Living in Information
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Living in Information

Responsible Design for Digital Places

Jorge Arango

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eBook - ePub

Living in Information

Responsible Design for Digital Places

Jorge Arango

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About This Book

Websites and apps are places where critical parts of our lives happen. We shop, bank, learn, gossip, and select our leaders there. But many of these places weren't intended to support these activities. Instead, they're designed to capture your attention and sell it to the highest bidder. Living in Information draws upon architecture as a way to design information environments that serve our humanity.

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Information

Year
2018
ISBN
9781933820941
Edition
1

CHAPTER

1

Environments

One Montgomery Street in San Francisco is home to a branch of the Wells Fargo bank. It’s also a time portal. When you step through its semi-circular portico, you’re transported back to 1908, the year the building opened. Designed by renowned San Francisco architect Willis Polk to be a bank, One Montgomery looks the part. Its exterior is staid sandstone punctured by a series of tall arched windows, tied together by an ornate frieze. The interior is all business—from a time when business was a less hurried, more elegant affair. While it still serves as a functional bank branch, One Montgomery is not what 21st century bank patrons expect. It’s a cathedral for business, with high, ornate ceilings, soaring marble columns, low lighting, and a hushed tone. Mary Poppins’s George Banks would feel right at home.
Images
One Montgomery Street in San Francisco.
PHOTO BY BEYOND MY KEN VIA WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, HTTPS://COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/WIKI/FILE:2017_1_MONTGOMERY_STREET.webp
I toured One Montgomery in the spring of 2017 with an architectural historian who pointed out the details that made a bank in the first few decades of the 20th century. A raised central station, to allow branch managers to oversee staff. Marble cladding. Carved stone tables for customers to fill out their deposit slips, featuring built-in inkwells.
The inkwells have long been dry, since most people don’t write with fountain pens anymore. And more often than not, they don’t “bank” in buildings such as One Montgomery. Today, most of our financial dealings—and many other activities—happen in a different type of environment, one in which we enter and leave on a whim through screens we carry around in our pockets or unfold on tables in coffee shops.
Whether they be websites on your notebook computer, apps on your phone, or “conversations” with the “smart” cylinder on your mantelpiece, these environments are where you catch up with your friends, work, study, find a romantic partner, bank, shop, and undertake a whole host of other activities that our forebears did in physical space. Because they are composed primarily of information—words and images on screens—we refer to them as information environments.
We know how to design and use physical banks such as One Montgomery. We’ve been using places for this and other purposes for thousands of years. The forms of buildings have evolved over that time to suit our needs. However, information environments are still new. Patterns for their effective use are only now starting to evolve. As with every new medium, we bring to information environments biases and expectations that are not inherent to them, but echoes of the past. Let’s start by looking at how we use places: parts of our physical environment that we’ve set apart for particular uses.

