Category: Ideas

Value Dissonance, Digital Goods, The Long Tail & My Oven

August 5th, 2009 — 7:24am

This week­end I went look­ing online for the ser­vice man­ual for my oven, to effect some DIY style repair work, and was unpleas­antly sur­prised to find every col­lec­tion of dig­i­tal ser­vice man­u­als within ready googling dis­tance locked tightly away behind a solid e-commerce wall.

Ten, five, or even three years ago, some thought­ful mechan­i­cal engi­neer would have lov­ingly uploaded a blurry pdf con­ver­sion of a scan of a pho­to­copy of the orig­i­nal KorEng­lish instruc­tion man­ual to a pub­lic file share hosted some­where deep in the wilds of home­brew elec­tron­ics land.  And there it would be, wait­ing for peo­ple who needed it.

Not any­more, appar­ently.  Thanks to all the MBAs who read The Long Tail dur­ing the rev­enue mod­els sec­tion of their Dig­i­tal Busi­ness courses, and then went prospect­ing for an under-monetized con­tent domain with pre­dictable trans­ac­tion and renewal flow vol­umes (read, oppor­tu­nity), I now have to pay $20 to find out how to take apart my ail­ing appli­ance.  To soften the mon­e­tary blow, I have an instantly find­able, one-click-to-purchase, secure-payment-capable expe­ri­ence.  But it’s still $20, when it would have been free last time I looked.

Take note, this is a sea change in dig­i­tal cul­ture star­ing us in the face: DIY become $DIY, thanks to ‘ratio­nal­iza­tion’ of the home brew elec­tron­ics infor­ma­tion economy.

If it sounds like I’m bemoan­ing the sim­ple fact that busi­nesses like to col­o­nize new mar­kets, and I now have to pay for some­thing I used to get for free, I want to say ‘Not true.’  (Okay, par­tially true.)  Some­thing was wrong with this expe­ri­ence.  At first I thought it was price: That man­ual is fully dig­i­tal, mean­ing it comes with absurdly low pub­li­ca­tion costs for print­ing, dis­tri­b­u­tion, inven­tory and restock­ing, thanks to the-great-copying-machine-in-the-sky-called-the-Internet.  It’s also trans­par­ently find­able via a sim­ple two-word query, which I know because I went look­ing for it myself, so there’s few of the typ­i­cal costs from AIDA (gen­er­at­ing aware­ness and moti­vat­ing my deci­sion to buy).  Yet the instruc­tion and ser­vice man­ual for a piece of hand-me-down kitchen equip­ment now car­ries the hefty price tag of $19.95.  And that’s with­out a pre­view; this is dig­i­tal mer­chan­dise I’m expected to buy on blind faith.  So much for free.

Then I real­ized some­thing deeper was involved.  This expe­ri­ence is inter­est­ing because it demon­strates the inevitable ten­sion that comes from liv­ing in an era dur­ing which basic cul­tural lay­ers, with very dif­fer­ent ways of assign­ing value, come into fric­tion with one another.  At heart, this is a mod­ern expe­ri­ence of value dis­so­nance dri­ven by two ancient human pat­terns in collision.

The first pat­tern: I am ‘given’ the oven for ‘free’ by virtue of my ‘mem­ber­ship’ — earned by mar­riage — in the local oper­at­ing unit of the folk-recycling econ­omy instan­ti­ated by my extended fam­ily; specif­i­cally, my Dutch in-laws.  Apart­ments in Europe don’t come with appli­ances, so after mov­ing to Hol­land from New York, I need a new oven thanks to the legacy incom­pat­i­bil­ity in elec­tric dis­tri­b­u­tion infra­struc­tures (volt­age dif­fer­ences) between Norte Amer­ica and Europa.  This lovely unit was avail­able from the family’s pool of col­lec­tively man­aged assets, thanks to a con­struc­tion acci­dent in my wife’s cousin’s neighbor’s adjoin­ing prop­erty, which caused a flood of water into their home while they were on a 3-week  hol­i­day, result­ing in sub­stan­tial water dam­age, com­pen­sated in proper Dutch fash­ion by a hefty insur­ance set­tle­ment, which allowed this par­tic­u­lar pair of agents in the extended fam­ily net­work to go shop­ping for a new kitchen set-up, all appli­ances included, long before the pro­jected life­cy­cle expi­ra­tion of their cur­rent oven. [ill winds indeed…])

