Episodes

Peter Morville on Emancipating Information Architecture

“The structures that have served us well, served us well in a different world — in a past world that's not coming back.”

My guest today is Peter Morville. Peter is a pioneer in the discipline of information architecture. Among many other distinctions, he co-authored with Lou Rosenfeld Information Architecture for the World-Wide Web, the classic O’Reilly “polar bear” book on the subject. This is Peter’s second appearance on The Informed Life podcast. I asked him back because I wanted to learn more about his recent call for practitioners to emancipate information architecture.

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Show notes

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Read the full transcript

Jorge: Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter: Hello, there. I’m very happy to be back.

Jorge: Yeah. I usually start shows by asking guests to tell us about themselves, but you have the distinction of being the second repeat guest to The Informed Life podcast. The first was our friend Lou Rosenfeld, and I think it’s appropriate that as the two co-authors of the polar bear book, you are two of the folks I most want to hear from. And part of the reason that I wanted to talk with you again is, when you were last on the show, you talked about what was next for you.

I actually have the transcript up here and I’m going to quote back to you what you said. You said that… well, I’m going to paraphrase first, but you said that you had this not completely formed plan to buy some property and start an animal sanctuary to create a place that can be helpful to people and animals. And now I’m quoting, “and that comes from that deep questioning of what do I want to do with my remaining time here on planet earth. And while I get a lot of intellectual satisfaction from consulting with big organizations, I’m not sure as I look forward to the next 25 years or so, that that’s going to fulfill my need for a real sense of purpose and meaning.”

Peter: That sounds like me.

Jorge: Yeah, it does, doesn’t it? And now you’ve written a blog post where you update us on how that is going. And I’m looking forward to talking with you about that here on the show.

Peter’s blog post

Peter: Yeah, the blog post was called “Emancipating Information Architecture.” Freeing information architecture from the shackles I helped to forge, so that we can use information architecture to free minds. That’s the general gist. And on the personal side, since we last talked, we have moved from Michigan to Virginia, which is the place that we’re planning to buy property. But we’re currently renting, so hopefully 2021 will be the year that we buy the property and get some goats and chickens to get started.

Jorge: So, I want to find out more about both of those, but why don’t we start with this idea of emancipating information architecture. That’s some pretty powerful language. What is keeping information architecture bound?

Peter: So, in the article I take some credit or blame for that state of information architecture. And I think back on those early years in the 1990s, when Lou and I were working together to build our company, Argus Associates, and to evangelize this new practice of information architecture, and I was driven by fear. I had spent a year unemployed — sort of — and not really knowing what I wanted to do and feeling lost in the world. And then, ambition, because I had now gotten a taste of entrepreneurship and felt strongly that there was something here with information architecture that I can grow into a career. But you know, it was very dicey. We were paying the bills month-to-month early on. And so, there was a values-based side to my passion for information architecture. I was incredibly excited about the potential of the internet and then the worldwide web to enable us humans to share information all around the world and to become smarter and better. And so there was a techno-utopian side to my passion. But ultimately, I was trying to figure out, how am I going to be able to live in this world? How am I going to be able to pay the bills?

So, there was a very strong orientation towards situating information architecture in the business context. How do we make money doing information architecture? How do we turn it into a job, into a field or discipline? And really, the community that grew up around information architecture was predominantly people who were figuring out how do I do this as part of my work in a business context. There were people from nonprofits and education, and there were folks who were more academic and were interested in the intellectual ideas. But 80% plus were folks who were figuring out, how do we do this as part of our work? That really is, I think, where information architecture has been centered. If you look at most writing, most conferences, it’s been centered in business.

Jorge: What I’m hearing here is that what you’re looking to emancipate information architecture from is being bound to these business contexts. Is that right?

Peter: Yeah, and I make the point in the article. It’s not that information architecture isn’t doing good in the business world and can’t do more good. So, it’s not an abandonment of business at all. But I think that there’s so much potential for the ways that we think, the ways that we practice information architecture, particularly In the areas of language and classification — how we use language, how we define or design labels, how we structure and organize conceptual spaces — those skills are so useful beyond business, whether we talk about social or political or environmental areas, I think that part of what is holding us back as people are archaic words and structures: language and classification systems that we have inherited from the past that we’re having a hard time getting beyond.

What is different about Information Architecture?

