Shared Information Environment: let’s unpack that, shall we?

There are a number of reasons why I think “massively shared information environment” is an important phrase for Information Architecture. The biggest one is that I think we’ve stumbled into a new human age, the result of an ontological break with our past, that changes what it means to create usable spaces for human beings. IA is architecture for a new reality.

Information Environment:
Our whole world is made out of atoms and language (a distinction without a difference, but please humor me). Information architects work with the “language” part of that ontology. It just so happens that this practice (or habit of mind) has become even more important recently because of the Internet (not just the web mind you) where everything really IS made out of language and the atoms pretty much stay in meatspace.

Here, I’m equating language with information because honestly the ones and zeros aren’t useful at all until they’re given context and relevance, and hence become language.

Information here means more than just documents. Information architecture is an architecture of information: Yes. But it is also an architecture of *things* made out of information. It is an architecture of a world where whole cities are made out of if-then statements and Perl scripts, dissertations and screeds, jeremiads and grocery lists.

Some things about this info-world are very much like the physical world, and some things are radically different. The things that are *like* the physical world tend to trick us into thinking that we can behave in the info-world with the same expectations we learned as infants and toddlers. But more often than not, those expectations are confounded.

Shared:
Here’s the amazing part. At no time in human history have so many people been able to occupy the *same* information environment as they do now via the Internet. The difference might be argued as one merely of degree. But degree has everything to do with massive, reality-shifting change. As my awkward paraphrase of an old Zen story puts it, one snowflake is insignificant, but with enough of them you get a blizzard, or an ice age.

Shared information environments have been with us as long as networked computer applications–what, sometime in the 50’s maybe? I dunno. (I’m trying to recall what I picked up from the various books I’ve read on the subject, but I know it was sometime in post-war geekville, like MIT or something.)

But these environments were almost always centralized creations of technical priesthoods, and they were esoteric applications to which only a few had the keys for real content or function creation.

On the Internet, “shared” has multiple meanings: we share the environment like we share a room, through simultaneous occupation of the space; we share ideas and information and stories the same way ladies swap gossip at the beauty shop; we share expertise and time and effort like in an Amish barn-raising.

The very DNA of the internet is *sharing* — it’s the main reason why it was created, so that information wouldn’t be tied up in silos. It was created to overcome the limitations of time and geography, so scientists who lived and worked thousands of miles apart could benefit from one another’s minds without concern for time zone or personal schedule.

With this many people sharing an environment, it becomes something more than just another networked application. But when you give them the ability to create their own “places” of content and function, there is an entirely new dimension created. Something metaphysically significant shifts. The internet is now as much a part of the human fabric as the concept of a “city” or the idea of a printing press. That is — it’s not going away short of some cataclysmic apocalypse. You’d have to strip humanity down to a primitive state for it to not have an Internet now. In fact, I’d wager that if something awful happened and we all lost all technology and urban structure and mechanized transit, that the Internet would be near the top of the list of things to rebuild as soon as possible (at the top would be mass-production of high-grade chocolate, but that’s another story).

What am I saying then? In a nutshell it’s this: what it means to be a human being is changing because of the Internet just as radically as what it meant to learn how to farm, or to build a shelter, or to use fire. We have no idea what we’ve gotten ourselves into just yet, and Information Architecture is at the forefront of figuring out that mystery.

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  • http://studioid.com Michael

    I like your term, Andrew. In LIS literature, “information-use environment” is a term that is sometimes used to refer to physical spaces such as libraries and electronic spaces such as information retrieval systems. I think a lot of researchers concerned with HCI and influenced by the “Sensemaking…” articles by Brenda Dervin began to focus on the final USE of information to perform tasks in the real world rather than merely focussing on the intermediate use of the system to retrieve information. Thus there followed a flood of literature that focussed on the reference interview to understand information needs related to information seeking behavior.

    But the thing that is unique, as you point out, is this element of sharing. In today’s information environments, the network IS the thing.The Internet and the Web have become the most important equalizers and catalysts for the sharing of information since Gutenberg’s press, and the result HAS affected human beings with access to this technology metaphysically (as you say). I agree that if we have access to it and you use it with some regularity, it undeniably has some effect on how you live your life. And that being the case, you probably want to use it with some efficiency, and so IA becomes important at varying levels.