This pat­tern is as old as man­ag­ing the aggre­gate live­stock and pas­turage.  Decid­ing which of the chil­dren to edu­cate, send to the mil­i­tary / priest­hood (or some other form of bach­e­lor­hood), or sequester in a con­vent b/c of lack of required mar­riage dowries is the same thing.  For me, all is fine and good: I have the oven I need, and all I have to do in return is allow the extended fam­ily to use my house to host the annual fam­ily New Year’s din­ner.   A fair trade for all parties.

The sec­ond pat­tern: the con­stant evo­lu­tion in the def­i­n­i­tion of first-tier trad­able goods: Suc­ces­sive waves of tech­noso­cial change have made the instruc­tion man­ual for my oven a dig­i­tally trade­able good on it’s own.  At brith, the man­ual was “part of” the con­sumer prod­uct pack­age of the oven, only avail­able — and mean­ing­ful — when sold with the appli­ance.  Fast for­ward to the pre-Long Tail Inter­net, and the man­ual was free to me, as a res­i­dent of the unfenced realm of the dig­i­tal fron­tier, exchanged via the folk econ­omy of DIY prac­ti­tion­ers.  But now that the tech­ni­cal infra­struc­ture required to effec­tively enclose this resource is  itself nearly free, and every MBA knows the Long Tail (sounds like one of those ter­ri­ble fake Amer­i­can Indian names peo­ple used be given in TV sit­coms, when some form of hijinks led them to visit a ‘Native Amer­i­can Tribe,’ and the char­ac­ters had to be iden­ti­fied within the tribe’s con­cep­tual space [another exam­ple of truly awful sort of cul­tural fric­tion…]), this par­tic­u­lar piece of dig­i­tal con­tent has a price tag.  A hefty one.

So using the free appli­ance now requires con­tent from the ambi­ent infor­ma­tion cloud in the form of a paid asset that is now, on it’s own, a trad­able good.  This mis­align­ment causes fric­tion and dis­so­nance for me; I have an appli­ance from the folk-resources layer, but all the use­ful infor­ma­tion *about* the appli­ance resides in the newly mon­e­tized Long Tail dig­i­tal con­tent econ­omy.  The newly dig­i­tal man­ual that should come with my hand me down oven is very much try­ing its hard­est to be a tra­di­tional prod­uct from the uni­verse of trad­able goods: a Thing, with a Price, sold by a Busi­ness, to Customers.

What dri­ves the fric­tion, and what makes this worth pay­ing atten­tion to and writ­ing about, is that it is the oppos­ing direc­tion of the move­ments of these dif­fer­ent kinds of goods, dig­i­tal and mate­r­ial, that cre­ates dis­so­nance by bring­ing me a free phys­i­cal oven and an expen­sive dig­i­tal ser­vice manual.

The oven used to be part of the first-tier trad­able goods layer.  It was a pack­aged con­sumer appli­ance prod­uct, cre­ated by a man­u­fac­turer, sold via opti­mized dis­tri­b­u­tion net­works that moved it through the chain from man­u­fac­turer to whole­saler to retailer at a fixed price, com­mu­ni­cated via mar­ket­ing chan­nels embed­ded within dis­cov­ery and com­mu­ni­ca­tions media.  Since then, it’s ‘fallen out of’ the trad­able goods econ­omy, and is treated as a fam­ily asset, to be handed around as best suits the col­lec­tive needs, with­out any offi­cial trans­ac­tions tak­ing place.  We could put it back into the trad­able goods econ­omy as used, if we choose to sell it, or even enter it into the recy­cling econ­omy, where it would be bro­ken down into con­stituent ele­ments — e.g. motors, wiring, dis­play, or at a lower level of inte­gra­tion phys­i­cal mate­ri­als like glass and steel — to what­ever extent pos­si­ble.  But almost all of the changes in value for mate­r­ial goods when they shift from one cul­tural / eco­nomic layer to another are one-way, and down­wards.  The pos­si­ble paths for re-uptake of mate­r­ial goods that have fallen into the folk econ­omy layer used to be trans­for­ma­tion into antiques, art, or col­lectibles — all one form or another of the museum economy.

