Knowledge and the Shock of Hypermedia: Thoughts From ISKO UK 2017

A week on from the ISKO UK 2017 conference: Knowledge Organisation – what’s the story? (#ISKOUK2017) I’ve finally had time to gather some (actually quite a few) thoughts on two days mixing knowledge organisation systems and narrative.  It’s a full and thought provoking story full of fake news, future shock, linked open data and ingenious knowledge organisation systems.

These are my thoughts in response to the conference theme and presentations but where they refer more directly to a conference paper, or an external reference, a hyperlink is provided so you can go and seek out the original inspiration.

All the conference papers and recorded audio will all be available on the ISKO UK website shortly.

Continue reading Knowledge and the Shock of Hypermedia: Thoughts From ISKO UK 2017

Henry I of England

Henry I of England is a production by Reading Between the Lines theatre company staged at St James’ Catholic Church in Reading, 2-19 November 2016. This Shakespearean play is both an entertaining history (and tragedy and comedy) from our past and a compelling critique of our present. It deserves to be a modern classic for our times.

Henry I of England runs for another week until 19th November and I would urge you to go and see it for an entertaining and memorable night out showcasing Reading’s history and creativity.

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Intermingling

Easter was a pleasant time filled with sunshine, the warmth of meals and conversation with family, and the vibrancy of nature unfurling back into life as blossom covers tree branches, shoots push through soil, birdsong fills the gleaming and frogsong fills the gloaming.

During the time I read two books, Intertwingled by Peter Morville and The Library Beyond the Book by Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Battles, and went on a visit, to Simply Permaculture in Saint Jean de Duras, all of which took me from libraries to the land and back again, whilst exploring similar themes:

  • exploring the connectedness of all things from information systems to natural ecosystems.
  • exhibiting the kind of quiet convinction and openness of thought needed to first see and then set aside limitations in order to reframe ideas, redesign systems and remix scenarios.
  • combining the anchoring role of centres with the the fertility of peripheries.
  • collapsing pasts, presents and futures to recognise they are chronological but not discrete.
  • critically dissecting our cartographic instincts: our need to make maps to understand the world around us whilst stressing the obvious trap that the map is not the territory.

Individually they were all enjoyable and thought provoking; taken together they seeped across each other into a powerful meditation on culture and change.

Intertwingled

 

Intertwingled / Peter Morville
9780692225585
LibraryThing | Goodreads

Firstly, I read Intertwingled by Peter Morville. Morville is an experienced information architect, one of the earliest, and author of classic texts such as Information Architecture for the World Wide Web and Ambient Findability. This is a deeply personal book, based on Morville’s reading and experience, that elevates information architecture away from the practical towards the reflective and thoughtful by way of this elliptical and eclectic meditation on the skeins of information that surround us.

It sketches information in broad strokes, taking in the natural world and the invisible constraints of culture in order to expose the categories and limitations that inhibit thinking and the connections and levers that change thinking. An attempt, perhaps, at a more holistic epistemology of information systems that inspires, but doesn’t always succeed (in places it is a bit too gnomic). The style was sometimes a bit too consulting speak and such short sentences suggested a better presentation as a speech than a book.At times I was confused and felt like I was chasing important points that were, however, too ephemeral to grasp.

Following Infoscent

Given how much of the book is informed by influential texts Morville has encountered it is also surprising their isn’t a bibliography to accompany the provided notes (which aren’t always well referenced. Morville also has a tendancy to drop references into the text that aren’t well noted, for example infoscent, and assume a higher level of cogniscence with terms than I have. For a book about connectedness this displays a surprising lack of context and linking.

Everything is Connected

The foundational position is of connectedness, a deep intertwining of things that suggests a shift from systems to ecosystems thinking. The argument in Chapter 1 suggests that as this is the nature of things, including information, and therefore information systems design needs to encompass culture, governance and synthesasia as well as analysis and architecture if it is to achieve sustainable change. I’m convinced by this argument, though the examples and structural thread in this chapter are rather eclectic.

The second chapter is more coherently argued and discusses the consequences of catagorisation and the risks of confusing maps with territories. Through examples, how we architect understanding is unpicked and questioned. It is an important point that organising and structuring information is not a neutral act and as information professionals we have an ethical duty to reflect on our choices: what are we fixing and what are hiding by the labels we create. As expected from a great information architect, Morville is very good at exposing the structures of information architecture. These sections emerge as moments of clear insight from the surrounding fog of philosophical context and personal anecdote.

