Information Architecture, and plain speaking

JANUARY 19 04

There's a lot of empty chatter these days about 'Information Architecture', it's all the rage among web designers with their sights set on the big-time. Well, when your 'design studio' is the same bedsit you have your beans on toast in you have to dream. Basically, this new field of human endeavour is nothing more than the way you organise a website, and it's mostly common sense, but no, let's call it 'Information Architecture', even better, let's call it IA and not spell it out. I came across one 'Information Architect' who specialised in:

advanced user interfaces for Internet-based content

Let me guess, that's a website, right? Before 'Information Architects' started strutting their stuff, Patterns for Personal Websites had covered the field in a far more interesting and jargon-free way.

When you look at the online CVs of 'professional web designers' more than a few start their employment history with a paper round. They look about 12 in their photos. Sometimes they say they've had ten years' experience in programming, then you find out they're 19. I read one who said he had been studying graphic design for 15 years, which if you put two and two together meant he must have begun with wax crayons and join-the-dot books. I can't compete with that, I regard everything I did before the age of 30 as more or less crap and reset the clock. It's clearly a young person's profession, and they're all becoming 'Information Architects' now, they've had ten years' experience in that too, if you count from the time they got their first Lego set.

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People who gravitate towards pretentious language to describe what they do are really just covering a shortfall in their confidence to be themselves. To me it is a clear signal that they regard themselves as lacking in some way. Many professions are now having a tarpaulin of deadened language erected over them, and in big organisations it serves to distance corporate action from corporate responsibility. Those with the ability to speak plainly are not in demand. Honesty is a potential embarrassment.

We are so unused to hearing people speak boldly and without ambiguity that now all it takes is for someone to say something quite obvious and he gets a round of applause. To criticise government from within government is now considered brave and heroic, whereas it used to be just a normal function of government to seriously debate an issue. Now the only way to get a change of policy is through the medium of public humiliation resulting in a 'fall from grace', blowing up molehills until they look like mountains that 'reflect badly'. Debate of course thrives on rhetoric, but we no longer have proper public debate on issues we just have a game played on the surface, using hollow language as a barrier to debate, something you have to get through before you can possibly get sight of anything real.

Language is being used to send us to sleep, and those who manage to keep their eyes open and their minds alive only have to say what they see on the surface, without any great penetrating vision, and for many virtually lulled into a perceptual coma it becomes an 'insight'. Just think what you might accomplish if your plain speaking is also accompanied by a powerful ability to look beneath the surface, and you reject the false values that are now rife. Well, actually, you might not achieve very much.

You would probably become a voice in the wilderness, because it's certainly true that if people can't see what is going on in front of their faces and regard you as 'perceptive' when you point it out to them (rather than seeing themselves as dull-minded), I dare say you've reached the limit of what they're capable of and you may as well turn your attention towards more eternal matters and stop worrying about being understood in your own time. Nietzsche did this, Goethe did this, Confucius did this. When Laozi couldn't even make people understand the ramifications of the perfectly ordinary observation that 'war horses are being bred at the frontier' (Daodejing 46), he gave up and took the first water buffalo out. As it says in one of my favourite lines from the Wilhelm-Baynes Yijing, the top line of hexagram 18:

He does not serve kings and princes,
Sets himself higher goals.

There will always be a Peach Blossom Spring somewhere. Bill Porter in his beautiful book 'Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits' spoke to an 85-year-old monk who had lived in a cave on Tailao mountain for 50 years:

In the course of our conversation, the monk asked me who this Chairman Mao was whom I kept mentioning. He said he had moved into the cave in 1939 after the spirits of the mountain appeared to him in a dream and asked him to become the mountain's protector. He hadn't been down the mountain since then. [p 12]

('Peach Blossom Spring' is a Chinese utopia away from government and history, from a prose poem by Tao Yuanming. It's a hidden place that you may happen upon by chance, and if you do you should appreciate your luck in finding it and stay, because if you leave to bring back others you'll never ever find it again.)