That’s not the case with dig­i­tal goods in gen­eral, like the newly Long Tailed ser­vice man­ual for my oven.  The man­ual was orig­i­nally part of the con­sumer / prod­uct econ­omy for trad­able goods when bun­dled with the oven.   Since then, it has under­gone sev­eral trans­for­ma­tions.  First, it was un-bundled and dig­i­tized for the DIY layer (mak­ing it part of the folk econ­omy),  Now it is once again part of the prod­uct econ­omy, though now in it’s un-bundled  and dig­i­tized form.  In terms of which econ­omy it’s part of, *the man­ual is mov­ing all around the page on it’s own*.  That’s highly unnatural!

This is a key prop­erty of dig­i­tal goods that the mate­r­ial world is just begin­ning to under­stand.  Dig­i­tal goods are designed for just this sort of mobil­ity: We can move dig­i­tal goods all around the map in terms of the cul­tural / eco­nomic lay­ers they inhabit, and their con­se­quent value, with a few changes in address­ing and for­mat.  No trans­for­ma­tion of a dig­i­tal good is nec­es­sar­ily one-way.  And when these trans­for­ma­tions aren’t syn­chro­nized with the ele­ments that inhabit the phys­i­cal world, we feel the con­flict and ten­sion that results.

In my case, the oven is mov­ing one way, while the infor­ma­tion about it is mov­ing the other way.  This fail­ure to dance together eco­nom­i­cally and cul­tur­ally is a con­se­quence of the way that the oven was designed, made, mar­keted, dis­trib­uted, etc.  It’s a tem­po­rally iso­lated form of dis­so­nance that emerges from fric­tion with the new dig­i­tal layer that’s per­me­at­ing the world so rapidly.  If you’re famil­iar with spimes, and related con­cepts like ser­vice avatars and infor­ma­tion shad­ows, you know this is a (osten­si­bly) tem­po­rary state of affairs.  Once our cul­tural frames of ref­er­ence catch up with our tech­ni­cal capa­bil­i­ties, and every­thing is part of the great data­base in the sky, these expe­ri­ences of fric­tion should be much less common.

But in the mean­time, I have to fix my oven on my own.  Or cough up the $20 for the manual…

Comment » | Ideas

8 Waves of Change Shaping Digital Experiences

December 11th, 2008 — 5:21am

I’ve been focused on under­stand­ing future direc­tions in the land­scape of dig­i­tal expe­ri­ences recently (which nicely par­al­lels some of the work I’ve been doing on design and futures in gen­eral), so I’m shar­ing a sum­mary of the analy­sis that’s come out of this research.
This pre­sen­ta­tion shares an overview of all the major waves of change affect­ing dig­i­tal expe­ri­ences, some of the espe­cially forward-looking insights around shifts in our iden­ti­ties, and the impli­ca­tions for those cre­at­ing dig­i­tal expe­ri­ences.
The 8 waves dis­cussed here (are there more? let me know!)

  • Dig­i­tal = Social
  • Co-Creation
  • Dig­i­tal Natives
  • Itʼs All a Game
  • Take Away
  • Every­ware
  • Con­ver­gence
  • See­ing Is Believing

Comment » | Ideas, The Media Environment, User Experience (UX)

The Internet of Things - Or The Internet of Whens?

