in Books, Technology and Society

Finding Morville’s Ambient Findability

I just finished reading Peter Morville’s new book Ambient Findability. The book is exquisitely written, with innumerable tidbits about information retrieval curiosities, such as the obscure, but as Peter nicely points out, very significant Mooers Law (not to be confused with Moore’s Law, the one about microprocessors doubling in speed every few years), which describes the relationship between the use of an info retrieval system in relationship to the pain a user must endure to use it. Three chapters into the book, Morville makes a brilliant connection between Moor’s and Mooer’s laws:

Fast, cheap processors powered a personal computer revolution and enabled the information explosion we call the Internet. Five exabytes of information. Half a million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress. That’s how much information we create in a year, 92% of it stored in magnetic media. It’s time we shifted our focus from creating a wealth of information to addressing the ensuing poverty of attention.

Hear! Hear! The siren song of the war against information overload! Or is it? Upon reading this, I was expecting to read about how we are pumping unfettered volumes of content (such as this gratuitous blog entry) down the throat of the poor Internet, drowning it with endless streams of folksonomized info ooze. And, yes, Peter does deliver on that front, but not in the way I expected. Rather than pointing a finger at the easy target of Bad Technology, he chooses to explore that nebulous space between human quirkiness and technological stodginess, and the unending friction between the two.

Yes, the amount of information being amassed is mind-bending, and yes trying to retain any notion of findability within that seemingly horizon-less sea of increasingly ambient (as in anywhere anytime access) information seems insurmountable (except for Google, of course, but back to planet Earth…). Instead of getting caught in that ever-tempting desire of the infonaut to provide Solutions to Problems, to say “read this book and you too can be an Organizer of Content,” Morville takes us on a journey through his ambivalent musings (well-researched musing at that) of this intertwinglingly complexificated place which is all at once our own technological creation and continuing source of mystery, beauty, frustration and fear, a world of McGoogle information dysliteracy and what Morville calls “Graffiti Theory” (Google Hawkins and neocortex for more on that), information that flows through us changes our minds, physically, Peter claims.

In some ways, his book is no more than a Faberge Egg of exquisite gems about the latest and greatest in technological tres cool (reminding me somewhat unfortunately of Nicholas Negroponte’s crowd-pleasing doozy, “Being Digital”), but toward the end, it seems that was just beef for the stew, and the work seems to take on a more somber tone, intertwining politics, economics (er, Levitt Freakonomics, actually) to mold what in my view is less a book that belongs in the technology section (where you will inevitably find it, after all it’s an O’Reilly with obscure animal on the cover and all), but might be better placed in the sociology section, or maybe anthropology section, or possibly the ethnography section, no, maybe the…