How Science Fiction Can Help Design Websites

102px-MBoehmeMeetingOriginally published on LinkedIn on January 26, 2016.

Information architecture may seem at first to have little in common with science fiction. After all, what does the organization, design, and structuring of information have to do with the imagination and exploration of what could have been and what might be? It turns out they have one thing in common. The same thing that explains why I’m so interested in both information architecture and science fiction.

The Terrans, by Jean Johnson, is an exciting novel about the first encounters between inhabitants of Earth and our solar system, and the denizens of an alien human civilization that emigrated from Earth millennia ago. This “first contact” trope, commonly used in science fiction, focuses on the interactions and tensions between the two civilizations. Different ceremonial protocols, communication styles, technologies, allergies, and ways of understanding the universe create misunderstandings and conflicts that need to be overcome and resolved before the two civilizations can work together to, in this case, defeat a common enemy.

This is all very well, you might be thinking, but what does it have to do with information architecture and web design?

In this conflict and tension described in a science fiction novel, I see the conflicts and tensions inherent in the connections between information and people. Content creators and content consumers engage, knowingly or unknowingly, in this “first contact.” Content creators have their own backgrounds, cultural norms, and perceptions of the world. They organize information using their worldviews as models. Content consumers, in exactly the same way, arrive at the information from their own perspective, informed by their own worldviews. If both individuals are from the same culture, the differences in the way they perceive, organize, and share information may be small. If, however, they have different backgrounds – let’s say one is a very technical or mathematical person, and the other is an intuitive, literary person – they may have very different ideas about what “makes sense.”

In creating an information resource such as a website, the best policy for the content creator or information architect is to understand who the other partner is in the conversation, and how that partner perceives and organizes information. In The Terrans, the main characters of one civilization make every effort to understand how the other civilization operates and to accommodate and be patient with any differences. When individuals from the other civilization do not make the same effort, diplomatic relations break down. When content creators do not understand their users, the connection between information and audience withers.

So, whether you’re a science fiction fan or not, it may help you to think of creating and organizing content on a website in terms of a “first contact” novel, with your users playing the role of the foreign civilization. Ask yourself, or better yet, ask them: What experiences and perceptions do they bring to the website? Where and how do they expect to find information? As soon as you can understand where the consumer is coming from, you will find it much easier to help them understand the information you share with them, which will encourage them to visit again.

Build the bridge between you and your user, and you will have established the foundations for a strong connection between your audience and your information. I can say from experience that creating this connection is one of the most satisfying things about designing information resources.

By the way, if you’re looking for a fantastic and complex science fiction novel about the interactions between two very different species, I highly recommend Foreigner by C.J. Cherryh.


Image: “Die Begegnung” – “The Meeting” by Michael Bohme, Wikimedia Commons


The Fringe Future of Libraries

Watching Fringe tonight, the clip below caught my eye. If you can’t read it, it says “Thousands of Libraries Burned to the Ground.” This scene takes place in a remote settlement whose inhabitants have made it their lives’ work to record the history of humankind after the Watchers invade the twenty-first century. If you don’t follow Fringe, it’s now set in a dystopian future where a different race has occupied Earth.

Shown here is a news clipping from the coolest archival management system ever, which involves transparent data cubes stored in slots in the walls of a reading terminal, for lack of a better term (booth? cubicle? room? Let’s go with terminal, with its connotations of “computer”). The cubes are activated by placement into the top of a pedestal. Once activated, their contents, mostly news articles and some diary entries, hover in a cylindrical pattern around and above the pedestal, which the reader can access by tapping the air. They’re something like holograms, set into an invisible rotating rack of sunglasses.

To return to the importance of this image. The struggle for freedom is now the key plot element in Fringe. The main characters’ mission is to resist the occupation and return humanity’s self-governance and individual freedoms.

Which makes it so interesting that this headline was chosen to appear as the Archivist explains the purpose of the archives (to preserve the historical record of the historical losers, which has a habit of being trampled by the historical record of the historical winners).

Science fiction portrays libraries as symbols of freedom.

Lots of other discussions can be started from this (different archives for different communities; preservation of cultural materials that might not otherwise be preserved; meanings for future generations; stability of the storage facility and technologies; backup storage; the meanings/significance of libraries for their communities; libraries as institutions that protect the freedom of information, among others; et cetera, et cetera), but I like to keep things simple.

I would also like to point out (again) the awesome nature of the futuristic archives.

Don’t you just love science fiction?

*This clip is shown around 9:42 in the episode

**Image from Fringe episode 5.4: Schapker, A. (writer) and Straiton, D. (director). (2012). The bullet that saved the world [Television series episode]. In J.J. Abrams, A. Kurtzman and R. Orci (Producers), Fringe. Beverly Hills, CA: Fox. Aired on 26 October 2012. Retrieved on 4 November 2012.

“We don’t have much need for books anymore”

Like the nerd I am, I have been making my way through Stargate SG-1 lately. Sometimes it’s more interesting than others, but this most recent episode, “Revisions” in Season 7, portrays the potential perils and pitfalls of technological advancement.

Synopsis: **SPOILER ALERT**

In this stand-alone episode, SG-1 explores an apparently uninhabitable planet. When they send the rover through the gate, it finds an idyllic sanctuary inside a strange dome, protected from the toxic atmosphere just beyond the Stargate. Within the dome, they meet the inhabitants, each one of whom is hooked into “the Link” through an almond cookie-shaped device placed on the temple. Evidently, everyone in the town is hooked up to this miraculous network that has the power to directly connect the human brain and a computer that holds all the records, history, and data for the settlement.

The catch is, the people begin acting more and more strangely as time goes on, and the “updates” from the computer to the inhabitants through the Link become more and more troublesome.

This is where I spoil the plot for you. It turns out that the computer has been programmed to protect the dome and the settlement, but no longer has the power to do so. Over the past few centuries, as the dome has begun to shrink, the Link has been sending individuals outside, to their deaths, in order to maintain equilibrium/harmony/livable conditions within the dome. And then erasing everyone else’s memories of the “lost” people. SG-1, being the do-gooders they are, manage to disconnect an engineer from the Link and obtain his help in re-programming the computer to not only save Jack O’Neill and Teal’C from a computer-driven mob, but to save everyone by relocating them … somewhere else.

Christopher Heyerdahl’s role (he’s the aforementioned engineer) has the closest connection to the community’s technological developments. His scenes cover many of the most intriguing plot developments, particularly dealing with technology, the Link, and re-programming the computer.

What fascinates me about this episode is its presentation of the idea that the brain (and neuroscience) may be the future of information. There are some pretty amazing technological developments on the horizon, and from all appearances, the information profession is going to remain dynamic.

The similarities between this world and our own are also striking. In the episode, paper records have become obsolete on this world, yet end up being the key to saving the settlement. At one point, a secondary character shows Daniel to the “archives” – a poorly maintained, abandoned-looking room with dusty books piled haphazardly on available surfaces, and says “We don’t have much need for books anymore.” Our own society is apparently approaching that point, or one like it.

Finally, this episode advocates for preservation of information outside a “link,” or a network, or the “cloud,” and also argues that paper records may still have a place in the future of information.

And this is one example of the reasons I love science fiction.