October 15th, 2008 — 11:22pm

I just requested a copy of The Inter­net of Things pam­phlet by Rob van Kra­nen­berg from the Net­work Note­books series (by / Geert Lovink — who’s basi­cally around the cor­ner now that I’m here in Ams­ter­dam). In com­bi­na­tion with a read through Every­ware, it’s got me think­ing about some of the basic assump­tions we’re rely­ing on to frame the future of com­put­ing as it impacts our lives.
One of the key enablers under­ly­ing The Inter­net of Things is the IPv6 stan­dard, whose address scheme has an unbe­liev­able range of pos­si­ble addresses — 2 to the 128th power — so many that attempts to make it com­pre­hen­si­ble by anal­ogy strain the bound­aries of the absurd.
All of these com­par­isons beg the essen­tial ques­tion of what exactly we will be address­ing. So far, the gen­eral class of objects ‘Things’ is the most likely that I’ve heard posited. All of more spe­cific sug­ges­tions — such as all the grains of sand in the world, or every plant in every farm field on the planet — remain in the cat­e­gory of the sim­ply fan­ci­ful.
I think this focus on objects as the dom­i­nant type of addressed node in the new net­work lacks imag­i­na­tion. [At the IFTF sug­gests the Inter­net of Verbs]
The the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity uni­fied space and time, so why not use IPV6 to address moments of time as well as huge col­lec­tions of things?
Mas­sive cloud stor­age arrays and ultra-wide-band data trans­fer infra­struc­tures may make it fea­si­ble to record the cumu­la­tive sen­sory expe­ri­ences of entire human lives, or groups of peo­ple, or whole crowds; why not give each dis­crete fem­tosec­ond slice of these aggre­gate expe­ri­ences an address for easy archiv­ing, retrieval, and manip­u­la­tion?
Going back 13 bil­lion years to the begin­ning of the uni­verse would give us The Inter­net of Whens.
Map­ping every deci­sion made by peo­ple dur­ing the course of their day (200 on food alone), or their life, would give us The Inter­net of Whys.
Labelling all the loca­tions in the four-dimensional coör­di­nate scheme would cre­ate The Inter­net of Wheres.
Address­ing all the cells in all the human bod­ies would result in The Inter­net of Whos.
We must be bet­ter attuned to the pos­si­bil­i­ties afforded by all this ‘space’ we’re giv­ing our­selves to play with.

1 comment » | Ideas, Networks and Systems

Cultural Clouds: A New Kind of Commons?

