Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Wrapping up Portland

I'm back home from IA Summit and slowly, but lovingly, re-engaging familiar routines like email and blogging. (UPDATE 28/03/03: My paper and presentation can be found here.)

Portland was interesting. First, anti-war protests (see local SMS smartmobbing) turned the downtown area into a bloody police-state, with riot cops at every turn and helicopters in the sky. Scenarios like that give me the creeps, make me kinda angry, and never make me feel safe. (But then again, I grew up in South America and have seen people killed in similar situations.) And it is only now that I am able to acknowledge the degree to which current events impacted my experience of the conference - but more on that in a bit.

Stewart Brand gave the keynote speech, and while he may have lacked the polish of Larry Lessig and Richard Florida at SXSW, his is undoubtedly a brilliant and beautiful mind. He spoke about How Buildings Learn, as well as the Long Bets Foundation:

The purpose of the Long Bets Foundation is to improve long-term thinking. Long Bets is a public arena for enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake. The foundation furnishes the continuity to see even the longest bets through to public resolution. This website provides a forum for discussion about what may be learned from the bets and their eventual outcomes.

and the amazing Rosetta Project:

The Rosetta Project is a global collaboration of language specialists and native speakers working to develop a contemporary version of the historic Rosetta Stone. In this updated iteration, our goal is a meaningful survey and near permanent archive of 1,000 languages. Our intention is to create a unique platform for comparative linguistic research and education as well as a functional linguistic tool that might help in the recovery or revitalization of lost languages in unknown futures.

What all three - Brand, Florida and Lessig - presentations had in common was a focus on the "common good" from a broadly humanist perspective. I don't generally care for that line of thinking, but, more specifically, each man (alas, that never goes unnoticed by me) treasured diversity, creativity and collective action, and I can appreciate that. Still, I find it difficult to negotiate between live-and-let-live positions and notions of accountability, especially when I do not believe in the superiority of rationalism. But I have to think on this some more...

Back to the conference. The first presentation I saw attempted to apply principles of emergence and sociobiology to information architecture. I don't think it was successful, but I admit I went because I really dislike sociobiology. (The roots of my discontent can be traced to the recognition that for every sociobiological explanation, there is also a cultural explanation. And since I would never say that humans are only culture, I must also oppose the evolutionary determinism of sociobiology. At its worst - its most controlling - sociobiology has been allowed to justify everything from "born criminals," phrenology and the "Hottentot Venus" (Saarti Baartman's remains were repatriated to South Africa in 2002), to extremes of eugenics and genocide. And while my position differs significantly, I very much appreciate the critique of sociobiology offered from this religious perspective.)

I was pleased with my presentation - but it did begin a peculiar set of happenings around national identity. I shared an hour time slot (at the end of the day) with the only other talk on government Web sites, presented by Sanne Peek from the Netherlands. And if you will allow me a gross characterisation, the Americans did not seem particularly interested. Don't get me wrong. I heard excellent questions and lovely compliments from several Americans, but I think I may have been approached by every Canadian and continental European at the Conference (although there weren't that many of us). It seemed that Canadians and Scandinavians were more interested in - and familiar with - working with diversity, and various forms of institutionalised multi-culturalism. It was even suggested that my case study project was possible precisely because I was working with Canadians. (What does that mean?) At the same time, there was a palpable lack of international attendance, participation, and perspective.

My dear and respected friend Adam Greenfield gave a presentation on doing information architecture in Japan - which seemed to elicit similar responses from Canadians and Europeans in the audience - and which he intelligently reflects upon here. I was there for the discussion he describes, and there was a part of me that most definitely agreed with the perspective that stung Adam. Now this caught me off-guard, mostly because I tend not to think about people - and especially my friends - in terms of nationality. But what occurs to me now, is that two weeks ago I would have respectfully challenged his ethnocentrism, but two days ago I challenged him (somewhat disrespectfully) for being American. That's fucked up and for that I apologise. I had underestimated how much this whole-war-thing is bothering me, and how I've become really touchy about how judgement and intolerance creates others, because others are objects to which we need not be accountable.

Since I was arguing with Adam and others after his presentation, unfortunately I missed Mark Bernstein's presentation on what might be loosely described as architectures of control. This disappoints me precisely because I tend to share the perspective that most information architecture (over)values control, or as Mark aptly puts it: The early rhetoric of information architecture has been predominantly the language of engineering: hierarchical decomposition, systematic nomenclature, and precise measurement are its constant themes. The contemporary role of the architect, in contrast, emerged from a reaction "against" engineering: the Bauhaus Manifesto proclaims Das Endziel aller bildnerischen Tätigkeit ist der Bau! But he doesn't romanticise the architect, or claim that (cyber)spatial metaphors are simple, and he further explores these problems in Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas.

But, as in Austin, I particularly enjoyed the company. I shared excellent nighttime conversations with Peter Merholz (who just started up his blog again - yay!), Victor Lombardi, Erin Malone, Christina Wodtke, Nick Finck, Peter Morville, Mark Bernstein and others. Thanks to all. And I had the wonderful fortune to spend my time with Juanita Benedicto, of the excellent - and missed - New Breed Librarian, and all-around way cool chica! ¡Cuídate mucho, mi amiga! And still, Fabio was greatly missed and there was more than one occasion that really could have used the vitality of Mike, Toke and Molly. Cheers guys!

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