Interview with Nathan Shedroff
Interview by Drue Miller
Information Overload and Media Literacy
Drue: What is your definition of information design?
Nathan: It's a discipline, an approach, and a process to good communication. It really is pervasive. It's about organizing your ideas and the data that you're trying to communicate, paying attention to the messages and goals of your communication, and then finding really appropriate ways to present them so that they are clear, accessible, and easily understood. This is just one component of what we call interface design--which is a terrible term these days because it's come to mean just icons and screen design. Information design is one of a three-component collection of disciplines needed to do good interface design. The other two components are interaction design and sensorial design--visual, aural, tactile, and olfactory media with which you communicate. All three of these are really important and need to come together and work in concert.
What are the boundaries between the three? Most specifically with sensorial design because that's the term that people will be the least familiar with.
Sensorial design is just a term that I use instead of visual design which a lot of people understand and are comfortable with. But it needs to be said that presentation is more than just visual. There's an auditory component to it, and sometimes there are even tactile and olfactory components to communication. Certainly in performances, realtime multimedia spaces, and installations, there's more to the experience than just what you're looking at.
As far as the boundaries, information design is really on the communication/data side. It's a process for tunring data into information because the two are separate, and then to turn information into knowledge. It's about communication, presentation, and setting things in context.
Interaction design, which is also incredibly important, is more about the audience's experience, whether it's a performance, an electronic product of some sort, or even a book. These things are important whether you're working in print media, electronic interactive media, or realtime/realspace performance media. Interaction design is really about the experience that you're creating and how you're communicating those messages through what you're allowing the audience to do. Information design is really more about the messages themselves, and recognizing how you're communicating them.
Can you give some examples of products or things that have a very high degree of information design--things that you would find in your home like the telephone book?
Sure. Everything has some information design whether it's done consciously or unconsciously. The difference is that if you tell people there is this thing called information design--that there are these great processes that can help you come to a solution--then you can come to better solutions. You brought up the phone book, for example. Some people think the phone book is just this very objective, dry resource for finding phone numbers, but it's really a lot more than that, especially if you look at the yellow pages section. Most phone books now even have these community access pages that give you a lot of different ways into that information. They're organized differently, with multiple indexes so that you can find what you're looking for in different ways. Different types of people who are comfortable with finding things in other ways can still get to the information they need. That's a really obvious one for print and it's a fairly utilitarian one, but it can be a lot more wonderful than that.
An example I always use, one that's really important to me, is the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. Here is this incredible experience that's fundamentally about the organization of the information that is presented. Actually, there's very dry data presented in this Memorial. The whole structure of it is based on this data--the names of the servicemen and women who died under the United States military command during the Vietnam War. Kind of dry stuff, and it's great that they're commemorated, specifically that their names are there, but the organization of the information and its presentation are key to creating that emotional experience which is that all these names are organized chronologically.
When the monument design by Maya Lin was chosen by the committee, the first thing they did of course was decide that they were going to change it. They liked the ambiguity and the subtlety of the Memorial, but they decided that it would be impossible for someone to find their loved one if it wasn't organized alphabetically. So they decreed that the names would still be on the face of the granite, only tthat hey would organize them alphabetically. This would have just destroyed the whole meaning and essence of the design because it would turn it into a huge granite white pages of dead people. You'd lose all of the connection and relationship that was inherent in the organization before, and you end up with a list with seven John Smiths. Which one is yours? You don't know.
Fortunately, they went back to the chronological arrangement. When you enter, you're at ground level and the wall is starting below you. As you walk down into it, it grows really high until it overwhelms you. You get the reverse experience as you walk out. This experience of submersion is because of the chronological arrangement: that's how the death toll mounted. You're starting small, then at the height of the War, it's overwhelming. You're covered with names of dead servicepeople, and then it trickles off again.
The nice thing about it is that you find people's names in relationship to other people who died with them. They're set into a different kind of context and they solve the problem of finding your loved one by having some books available on the pathways that are in alphabetical order that tell you the grid and panel where you could find their names. This is a nice way to supplement it. But here's an example where the design, organization, and presentation of the information--strictly information design--can create this powerful emotional experience that you don't really equate with yellow pages, directories, and other more mundane products.
What about in electronics, appliances, and devices--machines that convey or contain other types of information? Is there information design in something like a remote control for a television or VCR?
There's this really interesting area in product design which is part of my background where there's this hard interface which is the physical interface of a device, whether it's a remote control, VCR, or automobile dashboard as opposed to the soft interface which are things like the digital readouts, virtual displays, and things that have a little more flexibility. The combination of the two together presents a a great opportunity. Gitta Salomon talks a lot about bridging this gap between soft and hard interfaces. You see products like certain PDA's that are trying now to integrate the two.