September 21st, 2008 — 8:29am

There’s a lot of buzz about cloud com­put­ing in the tech­nol­ogy world these days, but I think some­thing much more inter­est­ing is the emer­gence of cul­tural clouds as the newest kind of pub­lic com­mons. By cul­tural clouds, I’m talk­ing about the new layer of the human cul­tural stack we’re busy lay­ing down as a by prod­uct of all our social and cre­ative activ­i­ties in the inof­verse.
To be clear, I’m not refer­ring to the IT infra­struc­ture layer wherein cloud com­put­ing is defined as the “style of com­put­ing where mas­sively scal­able IT-related capa­bil­i­ties are pro­vided ‘as a ser­vice’ across the Inter­net to mul­ti­ple exter­nal cus­tomers.” [Thanks Gart­ner, via Busi­ness­Week]
These new cul­tural clouds appear in the ever grow­ing col­lec­tions of crowd­sourced col­lec­tively or socially accu­mu­lated judge­ments, cul­tural prod­ucts, knowl­edge, his­tory, rela­tion­ships, etc., encoded in the form of man­aged dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion. This quick illus­tra­tion shows some of the pools of activ­ity and judge­ment that that make up these cloud com­mons; includ­ing wikis, pub­lic media, rep­u­ta­tion state­ments, read­ing rec­om­men­da­tions, social net­works, wish lists, music lis­ten­ing his­to­ries, shared pho­tos, films and videos, cita­tion net­works, geo­t­ag­ging and mem­ory maps, com­ments and pub­lic dis­course, hash­tags and tags for pho­tos, URLs, and songs, link streams, sub­scrip­tion and feed lists, blogrolls, etc. These are social, cul­tural, and con­ver­sa­tional resources, not min­eral deposits or phys­i­cal topogra­phies.
New Cul­tural Clouds / Com­mons
The com­mons is an old con­struct that embraces nat­ural resources — think land, air, water, the elec­tro­mag­netic spec­trum — and the more recent pub­lic domain of cul­tural mate­ri­als not gov­erned by copy­right law.
Ven­er­a­ble insti­tu­tions of cus­tom and law, such as sea­sonal access to pas­turage, the right of pas­sage across bor­ders for nomadic peo­ples, and com­mon law, define and reg­u­late the rec­og­nized forms of com­mons.
But socially col­lected, dig­i­tal, rei­fied human cul­tural prod­ucts and judge­ments are a new *type* of com­mons. I think they’re a new type of resource, brought forth largely by the cog­ni­tive sur­plus we enjoy. And as pro­found tech­no­log­i­cal per­me­ation and ubiq­ui­tous com­put­ing bring on the age of every­ware, the cloud com­mons will grow (and frag­ment / spe­cial­ize / mul­ti­ply?).
Who and what will gov­ern the new cloud com­mons? How will we define and man­age these resources?
By form and makeup, the cloud com­mons is ephemeral and dis­trib­uted. But as dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion, it is emi­nently tan­gi­ble and action­able. Our basic social struc­tures and mech­a­nisms — sci­ence, the law, eco­nom­ics, art, agri­cul­ture, reli­gion, tech­nol­ogy — will rec­og­nize the emer­gence of cloud com­mons, and respond accord­ingly. APML (Atten­tion Pro­fil­ing Markup Lan­guage), from the APML Work­ing Group, is an exam­ple. The Dat­a­Porta­bil­ity project — “a group cre­ated to pro­mote the idea that indi­vid­u­als have con­trol over their data by deter­min­ing how they can use it and who can use it. This includes access to data that is under the con­trol of another entity.” — is another. [Advo­cat­ing for the right to free move­ment of data is a dig­i­tal ana­log of the ancient idea of right of way.] OpenID, OpenSo­cial, OAuth, OPML, and the rapidly evolv­ing Cre­ative Com­mons licens­ing sys­tem are other exam­ples of responses to the appear­ance of cloud com­mons.
What does the future hold? As recog­ni­tion of cloud-based com­mons grows, expect to see all the pat­terns of activ­ity typ­i­cal of new fron­tiers and zones of insta­bil­ity: wild­cat­ting, pio­neer­ing, piracy, squat­ting, pri­va­teer­ing, enclo­sure, slums and shanty towns (infor­mal set­tle­ments in the par­lance of archite­cuter and urban plan­ning) extrac­tive indus­tries, sov­er­eign claims, col­o­niza­tion, spec­u­la­tion, etc.
With his­tory as a guide, I’m espe­cially wary of enclo­sure move­ments, and extrac­tive indus­tries. Both prac­tices can rapidly dimin­ish the present value of a com­mons or commons-based resource. Worse, enclo­sure and extrac­tive prac­tices act as neg­a­tive feed­back mech­a­nisms, decreas­ing cur­rent esti­ma­tions of a com­mons or commons-based resource’s future value, mak­ing the tragedy of the com­mons a likely out­come sce­nario.
The U.S. radio spec­trum, as enclosed by the FCC
Is this fram­ing of recently formed clouds of infor­ma­tion and activ­ity data as a new kind of com­mons accu­rate? Use­ful?
More on the idea of cul­tural clouds as the new com­mons forthcoming.

