KM 5433 Blog/Joe Colannino

A blog discussing knowledge management and library science issues.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Review and Discussion: Ambient Findability, Chapters 1 - 4

Ambient Findability is a text by Peter Morville. His thesis is that “what we find changes who we become.” The book is organized into seven chapters. Below, I list the title and a one sentence synopsis. This week’s assignment: Chapters 1 through 4.

Chapter 1 – Lost and Found: technology makes it easier to index information and increases the amount of information; as a result, information is both easier and harder to find.

Chapter 2 – A Brief History of Wayfinding: God’s creatures find their way through echolocation, memory, scent, trail-marking, and now – hyperlinks, GPS and who knows what!

Chapter 3 – Information Interaction: we subjectively interact with information sources like documents, the web, media broadcasts, etc.

Chapter 4 – Intertwingled: the merging of technology.

Chapter 5 – Push and Pull (not yet read)

Chapter 6 – The Sociosemantic Web (not yet read)

Chapter 7 – Inspired Decisions (not yet read)

My first thought – Ambient Findability is a fascinating book for so many reasons and a must-read; it is eminently readable. Morville speaks in sharp, concise, and active prose. He is a pleasure to read and if you are interested in information seeking, web-wise or otherwise, you should get this book.

My second thought – Morville knows what he is talking about. You can follow this link to learn more about Peter Morville.

My third thought – the otherwise excellent documentation and vivid vision of this Zen-like book (and its author?) contrast pregnantly with the evolutionary psychobabble it contains. This last point is the most fascinating for me and I wish to focus on it in this week’s blog installment. Here are a few of the many, many, bare assertions Morville makes in this regard in the first three chapters alone:

Page 15: “… language and the Internet [sic]… are testaments to… selfish genes.”

Page 16: “Our wayfinding instincts testify to the power of evolution.”

Page 20: “… we have much in common with our fellow creatures, including … a common evolutionary heritage dating back four billion years.”

Page 33: “It’s likely that our first words were vocalized grunts and squeals…. Over time, we developed a sophisticated vocabulary.”

Page 41: “… we must constantly struggle to reconcile our ancient survival instincts with modern reality.”

“Evolution cannot keep pace with the environment.”

There is a word for these assertions: hogwash. I have dealt with many of these ideas in detail in another blog, as have many others, including the Discovery Institute and the Pearcy Report; so I will spare the reader this kind of an in-depth analysis here. Nor is one really necessary or deserved since Morville does not appeal to evidence for any of these claims; there is nothing of substance to refute. What I would like to point out here is the divorce between the subject and the predicate. The statements are non sequiturs.

As an illustrative example, consider Morvilles statement that “our wayfinding instincts testify to the power of evolution.” Well, it is certainly true that we have wayfinding instincts, but it does not follow that they have anything to do with the power of evolution. I believe that we are created in God’s image with the capacity to love, learn, and act volitionally. But notice that the last part of my sentence in no way provides a proof for the first part. That is, even if the reader accepts the fact that human beings have the capacity to love, learn, and act, it does not follow that the reader must believe in God. It is an assertion, indeed it is a worldview, but it is not an evidentiary statement. Rather, the worldview is providing an interpretation for the facts, not vice-versa.

Likewise, Morville never provides a rational proof for any of the evolutionary statements he makes. But he does sometimes cite authority. As examples, consider the following.

Page 42: [quoting Robert Dawkins] “memes are … ideas [that] propagate themselves… by leaping from brain to brain. …. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain.”

I must respond immediately to Dawkins' parasitized brain. Obviously, ideas don’t have volition. Therefore, self propagating ideas are nonsense. Ideas need active agents (e.g., human beings) for their birth, maintenance, and yes, propagation. The statement can only be properly constructed in the passive tense: ideas are propagated; the active agent is the human being, not the idea. Why Morville quotes this statement is baffling to me. I understand that ideas can take on a life of their own, but only in a metaphorical, not actual, sense. Yet Morville states directly below this quote that “When we talk about… wayfinding on the Web, we are not just using a metaphor [emphasis in the original]. I beg to differ. I am influenced by ideas, but all of them originate and are propagated by sentient creatures. Continuing…

Page 56: [quoting Steve Johnson] “a fundamental tension in the human brain lies in the battle between the amygdala and the neocortex.”

“In other words, rationality must compete with… our lizard brain.”

Really? The human body gives me every indication of being, at the very least, a finely tuned bit of equipment. I am not sure about Johnson, but my amygdala and neocortex seem to be getting along. I do not have a lizard brain. Lizards have lizard brains; some are the size of sunflower seeds. Johnson’s statement reminds me of a Far Side cartoon with a dinosaur at a podium announcing to his fellow dinosaur conventioneers something like “Gentlemen, we are in trouble. The climate is cooling. The mammals are taking over. And our brain is the size of a walnut.”

Page 57: “In other words, you can take the person out of the Stone Age, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person.”

[quoting Nigel Nicholson] “[Survivors] were savvy because they engaged in … gossip.”

Page 61: [quoting Marcia Bates] “The natural human tendency in information seeking is to fall back on… behaviors derived from millions of years of [evolution.]”

Page 62: “[Bates] encourages us to design gossip into our systems.”

Here is a newsflash: gossip is destructive. It does not help organizations, societies, or collections of human beings. It destroys them. I can only begin to imagine the destructive potential of any serious or scholarly information source being designed to incorporate gossip. I prefer truth, honesty, and altruism. By the way, this poses no problem for evolutionists; they merely conjure up just-so stories about truth, honesty, and altruism. Never mind that gossip and altruism are mutually exclusive. Can we possibly consider this science?

Why Does It Matter?

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. Since evolution explains nothing (or actually, everything, including mutually exclusive things) at best, it has no value. If every evolutionary statement were removed from Morville’s work, it would affect nothing of substance: not a single conclusion, conjecture, or opinion would need to be changed. There would be benefits, of course. Morville’s snappy prose would be even snappier. The work would be shorter and even more digestible. And Morville’s opinions and assertions would be recognized for what they are: Morville’s opinions and assertions (without the obfuscation of some goofy pseudo-scientific argument appended to a truism).

Perhaps my final project should be to construct an evolutionary statement generator. The user would input a statement believed to be true such as “I’m sure that my mother loves me,” and voila, out would pop the evolutionary statement “I’m sure that my mother loves me, as evolution would predict.” In goes “I like brownies.” Out comes “I like brownies, as evolution would predict.” In goes “If we want our websites to be useful, we should design them to be intuitive” Out pops “If we want our websites to be useful, we should design them to be intuitive, as evolution would predict.”

Okay, maybe I better rethink my final project.

But false views can matter, and often do. I could easily overemphasize my point. (Try a Google search on evolution + any twentieth century dictator.) But at the risk of anticlimax (actually, with the virtually certainty thereof) I shall merely end by saying, goofy paradigms, such as the subject for which I have taken Morville to task, can lead to poor web design.


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