Is that level of development still in its infancy?
Absolutely. It just occurred to us that you can take "interface design" processes and ideas and use them in other media. It's always an "aha" experience when you cross the boundary from one medium or world to another. For example, we learn a great deal from the print medium; what we can do in print, and what the issues are in print; and then apply them to interactive media to see what happens. We can go the other way as well. That is, things that we learn in interactive media, because there are possibilities and capabilities there, can be applied to print. That's why you get books like Understanding Computers, Danny Goodman's Macintosh Handbook, or Demystifying Multimedia that have hyperjumps, alternate indexing schemes, and icons that help you navigate or index different kinds of information.
What about the end products themselves--movies, music, print? What about others?
Information design is about communicating information--whether it's a book , movie , song, or conversation. Think about how you organize your thoughts, especially as a presentation, an interview, or even a very serendipitous conversation. What kind of words do you use? What kind of sentence structure? What do you say first, middle, and last? What kind of qualifying information or context do you put it in? Do you take into account the interests or skill levels of the people you're talking to, whether it's one or more?
Interaction design principles apply to any kind of experience that you're creating as well. This can be a conversation, dinner party, festival, or interactive media product. What's interesting is that people aren't explicitly taught in either of these two disciplines. It's really a shame. Everyone should be taught how to organize their thoughts and concepts and present them well. People should be taught the mechanics and the taxonomy of a good experience so they can exploit them in every aspect of their lives. What I'm seeing in interface design, in interactive media, is that those people who have been taught performance techniques, whether they're singers, dancers, comedians, actors, or actresses--people who have learned how to perform--know a great deal about creating good experiences. They seem to have an edge on everyone else.
So are there different schools of thought in the ways information design is not only practiced, but taught, based on the different backgrounds that people bring to it? Is there the Brenda Laurel school and the Gitta Salomon school?
I'm not going to try to describe other people's thoughts, but I think that everyone has their own vocabulary about how they explain things. There may, in fact, be differences in people's vocabularies, but based upon most of what I've seen and heard, I think all of their theories are really compatible with each other. They may be concentrating on one piece of it but they all seem to work together well. Sometimes it doesn't sound like that when you're talking to one person and then you go talk to another person. They sound like they're contradicting each other, but from what I can hear and from what little pieces I pick up, I think that there's this grander process that's waiting to be uncovered that, we're just scratching the surface of it.
Abbe Don has some wonderful things to say about narrative, point of view, interaction, and interface design. Brenda Laurel is all over narrative and the whole idea of creating experiences and storytelling. Eric Gould has thoughts on all these subjects as well. I have heard very little that, to me, is contradictory. It's more like different ways to slice through that greater process. That's what I'm interested in getting to, not that there's only one way, but there are all these ways through some common human experience. If we uncover pieces of that, we can uncover a process for creating solutions a lot easier than experimental trial and error.
What are the differences between data nad information?
Data and information are different things. I don't want to start splitting hairs over vocabulary, but there's this thing that a lot of people call data and there's this thing that I'm calling information.
We hear that we're in the Information Age. I'll agree that we're sort of in an Information Age but it's only started recently. It hasn't been going on since the 60's because what we've been in is an Age of Data, being bombarded with all these meaningless, contextless, scraps of data. My favorite examples are the "factoids" on CNN. They actually call them that. How embarrassing. I remember watching CNN and this factoid popped up before the commercial break, saying, "Last year, 22-odd million people in the U.S. bought ice cream." I don't know what the numbers were but it doesn't really matter. That's a good indication that it's data: it didn't matter. And the point is, who cares? What was the context for that figure? Where did the research come from? What were they trying to say? Evidently, at least to me, they weren't trying to say anything. They just had this number and they had time to kill. That's what we're bombarded with all the time. We have to realize that that's data, that those things are unimportant, and we need to learn to ignore them.
The things we need to concentrate on are information. Data can't be transformed into information until it's set into some kind of context, until it's presented in a clear and appropriate way. Until the messages are uncovered and a few pieces of data are grouped together, set into this context and presented well. They are not information and they are not meaningful. Information is something someone's trying to communicate because it's important for them to tell you, to make you understand. That's what we should be dealing with everyday, at least as consumers or prosumers.
The next step is knowledge. That, by the way, is what information design is all about. It's about taking data, making it into information, then into knowledge. Interaction design comes in here, too, because knowledge is really something that we gain through an experience. The processes of information design, combined with interaction design, help us develop knowledge. That's about as far as you can go to communicate something to someone in a rich way. That's where performance comes in, and conversations, and storytelling--rich ways of communicating to each other.
Is the richness something as simple as giving a multimedia presentation? The difference between having a conversation in person and having it over email?
