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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

insufficient information

last week, I saw a talk by Paul Dourish on the Culture of Information about ubiquitous computing and representations of reality. in it, he talked a lot about information; how it started out as the process of informing someone and later was reified by Shannon's mathematical work on information theory to become an actual object that lives in our environment. he stressed technologies of information over information technology. he argued that rather than having information in space as an object to be extracted from our environment, we should think about informative spaces (the difference I think being that the focus in the former is on the space itself, vs in the latter that the focus is on how people expenience the space). he talked, among other things, about how the Aboriginal Australians experience their landscape not just as the land itself but having cultural, mythical, and historical significance. he argued that due to things like wifi and cell phone coverage, similar overlays exist in our culture that change a space from what it is just physically to have other significances. these things obviously have implications in ubicomp.

however, I left the talk feeling a little weird. he's talking about making a transition from information in space to informative spaces. I think the basic premise here is a good one; when talking about ubicomp applications, we should think about how people experience a space and address how our designs will affect or change those experiences. that's great. what's not so great is still thinking about it in terms of information. I'm not saying that his approach does, but the terminology sure seems to indicate it. the difference between information in space and informative spaces is a shift in focus from the space to the user.

but it's still talking about information. once we start talking about how people experience a space, the notion of information becomes inadequate. Weiser claimed that there "is more information at our fingertips during a walk in the woods than in any computer system." I claim, however, that information is entirely the wrong notion to describe a walk in the woods. maybe I am a child of Shannon's information era, but information to me is bits, and bits are insufficient to describe a walk in the woods.

allow me to elaborate. there are many components to a walk in the woods. the sight of the trees. the smell of the cool, crisp air. the crunch of twigs and leaves underfoot. the feel of your finders running over bark. sunlight peaking through the trees. given enough time and the proper methods, it might be possible to encode all these sensory experiences as "data" in the form of video feels, audio feeds, haptic gloves, etc. (there are even experimental devices to reproduce certain smells). however, all this information may describe the experience, but it is not the experience. what it's like to be in the woods, the actual experience of taking a walk in the woods, cannot be encoded in information. if we want to focus on the experiences of people in a space, information is entirely the wrong modality in which to think about it.

so what is the right modality? I might advocate an approach based on Pirsig's notion of Quality, but I'm not entirely sure that's actually that helpful. it could be, but it'd take some convincing. the reason people like to think about things in terms of information is that it codifies things, makes them easier to understand by classifying them in nice neat little boxes. actual experiences, however, cannot be easily codified in such a manner. this not only argues against using information, but it sort of sounds like an argument against using theory at all, which is not what I'm trying to advocate. rather, I'm saying that whatever theory we use, it should not to restrict and classify but rather encompass a rich (thick?) description of experiences as they exist.


  • Actually, we are in agreement, which suggests that I didn't do a good job with my talk. The notion of information is entirely inadequate here -- the notion of "informative" was meant to be much more antagonistic than you heard. Probably, I should have grabbed a beer for the talk rather than water.

    By Anonymous Paul, at Tuesday, November 22, 2005 10:39:00 PM  

  • just because I didn't understand it doesn't mean that the talk was bad. I think it may have been a matter of terminology; maybe "experiential spaces" or "rich spaces" or some such would be more to the point than "informative spaces."

    so, information as it's traditionally thought about is insufficient to describe our experiences of reality. what do we use then? things like ethnographic methods that try to capture what it is like to be, for example, a Balinese cockfighter or suburban mall-goer, but they are not well suited (or intended) for making abstractions. it seems an intractible problem, not unlike how context can be thought of as including the entirety of a person's experience. I suspect this discussion might be better mediated by a couple drinks than by a blog.

    also, I would have suggested water for during the talk and beer for after.

    By Blogger Jystar, at Wednesday, November 23, 2005 12:56:00 PM  

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