3 comments » | Ideas, Social Media

Ethics and Design Interview Live

June 13th, 2008 — 7:34pm

The I.A. Pod­cast (by Jeff Parks of I.A. Con­sul­tants and Box­e­san­dAr­rows pod­cast fame) just pub­lished the first of two inter­views we recorded recently, talk­ing about ethics, design, social media, and con­flict.
Play and down­load the inter­view here.
Sub­scribe to the iTunes and feed­burner feeds for the I.A. Pod­cast here.
Stay tuned for the sec­ond inter­view!
Thanks Jeff!

Comment » | Ethics & Design, Ideas, Social Media

3 Questions About the Future State of the Web

April 16th, 2008 — 7:01pm

Now that the web is clearly social, what hap­pens when the web becomes emo­tional?
Streams are already under pres­sure from the tech­no­rati as expired. What will fol­low the stream (which is a liq­uid, really) as a metaphor for the state of the infor­ma­tion layer? Gases, or plas­mas? What will gases and plas­mas made of infor­ma­tion feel like expe­ri­en­tially? How will they behave?
Does it even make sense to think about this in terms of the states of mat­ter, or will infor­ma­tion exhibit dif­fer­ent states and take dif­fer­ent forms?

Comment » | Ideas

IA Summit Talks on Ethics, Experience Design, Social Networks

March 4th, 2008 — 6:52am

Thanks to Facebook’s pub­lic mis­takes and apol­ogy to those affected by Bea­con , as well as a num­ber of other ham-handed attempts to mon­e­tize the social graph, the inter­sec­tion of ethics, design, and social net­works is receiv­ing over­due atten­tion. Two talks at this year’s Infor­ma­tion Archi­tec­ture Sum­mit in Miami will look at ethics as it applies to the daily work of cre­at­ing social net­works, and user expe­ri­ences in gen­eral.
First is Design­ing for the social: Avoid­ing anti-social net­works, by Miles Rochford, descrip­tion below.
This pre­sen­ta­tion con­sid­ers the role of tra­di­tional social net­works and the role of IAs in address­ing the chal­lenges that arise when design­ing and using online social net­works.
The pre­sen­ta­tion dis­cusses philo­soph­i­cal approaches to shar­ing the self, how this relates to offline social net­works and human inter­ac­tions in dif­fer­ent con­texts, and pro­vides guid­ance on how online social net­work­ing tools can be designed to sup­port these rela­tion­ships.
It also cov­ers eth­i­cal issues, includ­ing pri­vacy, and how these can con­flict with busi­ness needs. A range of exam­ples illus­trate the impact of these dri­vers and how design deci­sions can lead to the cre­ation of anti-social networks.

Related: the social net­works anti-patterns list from the wiki.
The sec­ond is The impact of social ethics on IA and inter­ac­tive design — expe­ri­ences from the Nor­we­gian woods, by Karl Yohan Saeth and Ingrid Tofte, described as fol­lows:

This pre­sen­ta­tion dis­cusses ethics in IA from a prac­ti­cal point of view. Through dif­fer­ent case stud­ies we illus­trate the impact of social ethics on IA and inter­ac­tive design, and sum up our expe­ri­ences on deal­ing with ethics in real projects.

If you’re inter­ested in ethics and the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of user expe­ri­ence (and who isn’t?), both ses­sions look good. I’ll be talk­ing about other things at the sum­mit this year. In the mean­time, stay tuned for the sec­ond arti­cle in my UXMat­ters series on design­ing eth­i­cal expe­ri­ences, due for pub­li­ca­tion very soon.

Comment » | Ideas, Information Architecture, Networks and Systems

Blogtalk 2008 slides available

March 3rd, 2008 — 7:12am

My slides from Blogtalk 2008 are avail­able online now: I went through a lot of ideas quickly, so this is a good way to fol­low along at your own pace…
FYI: This ver­sion of the deck includes pre­sen­ters notes — I’ll upload a (larger!) view-only ver­sion once I’m back from hol­i­day in lovely Éire.