The first thing you need to figure out is what it is truly that you're trying to tell someone, and let that drive the context, presentation, means, and experience with whichyyou use to tell them. That's why it's important to start developing taxonomies of the different ways we can present and experience things so that we can pick and choose the ones that are appropriate. Not just dredge up the ones we're used to because we don't know any better. You see that a lot in design, whether it's graphic visual design, interaction design, or interface design, where we have these hooks, these things we're used to, and we just employ them because there's no time to figure out new ones. We need to widen our understanding of the possibilities so we can, in fact, better our communication.
Knowledge is all about experience--the information component is probably the stimulus, and the understanding component is probably part of Wisdom. There's nothing that says any of this is right, but there's this thing further out there called wisdom. That's more of an ultimate goal. It's not something that you can just do for someone or give to someone. It's about personal context.
So it comes from them? It's not something a person can convey to another?
They need to do it for themselves but you can help them do it by setting things up, by helping them attain knowledge and meta-knowledge that they can then use to contemplate. Contemplation and introspection are both tools for becoming wise. That's something we've got to do for ourselves. These are the things you need to understand before you start employing information design techniques and using them.
Then there are all these things like how to organize information. There are only a few ways to do this. A lot of this comes from my experience with Richard Saul Wurman. He's really the pioneer in this field. He says there are five ways to organize information, the sixth one being random. I'll argue that you can split two of them up, so maybe six or seven, but the point is that there are not that many ways to organize things and we shouldn't be overwhelmed by the process.
Alphabetical: if you're in a Latin-based language set. If you're speaking Cyrillic, a Asian language, or possibly an African language, Latin-based alphabets won't necessarily work. But there are probably some organizational things that people are used to, only because they're taught, not because they're natural.
There are Magnitudes: big to little, best to worst. You see these everywhere whether they're ratings for movies or restaurants, or tables of shipping rates.
Then there are Categories of things which you see everywhere. Those can be anything and usually they're arbitrary. You're lucky if they're appropriate to what you're trying to communicate.
There are Numbers: whether they be the Dewey decimal system or other kinds of number systems.
There are Locations which can be geographic, cartographic, or diagrammatic. So you can use the locations in a car or in a body just as easily as you could the locations in a city or on the globe.
The next one is by Time--any unit of time.
Lastly, of course, Random.
Sometimes it's important and more appropriate to have things randomly distributed and organized because of something you're going to say and want to express rather than some other explicit organization. But you should pick these again based on what's appropriate--not out of ignorance or laziness. That's one of the tools you can employ for information design.
Are these natural to the ways that we think and take in information and process it in our minds? Do our brains have a natural tendency to chunk things into different organizations?
I haven't done the research, but from my personal experience, absolutely. Maybe it's just a by-product of our education because we get inundated with the alphabet and numbers--at least base 10--since kindergarten. It's natural that there are these kinds of ways that we organize things. People do it subconsciously. Some do it consciously, and they can do it better if they understand the mechanics, given good examples and the opportunity to pick and choose what's appropriate for the message as opposed to using what's at hand. I'm not sure how you would even attempt the research, but on one level, I don't really care. It seems to work for me. I don't have time to verify it.
What are the different tools that people use for information design?
I'll describe to you my process. It may not be terribly accurate, but I'll say that this is how I approach everything, all kinds of communication. I have this unified field theory of design that I've been thinking about and it's what I describe with these three components: interaction design, information design, and sensorial design and how they work together. This is a process that I actually employ consciously.
What I usually start with, no matter what I'm doing, is to get down those goals of the project. It is imperative to understand why it is I'm doing it or why someone else has asked me to participate in doing it, and hunt down the messages so that they are very clear and I'm very cognizant of what it is I'm trying to do. Maybe it's a little analytical for some people, but you've got to figure out what your message is and why you're trying to communicate Because if you haven't uncovered that properly, then you're always shooting at a different target. If it is successful, it's going to be more of a product of intuition and, in some cases, luck than deliberation. This is a way of narrowing down those components and having a higher success rate. So you get your goals down, your metagoals down, you keep searching back and back and keep asking "Why?" until you find the real goals. With clients usually, the goals that they'll tell you when they hire you are not the real goals. You have to get back into their heads and find out what their expectations are and what they're trying to do. You may find the goal that they have for this thing is totally different so you have to respond to that.
So why is it that they tend to not know what they want?
Well, all of us have problems communicating, especially we not trained or experienced in these processes. They may not be consciously thinking about these issues. A client may come to you and say, "I want to do an interactive CD-ROM on this subject," you've got to figure out why they want a CD-ROM. Maybe they're just enamored with the technology and they don'thave a thing to say about that subject that couldn't be said better as a videotape, TV documentary, music video, or book. You better find that out at the beginning and not later on. When you do, you can address that issue and say, "Well, I understand that you want to do an interactive CD-ROM. Have you thought about what's appropriate for the medium?"
