Links, Maps and Habitats

To celebrate the recent publication of Resmini & Rosati’s “Pervasive Information Architecture,” I’m reprinting, here, my contribution to the book. Thank you, Andrea & Luca, for asking me to add my own small part to the work!

It’s strange how, over time, some things that were once rare and wondrous can become commonplace and practically unnoticed, even though they have as much or more power as they ever had. Consider things like these: fire; the lever; the wheel; antibiotics; irrigation; agriculture; the semiconductor; the book. Ironically, it’s their inestimable value that causes these inventions to be absorbed into culture so thoroughly that they become part of the fabric of societies adopting them, where their power is taken for granted.

Add to that list two more items, one very old and one very new: the map and the hyperlink.

Those of us who are surrounded by inexpensive maps tend to think of them as banal, everyday objects – a commoditized utility. And the popular conception of mapmaking is that of an antiquated, tedious craft, like book binding or working a letter-press – something one would only do as a hobby, since after all, the whole globe has been mapped by satellites at this point; and we can generate all manner of maps for free from the Internet.

But the ubiquity of maps also shows us how powerful they remain. And the ease with which we can take them for granted belies the depth of skill, talent and dedicated focus it takes for maps (and even mapping software and devices) to be designed and maintained. It’s easy to scoff at cartography as a has-been discipline – until you’re trying to get somewhere, or understand a new place, and the map is poorly made.

Consider as well the hyperlink. A much younger invention than the map, the hyperlink was invented in the mid-1960s. For years it was a rare creature living only in technology labs, until around 1987 when it was moderately popularized in Apple’s HyperCard application. Even then, it was something used mainly by hobbyists and educators and a few interactive-fiction authors; a niche technology. But when Tim Berners-Lee placed that tiny creature in the world-wide substrate of the Internet, it bloomed into the most powerful cultural engine in human history. 

And yet, within only a handful of years, people began taking the hyperlink for granted, as if it had always been around. Even now, among the digital classes, mention of “the web” is often met with a sniff of derision. “Oh that old thing — that’s so 1999.” And, “the web is obsolete – what matters now are mobile devices, augmented reality, apps and touch interfaces.” 

One has to ask, however, what good would any of the apps, mobile devices and augmented reality be without digital links? 

Where these well-meaning people go wrong is to assume the hyperlink is just a homely little clickable bit of text in a browser. The browser is an effective medium for hyperlinked experience, but it’s only one of many. The hyperlink is more than just a clicked bit of text in a browser window — it’s a core element for the digital dimension; it’s the mechanism that empowers regular people to point across time and space and suddenly be in a new place, and to create links that point the way for others as well. 

Once people have this ability, they absorb it into their lives. They assume it will be available to them like roads, or language, or air. They become so used to having it, they forget they’re using it — even when dazzled by their shiny new mobile devices, augmented reality software and touch-screen interfaces. They forget that the central, driving force that makes those technologies most meaningful is how they enable connections — to stories, knowledge, family, friends. And those connections are all, essentially, hyperlinks: pointers to other places in cyberspace. Links between conversations and those conversing — links anybody can create for anybody to use. 

This ability is now so ubiquitous, it’s virtually invisible. The interface is visible, the device is tangible, but the links and the teeming, semantic latticeworks they create are just short of corporeal. Like gravity, we can see its physical effects, but not the force itself.  And yet these systems of links — these architectures of information — are now central to daily life. Communities rely on them to constructively channel member activity. Businesses trust systems of links to connect their customers with products and their business partners with processes. People depend on them for the most mundane tasks — like checking the weather — to the most important, such as learning about a life-changing diagnosis. 

In fact, the hyperlink and the map have a lot in common. They both describe territories and point the way through them. They both present information that enables exploration and discovery. But there is a crucial difference: maps describe a separate reality, while hyperlinks create the very territory they describe. 

Each link is a new path — and a collection of paths is a new geography. The meaningful connections we create between ourselves and the things in our lives were once merely spoken words, static text or thoughts sloshing around in our heads. Now they’re structural — instantiated as part of a digital infrastructure that’s increasingly interwoven with our physical lives. When you add an old friend on a social network, you create a link unlike any link you would have made by merely sending a letter or calling them on the phone. It’s a new path from the place that represents your friend to the place that represents you. Two islands that were once related only in stories and memories, now connected by a bridge. 

Or think of how you use a photograph. Until recently, it was something you’d either frame and display on a shelf, carry in your wallet, or keep stored in a closet. But online you can upload that photo where it has its own unique location. By creating the place, you create the ability to link to it — and the links create paths, which add to the the ever-expanding geography of cyberspace. 

Another important difference between the hyperlinks and traditional maps is that digital space allows us to create maps with conditional logic. We can create rules that cause a place to respond to, interact with, and be rearranged by its inhabitants. A blog can allow links to add comments or have them turned off; a store can allow product links to rearrange themselves on shelves in response to the shopper’s area of interest; a phone app can add a link to your physical location or not, at the flick of a settings switch. These are architectural structures for informational mediums; the machinery that enables everyday activity in the living web of the networked dimension. 

The great challenge of information architecture is to design mechanisms that have deep implications for human experience, using a raw material no one can see except in its effects. It’s to create living, jointed, functioning frameworks out of something as disembodied as language, and yet create places suitable for very real, physical purposes.  Information architecture uses maps and paths to create livable habitats in the air around us, folded into our daily lives — a new geography somehow separate, yet inseparable, from what came before. 

Denis Wood: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights « Making Maps: DIY Cartography

Detail from Halloween Pumpkins Map of Wood's Neighborhood

In my talk for IDEA Conference, I’ll be referencing the work of Denis Wood.

I’m so utterly intrigued by a particular long-term project he did back in the 80s, which ended up in an episode of This American Life.

In a blog post at the “Making Maps” blog, Wood goes into some detail about this project and how it managed to go from being a bunch of stuff in a box under his desk to one of the most popular episodes of TAL: Denis Wood: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights « Making Maps: DIY Cartography

There was a lot we wanted to do. Certainly we wanted to use the mapping to help us figure out what a neighborhood was, but we also wanted to use the mapping as a kind of organizational tool, as a way of bringing the neighborhood together and helping it to see itself. This meant we wanted to be able to get copies of the atlas into the hands of the residents and so we planned a black and white atlas that could be cheaply reproduced on a copy machine. At the same time we wanted to make something beautiful, almost a livre d’artiste. I in particular was impatient with distinctions between art and science – it was an important part of my teaching that these distinctions were arbitrary and obfuscatory – and I wanted the atlas to read almost like a novel.

One thing I love about this story is how it breaks assumptions about what maps are, and what they’re for. How a map of a neighborhood shapes the identity if the neighborhood. Wood uses the term “mask” for what a map can do — it creates a mask that the place wears on its own face, for anyone who looks at the map. It constructs & reveals at the same time, a neighborhood’s crime patterns, underground tunnels & cisterns, or the spirit of its residents through where the jack-o-lanterns are on Halloween.

The map is a narrative. So what does that mean, when we create virtual places that are their own maps? It means our assumptions of what the map shows actually shape the neighborhood itself. Not just in the “social construction” sense of printed maps and physical neighborhoods, but quite literally in the sense of architecture.

What does it mean to be a resident of a neighborhood mapped as X vs one mapped as Y? What if, with the flip of a switch, the neighborhood could change between X and Y? Isn’t that what we’re making with our virtual spaces?