $29.95 (soft cover). ISBN: 0-596-00765-5.

Reviewed by James E. Gall

Technologists as a group can be stereotyped as people who are obsessed with the future. The past is the concern of archaeologists, historians, and archivists; the present is just a beta test for tomorrow. As such, the most memorable dates to the technologist are the ones we anticipate: George Orwell’s 1984, the millennium bug of Y2K, and Arthur C. Clarke’s and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.

Recently, however, the technology community has taken time to recognize some important milestones that focus on where it has been as opposed to where it is going. In 1981, the first IBM personal computer was released (WaIton, 2006). In 1990, Tim Berners-Lee first proposed what would become the World Wide Web (1999). The Mosaic browser was made available in 1994 (Ward, 2006). Purists will note that personal computers predated the IBM PC, working hypertext systems existed before the Web, and nonbrowser use of Internet resources has a much longer history. Nonetheless, the public at large has been able to reflect on these notable 25th, 15th, and 10th anniversaries. It can be pleasant to reminisce about what education and the world were like before and after these milestone events. However, it is probably more significant to point out that a majority of today’s students have never lived in a world without personal computers and most do not remember what things were like before the Internet.

It is within this context that I encounter Ambient Findability. Its author, Peter Morville, has long been a proponent of the concept of information architecture in Web site design. In 1998, Morville was coauthor of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web with Louis Rosenfeld. Although many books have been published on the creation of Web pages and Web sites, their work was one of the first to address the issue of large sites and massive amounts of information. They suggested that the design of large, complex sites required more than good writers and good programmers. The term information architecture referred to the overarching effort of coordinating experts in various disciplines in large-scale information design. They were particularly influenced by backgrounds in library science. The Internet may have brought a decline in traditional library patronage, but it also created a demand for professionals with experience in managing collections of information.

Coming seven years after the first edition of Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Morville’s Ambient Findability takes a more philosophical approach to information architecture. The former book offered tools and techniques for large-scale Web sites; the latter considers where designers are and where they are going with even larger-scale efforts. If physical libraries provided the metaphor for large sites in the late 1990s, cities have become the metaphor for the early 21st century. Morville’s approach in this book is to point out particularly innovative sites and ideas and to suggest some common themes. The tone is optimistic, but uncertain. The library may be the epitome of order and structure, but a city- even a well-run one-is a dynamic compromise between structured services and entrepreneurial individualism. For example, citizens expect their cities to provide effective methods of transportation and waste disposal, but bristle at a city exercising too much control over their day-to-day lives. Successful Web sites face similar challenges. Users want dependable information and services, but also enjoy the freewheeling everyone-is-a-publisher opportunity of the Web.

To Morville, ambient findability “describes a fast emerging world where we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime” (p. 6). This is quite a leap from even the largest Web design project. One could easily dismiss it as hyperbole, but recent headlines suggest that parts of the equation are already in place.

The reach of the Internet is extending and multiplying. Oblinger and Hawkins (2005) cited that 84% of college students report owning a computer and 25% report owning multiple computers when they come to campus. An increasing number of network-enabled, non-PC devices (such as digital phones, digital video recorders, PDAs, gaming consoles, and e-book readers) continually offer new ways of being online. Wireless networking initially pushed the Internet into unwired rooms and is now radiating into restaurants, coffee shops, parks, parking lots, and beyond.

The world is also becoming more Internet aware in a variety of ways. Instant messaging has provided a low-bandwidth mechanism for staying in touch with friends and family without regard for the cell phone, personal computer, or PDA that happens to be transmitting the message. A more intrusive connection is now marketed to parents in the form of a locking wristband, which offers the exact location of the wearer to an authorized user via a Web browser (Lane, 2003). Ten years ago, Web cams provided a tantalizing peek into the real world for Internet users. Today, the current buzz is satellite imagery. With a street address or global coordinates, various Web sites offer satellite imagery (paying customers get up-to-date images, the free versions tend to be older). Tracking numbers allow you to monitor the exact locations of packages or flights for a variety of services. Trackable objects are getting a big boost from radio frequency identification tags imbedded into consumer products.

However, there is a paradox in achieving Morville’s ambient findability-as the number of findable objects increases, the probability of finding the one thing you are looking for decreases. More navigation and search options can further confuse things. To Morville, this complexity is inevitable and welcome. Innovative approaches are needed, but the Web provides the competitive Darwinian environment in which the winners will survive. Others have been less optimistic. For example, concern for a perceived digital divide is now being replaced by a concern of information overload. Linda Stone used the phrase continuous partial attention to describe a technophile’s obsession with keeping multiple channels of information open in hopes of not missing anything with the end result of less attention paid to each (Kirsner, 2005). It should be no surprise that some are now pushing back against one-to-one computer initiatives because being connected now offers so many ways to be distracted (Vascellaro, 2006).

Despite his enthusiasm, Morville is no Pollyanna for technology solutions. For example, he describes how most information visualization projects on the Web have failed to improve their respective interfaces. This is in apparent contradiction to our ability to manage and decode the physical world and our frequent use of wayfinding terminology to describe virtual activity. From his perspective, a solution will emerge; it just may or may not be a visual one. To this reader, Morville provides an appropriate balance of philosopher and pragmatist. It is not the unbridled optimism of the self-appointed futurist or the pessimistic nitpicking of the Luddite.

As stated earlier, Ambient Findability offers ideas, and plenty of them, rather than tools or techniques. Morville uses the term noosphere (attributed to Teilhard de Chardin, but no citation given) to describe the sphere of human thought composed of all the minds and ideas on earth. With such a broad topic, Morville avoids the temptation of creating false dichotomies (such as digital or nondigital, scholarly or nonscholarly, authoritative or nonauthoritative). Rather, he dispenses ideas around common themes, regardless of their source or pedigree. Along the way, he leaves a trail of names, works, and citations that will generate hours of further exploration for the like-minded reader. Probably unintentionally, Morville has created a book that reads like a travelogue of the Web. Many sites and names will be familiar, but each reader will find something new or unexpected.

The one big disappointment with Ambient Findability, ironically enough, is the index. Although a relatively small book (188 pages), it is littered with names and references. Often the index provides just one entry for a name or concept that appears in multiple places throughout the book. In other cases, such as with the Web site Flickr, there is no index entry despite a number of prominent appearances in the book. Likewise, the use of footnotes for citations could have been handled differently. Upon reading this book, most will want to read more. A complete list of sources at the end and suggestions for further reading (especially from authors discussed in the text) would have been a nice addition.

While technologists focus on the details of design and development and researchers carefully examine that work, it is important to pause and consider where they are going and why. Thought-provoking popular books (whether they age well or not) have been helpful in this regard. A short list of such books from the past would include McLuhan’s Understanding Media (1964), Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock (1971), Marvin Minsky’s The Society of Mind (1985), and Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999). I would gladly add Ambient Findability to that list and suggest that it is one of those book\s that every technologist should read. A more eloquent endorsement is provided by science fiction writer Bruce Sterling (cited on Morville’s Web site, http:// www.semanticstudios.com), “I envy the young scholar who finds this inventive book. The future isn’t just unwritten-it’s unsearched.”


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James E. Gall [james.gall@unco.edu] is Associate Professor of Educational Technology, University of Northern Colorado.

Copyright Association for Educational Communications & Technology Dec 2006

(c) 2006 Educational Technology, Research and Development. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.

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