Jorge: There are other fields that think about this stuff as well. I’m thinking of George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant! — I think that’s the name of it — where he dives into this subject of labeling and distinctions in the realm of politics, specifically. What is special about information architecture? What is different about information architecture that would make it a good agent for change in this realm?

Peter: Yeah. So, as I was working on the article, George Lakoff came to mind. He’s one of the few people out there that I know has engaged in these issues in really interesting ways. There are also other books that come from outside of our discipline; Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences comes to mind as a fascinating exploration of the impact of language and classification in all sorts of contexts, for instance, in the kind of the hospital and nursing context.

So, as I was writing this article, I was not under the impression or trying to portray the notion that we have a monopoly on these ways of thinking. In fact, in the article, the examples that I provide, one is focused on topics in and around LGBTQ+, gender and sexuality and all of the labels and classification systems around them that. And that work is being done by people who would never identify as information architects or don’t even know our field exists. There’s so much that we can learn from the work that people are doing out in the world.

But I think that the folks who have spent the last 10-20 years thinking about information architecture, learning about information architecture, have a skillset and a talent that could be used beyond business. And I’m really trying to get our community to just at least question, “am I practicing in the contexts where I can make the greatest impact, given where I want to see the world go in the future?” For some people, the answer might be, “yes! I am super passionate about helping to grow this business, and this is what I want to do.” For other folks, they may say, “I need to do this work in order to pay the bills in a business context, but maybe I could volunteer some time and evenings or weekends to help folks work through issues around, how do we present ourselves? How do we label and organize our information so that we might be better understood, or so that we can make a bigger impact?”

Jorge: When I hear you talk about the particular skills and talents of practicing information architects, what came to my mind is that information architects put these ideas of classification and distinction-making through language into action, right? It’s one thing to think about it in the abstract, in theory, but we are very much practitioners making things in the world, right?

Peter: Yes.

Jorge: And as such, we are in a position to make these distinctions more palpable, perhaps or more tangible?

Peter: Yeah. There’s an interesting dance between the abstract and the tangible that we do. Very often, whether it’s as in-house practitioners or consultants, we’re hired more for the tangible stuff that we do. Most people are able to understand the tangible side of what we do. So, it’s very often almost their own secret that the most important work that we do is pretty abstract and hard to explain. It’s like, as a consultant, I go into an organization and I immerse myself in their world, in their language and classification system, in their domain, their area of expertise, their content, as well as all their challenges and goals and so forth.

And I always go through this journey of initial excitement then feeling completely overwhelmed. Like, “oh my goodness, there’s so much here. It’s such a mess. How can I ever make a difference?” And with experience, I’ve built up the confidence to know I will get to the other side and I will start to come up with some models, hopefully some elegant models of how we can move forward. And the highest level, those models are sufficiently abstract that very few people appreciate them. It’s when you take them to the next level and they start to become tangible and you can sort of see them, you’ve got a diagram or a wire frame or sketch, and people get it, and you start to get people behind this shared vision.

So, I think you’re right in the sense that we have that experience of grappling with the abstract stuff that’s really hard to even talk about and then moving it into some tangible artifacts which then eventually move it into the world and it becomes the digital place. It’s a website, it’s a software application. Or in the physical world, right? It’s how the grocery store is organized; it’s how the airport is organized and the signage. Whether you talk about digital or physical places, then those end results start to shape how people think. So, that’s the part that’s interesting. We create environments that then shape people’s perceptions, right? I mean, you go back to the Winston Churchill quote, if it was really him, “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.” That’s very true, whether you’re talking about buildings or digital places or classification systems, and once people get used to a certain structure, it’s hard to shift; it’s hard to get people to think differently. And that’s the challenge I think is interesting. But it’s different in every domain. Is a website going to help make this shift or a book or do people need to be teaching this in elementary school? Where are the levers for effecting change in people’s minds?

Top-down vs. bottom-up structure

Jorge: There’s a distinction between molding information structures, structuring them, giving them shape, and spotting patterns in the ways people use these systems, that result in emergent structure. And I realize that sounds a little abstract, so I’ll give you an example. The hashtag emerged in the use of Twitter. It’s not something that was designed into Twitter from the get-go. And I am noticing in the world such structures coming into being, and I’ll give you an example — and this one is related to what you wrote about in the article, and I’m hoping that we will get into this — but I’ve started seeing more and more people appending to their name, on social networks, a description of the pronouns that they want to be described with. You will usually see the name and then parentheses, “he/him,” right? And there’s no space in that information system for you to describe your preferred pronouns. So, the users have kind of hacked the system by appending it to their last name field, or what have you. And that came to mind as I was reading your article, because you did get into the — I think you called it the “architecture of identity” — that we do seem to be living in a time where that is becoming more and more of an issue for folks. And I’m wondering what our role is as information architects, with regards to this top-down versus bottom-up spotting of these patterns and enabling their use in our systems.

