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    of the American Society for Information Science and Technology         Vol. 31, No. 5        June/July 2005

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IA Column

Infomania at Summit '05

by Andrew Dillon

Now in its sixth year, the 2005 IA Summit in Montreal attracted more than 400 people to four days, despite the cold and the travel. The format has been modified, and there seemed to be even more to do than usual, but the consensus that emerged was that this was a hugely successful event. Why this success should surprise anyone is a question worth asking since the summits have taken on the mantle of the annual event for IAs, and it is becoming harder to escape the trappings of conference formalisms. We had three parallel sessions, pre-conference workshops, two keynote speakers, a book display and even a stand from a company trying to interest people in their task analysis software.

A couple of issues really struck me about this summit. First, the number of first-time attendees was staggeringly high. From a show of hands on the opening day it appeared as if they were in the majority. Nothing wrong with this situation you might say, but the number of new attendees was high last year too, so it would appear that repeat attendance is not the norm. It could be that the summits attract a high proportion of local people each time or that the IA community is volatile. Likely it is a bit of both, but the number of us who have attended all six summits is rapidly decreasing.

Another noteworthy point for me was the growing tolerance and presence of academics. Certainly we remain in the minority but many of the attendees recognize the importance of the profession’s links to education now. Tucked into what many of us thought would be the dead-zone slot of 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, the panel on curriculum development for IA attracted more than 50 people who engaged in a lively back and forth for almost two hours on what needed to be taught and what credentials were needed to practice IA. There seems to be much interest in this topic, and it resulted in a new list being set up for further discussion of educational issues among academics. From memory, there were faculty or students from the universities at Baltimore , Western Ontario, McGill, Toronto , Montreal , Washington , Texas , Kent State , Middlebury, Houston , DePaul, Pittsburgh , Canberra , Carnegie Mellon, Ivrea , Indiana , Simmons , Maryland , Syracuse , Cornell and Dalhousie.

Characterizing a summit is difficult but there are numerous attempts from bloggers, which you can find from a quick search of Google or by pointing your browser to the conference site (www.iasummit.org/). We all have our own interpretations of what happened (I really enjoy Peter Boersma’s take on events, and the comments from others that it solicited; see www.peterboersma.com/blog/), but I could not move far from discussions of the death of the page metaphor, the nature of genres in a digital world, content management and lots of talk about enterprise-wide IA of one sort or another. Of course the “What is IA?” debate reared its head again through some rather emphatic claims (unchallenged, surprisingly) that experience design is greater than IA, though I did round on that claim in my keynote. Similarly, I was very pleasantly surprised to hear so many mentions of ethics over the weekend. This discussion is new, and there is a slow realization in the field that the choices we make as designers are not value-free.

The only downside for me was the number of parallel sessions, which made it difficult to find presentations of the right depth and coverage to satisfy my interests, and I sense this was a problem for others. While the community certainly wants to welcome new people, the cost of this open-door policy is a mix of quality that often makes it impossible to judge a paper without showing up at a session.  Again, this is part of the overload of information we face. We all know that there is too much to attend to and too many choices to make on the basis of incomplete data but it seems the problem is far worse than any of us imagined. While I was blaming the program committee (of which I was a member, truth be told) I should really have been contemplating my own mental disposition, which drives me to cover so much. A new study from Glenn Wilson, a psychologist in London, has identified “infomania” (just Google it!) as an addiction to information that manifests itself in an obsessive need to attend and respond immediately to email and phone messages, with restless nights resulting from those forced to endure withdrawal. Worse, the research (funded by Hewlett Packard) suggests that workers distracted by the onslaught of information show a drop in IQ at rates twice those observed in marijuana users (not sure HP really funded that part, but it gets the headlines). I suppose each generation has its drug of choice; I just knew all those emails would cost us in the long run.  Here’s looking to 2006.

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