Information Architecture: Organizing Chaos

We have a problem. We are drowning in data. We are anxious, and we spend most of our downtime glued to streams of information (from Twitter, Facebook, TV, games, etc.). We absolutely consume data, and yet as soon as we step away, we wonder why we're even alive. It's as if our basic, fundamental humanity is propped up by digital data streams. This didn't used to be, and if we are honest with ourselves, sometimes the "bliss" of ignorance looks more attractive than the "crazy busy" lives we are roped into living. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place: either we accepting technology with all its drowning baggage, or retreat to the hills with Thoreau and his bearded, Luddite friends.

But we are in luck. There is a way out of these two extremes, and it is making a ressurgence. There are a few honest, good-hearted people left in the world who want to help remedy our angst, to help us rescue our own humanity from the dictatorship of buzzfeed. These good people are the "Information Architects." They help us understand ourselves and the world around us by organizing, structuring, connecting, and curating information so that amid the torrent of data streams we have peace and tranquility, at least for a certain topic, at a certain time.

Our Problem

Photo: Istock//© Mike Kiev via  Source

Photo: Istock//© Mike Kiev via Source

Since over 90% of all information has been produced in just the last 2 years, we are facing a problem that is of unique proportions to this generation, the millennials. We are drowning in our own data, but ironically, we are too addicted to let go. We are identified by terms like YOLO, "crazy busy," and FOMO (the fear of missing out). We talk about feeling absolutely naked, just plain terrified, when we leave the house without our blessed iPhones, and, as one writer put it, we have essentially created a matrix for ourselves in which we live, have relationships, feel at home, and make sense of the world around us, so that when we unplug, we feel desperately alone and isolated.

With the rising trends of algorithm-based results, companies like Google, Facebook, (etc) are choosing our content for us. We can't possibly hope to keep up, so we just "get the highlights," but the sad reality today is that what we are getting is anything but the highlights--it's actually just a looping series of articles catered to our small friendgroups, baises, and interests--it's a "filter bubble," as Eli Pariser calls it in his excellent TED talk on this subject. Let's not be mistaken, what's going on here is a handing over of our humanity to artificial intelligence. We don't need to think critically anymore, and we really are quite incapable anyway, so we are happy to turn that over to the "professionals," even if they aren't exactly red-blooded humans. Some look into the future and see horrible things coming from an over-trusting relationship with AI, and it makes sense (Elon Musk sees potential sci-fi-esque horror while Steven Hawking sees the salvation of the human race, just a proper evolutionary progression).

This issue we have is known as "information overload," which is a natural phenomenon for the "Information Age" in which we live. We are overwhelmed with all the data, and we have totally lost touch with the deep things of life like being still and enjoying our humanity in rich silence and aloneness. Disciplines like meditation and imagination are pushed back on the priority list behind the next article, tweet, message, email, serial TV show, or even (serial) podcast. If you've made your way around the web of articles published in the last couple years, you'll know that studies are showing an increasing mutation of personhood from an over- (or mis-) use of Facebook. We don't know what it means to be human anymore because we have surrendered our very selves (and the massive amount of work it takes to actually own a self (much less an opinion) to a stream of likes, comments, and notifications, all-but ruining our ability to reach our living potential as emotionally and psychologically intricate creatures.

The Point

The simplest way to communicate my point is through a metaphor, the metaphor of story. We have lost touch with the reality of life as a big story in which we play a tiny part. The mental models we have constructed of the world are small, myopic self-images which interpret life and events through narcissistic, ego-centric lenses. We are the gods of our lives, our entertainment, and our relationships. For example, if we don't want to listen to a song on Pandora, we skip it, or we sign up for Spotify and choose exactly which song we want to hear, exactly when we want to hear it. If we don't like a certain viewpoint, we don't click on the article, and Facebook and Google quickly sweep away the offensive data.