I was once again lost slightly in the third chapter on Connections, but the fourth chapter on Culture once again felt more solid, albeit contradictory. Having spent the chapter on categories warning us that “maps are traps” the Culture chapter urges us to make cultural maps to effect change.

There was much in here that resonated but overall it works best at creating a “structure of feeling”, an overall mindset about information, architecture and systems thinking. It is better than the sum of its sometimes vague parts and introduced me to a whole host of new thinkers, texts and ideas to explore by suggesting an interesting bibliographic path to wander by following up many of the quoted sources (that’s why I was so disappointed there wasn’t a full bibliography). For example Systemantics by John Gall, Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows and Bruce Sterling’s concept of spime (objects that are tracked through space and time), are all new to me and look interesting.

Simply Permaculture

Next I wandered an actual path that snaked through the permaculture garden of Sandra and Santi at Simply Permaculture in Saint Jean de Duras. Their property is an experiment in applying permaculture philosophy and design to their French smallholding and this was the opening weekend of their garden visits for 2015 and part of Spring in Duras. They open up their garden to visitors and providde guided tours to demonstrate their application of permaculture and help others learn.

Permaculture is a design process that using the patterns in systems found in nature to create more sustainable human systems: essentially design based on ecological principles. Permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s as “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man”. For more information on permaculture the Essence of Permaculture provides a concise summary of the principles and ethics.

As I walked, I found the garden to be an example of “applied intertwingling” taking the concepts and critical structures from Morville and applying them to the domain of cultivation. In many ways it helped me understand Morville’s themes better.

The Flower is not the Garden

Pc_Flower_Poster_EN

Once again the map is not the territory. The permaculture domains and design principles provide a design map but in no way reflected the 5 hectare permaculture garden taking shape with loving care in France. As we were guided we learned about water management with swales, hugel beds for growing vegetables, a sustainable system of aquaponics using fish to fertilise the plants and the plants to clean and filter the water and how to get chickens to make compost.

Pc_Principles_Poster_EN

The permaculture principles emphasise connectedness, diversity and using feedback to design more sustainable systems. Each territory is different, but permaculture principles and ethics provide a cultural map that can guide sustainable cultivation.

An Aside on Information Behaviour

The day itself also demonstrated many of the ways people exchange information resources to learn about new things. Sandra and Santi went on a formal permaculture design course but they also described themselves as “YouTube Farmers”: if they didn’t know how to do something they searched for it using the internet. They watch lots of documentaries and do a lot of research to expand their knowledge, as well as consulting with their neighbours: long-term experts on the local terroir. Now, they are sharing their knowledge by opening their garden to curious visitors who can get information from posts located at various points on a trail through the garden or join a guided tour for more in depth information sharing. The group I was in exchanged ideas, and physical resources, between themselves and our hosts during the tour and it was probably one of the most dynamic peer learning experiences I’ve experienced.

My parents were so enthused with what they had learnt they immediately went home and started a project to use their chickens to help turn their compost.

The Library Beyond the Book

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The Library Beyond the Book / Jeffrey T. Schnapps and Matthew Battles
9780674725034
LibraryThing | Goodreads

Thirdly, I read Jeffrey T. Schnapp and Matthew Battles write up their experiments on reframing the library. Stemming from a series of design studios at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design Bibliotheca: The Library Past/Present/Future leading to the Library Test Kitchen. This seemed to be another example of “applied intertwingling”, this time in the domain of cultural memory.

This book does a fantastic job of tearing up the old cultural map by exposing the assumptions we make when we catagorise something as ‘library’ or ‘book, opening up connections, excavating the whole cultural process of authorship, readership and exchange and testing the limits of what libraries and books can be. It’s playful, poetic and provocative.

They consciously assert their domain as the library beyond the book not after the book, collapsing the past, present and future into a jumble of structures and possibilities: seeking fixity not fluidity. Like Morville, they reject simple determinimism and binary opposites. This is not a debate between visionaries and nostalgics but a rejection of constraints that might limit new connections and possibilities. They write of:

the intermingling of the analog and the digital, books and e-books, paper and pixels.

The Codex is not the Book

Just as the map is not the territory, so the codex is not the book. Schnapp and Battle insist that our ideas of the book, and authorship, are not fixed in formats but are “a flock of objects” suspended in the networks of their own creation and circulation. Much as we may like to fix things, they rather uncomfortably remain unfixed and spill out from their containers.

