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Information Architecture and the Philosophy of Information: A dialogue
27 June 2016
Information is often conveyed and/or accessed across many channels, contexts, and levels of abstraction. Pervasive information architecture, a recent development in Information Architecture, is explicitly concerned with this topic and tries to develop the theoretical means to accommodate the technological changes and especially the blurring of boundaries between the digital and the physical that do not only have rendered most of our interactions with information messier than ever before (an epistemological concern), but have also radically altered the nature of the infosphere (an ontological issue).
Within the philosophy of information the possibility of accessing or shaping information in a multitude of ways is part of a broader theoretical concern, which ranges from the basic question of how and why we adopt a certain level of abstraction, to the question of how we refine, modify, compare and combine information that was obtained in different ways and at different levels of abstraction, and finally the question of how we move from obtaining information to acting on the basis of that information.
Information visualisation provides a narrow but intriguing example of how information can be accessed or at least presented across many levels of abstraction. Within the subfield of the philosophy of science concerned with modelling and representation this feature has been characterised by saying that visual representations render many possible abstractions simultaneously accessible, and put forward as one of the reasons for the effectiveness of information visualisation.
Overall, the problem of characterising pre-existing levels of abstraction is more tractable than the actual design of new levels of abstraction. The latter problem is as relevant to information architecture as it is to the philosophy of information, but the practical and theoretical resources that both fields can rely on to tackle this question are very different. On the optimistic assumption that said resources may be complementary, the question of how levels of abstraction (and their many technological implementations) are designed or engineered could be the starting point for a dialogue between the philosophy of information and information architecture.
Informational actions, or actions that alter the appearance of information, form an integral part of the design process we should focus on. As a starting point for the exchange, we propose to use the term “masking/unmasking” actions as a generic way of referring to actions that shape or alter information (including the infosphere itself and the conceptual machinery we rely on) by (and this enumeration is not meant to be exhaustive) amplifying/muting, compressing/expanding, collapsing/exploding, and merging/decomposing information, or changing the scope (include more less), scale, resolution, perspective, or context of how information is accessed, conveyed, or even made available for active intervention (modification, repurposing, co-creation). We would like to invite participants to reflect on how such actions are and should be used in practice, and in particular on how they can be used to favour, but also to negotiate and overcome trade-offs between informational virtues like, for instance, findability and legibility (core aims of IA), or precision, accuracy, truthfulness, informativeness (some very traditional aims), or “fit for purpose” (the central criterion associated with information quality, but arguably also one with a much broader appeal).