Information spaces are changing more rapidly than we can design for them. As context-aware computing and artificial intelligence are advancing into consumer markets, the need to structure information and meaning around adaptive systems has never been more important. The past century has seen significant variation in the ways that information is ordered, disordered, constructed, and broken down. Information architecture is about creating order, but these new technological systems are calling for a form of order that borders on paradox: a flexible structure, an adaptive constant, an information cartilage. Context awareness and artificial intelligence are making us think about information in new ways; the big question, the one this paper will hopefully help answer or at least usefully frame, is how we design for such systems.
A large part of the modern era was spent amassing things. The Industrial Revolution gave us the means of producing consumer products in large quantities, and capitalism gave us the motivation and means of self-justification for such excess. But not only with consumer culture: art and literature also changed in the modernist era, especially high modernism, from relatively ordered realism to chaotic abstraction and purposeful transgression. What is unique about all these objects we collected is that they all existed within the bounds of physical space, at least until the mid 20th century. As information technology came into being, we saw a shift from physical objects to digital objects at the same time as we embraced disorder in art on a larger scale than ever before. It seems cliché to refer to an ‘information explosion,’ as it has become wrapped up in everyday life to the extent that we don’t notice it anymore, but we must note that the tendency toward production, coupled with the ability to transgress the bounds of physical space, has resulted in an abundance of information analogous to our abundance of physical objects. As “informational objects” became a reality, we were already conditioned to think in terms of disorder. So we collected them, cherished them, fetishized them, but we didn’t do a great job of organizing them.
The problem associated with too many physical objects compared to too much information is a question of organization and space. It seems unlikely that we will run out of space for our digital objects because we have the capacity to create more space. The challenge, however, is to organize these objects in such a way that we can maintain volume and create meaningful associations. Without organization, information becomes a burden.
Information architecture was born out of the need to organize web-based information into a network of meaningful interactions. Mobile computing allowed digital information to slip off the desktop and into the pockets of users worldwide, resulting in a staggering amount new sources, types, and potential categories of information. It created new information spaces that are not only digital but also transitory, fickle, and unpredictable. In the coming years, as artificial intelligence and contextual computing refine themselves, we are looking at yet another source of information that could prove even more transitory, fickle, and unpredictable. Information architects play a crucial role—if not the crucial role—in ensuring these informational objects will remain meaningful.
The success of this organizational project depends on our understanding of the interplay between physical and digital spaces, concentrating on two of the most interesting movements in computing, which have been gaining momentum for decades: artificial intelligence and context-aware computing. The new information spaces these movements create—i.e., adaptive spaces—call for a re-examination of how digital information relates to physical space. Using Jean Baudrillard and Martin Heidegger’s work as a basis, I argue that the ways we understand contextual and intelligent systems, and subsequently their ultimate success, depends on how their information is organized and its ability to adapt.