I like the way they argue that books became digital, in the processes of composition and publication, even before the artefact became digital. They describe books as “a medium that requires connection” and “are coaxed to life by conversation”. They have always been “surrounded by a halo of what we now call metadata”. Gradually, the digital halo that first emanated from books in the 1970s, now erodes the reification of books as physical things connecting the residual art of oration with the emergent “peritextual nimbus” of the digital and beyond.

A similar point is made about libraries themselves as being more fluid containers of books, conversation, retreat and communion than we assume. The book stacks and classification codes that were designed to organise and store books in the 19th century have been fixed so firmly in our culture that it is only with difficulty that we can see beyond them. It’s a critical discourse that comes from a deep love of libraries and what they offer society:

Libraries as sites for access, congregation, contemplation, delight, discovery, dispute, escape, hiding, repose, research, secrecy, self-abnegation … a capacious cartography of qualities, which register their historical texture, weave in and out and among one another, just as much as do the forms of the book.

This provocative essay suggests that we are experiencing a transitional moment as the dominance of these structures is challenged, arrived at not because of one thing but because of many interlocking changes in practice and documentary form. Nor do they suggest that books and book-holding libraries will disappear, rather that they will intermingle with new and remediated practices and forms, emerging from the traces of what books and libraries used to be and what they can be.

Beyond the Book

This critical discussion provides the context for the design experiments (“forward-looking, historically informed, speculative sketches”) outlined in the rest of the book. Tucked into margins, through words and pictures the book explores services, artefacts and scenarios that play with different levers to reframe the library and draw new maps based on a library typology: Mausoleum, Cloister, Database, Warehouse, Material Epistemology, Mobile Vector, Civic Space and Instant Reading Room. Some are better then others, some are more playful, others more possible. The exciting thing is that the authors, and their students, have been willing to go beyond existing categories and limitations to see connections and suggest new ways of being for libraries that go beyond the prevailing culture. It’s also written beautifully, poetically.

Such ideas are refreshing and urgent if debates about library futures aren’t to become too fixated on preserving a cherished but inhibiting past or ossified in arcane format debates that impose rigid limits on new ways of thinking. Libraries are not just places that entomb memory, they are also places where the living gather to imagine, converse, meet practical needs and find treasure. Some things will settle, to seeming permanance, others will change more frequently; not everything should change but nothing is entirely fixed. The book is packed full of suggestions for reimagining not just library spaces, services and systems but our whole library culture of authorship, publishing, acquisition and reading. It is critical, but devoted. The containers may leak and evolve, but the communion of ideas and stories will undoubtedly endure.

Inquiring Minds:Joining Dots

There have been a number of times this year that a #citylis lecture has subsequent exposed connections in a way I’ve found uncanny. A sure sign that the course is opening my mind and encouraging me to pay attention. Coincidences are just connections I wouldn’t have noticed without being receptive to them.

This week’s connections were provided by the Inquiring Minds podcast a weekly show I would encourage you to subscribe to if you are at all interested in intersections of science, society and the world around us.

On a sunny spring afternoon I had about an hour’s walk home in front of me so I listened to Episode 75: Kevin Kelly: What Technology Wants (the ‘fact’ that sunny days and fresh air help you think better is only proven by my own anecdata!).

Connecting Healthcare Information

In the slot before the main feature co-hosts Kishore Hari and Indre Viskontas discussed the, possibly tangled and dark, connections between celebrity, disorders, medication and public awareness campaigns. This touched on many of this issues we discussed in our Information Domains lecture last week on Healthcare information with another session of Pharmaceutical information to come.

“We have to be a little more vigilant about how we as a society are promoting a particular disease” – Indre Viskontas

Inquiring Minds hope to have a follow up on this story. In the meantime other episodes to catch up on that connect with this theme are: Episode 74 featuring Kathleen Hall Jamieson on Fact Checking Science, Episode 36 featuring Harry Collins on Why Googling Doesn’t Make You a Scientific Expert, Episode 17 featuring Michael Pollan on The Science of Eating Well (And Not Falling for Fad Diets) and Episode 7 featuring George Johnson on Why Mostt of What You’ve Heard About Cancer is Wrong.

Also not coincidentally when I walked into my local public library outpost on Saturday the first book my eye was drawn to was Bad Pharma: How Medicine is Broken, And How We Can Fix It by Ben Goldacre.

Self Ordering

Another pre-feature chat concerned the MIT Self-Assembly Lab who have made a chair assemble itself in water.