Peter: Yeah, I love that example. And I think, yeah, there’s a couple of different directions to go there. One, I think that that notion of identifying patterns and then deciding whether or not to try to spread them, to embed them in infrastructure or to squash them, that is something that I think we should be more aware of our potential to play a role there.

When we talk about information architecture, it’s easy to think that we are the creators of structure, that it has to come out of our heads. But, as the Twitter hashtag idea suggests, many of the best innovations come from a user, one person who has an idea and tries it out and then other people see it and copy it and it starts to spread. And then, there’s an interesting point there where in that case, the team at Twitter had to decide, “do we embrace this and embed it in infrastructure? Does the hashtag become part of Twitter?” And they decided, yes, right?

And, the issues around pronouns are so tricky. They’re difficult. I guess I’ll make a confession that there have been times where I’ve been irritated by this kind of injecting pronouns into various contexts. Like, I was at a meeting a couple of years ago. The purpose of the meeting was really to focus on helping undocumented immigrants in Michigan. It was hosted at the University of Michigan. And at a certain point, we were all asked to introduce ourselves and to introduce our pronouns. And at an introductory meeting where we didn’t even know if we were ever going to see any of these people again, it seemed like that was kind of forced into the conversation. And when I experienced that irritation, number one, I tried to moderate it, like, “hey, there’s a plus here. We’re really trying to make sure that as we’re talking to one another and referring to one another, we’re using the right words, right? We’re using the words that people are comfortable with, as their identification.”

But I also try to grow a little compassion for the people who are on the other side, right? The folks who have very little tolerance for the LGBTQ+ folks, because, the thing that’s really interesting in here is I think that there’s this little part of our brains that — I’m sure there’s a spectrum in terms of like how active this is across the population — but there’s a little part of our brains that just gets annoyed at added complexity, right? Like, “oh, now I’ve got to worry about whether I say you know, ‘he or she,’ or ‘they or theirs’? My life’s hard enough already. I’m just keeping my head above water. That just annoys me.” Right? And I think that little irritation may be the source of so much conflict, and unnecessary suffering in our society.

And the flip side is — which for the most part, is how I feel — is, I love difference. I am so bored by the sameness. Living in a world where there’s people of all different sort of races and sexes and genders and people who have different customs and do things differently. I love that. But I have a brain that loves learning, and I also have the privilege of a certain level of stability in my life and a certain amount of confidence that I’m sort of ready for the next thing. “Hey, I want to learn something new! Tell me more about what it means to be trans, right?” That’s a new wrinkle; tell me about that, I’m interested. But I think that little kind of irritation is something that probably would be good for us all to be mindful of. We all probably feel that at different points about different issues.

The need for progress and leadership

Jorge: I can relate to that, Peter. And I’m also thinking again, in the spirit of — you used the word “compassion” — to try to empathize, perhaps with folks who might be irritated by this. You used the word “archaic” to refer to the traditional words and structures. And again, that’s a very strong word. It might be read as “obsolete,” you know? And I imagine, and that there might be people for whom there’s a counter argument there, which is, these distinctions that you label “archaic” have served us for a long time. What would you say to those folks?

Peter: Yeah, that’s a great point and I agree. It’s a provocative word. So, to explain my perception… why I use a word like that. I am somebody who kind of lives in the future. Like, too much maybe, for my own good. I’m always thinking about what’s next, where are things going? Which is helpful for being an information architect and planning ahead. But [it] has its costs. It takes me effort to live in the present a little more, right? To be aware of what’s going on today. How am I feeling? To take time, to enjoy just being alive. And I don’t spend much time reflecting on the past. And I think to a certain degree, I’ve missed out a lot on, positive emotions, like nostalgia; looking back at how things were. I think I miss out a little there.

But my current mental models — my sense of trajectories and where things are going — is that human civilization is really approaching a very dangerous moment. We are in a very dangerous moment, where we are not only causing incredible destruction to other species and to the environment, but we’re doing it to the extent that we’re on the verge of destroying ourselves. And so, at a time where I see this crisis, like we’re in it and it’s getting worse, I feel that we need to be more progressive. We need to move faster. The structures that have served us well, served us well in a different world — in a past world that’s not coming back.

