A MESS These are the slides and notes for “Truly, IA” — my talk at the World Information Architecture Day event in Atlanta, on February 18, 2017 Andrew Hinton / andrewhinton.com I don’t know about you, but … I’m a mess. I mean, lately. Like, especially since about this time last year. I don’t think I’m the only one. So today I want to talk about something a little bit bigger than the typical design conference talk. I want to talk about Truth. I’ve been seeing the phrase “post-truth” lately — as in “we’re living in a post-truth world.” And since information architecture is about what things are, and where they go, and how they’re connected, it seems to me we ought to consider how we can do that kind of work if truth is being called into question. For example, a recent event occurred that caused shock and consternation among millions of people. It resulted in violet arguments between friends and family members, couples and coworkers. It made us question who our neighbors really are, and how they see the world. I’m speaking, of course, of The Dress. On February 26th in 2015, a photograph of a striped dress went viral on the Internet, and people were obsessed with it. How could two people be looking at the same picture and see completely different colors? It made some of us wonder if the rest of the world was playing a prank on us. Because reality felt like it was bending in an uncomfortable direction, and we weren’t in on the joke. There are valid explanations for this phenomenon. They involve the complexities of visual perception, digital media, and linguistics. An underlying question has to do with what is blue? what is white? Is it the pigment used in the fabric, or the color we think we see in the photograph? How would we categorize such a dress in a product catalog? Thank you for coming today! I’d like to reiterate by the way that the IA Institute is a great organization, and can always use your support. Contribute, join, or volunteer! Now, for the talk … and folks, I have to confess something.
— the rabbit-duck drawing. Is it a rabbit or a duck? Maybe it’s a ruck? or a dabbit? It turns out, when people see the drawing with the label “duck” they tend to see the duck. If the label says “rabbit” then that’s what people tend to see. Labels are powerful ways to nudge people into seeing something in one way or another. Our environment nudges us all the time, in ways we don’t even realize. To the point where we think we’re looking at truth, but then are puzzled when someone else sees a different truth. Because their context is different from ours. Their way of understanding the world, and therefore their language about the world, has a different point of reference than ours. A recent cartoon shows a television newscast where the announcer says “that was Brad with the Democratic weather. Now here’s Tammy with the Republican weather.” With the newly pernicious meme of “fake news,” we’re increasingly in conﬂict about what is true. Our identities and communities powerfully shape how we interpret reality. We had an election in the United States recently. I’m not sure if you’ve heard about it. So let me show you the results. Here we have several maps indicating the two major parties that voted, and how the votes tallied across the states and counties of the country. The one on the left is plainly manipulative — equating square acreage with the voting populace. It has the chilling effect of making some people feel outnumbered and insigniﬁcant. While, in reality, the majority of people live in cities. But the folks in the cities can sometimes assume they’re the center of the world too, and dismiss what some call “ﬂyover country.” When, really, everybody counts, right? But no matter what you do here, you’re going to run into the same problem — people can be looking at the same facts, and believe totally different things.
of an ongoing tension in this country about who the “real Americans” are. Labels that carry the potential of making some people part of “the people” and some others … well… if you’re not part of “the people” then what are you? Maybe you’re “enemies of the people”? If you’re not the right people, or you don’t believe what the “real people” believe? These are labels, and labels have power. Whether we label something a duck or rabbit, or a “person” or “non-person” … labels matter.
to add a “non-citizen” label to licenses of legal residents who have green cards. It’s just a little label — so how could that hurt anything? A little smidgen of metadata. An attribute in a database, made visible. Technically, it’s accurate, so what’s the harm? But if we think about how we use the word ‘citizen’ colloquially, this is a complicated decision. Because we talk about citizens in a more general way — our neighbors, fellow countrymen. How can you be a “good citizen” if you’re not “a citizen” to begin with? And if we consider the current political climate, there’s some complicating cultural context to this move. It opens up the question: who is an American? Who are the real people? Labels have power. Deﬁnitions have power. In Kansas, there’s an effort to manipulate how the law treats gender by deﬁning the word “sex” to mean “male or female” as absolute binary states, determined by the chromosomes of the human individual, and identiﬁed by anatomy. Now… those of us who understand how biology and psychology actually work realize this is primitive, ignorant, and brutally over-simplistic. But there we are. Labels matter. Language has power. It shapes the way we understand the world, and the way we behave in it toward one another.
