ASIS&T IA Summit 2003 "Making Connections"  
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The Sociobiology of Information Architecture
Saturday, 10:30 - 11:15
Session Three


The Sociobiology of Information Architecture
Alex Wright


What do protozoa, birds and chimpanzees have to do with information architecture? More than you might think.

Since the earliest organic life forms first emerged in the primordial sea, living creatures have been evolving mechanisms for recording, storing and sharing information with each other. Only in recent years have pioneering sociobiologists like Edward O. Wilson begun to fully comprehend the complexity of these “learning machines” in nature, with their surprisingly sophisticated mechanisms for collecting and archiving data. Viewed through the prism of sociobiology, we can begin to comprehend our own information retrieval systems in a new light: not as an exclusively human endeavor, but rather as the emanation of a basic evolutionary impulse.

What does any of this have to do with information architecture? I believe the practice of IA is itself on the verge of an evolution: from the design of fixed systems (like Web sites and software applications) towards the development of more fluid (and Web browser-less) environments. To cope with coming changes in the social and technological landscape, IAs may need to broaden their disciplinary horizons beyond the traditional reference points of library science, computer science and usability engineering.

In this presentation, I will survey the emerging field of sociobiology, exploring the dynamics of collective learning systems in nature, searching for useful insights that may help inform our approach to IA. Although this presentation will necessarily focus more on theory than practice, I will try to illustrate with instructive real-world examples wherever possible (for example, Microsoft’s vision for a next-generation social operating system, the phenomena of “smart mobs,” or the evolution of increasingly personal information spaces).

My hope for this presentation is to offer the Summit audience an alternative, if perhaps slightly orthogonal point of view on the purpose and practice of IA that stretches beyond the traditional topical boundaries of Web site design.


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