“The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”
These words, written by Vannevar Bush in “As We May Think,“ echo a similar sentiment I have when I see my parents searching for a phone number through a phone book. It’s 2013, and there’s no reason to flip through an archaic volume of phone numbers. We have computers now.
Only Bush wasn’t writing in 2013. He was writing in 1945, before anyone had any conception of electronic databases. But, still, he recognized the need for one. So, he proposes a device he calls “memex,” which looks similar to a modern-day computer. It has monitors, a keyboard and tape that files images and information. The ability to store the sheer volume of information available wasn’t the crux of the memex. Bush imagined a machine that could be used for “associative indexing” — connecting multiple separate texts together to create a more efficient way of retrieving information.
But what do computers have to do with information architecture? Perhaps, in 2013, we take the idea of instantly locating our desired queries for granted. But in the mid-20th century, the world had to scour through pages of books to find what they were looking for. The only sequence of information available was the one that the book allowed. With a memex, a user could create their own sequence of information, thus conceptualizing information in new ways.
The only problem was, the technology just wasn’t available at the time. Think of all the problems we face today with technology and all the solutions we’ve conceived but yet to master. Take, for example, cell phone battery life. How can we prevent cell phone batteries from draining when we’re on the go? Can we make a screen that converts sunlight to energy? Can we create wireless chargers? Or can we make a perpetual battery? The inventors of the first electronic computers faced similar hurdles.
But, as time progressed, we get innovations like the hyperlink, folders and the World Wide Web. In Douglas Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect,” he describes how human thinking is limited in the way it is presented to us in books. The human thought process is “sequential but not serial,” meaning it is like a map linking ideas together, but not necessarily in a linear fashion. Thoughts are related, but perhaps not in a hierarchy. He advocates for computers like the memex, in which we can reorient ideas around a space so we can “trim, extend, insert and rearrange so freely and rapidly.”
All of these ideas continue to build on one another. Theodor H. Nelson’s 1965 “A File Structure for the Complex, the Changing and the Indeterminate,” he draws up early images of word processors in saving multiple variations of the same text on a computer, which he dubs “dynamic outlining.” He also introduces the word hypertext, and he uses it in the same way we use it today: typed words that lead to another work when engaged by the user, be it another article or a definition or annotation. He hoped to use it to “integrate, for human understanding, bodies of material so diversely connected that they could not be untangled by the unaided mind.”
Flash forward to the 21st century, and computers become more affordable, Internet use more widespread. With so many people adopting computers and becoming computer literate, communities begin to develop their own forms of searching, labeling and collecting information. Adam Mathes calls these new terms “folksonomies.” He uses tags on Flickr and Delicious as his primary examples. He states that tags are more about “categorization” than “classification,” suggesting users make connections between tags based on broad generalities and less on distinctions. Though he notes an advantage to using tags in this manner provides users with a low barrier to entry in sharing information space, he observes a quirk in tag culture. The blanketing tags make browsing through concepts and ideas simple enough, but finding specific data proves much more difficult. Where are we heading in the future? How much accuracy in sorting through information do we sacrifice for expediency? Which is more important?