Some clients aren't interested in doing anything different than what is in their heads. Their goal is perhaps self-satisfaction or pleasing their boss. If their goal is to earn a promotion or to save their butts in their job, you'd better identify that goal because if you don't respond to that, you're not going to have a happy client no matter how good the product is. You need to go back and back until you feel like you've really found the goal.
Then you work on the messages that are inherent in that goal. If your goals have no messages to your audience, big red lights should go off and you should consider not taking the job because there's nothing for you to do and there's no way you're going to win. There's no way you are going to make a client happy if their goal is to save their job or get a promotion and they have nothing to say to their audience with this product. Man, get out of that scene. You don't want to be a part of that.
So that's the first thing I do--identify the goals and messages. These things decide everything from then on out. If it comes down to one typeface versus another, a color, a way of using video, one interaction versus another interaction--all those decisions are pre-made. You go back to your original goals and messages--especially your messages--and ask, "Which one of these alternatives matches the message better?" If neither of them is better, it's a fairly arbitrary choice. Choose one or the other. But usually, you'll find that one approach or one alternative, no matter what the little detail is, will support those messages better, and that's the one you choose. You have to be willing to say, "Oh, I can't use this cool filter on my video or this beautiful color because it's not appropriate here. I'll save it for something else." A lot of people don't go through that process. They get enamored by the whiz-bang technology or coolness and they can't let go of it.
To me, a project, a process, or a product becomes its own thing, its own living entity that has to live for itself. If you could be that product, basically, you would make decisions that were right for you. You'd tell some people, "Sorry, no, it's this typeface that I like, that I need to be, it's this color, these experiences, these features, not what's in your head because this product has to be true to me to be successful and to feel that kind of consistency and wholeness."
Is there a continual process of re-evaluation throughout the lifespan of the product?
Oh, sure. Everything's iterative but you want to get some decisions out of the way early on. I don't want to imply that there's only one way through this either but there does seem to be a a process of certain kinds of decisions that should be made before other kinds of decisions. Get goals and messages decided in the beginning. The next decisions to me that are important are usually the information design decisions. But I recognize that you could just as easily hit the interaction design decisions first. In fact, they really should be done in tandem, if you can multi-process in your brain that way as a project manager. It doesn't really matter which ones come first, but they have to be done right after each other.
The sensorial decisions can wait. They're really about the presentation of the decisions you've already made. The reason I do information design first is that I have to understand what I'm using to communicate my messages. I've got to dive into the data and figure out what's there to begin with before I can make decisions about how to organize it, what parts are appropriate, when I need to get more data, what I can use already, if I have to generate my own, and how I am going to present it--before I start talking about some other forms of interaction and the other components to experience. The other thing for me personally is that I haven't seen anyone develop a really good taxonomy of experiences. I've seen some pieces, but that whole isn't there yet. That's something I really want to concentrate on in my own work.
What goes into that taxonomy? Is it just a compilation of different experiences that are somehow common to humans?
I think there are some categories that are really important. I really couldn't tell you what they were necessarily, or certainly all of them. For me, that's the next step. We can, at least, start getting them down and seeing relationships between different experiences and then start learning from the relationships. Then there's this other axis to interaction design. There's a spectrum of interactivity for all products and experiences, from passive to interactive. It's important to understand that everything falls in that spectrum somewhere. At the passive end, there are simple interaction experiences. You've seen those multimedia products: click, next page, click, next page. They usually have very low user control, very low user interaction, and very low user feedback. To some extent, sitting in a lecture hall, being in the audience of a movie or performance, and especially TV, are very passive experiences as well because you don't have much control. There's not a lot of response to your feedback.
On the other hand, there are these truly interactive experiences where there's a high degree of user control and a high degree of feedback and response. You may have sophisticated forms of navigation or be able to reconfigure the experience to whatever criteria for yourself. Everything falls in that spectrum somewhere. There's no good or bad end to the spectrum, but if you're creating a solution, you want to be in the appropriate place. You don't want to end up on the passive end when you were really shooting for the interactive end. Things that are on the interactive end are things like computer games, where if you're not sitting there doing something, you're either getting killed, you're dead, or nothing's happening. It's relying on your participation. The same thing happens with a conversation, a good dinner party, or if you're acting in a play.
Along this spectrum, there are two types of things that can be added to any experience. You have adaptive technologies, things like agents, guides, and other technologies that modify the behavior of the product to respond to the user's experience or input. If it's a game, it may give you different options or different activities or confront you with different kinds of things depending upon what you've done before. Whether it's responding to your level of success or the sequence that you've gone through to get to where you are, there are technologies that can make products appear pseudo-intelligent. Those are weird words, but they can make products appear smarter even if, in fact, they're not.
