Bulletin, February/March 2006

IA Column

A Garden of Forking Paths

by Peter Morville

Peter Morville is president of Semantic Studios, co-founder of the IA Institute and a faculty member at the University of Michigan. His books include Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and Ambient Findability. He blogs at findability.org.

In the not too distant past – about a baker’s dozen of years ago, give or take an inch on the proverbial timeline – we leaned heavily and often uncomfortably on the sharp edge of metaphor to explain and understand the Internet. It was a library, a community, a shopping mall, a place, a space and, of course, an information superhighway.

With time, the Web grew into its own, shedding similes like barnacles, in a stern quest for semantic precision and symbolic efficiency. Nowadays, we talk about Amazon, Blogger, Citeseer, de.licio.us, eBay, Flickr, Google, hits or iTunes, and the beat goes on.

Our metaphors malinger, smaller and less visible, but still present. Even as we attempt to overthrow the hegemony of such pervasive metaphors as “navigation,” we construct novel analogies such as Dillon and Vaughn’s “shape of information” to take their place.







Figure 1. The shape of a scientific document. Adapted from Dillon & Vaughn, 1997.

In the vanishing era of Web 2.0, our metaphors lie quietly, a dormant epidemic, awaiting the next mutation, which is emerging just around the corner, at the crossroads of the Internet and ubiquitous computing. 

These dormant metaphors are good, for as we wander off the map into the unfamiliar territory of Greenfield’s “everyware,” we will need our metaphors once again to explain what we see and to help us find our way.

The Shape of a Career

Consider, for instance, the paths we traverse in the course of a career. What patterns do we leave behind? The linear progression of education? The hierarchical ascent of institution? Or the hourglass of the scientific paper with intense specialization in the middle?

In his book Models of My Life, Herbert Simon, the polymath pioneer of artificial intelligence and decision theory, saw himself as the denizen of a maze:

I have encountered many branches in the maze of my life’s path, where I have followed now the left fork, now the right. The metaphor of the maze is irresistible to someone who has devoted his scientific career to understanding human choice.

This observation resonates with my own experience, though my maze is modeled in hypertext, an unpredictable string of nodes and links, connected only in my mind. After graduating from college with a degree in English literature, my subsequent unemployment afforded me the luxury to pursue interests in artificial intelligence, programming and the early computer bulletin boards of Compuserve and Prodigy, while actively searching for a future in career centers and public libraries.

I still remember finding a tattered, ancient book about careers in library science, a subject I had never known existed. This node propelled me toward the collision of librarianship and the Internet at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and Library Studies and then into the virgin territory of information architecture.

It was fun, for about a decade, to help build the box we now call IA. Integrating ideas and methods from LIS, HCI, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, sociology and other strangely connected disciplines into the practice of IA was my favorite part.

But eventually, I realized that to become a better information architect, I needed to venture beyond the box and follow the arrows. This realization translated into a boundary-spanning passion for findability that flies over the walls of engineering, marketing and design, and sails far beyond the safe harbor of the World Wide Web.

Ambient Findability

The term ambient findability describes a world in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere and anytime. It’s not necessarily a goal, as this vision carries both promise and peril. And we’ll never reach the destination, since perfect findability is impossible. But we’re most assuredly headed in the right direction.

Global positioning systems, radio frequency identifiers, embedded sensors, smart phones, ambient devices – we’re creating all sorts of new interfaces to export digital networked information, while simultaneously importing vast volumes of data about the physical world into our shared digital networks.

Familiar lines blur in this future nearly present. Data becomes metadata as Amazon’s Search Inside the Book turns page into index. The territory becomes the map as Google Earth makes our reality virtual. In Weinberger’s words: Everything grows miscellaneous. And people are transformed into ubiquitous findable objects (UFOs), along with pets, products, possessions and places.

These UFOs, which Bruce Sterling labels spimes, are objects precisely located in space and time. They ingest their own metadata. They accumulate histories. They network with peers. They are scary, infinitely complex and almost inconceivable. But they are coming.

Inspired Decisions

As the Web becomes both interface and infrastructure for an Internet of objects we can barely imagine, what metaphors will shape our fate? Clearly, the sea level will rise, but our children need not drown nor suffer information anxiety. These are painful analogies born in the journey from past to present. They fail to anticipate the future.

Personally, I draw insight and inspiration from the words of Jorge Luis Borges, a blind Argentine librarian, who in 1941wrote an amazing story (“The garden of forking paths”) about a book and labyrinth containing “an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times…all possibilities.”

In this garden, the forks occur across time and space. Visitors step easily between trees and text in transmedia experiences where wayfinding, retrieval, learning and decision making are indistinguishable. Every leaf is tagged. Every pebble tells a story. Most paths (not all) shimmer with the flow of humanity, amidst peaceful burbling socio-semantic streams of consciousness.

To wander these forking paths is a delicious (but not overwhelming) sensory experience, in which every destination shapes the journey, and what we find changes who we become – a possible future worth cultivating. So let’s get to work. I’ll see you in the garden.

For Further Reading

Borges, L (1941). The garden of forking paths. Translation of El jardin de senderos que se bifurcan. Reprinted in Borges, L, Everything and nothing. New York: New Directions, 1999.

Dillon, A. & Vaughan, M. (1997). It's the journey and the destination: Shape and the emergent property of genre in evaluating digital documents. New Review of Multimedia and Hypermedia, 3, 91-106.  Available December 18, 2005, at  www.ischool.utexas.edu/~adillon/Journals/NRHM98/NRHM%20paper%2098.htm.

Greenfield, A. (2006). Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders.

Simon, H. (1991). Models of my life. New York: Basic Books. Electronic version available through NetLibrary.

Morville, P. (2005, November 17). Ubiquitous findable objects (UFOs). Available December 16, 2005, at www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/network/2005/11/17/ubiquitous-findable-objects.html

Weinberger, D. (2006?). Everything is miscellaneous. Publication expected July 2006. Some excerpts from the book were available December 16, 2005, on the author’s Website at www.hyperorg.com