Their research looks at how things can make themselves.

“Self-Assembly is a process by which disordered parts build an ordered structure through local interaction.” – MIT Self-Assembly Lab

This is more than a little bit mind expanding. They are researching the “building blocks. energy and interactions” for self-making things.

Now, when we studied entropy we looked at how ordered structures consisting of many independent parts tended to disorder. The self-assembly lab look at creating materials that can create order from disorder pieces: shifting from high to low entropy.

One of the questions this poses is do information technologies such as the Semantic Web and machine learning suggest a similar ability to self-order information resources? If so, what is the role and purpose of information professionals?

Kevin Kelly on Cataloguing Cool Tools, Surveillance and Technology as a Force

It is hard to describe the career and work of Kevin Kelly. So I’ll just borrow from Tim Adams who says it well in this 2010 article:

Kevin Kelly is a former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and co-founder of Wired magazine, where he remains editor-at-large. He has been an irrepressible prophet of our digital future for 40 years.

It’s also hard to cover the eclectic mind swirl and surfing journey the ideas tumbling out of this podcast took me on.

Access to Tools

Let’s start with the Whole Earth Catalog, again pretty coincidentally given that during Reading Week some of us were participating in an optional workshop on cataloguing using RDA and MARC21.

Where Librarians catalogue books and documents the Whole Earth Catalog collected … well bits of information about everything. Often these were tools, tools being an infinitely malleable term. The Catalog was sub-titled “access to tools” and books were just one example in the broad taxonomy of tools they catalogued.

“”Tools” were endless and whatever users and staff deemed them to be. They could be actual tools for everything from jewelry work and enameling to woodworking and blacksmithing. Other tools were books of every type – from views of the future to death and dying to gravity and time to population control; maps; and how-to guides for everything from living in a tipi to building a pipe organ to using a compass.” – Whole Earth Catalog

Rising out of late 1960s counterculture, perhaps Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog should be linked to that emergent history of the web that threads through Paul Otlet’s Universal Bibliography, Vannevar Bush’s Memex, Ted Nelson’s Hypertext to Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web? It has been described as a cross between an early search engine and social medium published in zine form.

“With a seemingly haphazard arrangement of information within its categories, the CATALOG was the desktop-published equivalent an early search engine that invited readers to learn something new on every page – and to connect unrelated ideas and concepts.” – Whole Earth Catalog

Kevin Kelly described working on the whole Earth Catalog as:

“living on the web decades before the internet was born” – Kevin Kelly

For more information on and material from the Whole Earth Catalog and its culture the Museum of Modern Art has an exhibition page called Access to Tools: Publications from the Whole Earth Catalog, 1968-1974. The cuttings from the Catalog that accompany the bibliography at the end should be of interested to #citylis folks!

There is also a recording on YouTube of From Counterculture to Cyberculture: The Legacy of the Whole Earth Catalog held by Stanford University Libraries that discusses much of the content from Fred Turner’s book From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism

Kevin Kelly was an editor of Whole Earth Review (features including Computers are Poison and Peering into the Age of Transparency) before being part of the team that launched Wired. Two connective threads connecting this eclectic mix of ecology, technology and creativity (you may like to read Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems and the Economic World) are the desire to catalogue tools and the idea of technology as a kind of natural force.

Kelly still catalogues tools via Cool Tools. Every weekday this blog publishes and article about tools that work and has collated 1200 of the best of them into a book that is subtitled “A Catalog of Possibilities” … which perhaps sums up a reason for being of many catalogues.

Surveillance, Tracking and Technology as Force

Kelly also talks about the Internet, tracking and surveillance. He thinks that it’s not going to be possible to stop the internet tracking us. He sees technology as an evolutionary force. this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is deterministic but once systems evolve they neither fully control nor are fully controlled by the humans that originally innovated and introduced them into our systems and ecosystems. They are relentless in their adaptability and mutation.

The Internet is a force that tracks. In some ways resistance is futile. It’s going to be increasingly difficult to live off the grid or to use the Internet and benefit from it without accepting its trackable element. Instead of resistance, Kelly argues that we should accept this property of and figure out how to make it more beneficial than malevolent or malicious and how to work to ensure its multifarious and reciprocal. Tracking is not going to go away but it can also still be negotiated and contested.

Kelly raises the spectre of our looming identity crisis as we increasingly ask “What will humans be?” as we create forms of intelligence and self-creating machines that potentially seriously disrupt our place in the world and our ongoing development as a species.