Comments Off | Ideas, Networks and Systems, User Experience (UX)

'Designing Ethical Experiences: Social Media and the Conflicted Future' is live at UXMatters

February 12th, 2008 — 3:43pm

UXMat­ters just pub­lished part 1 of a two part series I’m writ­ing on ethics and design titled, Design­ing Eth­i­cal Expe­ri­ences: Social Media and the Con­flicted Future.
Here’s an excerpt, to whet your appetites for a prac­ti­cal take on what’s often seen as a philo­soph­i­cal sub­ject.
Ques­tions of ethics and con­flict can seem far removed from the daily work of user expe­ri­ence (UX) design­ers who are try­ing to develop insight into people’s needs, under­stand their out­looks, and design with empa­thy for their con­cerns. In fact, the con­verse is true: When con­flicts between busi­nesses and customers–or any groups of stakeholders–remain unre­solved, UX prac­ti­tion­ers fre­quently find them­selves fac­ing eth­i­cal dilem­mas, search­ing for design com­pro­mises that sat­isfy com­pet­ing camps. This dynamic is the essen­tial pat­tern by which con­flicts in goals and per­spec­tives become eth­i­cal con­cerns for UX design­ers. Unchecked, it can lead to the cre­ation of uneth­i­cal expe­ri­ences that are hos­tile to users–the very peo­ple most design­ers work hard to benefit–and dam­ag­ing to the rep­u­ta­tions and brand iden­ti­ties of the busi­nesses respon­si­ble.
Stay tuned for part two, which will share a set of sug­ges­tions for how design can man­age con­flict and work toward the cre­ation of eth­i­cal inte­grated expe­ri­ences. Mean­while, let us know what you think of the ideas here, or at the UXMat­ters site.

Comment » | Ideas, User Experience (UX)

Information Archaeology

September 9th, 2007 — 11:18pm

In addi­tion to the cus­tom­ary joys of DIY life in the new medi­a­verse — con­tend­ing with opaque and incom­plete doc­u­men­ta­tion, rec­on­cil­ing con­flict­ing con­tent mod­els and tem­plates, and the seem­ingly end­less repet­i­tive labor of man­u­ally nam­ing, tag­ging, and review­ing migrated items — chang­ing pub­lish­ing plat­forms means the oppor­tu­nity to explore what it will be like to be an Infor­ma­tion Archae­ol­o­gist in the future.
Oper­a­tively, this means dig­ging deep into the many lay­ers of cumu­la­tive infor­ma­tion strata beneath the gen­tle orange user expe­ri­ence that greets vis­i­tors to When per­formed on a web­site you’ve cre­ated and main­tained for almost 10 years, the expe­ri­ence is a mix of clean­ing out your attic, work­shop, or garage, and exca­vat­ing the foun­da­tions of a for­mer res­i­dence.
Such an effort yields a rich assem­blage of dig­i­tal arti­facts:

  • dozens of orphaned HTML pages com­pris­ing a design port­fo­lio, cre­ated by hand using dep­re­cated markup and tags
  • multi-ethnic” style-sheets cross-bred and reused for so many dif­fer­ent site looks or designs over the past ten years that delet­ing style ref­er­ences is like play­ing russ­ian roulette with your user experience
  • four or five derelict pub­lish­ing pack­age instal­la­tions (MT, Word­Press, etc.), span­ning tech­nolo­gies from PERL/CGI to PHP RUBY — the Info­verse equiv­a­lent of a col­lec­tion of aban­doned and decay­ing rust belt factories
  • hun­dreds of half-empty shell pages pop­u­lated with dummy con­tent, cre­ated dur­ing tests of pub­lish­ing tools
  • mul­ti­ple sets of over­lap­ping archives, accu­mu­lated over gen­er­a­tions of upgrades to blog­ging tools. the trend here is toward increas­ingly human-readable out­put files, away from the raw data­base style nam­ing of early blog­ging platforms
  • a score of mis­cel­la­neous doc­u­ments, audio / video files, and MS Office for­mat files stored on the server for tem­po­rary down­load, now com­pris­ing a ret­ro­spec­tive of out­dated resumes, drafts of deliv­er­ables for long-over projects, and back­ups from sys­tem crashes long-forgotten
  • numer­ous design tools and tem­plates, now linked from exter­nal pub­li­ca­tions, and indis­pens­able to unknown thou­sands of downloaders