And so, I think that we need to be more open to change, to embrace change. And I say that knowing, especially just based on how you phrased that question, that that’s really scary to a lot of people and very difficult for a lot of people. And I’m not sure what the answer is to that other than, to me, in order to deal with change — especially rapid or dramatic change — what’s needed is great leadership. It’s times like these, where we need great leaders. And at the moment, at least in this country, we don’t have that. And so, we’re all feeling lost. We’re struggling. We’re seeing parts of this crisis unfolding. We probably all see it differently, but, what’s needed from great leadership is the ability to say, “hey, we have to move from A to B.” Whether that’s physically moving from an island to a mainland location, whether it’s moving from the use of fossil fuels to renewable energy.

A great leader can get people to think in a more positive way about the challenges ahead to recognize, oh, this is going to be hard, but we can actually do something valuable and meaningful with our lives. We can be the generation that made this change, that sacrificed for future generations. And to view it less with fear and more with a sense of adventure and curiosity. I’m hopeful that at some point in the fairly near future, we will get that kind of leadership because I think that we can make tremendous progress. You and I in our careers, we have been part of the internet revolution and we know that one thing humans are good at is technology, at like being incredibly innovative and moving really fast and doing things that were previously viewed as impossible. We just need great leadership to harness that in the right direction.

Jorge: For context, we are recording this before the US election. I’m saying that because we don’t know what’s going to happen, and people might be tuning in after the fact. But I want to call out that this brings us back full circle to where we started the conversation. You mentioned the fear you had when you were starting out at Argus and we’ve come full circle back to fear. And I wanted to bring things to a close by asking you about what’s making you hopeful today. You are now in a different modality from the last time that we spoke. You have started your sanctuary or in the process of starting your sanctuary. And, I’m wondering, how you are, vis-a-vis how you were at the time of the founding of Argus?

Peter: Yeah. I think that one difference is that, I’m sort of on the other side of my career. With Argus, I had no real savings, so, I was living month to month. You know, paying my rent with my paycheck. And so, my fear was very focused on job and career and how I made money. I didn’t really have time or emotional space to think about all the other things that could go wrong. I wasn’t worried about getting sick. I just… that couldn’t happen! I couldn’t get sick. Now that I have a little more financial security, and I’m older, I’m more aware of a much wider array of things that can go wrong. I’ve had had an extra 25 years of having things go wrong. And that’s where for me, learning about Buddhist philosophy, listening to tapes from Pema Chödrön, really trying to be more at peace in a world and in a body where so much can go wrong — and will go wrong.

Things get better and then they get worse and then they get better and then they get worse and that’s life. We can’t control those ups and downs all that much. So, with Sentient Sanctuary, with this vision that I have to create an animal sanctuary, it’s exciting for me and fun for me to imagine it and to begin to work towards it. But I’m not attached in a kind of negative way to its fruition. I’m not…. you know, if I die tomorrow, it’s okay. I’ve had a great life. I’ve been really fortunate. And, I think that there’s a danger with visions, with plans, with hope, that we cling to an outcome. You know, 25 years ago, that was much more me. “I’ve got to make this work. It has to work!” And now I’m more comfortable with saying, “you know, I can put in my best effort.”

When I trained for the Detroit marathon, that was very humbling in the sense that, you spend six months working as hard as you’ve ever worked for something. And every day, you know one wrong step and you twist your ankle and your dream is done. And you’ve got to have a bit of sense of humor about that. Otherwise it’ll destroy you. And so, that’s where I am today. I wouldn’t say I’m incredibly hopeful for the future of human civilization. I just don’t know where we’re headed. I feel really fortunate, given the life that I’ve lived so far and where I am right now. And I have some fun, exciting things to work on for the future. I’m starting a new consulting project next week that I’m excited about and I’m actively learning about how to raise chickens and goats. So that’s great stuff.

Closing

Jorge: Words of wisdom, Peter, thank you for sharing them with us. Where can folks follow up with you?

Peter: So, my websites are semanticstudios.com and intertwingled.org. And I am Morville on Twitter.

Jorge: Well, thank you so much. We look forward to hearing more from you as Sentient Sanctuary evolves, and best wishes with all that you have going on.

Peter: Thank you. And thanks for having me.