Tags: information

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Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Directory enquiries

I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.

These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.

But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.

Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:

The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.

Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.

It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.

Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

Dr. Saavik Ford confirms:

We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.

We live in a world ordered only by search:

While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?

There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.

More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:

Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.

Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.

I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.

Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:

Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.

Monday, June 27th, 2022

Still the Same — Real Life

Everything old is new again:

In our current “information age,” or so the story goes, we suffer in new and unique ways.

But the idea that modern life, and particularly modern technology, harms as well as helps, is deeply embedded in Western culture: In fact, the Victorians diagnosed very similar problems in their own society.

Saturday, February 19th, 2022

Saturday, June 19th, 2021

My 3 Greatest Revelations - Issue 102: Hidden Truths - Nautilus

Caleb Scharf:

Wait a minute. There is no real difference between the dataome—our externalized world of books and computers and machines and robots and cloud servers—and us. That means the dataome is a genuine alternative living system here on the planet. It’s dependent on us, but we’re dependent on it too. And for me that was nerve-wracking. You get to the point of looking at it and going, Wow, the alien world is here, and it’s right under our nose, and we’re interacting with it constantly.

I like this Long Now view of our dataome:

We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today.

Thursday, February 11th, 2021

A Black Cloud of Computation

SETI—the Search for Extra Terrestrial Information processing:

What we get is a computational device surrounding the Asymptotic Giant Branch star that is roughly the size of our Solar System.

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

How Claude Shannon’s Information Theory Invented the Future | Quanta Magazine

Shannon is not exactly a household name. He never won a Nobel Prize, and he wasn’t a celebrity like Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman, either before or after his death in 2001. But more than 70 years ago, in a single groundbreaking paper, he laid the foundation for the entire communication infrastructure underlying the modern information age.

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

Sophie Zhang and The Social Dilemma | Revue

I watched The Social Dilemma last night and to say it’s uneven would be like saying the Himalayas are a little bumpy.

I’m shocked at how appealing so many people find the idea that social networks are uniquely responsible for all of society’s ills.

This cartoon super villain view of the world strikes me as a kind of mirror image of the right-wing conspiracy theories which hold that a cabal of elites are manipulating every world event in secret. It is more than a little ironic that a film that warns incessantly about platforms using misinformation to stoke fear and outrage seems to exist only to stoke fear and outrage — while promoting a distorted view of how those platforms work along the way.

Monday, September 14th, 2020

Why Do We Interface?

A short web book on the past, present and future of interfaces, written in a snappy, chatty style.

From oral communication and storytelling 500,000 years ago to virtual reality today, the purpose of information interfaces has always been to communicate more quickly, more deeply, to foster relationships, to explore, to measure, to learn, to build knowledge, to entertain, and to create.

We interface precisely because we are human. Because we are intelligent, because we are social, because we are inquisitive and creative.

We design our interfaces and they in turn redefine what it means to be human.

Thursday, February 20th, 2020

“Let us Calculate!”: Leibniz, Llull, and the Computational Imagination – The Public Domain Review

The characteristica universalis and the calculus racionator of Leibniz.

Emma Willard’s Maps of Time

The beautiful 19th century data visualisations of Emma Willard unfold in this immersive piece by Susan Schulten.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Information mesh

Timelines of people, interfaces, technologies and more:

30 years of facts about the World Wide Web.

Friday, May 24th, 2019

The Bit Player

Ooh! A documentary on Claude Shannon—exciting!

I just finished reading A Mind At Play, the (very good) biography of Claude Shannon, so this film feels very timely.

Mixing contemporary interviews, archival film, animation and dialogue drawn from interviews conducted with Shannon himself, The Bit Player tells the story of an overlooked genius who revolutionized the world, but never lost his childlike curiosity.

Sunday, April 28th, 2019

Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings is more relevant than ever.

What would Wiener think of the current human use of human beings? He would be amazed by the power of computers and the internet. He would be happy that the early neural nets in which he played a role have spawned powerful deep-learning systems that exhibit the perceptual ability he demanded of them—although he might not be impressed that one of the most prominent examples of such computerized Gestalt is the ability to recognize photos of kittens on the World Wide Web.

Friday, March 22nd, 2019

Gutenberg and the Internet

Steven Pemberton’s presentation on the printing press, the internet, Moore’s Law, and exponential growth.

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

Great Leap Years - Official site of Stephen Fry

I just binge-listened to the six episodes of the first season of this podcast from Stephen Fry—it’s excellent!

It covers the history of communication from the emergence of language to the modern day. At first I was worried that it was going to rehash some of the more questionable ideas in the risible Sapiens, but it turned out to be far more like James Gleick’s The Information or Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (two of my favourite books on the history of technology).

There’s no annoying sponsorship interruptions and the whole series feels more like an audiobook than a podcast—an audiobook researched, written and read by Stephen Fry!

Sunday, September 9th, 2018

Why the Future of Data Storage is (Still) Magnetic Tape - IEEE Spectrum

It turns out that a whole lot of The So-Called Cloud is relying on magnetic tape for its backups.

Thursday, July 26th, 2018

Figures in the Stars

A lovely bit of data visualisation from Nadieh showing the differences and commonalities in constellations across cultures. As always, she’s written up the process too.

Monday, June 18th, 2018

The crooked timber of humanity | 1843

Tom Standage—author of the brilliant book The Victorian Internet—relates a tale of how the Chappe optical telegraph was hacked in 19th century France, thereby making it one of the earliest recorded instances of a cyber attack.

Thursday, March 8th, 2018

New Dark Age: Technology, Knowledge and the End of the Future by James Bridle

James is writing a book. It sounds like a barrel of laughs.

In his brilliant new work, leading artist and writer James Bridle offers us a warning against the future in which the contemporary promise of a new technologically assisted Enlightenment may just deliver its opposite: an age of complex uncertainty, predictive algorithms, surveillance, and the hollowing out of empathy.

Thursday, December 7th, 2017

Cognitive Overload - daverupert.com

From Scott McCloud to responsive design, Dave is pondering our assumptions about screen real estate:

As the amount of information increases, removing details reduces information density and thereby increasing comprehension.

It reminds me of Edward Tufte’s data-ink ratio.