Bulletin, February/March 2006
A Garden of Forking Paths
by Peter Morville
Peter Morville is president of Semantic
Studios, co-founder of the IA Institute and a faculty member at the University
of Michigan. His books include Information
Architecture for the World Wide Web and Ambient Findability. He blogs
In the not too distant past – about a
baker’s dozen of years ago, give or take an inch on the proverbial timeline
– we leaned heavily and often uncomfortably on the sharp edge of metaphor to
explain and understand the Internet. It was a library, a community, a shopping
mall, a place, a space and, of course, an information superhighway.
With time, the Web grew into its
own, shedding similes like barnacles, in a stern quest for semantic precision
and symbolic efficiency. Nowadays, we talk about Amazon, Blogger, Citeseer,
de.licio.us, eBay, Flickr, Google, hits or iTunes, and the beat goes on.
Our metaphors malinger, smaller and
less visible, but still present. Even as we attempt to overthrow the hegemony of
such pervasive metaphors as “navigation,” we construct novel analogies such
as Dillon and Vaughn’s “shape of information” to take their place.
1. The shape of a scientific document. Adapted from Dillon & Vaughn, 1997.
In the vanishing era of Web 2.0, our metaphors lie quietly, a dormant epidemic, awaiting the next mutation, which is emerging just around the corner, at the crossroads of the Internet and ubiquitous computing.
These dormant metaphors are good, for as we wander off the
map into the unfamiliar territory of Greenfield’s “everyware,” we will need
our metaphors once again to explain what we see and to help us find our way.
Shape of a Career
Consider, for instance, the
paths we traverse in the course of a career. What patterns do we leave behind?
The linear progression of education? The hierarchical ascent of institution? Or
the hourglass of the scientific paper with intense specialization in the middle?
In his book Models
of My Life, Herbert Simon, the polymath pioneer of artificial intelligence
and decision theory, saw himself as the denizen of a maze:
have encountered many branches in the maze of my life’s path, where I have
followed now the left fork, now the right. The metaphor of the maze is
irresistible to someone who has devoted his scientific career to understanding
This observation resonates with my own
experience, though my maze is modeled in hypertext, an unpredictable string of
nodes and links, connected only in my mind. After graduating from college with a
degree in English literature, my subsequent unemployment afforded me the luxury
to pursue interests in artificial intelligence, programming and the early
computer bulletin boards of Compuserve and Prodigy, while actively searching for
a future in career centers and public libraries.
I still remember finding a
tattered, ancient book about careers in library science, a subject I had never
known existed. This node propelled me toward the collision of librarianship and
the Internet at the University of Michigan’s School of Information and Library
Studies and then into the virgin territory of information architecture.
It was fun, for about a decade, to help build
the box we now call IA. Integrating ideas and methods from LIS, HCI,
anthropology, linguistics, psychology, sociology and other strangely connected
disciplines into the practice of IA was my favorite part.
But eventually, I realized that to
become a better information architect, I needed to venture beyond the box and
follow the arrows. This realization translated into a boundary-spanning passion
for findability that flies over the walls of engineering, marketing and design,
and sails far beyond the safe harbor of the World Wide Web.
The term ambient
findability describes a world in which we can find anyone or anything from
anywhere and anytime. It’s not necessarily a goal, as this vision carries both
promise and peril. And we’ll never reach the destination, since perfect
findability is impossible. But we’re most assuredly headed in the right
Global positioning systems,
radio frequency identifiers, embedded sensors, smart phones, ambient devices –
we’re creating all sorts of new interfaces to export digital networked
information, while simultaneously importing vast volumes of data about the
physical world into our shared digital networks.
Familiar lines blur in this
future nearly present. Data becomes metadata as Amazon’s Search
Inside the Book turns page into index. The territory becomes the map as
Google Earth makes our reality virtual. In Weinberger’s words: Everything
grows miscellaneous. And people are transformed into ubiquitous findable objects
(UFOs), along with pets, products, possessions and places.
These UFOs, which Bruce Sterling labels spimes,
are objects precisely located in space and time. They ingest their own metadata.
They accumulate histories. They network with peers. They are scary, infinitely
complex and almost inconceivable. But they are coming.
As the Web becomes both interface
and infrastructure for an Internet of objects we can barely imagine, what
metaphors will shape our fate? Clearly, the sea level will rise, but our
children need not drown nor suffer information anxiety. These are painful
analogies born in the journey from past to present. They fail to anticipate the
Personally, I draw insight and
inspiration from the words of Jorge Luis Borges, a blind Argentine librarian,
who in 1941wrote an amazing story (“The garden of forking paths”) about a
book and labyrinth containing “an infinite series of times, a growing,
dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times…all
In this garden, the forks
occur across time and space. Visitors step easily between trees and text in
transmedia experiences where wayfinding, retrieval, learning and decision making
are indistinguishable. Every leaf is tagged. Every pebble tells a story. Most
paths (not all) shimmer with the flow of humanity, amidst peaceful burbling
socio-semantic streams of consciousness.
To wander these forking paths
is a delicious (but not overwhelming) sensory experience, in which every
destination shapes the journey, and what we find changes who we become – a
possible future worth cultivating. So let’s get to work. I’ll see you in the
L (1941). The garden of forking paths. Translation of El jardin de
senderos que se bifurcan. Reprinted in Borges, L, Everything and nothing. New York: New Directions, 1999.
A. & Vaughan, M. (1997). It's the journey and the destination: Shape and the
emergent property of genre in evaluating digital documents. New
Review of Multimedia and Hypermedia, 3, 91-106.
Available December 18, 2005, at www.ischool.utexas.edu/~adillon/Journals/NRHM98/NRHM%20paper%2098.htm.
A. (2006). Everyware: The dawning age of
ubiquitous computing. Indianapolis, IN: New Riders.
H. (1991). Models of my life. New
York: Basic Books. Electronic version available through NetLibrary.
P. (2005, November 17). Ubiquitous
findable objects (UFOs). Available December 16, 2005, at www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/network/2005/11/17/ubiquitous-findable-objects.html
D. (2006?). Everything is miscellaneous.
Publication expected July 2006. Some excerpts from the book were available
December 16, 2005, on the author’s Website at www.hyperorg.com
Articles in this Issue
IA Column: A Garden of Forking Paths