The last component of this interactivity matrix or spectrum are co-creative technologies. Those are really important because those are the things inherent in an experience that allows you to contribute, to participate, and in fact, to create something. People love creating things. Some people have some anxiety about creating things, especially if they don't have help or if they haven't had any explicit training. You always hear people say, "I can't draw a circle." Well, most people can't draw a circle even, but if you spent four solid years in art school, you'd be able to do all these things, too. The fact is you just didn't so you shouldn't feel anxious about it. But people do inherently like to create things. They like to participate on a creative level as opposed to click, next screen, click, next screen. TV's really popular, but people still like to write letters, paint, or draw if they find those experiences easy and without anxiety.
When you create experiences, you should consider how you can give your audience, your readers, your users, ways of participating and being creative. These might include creation tools. like KidPix or maybe there are ways of giving creative help so you can help someone distinguish between the alternatives.
They're not necessarily creating content?
Maybe not. Maybe they're creating something with the content. Maybe they're selecting photographs that they've found. Voices of the 30s is a really good example of this. Here is a CD-ROM with incredible content from the 1930's--photographs, newsreels, and recordings of people's experiences, lot's of references to books, quotations, biographies--this whole wealth of information. It could have been organized like Encarta which is great for searching and finding, and when you get there, you can read about things. But this isn't satisfying--certainly not in an educational setting. Voices of the 30s is a product that's more than a reference product. It's a living database. I can put my own information in there right beside all the information that's shipped on the CD-ROM in a form that's equal in presentation. I can add my own photos, QuickTime movies, sound recordings, commentary, descriptions of books, quotations, or biographies. There is an acknowledgment that what's shipping on this disk isn't complete. It's this idiosyncratic, but well thought--out collection that recognizes that others are going to have things to contribute. That is important--especially in the context of an education product where this product becomes a living database over the years, over the semesters in a school. Students and the teachers can leave trails and notes for themselves. There's no precedent for products in the content title category that live and become more with experience, use, and contribution than they are when they ship.
It allows users to share their experiences with future users.
Exactly. Living products that get better and grow with use are really important. Those are the things that you should consider when you're dropping your solution somewhere in the spectrum.
The other component of that in Voices there is this thing called the RouteMaker. It's just a really easy way of creating a multimedia book report, a multimedia presentation using the materials that are shipped on this disk to present back--not to be the focus, but as an adjunct to your presentation, so as you're talking about your concept of Utopia, for example, and how it was experienced, or thought, of or described in the context of the 30's, you have sound clips, photographs, drawings, and biographies to use. You have all of these things available to you to tell the story that you want to tell. This is a really simple little thing that is profoundly more interesting to use.
What's the litmus test for whether an experience product succeeds or fails?
What you're after is to succeed in communicating your messages clearly and creating the kind of experiences that your user, audience, or reader will respond to favorably. You can user-test, for instance. But there's no test that you can run through, check off, and get an 83 or a 72 or a 99. This is life. These are experiences. There's no quantitative scale.
What are some examples of interactive products that create good experiences?
Well, there aren't really any. I think that one of the best interactive experiences you can have is a conversation over dinner in a nice restaurant with someone who you really respect and admire. It's important to remember that because when you're building these interactive products, your competition aren't other CD-ROM's on penguins or other computer games with castle themes. Your competitors are televisions, books, and magazines, concerts, book readings, walking in the park, having dinner with people, going to parties, and all these other experiences that people have. This is something that the interactive TV test-trial people don't seem to understand. Their competition isn't TV or radio or video games; it's everything that people do because they'll turn it off or switch back to the TV from that interactive QVC program, or pick up a direct mail catalog, or walk down to their mall, or call their friend before they sit through something boring. You have to compete against all the range of human experiences so you'd better understand the nature of those experiences so you can evaluate whether you're competing successfully or not.
Information Overload and Media Literacy
What about information overload?
I'm not one to worry so much about information overload. On a basic level, people take in as much information as they can and no more. They have no facility for them to take in any more than they can, by definition, handle in the first place. There is a great deal of information anxiety, however, which is Richard Saul Wurman's term, and that is the worry and anxiety inherent in, "Gee, am I missing something? Am I taking in too much? Can I ignore this? Do Iunderstand this?"
There are a lot of information junkies, and I'm probably one of them. I read, or at least skim, everything that comes across my path. I've been trying to become a lot smarter about picking and choosing what information sources and experiences I am or am not going to integrate. We all need to become a lot better filters for each other. I think that's the true goal. You go to your parents for certain kinds of advice. They are filtering things. You get different kinds of news through different friends and colleagues. Ideally we all really want to be good filters for each other. You learn what to expect from different filters and then to rely on that.
Is that something you learn naturally or is that more of a process that can be and perhaps should be formalized?