have to do with World Information Architecture Day? Well, of course my answer is, “Everything.” Information architecture is all about bringing clarity and understanding to ambiguity. It’s about establishing coherent meaning. And information architecture uses language as its primary medium for placemaking and sense-making, to — as our friend Jorge Arango so eloquently puts it — preserve the “integrity of meaning across contexts.” But “meaning” is messy business. Our friend and colleague Abby Covert’s beautiful book about information architecture is called “How to Make Sense of Any Mess” for a reason. A great bit of truth in her book is this statement: “Intent is language” — and I’d say that the reverse is also true — language is intent. Whether we want it to be or not.
bring clarity to ambiguity? We orchestrate meaning by using labels, relationships, and rules. These are the building blocks and engine parts of information architecture. When we label something, we are making a value judgment on it. When we use a word for a hyperlink, we’re deciding that’s the word to use, and not all the others. When we create structures for people to navigate, we’re creating paths that can be taken and omitting paths that cannot be taken. Now … In our jobs, most of us are just trying to get stuff done. We’re covered up in service blueprints, journey maps, site maps, taxonomy spreadsheets, content inventories… We aren’t running into big world-changing challenges of meaning-making. Most of us aren’t world leaders or members of a congress or a parliament. But lately, I’ve been having trouble sitting with the idea that what I do for a living is somehow separate from history — that going to work, or writing, or presenting, or teaching workshops is neutral, insulated from the mechanisms that change the direction of the human story. And the more I think about it, the more I realize our work makes us legislators, whether we want to be or not. Did you hear that a third of US citizens don’t know that Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act are the same thing? Obamacare was a nickname given to the legislation as a pejorative, but people started using it whether they were critics or not. So we have millions of people who love their Affordable Care Act beneﬁts, but blame all the parts they do not like on “Obamacare.” And they voted based on those feelings. Now, we could say these people are just stupid… but do we say that about our users? What could’ve been designed to have made these semantics more clear? Why did it take until now for anyone to realize this was a problem? Likewise, Facebook and Google are having to come to grips with the fact that their technology platforms are not neutral. The way their algorithms manipulate the labels, relationships, and rules of their digital universes are reinforcing values of one kind or another, whether that’s intended or not. So now they’re needing to teach these machines what is “good” and what is “bad”. As our careers continue, we are all going to ﬁnd ourselves in situations where we will be part of a project or a product strategy where seemingly innocuous deﬁnitions are being created that actually have much deeper implications.
companies want to cultivate relationships with the best customers, and not so much with the customers who aren’t as desirable. So the company can give discounts and deals as incentive to the better customers, and maybe even disincentives to the bad ones. This is a simple taxonomy. So there will be labels and relationships and rules mapped out, and taught to a system of some kind that will go about sorting and categorizing. Seems like no big deal, right? But what about the single mother working three jobs who sometimes can’t pay the bill by the due date? She could use a discount… but what if she’s deﬁned as a “bad customer”? The system doesn’t already know the answer to this. Somebody has to decide. Truth is made. This is an uncomfortable idea, because it puts so much responsibility on us. It’s easier to assume that most of the important truths just take care of themselves. But they don’t. Truth requires work, curation, and care. There are facts in the world, yes. There’s objective reality. But what matters to humans is what humans decide those facts mean. There’s a Shinto shrine in Japan that has a fascinating story. It’s roughly a thousand years old or so. But it’s also never more than twenty years old. How can these two things be true at the same time? Well, every twenty years, the shrine is rebuilt, based on the original design, using the same materials. For the people who follow this religion and participate in this ceremony, this is a way of continuing something true through generations.
There is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, and no room for fear. We do language. That is how civilizations heal. Toni Morrison When we use language to establish the pathways and places of our world, it can feel tiresome and tedious. There’s a point where it all starts to sound like gibberish — or just bits of text we’re moving around until somebody signs off on it. But those of us who are lucky enough to have jobs where we curate meaning have a great deal of responsibility. Because there are people who, at some point in the inﬁnite web of connected points, will depend on the truth we participated in making. They will ﬁnd that the ﬁeld in a healthcare form either makes sense for them, or it doesn’t. That a label or relationship we’ve deﬁned will allow them to feed their kids, keep their house, or it won’t. At the Grammies just a few days ago, someone read this quote by Toni Morrison. I’d never heard this quote before. I think it applies to us as much as to any artist. "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, and no room for fear. We do language. That is how civilizations heal." There was a time when I might have thought a quotation like that overly grandiose or self- important to apply to our work. I don’t think that anymore.