We have lost touch with the bigness of life because we have based our worldviews on our teenie-tiny selves and their manic, neurotic, ego-centric appetites. Tim Keller commented on this cultural trend, ""Now life is about creating a self through the maximization of individual freedom from the constraints of community" (Counterfeit Gods, 130). He even calls our age "The age of Self." It is no coincidence that the very time in history when we have the greatest downpoor of information and availability, we also have the most narcissistic, dehumanized population. When you lose touch of the connections in life, the absolute connectedness of the way things are in the world outside of you, you lose touch of a touchstone, an absolute from which to make those connections. And when you lose that, you lose all hope of making critical decisions that are anything other than personal preference.

Our worldviews are defined by relativism and acceptance--universal freedom for all desires, philosophies, theologies, and tastes. But in our efforts to throw off structure we've lost the very backbone that gave our lives meaning and value. For more on the philosophy of this degredation, see Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live?. He points out that we have lost the real sense of meaning and purpose in life that comes from objective value. We don't get jobs we love to do, that make us feel alive, but instead we settle for jobs that pay the bills--even if they make us feel like zombies. William Faulkner traced this particular degredation to the second world war. In his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature he spoke words that, over 60 years later, seem prophetic.

We have a serious problem. We've lost our essential humanity to boring jobs, mechanization and an increasing desire for brain-dead entertainment over cultivation of the human spirit, preferring cheap, instant gratifications over the more satisfying delayed gratifications. And while there are no easy answers to our dilemma, a look into the past shows one incredibly simple answer that I think deserves a good recycling; and if we add a nice face-lift, it may just be the answer that is good enough for us, even in our "Information Age of Self."

A Brief History of Information Science

At the beginning of the Information Age, there were a group of optimistic thinkers who believed that the world--yes, the entire world--could be catelogued into one central repository. The Belgian information scientist Paul Otlet invented an entirely new scheme of information organization which he adapted from John Dewey's decimal system, which was a tool for the organization of libraries. Paul developed a catalogue, a system of numbers, which could serve as a universal language for organizing and retrieving data. He realized there were chunks of data that had truth and provided a different perspective on reality, which is intrinsically connected. He is famous for saying that whether scribbles on a paper napkin, or treatises and tomes, everything had value and a place as they each related to the whole. His vision was for a central repository of information from which every piece of data would flow. It was supposed to be Grand Central for data, only it turned out to big an endeavor, even in the 1940's. Paul was joined by Vannevar Bush and H. G. Wells, who expended massive chunks of their lives in order to realize an utopian vision of information management--the very thing we so desperately need today.

The issue is bringing order to the chaos. There is just mountains of data out there; how are we to make sense of it all, make valid connections, and ever assume we have come to the truth about something? While that question has several embedded subquestions, the main one to answer right now is, "How are we to get our arms around this much data for ourselves?" This is where things get exciting.

"Information Architects"

The main efforts towards order that we have today are coming from the information "Trailblazers" who see themselves more as curators than as creators. This is the point. There is so much out there, we knowledge workers could spend our entire lives making sense of what is already published without ever publishing anything of our own. As for the non-knowledge worker, he could read thousands of books, millions of articles, and watch tons of youtube videos, and never really learn anything, for two reasons. One, there is a ton of crap out there, online and on shelves. Two, few ingest data with discernment and discretion; few think, most mindlessly consume. But since the thinking is in the connecting (William James), we need a new methodology for learning which involves deep connections for definitive clarity.

If you've read this far, you are very ready for the answer to our information overload problem. For that answer, I send you to Maria Popova of brainpickings, the brainiac behind most of this article. I highly recommend her piece on content curation as a new form of authorship. She prefers to call herself an "Information Architect," though I think the label "Information Curator" isn't a bad one, despite her own hesitations. She, and those many like her, take it upon themselves to blaze trails through this horribly crouded forest of data, handpicking the most interesting knowledge available. Two things make this very special. One, you get a human with a real sense of taste and values making the judgment calls on the content you ingest. Two, you don't just get content, you get curated, connected content. It's content joined together with an express purpose and vision. It's pre-connected, pre-thought content. And if all you do is ride her coattails to her conclusions, you are much farther ahead than before, but if you take what she does as a model for doing your own curation, you will begin to see life through a lens of discovery. You will finally begin to scrape the dust off your "meaning organ" (your imagination), and begin to grow your worldview (the conglomeration of mental models which express your view of reality). At that point everything will be available and meaningful to you because you can make connections with it and see why and how it matters in the world. What an incredibly, wonderfully, beautifully human thing to do!