A lot of people learn it naturally. They may have a natural propensity for doing that well. But definitely, there's a process there that can be used, and that's the whole idea behind information design. There are tools and processes that you can learn to decrease your overload or your anxiety to become better users of data or at least develop better skills for which to better filter data, transform data into information, communicate well, create better experiences, and feel better about it the whole way as well. We should be doing that in schools and we don't. We don't even do simple things like teach kids how to use information tools. Nobody sits down and says, "This is a copier. Here is how to use it well. This is what it's good for. This is what it's not good for." Other information tools like computers, typewriters, libraries--so many people don't know how to use a library well.
And certainly, the processes aren't taught very well either. We don't teach communication well, not just communication theory, but even communication basics. They're just not part of the curriculum. Somehow, some people get it, and some people seem to figure it out naturally. People probably naturally gravitate towards good filters or what they perceive as good filters of information, but it's all fairly haphazard and that's a real shame. We need to get better at that to move forward, or else we're just going to stagnate. We'll just stay here and spin our wheels.
You also talked about the need to find the appropriate vehicle for delivering your information to whatever end market you decide, which raises the whole question of media literacy. It's not fair to just single out kids, but I think more people are pointing their finger at younger generations than any other particular category because there's a real dichotomy between young and old when it comes to the amount of visual information. Abbe Don and others have mentioned that we aren't really teaching media literacy, we aren't teaching kids how to watch television, how to actively watch TV and pull information out from that. If we do get around to doing that, do you think that there may be any backlash from that? Are we going to fragment language as we know it rather than trying to get people to communicate via a text-based framework? Are we going to further break down the literacy in this country if we try to pump up the visual skills instead?
I think that literacy is a really dangerous word. It's a very important concept but the way it gets employed is really disheartening. Literacy is so much more than reading and writing but in our culture, that's all that gets attached to it. And then, it's just the rudimentary reading and writing--not even writing well and really good reading skills like filtering, categorizing, critical analysis, and higher level thinking skills, or better forms of writing--what the mechanics of style are like as opposed to the logical progression of a book report. It's as far as it gets in school. It is very text-heavy.
All of the other kinds of literacy are handled by the "creative" classes that, of course, get cut out of budgets, and categories like visual literacy are all thrown into art. It's never put into a context of good communication. It's always thrown in with touchy-feely ambiguous abstractness that we don't really understand. You can go play by yourself with paints or some other medium. Photography's thrown in there. At least in colleges, photography and video get some critical analysis in some courses and are treated, at least, with a little bit more seriousness. But yes, we have a visual literacy in our culture already. It's just in the closet. It's not acknowledged by most people, or certainly by the greater popular culture, and it needs to be. We can't expect people to deal well in a much richer media environment, and I would argue that our media environment is getting richer, and maybe even bigger. We can't even expect people to do well, succeed, and perform well if they aren't ever taught those skills. That's probably the most important thing that's stagnating us from the perspective of productivity and competitiveness. We're not even asking the right questions.
All of this productivity and competitiveness focus, especially on a corporate and global level, is so silly because they're watching all the wrong indicators, and they're paying attention to all the wrong problems. They're never asking the right question which is, "How do we make people more adept at dealing with information, dealing with data, communicating to each other, and creating better experiences for each other?" If we can do that, then everything will get better and follow.
What do you think is the best way we can tackle these issues then? If you were given the option to design your ideal curriculum, what would you do?
The first step is to make sure that people understand that these issues are important--that visual literacy is as important as textual literacy and video literacy. There's a certain level of awareness that has to happen before we can move to the next level, and that has to happen really pervasively. You've got to convince everyone in society to be aware of these issues. Once you do that, you've already started to get people energized to ask questions. Now you need to give them places to go for answers. Those are media literacy programs. They don't have to be really structured. In Demystifying Multimedia's Design and Prototype section on media we describe the appropriateness anf elements of text, writing, graphics, illustrations, photography, video, music, and sound.
What is sound good for? It's really good for emotional experiences, it's really bad for exact information. Try to describe how to get from your house to the main library in your city using only music. Not a really appropriate use of the medium. But try to describe to someone else how you felt at a particular event in your life, music may be really useful, certainly as a component to helping express some of those things.
We need to help people understand what media are good for what kinds of experiences, communicating what kinds of ideas and messages. Then let them go experiment and prove us wrong and say, "No, there is a way of making music give exact kinds of information as a way of writing in text, certain kinds of ideas, and emotional experiences as well." Once you get them asking the right questions, once you get them aware that there are answers to these questions, then they will start exploring and learning how to use those skills. And that's all education should be about. In essence, reading, writing, and arithmetic are truly about critical theory, critical analysis, thinking skills, memorization--you're training minds for higher education and higher thinking skills, but somewhere along the way it gets so quantified into these little discretenesses that the more important layer gets lost. It just evaporates in a cloud of test scores, SAT scores, quizzes, and book reports.