Just like the older lay­ers of cities and habi­ta­tions uncov­ered dur­ing new con­struc­tion, these cumu­la­tive infor­ma­tion castoffs tell sto­ries within a larger con­text: chang­ing career plans and jobs, new tech­nolo­gies and tools, shifts in busi­ness and eco­nomic cli­mates, life events, aspi­ra­tions and inter­ests, hard­ware fail­ures.
What will the infor­ma­tion archae­ol­o­gists of the future find when exca­vat­ing our vir­tual habi­ta­tions and work­places? How will they map and under­stand what they find? What mean­ings will they make, and what insights into our lives will they draw, from the infor­ma­tion (waste? pol­lu­tion? byprod­ucts?) we cre­ate at such stu­pen­dous rates?
Like so many life forms before us, we are very busy liv­ing in the moment, not think­ing overly much about the vast deposits of infor­ma­tion detri­tus we leave behind in the course of sav­ing dozens of ver­sions of text files, book­ing air travel, shar­ing pho­tos, or obey­ing reg­u­la­tory com­pli­ance direc­tives for med­ical archives.
But in the long view, all this will mat­ter in some way. Wit­ness the fact that 10% of the land area of the for­mer Soviet Union is con­t­a­m­i­nated with radioac­tiv­ity or indus­trial pol­lu­tion.
What is the dif­fer­ence between pol­lu­tion, waste, and recy­clable and reusable mat­ter in the info­verse?
Can we make use of these vast deposits of infor­ma­tion in new ways?
The Gara­mantes of the Sahara relied on deeply buried reserves of fos­sil water to sus­tain a brief empire, a cul­ture that flow­ered and per­ished entirely in line with it’s abil­ity to exploit finite reserves of irre­place­able ground­wa­ter (pale­owa­ter)stored in aquifers.
Liv­ing off the fruits of past accu­mu­la­tion is a habit we’ve not shaken yet in North Africa (Libya’s Great Man Made River project sup­ply­ing 6,500,000 m³ of fresh­wa­ter per day to the cities of Tripoli, Beng­hazi, Sirt and else­where is the largest engi­neer­ing effort in the world), or here in the United States, as we drain the enor­mous Ogal­lala Aquifer — that sup­ports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cot­ton, and cat­tle pro­duced in the United States — at an alarm­ing rate.
As (it seems, always…), Ster­ling has vis­ited this future, in his novel >Holy­fire, which men­tions wild­cat­ters who get rich dis­cov­er­ing lost land­fills rich in plas­tics and other rare mate­ri­als, in for­mer East­ern Europe.
Mov­ing past the arche­o­log­i­cal hori­zon brings us to the geo­logic time scale.
Will future vir­tual economies depend on the indus­trial style extrac­tion, pro­cess­ing and mass con­sump­tion of these new infor­ma­tional strata we are lay­ing down today, in the same way that we depend upon fos­silized forests of the Car­bonif­er­ous era to power our new hydro­car­bon age?
The vast oil and coal deposits that power our econ­omy exist because the bac­te­ria and other decom­poser organ­isms of the time were unable to effec­tively break down plant cell mate­ri­als. We recre­ate this cycle by min­ing assorted fos­sil fuels, turn­ing them into plas­tics that exist­ing decom­posers are unable to break down, and then dis­pers­ing these new proto-fossilized non-degrable mate­ri­als widely through­out our own envi­ron­ment (yield­ing con­tem­po­rary phe­nom­ena such as plas­tic micro-particulate con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of tidal waters, and dat­ing of land­fills by the plas­tic mate­ri­als pre­served in them.

Comment » | Ideas, Information Architecture

Back to top