Using Maria as an example, you can see that most of her articles aren't merely book reviews or a random topical aggregate of data. She is here to compare, contrast, connect, and learn and grow through her wildly serendipitous trip through the forests of information available to us today. From the article above, I've pulled a quote on how she explains this idea of content curation. "Just as its origin in the art world, curation online is premised on the idea that a curator with a point of view culls content around a theme that he or she deems of cultural significance." That last phrase is crucial. The key is "cull[ing] content around a theme." That is the most fundamental expression of our humanity: that we have an idea of the world (a worldview) and that we compare and contrast it to other ideas of the world (whether in books, on the radio, on TV, from people, etc.).

Christian Curation

Ok. Now we enter the final phase of our own discovery. My goal as a learner has been to connect everything I can to what I know to be true. As a Christian that has been a process that looks wildly like Popova, though at times very distinctly different. My goal is actually closer to Paul Otlet's, for in his optimism he believed he could connect all knowledge and lead everyone to utter enlightenment, as if that could happen through cumulative intellect alone. While Maria makes connections, what she doesn't do is judge them as "right" or "wrong." That is a judgment that requires an absolute standard, something we will discuss below.

Some today ascribe to the same ideology as Maria (that intelligence and conscious choices are the end of humanity) when they hope for an utopian "Age of Intelligence" to follow the current flood of the "Age of Information." This TED talk by Tony Buzan, The Power of a Mind to Map, is exceptional, one of my favorites. In it, he casts a vision for a world in which everyone is intelligent, making calculated, wise decisions, exercising their humanity by making judgments of the world around them. He sees our main problem as being one of handling the information overload we have, transferring that burden into a blessing. He's partly right, but unfortunately intelligence isn't going to save the problems of the human race.

His pursuit of intelligence is a good one, but not an ultimate one. For Christians, intelligence is a sanctified endeavor because the more of life we can see and make sense of, the more of God we can know. What is so fundamental about the Christian worldview is its philosophical center. We worship a God who claims to be the center of the universe, and if all roads indeed lead to Rome, then somehow, everything that exists either positively or negatively leads to Him. He is truth (John 14:6), therefore, if truth exists in the world around us, it is absolutely connected to other truth in congruent, rational ways, which eventually leads back to God.

Therefore, the Christian has the ultimate reason for curation. We are not alive to be robots. We aren't meant to accept things blindly. WE aren't even meant to merely explore, discover, and connect just for our own sake, just for the buzz of another insight into the way things work; there is more to it. We are alive in order to discover something, someone, some particular object which doesn't change or mutate or contradict. We can fully redeem the act of living by connecting it all back to God, in whom is the only unchanging, inerrant, absolute truth from which all other flames of truth receive their spark. In so doing, we can exercise our humanity on the great wide world around us, fanning the flame of our beautiful createdness--the image of God--into a roaring blaze of deeply emotional, deeply psychological, deeply meaningful personhood, possessing a worldview big enough to make sense of all of life as our God has ordained it to be.

How Do I Do This?

This may be heavy information for some, maybe a little overwhelming and probably unclear. That's ok. I'll try to do better next time. What I want to explain next time is the ways in which we engage in making sense of the mess of life, in grabbing the whole of life when we are so woefully small and inadequate for the task. There are ways to do it; it can be done. But you must learn to fight fire with fire. To bring order to the technological chaos you've got to learn to use new (technological) tools in new ways. Your friends will love you for it, but so will you, the you inside who has all the symptoms of an overloaded millennial. Take heart, you aren't missing out today if you choose to unplug for a bit. Get out there and explore. Your humanity will thank you.

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