Physical Environments

What do you understand by environment? If you’re like most people, the word will evoke images of the rainforest, whales breaching the surface of the ocean, or smokestacks spewing filth into the atmosphere. In other words, ecological images. This is not surprising, since you often see environment in phrases such as “protect the environment” or “save the environment” or “environmental pollution.”
The natural environment is certainly an example of what I mean by “environment.” However, I also mean it a bit more generally. When I say environment, I mean the “surroundings of a system or organism,” especially the aspects of those surroundings that “influence the system’s or organism’s behavior.” (This latter condition is important; you could say your surroundings include all of the solar system, but the orbit of Jupiter has very little influence on your day-to-day actions.1)
We exist in a physical environment. Large parts of this environment are natural and wild, untouched by human civilization. However, most of us spend our lives in physical environments that have been reconfigured by other people toward particular ends. These “artificial” physical environments—buildings, parks, streets, towns, cities, etc.—have a great influence on our behavior. They make it possible for us to collaborate with our coworkers, sleep soundly at night, or quietly read a book.
Beyond these obvious sheltering functions, physical environments also play important psychological and cultural roles. Think of your favorite restaurant, one you return to time and again. What makes it special? Is it the taste of the food? The comfort of its chairs? The quality of service? How cheap it is? Its proximity to your home or office? The design of its architecture? Memories of good times you’ve had there? Perhaps it’s a combination of some or all of these factors. Whatever it is, there are many other environments in the world set apart for eating and drinking, but this one is special to you.
When you inhabit such an environment, use it for its intended purpose, and interact with other people there, it becomes part of your mental model of the world. You start using it as a reference point in your own personal geography. When you are there, you feel, think, and act in ways that are particular to that environment. We call such environments places, and they are central in our lives.
Images
Humans have been setting apart space for particular uses for many thousands of years. This cave art is from the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina and was painted between 13,000 to 9,000 years ago.
IMAGE: HTTPS://EN.WIKIPEDIA.ORG/WIKI/FILE: SANTACRUZ-CUEVAMANOS-P2210651B.webp
As a civilization, we’ve been setting aside places for particular uses for a long time. Perhaps the first physical place was a clearing in a forest, or an opening in the side of a mountain, where a small group of people gathered to eat and rest. As our cultures evolved, we developed more sophisticated and specialized places. For example, a place of worship calls for a different setting than a bustling market does. As a result, building types and techniques evolved to meet these and other needs over time. Your restaurant is among the latest manifestation of the “eating place” that we’ve been building for thousands of years.
Our effectiveness as individuals and societies greatly depends on how well these places serve the roles we intend for them. You may have experienced the effect that your environment has on your performance firsthand if, like many people today, you work in an open office. A friend of mine is always complaining about having to work in such a “cube farm”; her coworkers make constant noises that destroy her concentration. The quality of her work in such an environment will be different from what she would produce in a place that allowed her greater control over her attention.
While their primary purposes may be to give us safe locations to work, eat, learn, worship, and more, many places also meet another important need as well: they allow us to come together as a community. In his book The Great Good Place, sociologist Ray Oldenburg coined the term “third place” to refer to places such as cafés, bookstores, hair salons, and bars that are not our home (the “first” place) or work (“second” place), and which allow us to socialize with our neighbors and fellow citizens. For example, in many small towns in the U.S., the local post office is the place where people catch up with their neighbors and get a sense of what they think and feel about the state of the world. They may come for the mail, but they also get an understanding of where their community stands on various issues of the day.2
Some places also tell stories about who we are—and who we were—as a people. Consider the Centro Cultural Gabriela Mistral, or Centro GAM, in Santiago, Chile. This is a modern building complex that has had various uses during its existence, all of which speak to Chileans in particular ways. It was built in 1972 to serve as a convention center shortly after the election of then-new president Salvador Allende. Beyond this utilitarian purpose, it was also meant to function as propaganda for the new government—it was built in under a year by volunteers after an extraordinary effort. When Allende was overthrown, the Centro GAM became the seat of the military government led by Augusto Pinochet. Parts of it were used later to house the headquarters of Chile’s defense forces. In 2006, a considerable part of the complex was destroyed in a fire; however, when I last visited Santiago in 2016, a major restoration of the complex was almost finished. As a physical structure, the Centro GAM is a container for particular activities, but for Chileans, it’s also a container of the country’s modern history.
Images
The Centro GAM was still being refurbished when I visited Santiago in the fall of 2016.
So places serve on two levels: they perform physical functions and symbolic ones. Both are essential to healthy societies. Physically, they shelter us and provide us with contexts in which we can effectively perform our activities, including the secondary, but no less important, activity of socializing. Symbolically, they embody and catalyze our cultural identities at the local, national, or global level; in other words, they ground us.
On both levels, places convey information. At the physical level, a building’s form conveys to your senses the possibilities for action that it makes available to you. A wall keeps meetings private. An opening on the wall allows you to cross through to the other side. A sidewalk encourages you to walk in a particular direction. A bolted door makes it impossible for you to enter (and lets you know that’s the case). A glass storefront gives you a preview of the goods sold inside. Your senses take in these physical features of the place automatically; they let you know what you can and can’t do there.
At the symbolic level, places convey information by using location, scale, symmetry, rhythm, material selection, and more, to establish their relationship to other elements in the environment. If you’ve ever visited the National Mall in Washington, D.C., you’ve experienced the power of an architecture designed to convey symbolic information about the place.
In the National Mall, the location of buildings with relation to open spaces, their relative sizes, the materials used in their construction, their architectural language, and so on have been carefully chosen to have a specific effect on you. These buildings’ forms provide much more than mere spaces for people to debate and enact the laws of the United States. The particular effect they have on you will depend on many factors, starting with whether or not you are a U.S. citizen.3
Images
The National Mall in Washington, D.C.
PHOTO BY JOHNNY BIVERA, PUBLIC DOMAIN, HTTPS://COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/W/INDEX.PHP?CURID=32519919
To summarize, physical environments both convey information and create the contexts necessary for people to exchange information with each other. In a very real sense, buildings and cities are the original social networks. They’re also cultural manifestos in stone and terra cotta; they keep relating stories long after the people who created them left the scene. Given how central placemaking has been to our species, and the degree to which places work for us regardless of our level of education, it is no exaggeration to claim that architecture was our earliest, most enduring, and perhaps most important information technology.
Images
Chartres Cathedral conveys information about man’s relationship to the divine through the configuration of space in and around the building, and through more literal carvings on its surfaces.
PHOTO © GUILLAUME PIOLLE, CC BY 3.0, HTTPS://COMMONS.WIKIMEDIA.ORG/W/INDEX.PHP?CURID=10219594

Information

We need to take a step back here. I’ve said that physical environments convey information and serve as contexts where people convey information to each other, and that places are an information technology. I’ve also talked about “information environments,” and suggested they are different from physical environments. Before we go any further, we need to look more closely at this word “information” to make sure we’re on the same page.
You normally think of information as something you find in books, newspapers, and websites; the stuff in the world that adds to your knowledge. You talk about living in the “Information Age” and being “information workers”; your phones and computers are “information technologies.” But information is not only something you learn through books and websites, but it’s also part of your surroundings. In fact, you couldn’t make sense of the world without it. There’s information all around you at this very moment. So what is it?
You can think of information as anything that h...

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