Great teachers, whether they're professional educators or not, are aware of the ways in which you get people thinking and get them asking questions. There's a great book entitled, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. It's all about asking questions, and asking questions of your students to get them thinking and not giving them answers. Then they come back to you and say, "Okay, we've done this whole discussion. What is the answer to the question you asked?" Who cares what the answer is? You've got to make them understand that sometimes the critical process of asking and discussing the question is more important than any one given answer because there will be different answers for different people. This is the kind of setting in which you need to learn about media and the appropriate use of media.
To some extent, we all have to learn about all media at least to a certain level. I've got to learn a certain bit about videography and sound design. What are the components to good sound design or good music? I don't necessarily have to go learn music--how to play the clarinet and the piano, although it wouldn't hurt--but I certainly need to know why I respond to some music rather than other music. I certainly need to understand how I react to different things in the auditory environment and what the components of an auditory experience are if I plan to: create those for other people, or just learn how to manage my own auditory experiences well.
You've got to do it for graphics, you've got to do it for photography because you experience photography all the time, you should learn a bit about typography, a bit about videography, a lot about writing and text and the components to good storytelling, the components to good conversations...Man, if you don't learn somewhere in your life how to have a good conversation, what kind of experiences can you expect out of life? Nobody really teaches that. I didn't have a class on that. That's the most important, wonderful experience you can have in your life.
So this comes around to the whole question of literacy. How do we define it? What are we teaching? How important is it that we teach people about information, rather than stuffing them full of data.
The most important thing you can teach anyone, whether it's adult education, childhood education, or out of the education system completely, is how to find things and how to look for things, rather than making people memorize things. Certain things in your life you need at a moment's notice, immediately; there are other things where it just doesn't matter. If you look at the newspaper, how much news do you really need immediately. I usually don't even read the newspaper because it's sensationalized and overblown. There's really not too much good content there, and people are really surprised. "You don't read the newspaper? You didn't know that such and such happened?" And my reply to that is, "Look, I can't affect it anyway." There was a 6.0 earthquake in Mexico City and yes, it was really terrible. Believe me, those kinds of things you find out about whether you read the newspaper or not. Even things like who won the Nobel Prize, I can't do anything about it, so it doesn't matter if I hear about it immediately. I almost always hear about things that affect me in time to act on them.
The important stuff seems to get to you anyway. But this need to know exactly what happened and then to go over every little detail is something I've realized isn't necessary so I can spend my time constructively doing better things and I'll get to it when it matters.
Tell me about information viruses.
Well, this is a concept that, as far as I can tell, started with Neil Stephenson in his book Snowcrash. There's a metavirus that should probably be called the Stephenson virus that talks about information viruses. This is a very new way of understnading communication, and I'm trying to explore it. In the same way that I'm working toward a taxonomy of experience, I'm developing a taxonomy of communication.
My understanding is that all communication is viral in the sense of how concepts propagate themselves, how they transfer, translate, migrate, and mutate. How genetic material does all of those things, so do ideas and concepts. So does data and information. This is really important because it not only gives you a much different understanding of communication, but it also gives you some new tools with which to manipulate it. I believe that it was Richard Dawkins who came up with the concept of the "meme," the idea gene. You can't describe what a gene is discretely. It's a fuzzy, ambiguous label for something. You can't go to a scientist and say, "What is a gene?" and have them tell you exactly where the gene stops and starts. A gene is this ambiguous piece of genetic material. It's not a set number of strands of DNA, in fact, there's not necessarily a discrete start and stop point. Also, there may be many different pieces of DNA that contribute to one gene. So it's this abstract concept in the same way that ideas are memes. Ameme isan idea fragment that get propagated.
It's a bit of information that recreates the entire chain?
It is a concept that is trying to survive in the same way that a gene is trying to survive without too much mutation or getting dropped out of the gene pool altogether. So if you think of ideas as competing against each other, trying to survive, then it starts to open up a whole ecology, what I call an information ecology, of how people communicate and what the mechanics of communication really are--that these ideas are competing against each other to take hold in your brain. The whole idea of competition with cooperation in fact is really important. Different memes cooperate together to create a united front to block access to other memes or groups of memes.
In his brilliant book Snowcrash, Neil Stephenson introduces the concept that the whole book of Deuteronomy, true or not, was an information antiviral to combat the Sumerian culture meme, whatever it was. When you think in those terms...look at the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. The Constitution in this country is a collection of memes that has taken hold furiously and is translated and transcribed with a fair amount of accuracy, give or take a couple of bills. But it's this block that we've used against other forms of governement and social organization. Bring yourself to conceptualize that those memes, those concepts are in fact what's controlling everything. They're trying to live on, competing against other ideas.
We (humans) are not necessarily in control in the same sense that our bodies are merely complex vehicles for genes tocompete against one another. The ideas of freedom and democracy (and of course, it's not true democracy) are competing against other ideas in the same category like fascism or Stalinism or socialism. One of the means that this "democracy meme" uses to compete is to say it's democracy when it's not, because it's really just republicanism. We're a republic in this country, not a democracy. But since a true democracy has never been possible until recently, one of the mechanisms this meme has used to survive is to pass itself off as something slightly different. That is the same behavior you find in biological viruses.
I am trying to uncover these mechanics and create a taxonomy of how ideas transfer themselves, evolve, compete with other ideas, and succeed over other ideas. Once you've come to an understanding, then you realize that there are ways for you to create an information immune system in yourself, in your filtering, in your organization habits, in your understandings and mechanisms for understanding, in your skills and your abilities with which you can try to pick and choose the memes that affect you. Obviously, there are good memes and there are bad memes. Hitler was creating and promoting a lot of bad, destructive memes. Obviously, there's going to be disagreement over which memes are destructive and which memes are constructive depending on who you are. But all of these ideas are out there competing against each other, cooperating with other ideas to live. That's all it's about. If you can understand that, then of course you can use it to your benefit.
There are ways of using these concepts in a corporate realm, in a consumer realm, and in a product realm, that can make you more successful than other people who don't understand these things. For example, consider PostScript which is basically a programming language and file format; a page description language for graphic things on computers. I've started to categorize the different kinds of viruses, and this is a technological virus. This is a technology meme that has infected the graphics world, the visual communication world, and the visual presentation world--certainly the computer world--which has taken hold and is winning out. Name a page description language other than PostScript. I can name one: TeX. Developed at Stanford, it didn't get very far. It's used here and there, but certainly not on the level of PostScript. In fact, PostScript is such a successful technology virus that the only way to compete against it is to copy it. So you have PostScript clones, right?
If you can figure out what the mechanics are of successful technology viruses, and I think I'm figuring out some of them, you can do a lot for your clients. Imagine being able to tell your client, "I can create a technology virus with your technologies for your company that you will control and that will successfully compete and win out over your competitors' technology viruses. Added to this, your competitors don't even understand technology viruses in the marketplace so they probably won't even be able to adequately compete. Your only competition is going to be frmo companies who are copying you, and by the way, technology viruses are patentable?" If you can convince people in companies that this is possible, you've got a really powerful tool. So I think that's where this frontier is going to be, and of course the flipside of this technology is that it can be used on the consumer's end as well as the producer's end. So there are ways of combating information viruses whether they are technological ones or not.
How do you do that?
We must go back to the awareness that these relationships and mechanics and processes exist. Simple awareness takes you up one level of consciousness about what's going on around you and your observation changes. The next thing is that once you've got this level of awareness you're now in a position to start asking questions about the mechanics and you've opened yourself to hearing solutions or hearing processes about how these things work. There are techniques that describe the mechanics of protecting yourself from memes you deem destructive. That's what a lot of religions are about, by the way. There are certain ideas and behaviors that they cannot tolerate for the reason that they will infect their constituencies. Ideas, like liberty, are really a pain in the ass to ideas like totalitarianism. So how have we seen it happen in the past? Revolutions are all about changing ideas and accepting one idea over another idea. What are the mechanics of a revolution? What are the mechanics of combating tyranny? What are the mechanics of winning the Betty Crocker Bake-off? All of these things are ideas and memes and process that can be understood and used.
There are some memes that are probably more important than others. There's probably a heirarchy of importance of memes, like metamemes: big concepts like freedom, democracy, totalitarianism, and relationships are probably more important than TV theme songs, color preferences, and birthdates. Everybody takes their slice through the world of information, this information ecology, and picks and chooses which ideas are important to them and which ones aren't. Again, there's no good and bad, although if you fill your head with memes at lower levels (what's on Oprah, perhaps), you're probably going to find that you don't have a lot of the skills with which to survive in the Information Age or in our information landscape. And you may, in fact, find yourself very susceptible to any old big meme that comes by. So you need to figure out ways of organizing things in your head--of critical analysis, of higher level thinking skills--that allow you to recognize when you're getting infected. What's your information immune system telling you? "Hey, this guy's trying to give me a line here," or, "Wow, I think I'm onto something," or, "Someone else is onto something," or, "This sounds great. This sounds useful." Recognize when those things are happening, then figure out how you integrate all these ideas together, how you organize things in your head. Is it really easy to pull out memories when you need them or words or ideas or details? If it's not, then you're going to have more trouble conversing, presenting, and communicating.
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