Peter Morville's bi-weekly column on the evolving definition of information architecture

The Ethics of Information Architecture

Are you aware that the practice of information architecture is riddled with powerful moral dilemmas? Do you realize that decisions about labeling and granularity can save or destroy lives? Have you been designing ethical information architectures?

If you've never considered these questions, don't worry. It's not your fault. Blame your parents!

Did they ever take the time when you were a small child to clarify that the story of Hansel and Gretel is really a metaphor for the horrors that result without effective breadcrumb navigation? Did they ever explain that Spiderman symbolizes the virtuous hypertextual power of the Web?

Without information architect super-heroes and arch-villains to serve as role models, how you could be expected to recognize your own potential for good or evil?

Seeing the Invisible

The truth is that ethics are one of the many hidden dimensions of information architecture.

As Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star suggest in Sorting Things Out: Classification And Its Consequences, "Good, usable systems disappear almost by definition. The easier they are to use, the harder they are to see." They explain that "large information systems such as the Internet or global databases carry with them a politics of voice and value that is often invisible, embedded in layers of infrastructure."

A Modest Goal

Given that I found my college biology course in animal behavior far more ethically enlightening than my college philosophy course in human ethics, I'm the last person to tell you exactly how to save the world. Instead, I hope to present a framework that illuminates the unique set of (6) ethical dimensions faced by information architects, so you can make your own decisions. In short, I'll help you to see the invisible.

1. Intellectual Access

Much information architecture work is focused on helping people find information or complete tasks efficiently and effectively. We hope to reduce senseless friction, avoiding wasted time, money, and frustration.

We also go beyond connecting users with the information they're explicitly seeking, by leveraging thesauri to educate them about additional products or services or knowledge that they didn't know existed.

This work is no more ethically neutral than design of the first atom bomb. A great information architecture can help a medical researcher discover the missing puzzle piece that results in the cure for a disease. A great information architecture can also connect an angry teenager with instructions on how to build a pipe bomb.

Whether you're working for a business, a non-profit organization, a university, a government, a political candidate, the military, or a nuclear power station, the ethics of the information architecture depends on the unique context of your situation.

2. Labeling

There are few things as quietly powerful as labels. We are completely surrounded by them and for the most part their influence is invisible. They are seen only by the people they hurt.

Bowker and Star provide a couple of good examples. They discuss the politics and pain involved in the transition over several years from the label "gay-related immune disorder" (GRID) through a chain of other labels to the now accepted "acquired immune deficiency syndrome" (AIDS).

In another example, they explain that "many patients feel that one of the greatest burdens of having chronic fatigue syndrome is the name of the illness." The word fatigue indicates everyday tiredness and makes it less likely that friends, family, employers, and co-workers will take the condition seriously.

When we develop labeling systems and controlled vocabularies, we struggle to balance literary and user warrant. We strive for clarity and predictability, while trying to keep our labels relatively short. Perhaps we should also consider the potential impact our labels can have on people and perceptions.

3. Categories and Classification

The presence or absence of categories and the definition of what is and is not to be included in each category can also have powerful consequences.

Bowker and Star explore the "underlying architecture of apartheid," noting that "over 100,000 people made formal appeals concerning their race classification; most were denied."

They also explain that while "child abuse" surely existed before the 20th century, you couldn't tell from the literature because "that category per se did not exist." The very creation of the category made it more socially and legally visible.

Bowker and Star also discuss the problems that occur when things don't fit into an existing category ("monsters") and when they fit multiple categories ("cyborgs").

They include a quote (Ritvo 1997) referencing the proliferation of monsters in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, noting "monsters were united not so much by physical deformity or eccentricity as by their common inability to fit or be fitted into the category of the ordinary."

As we design classification schemes, are we responsible for our own Frankensteins?

4. Granularity

Bowker and Star examine the work of a group of nursing scientists to develop a Nursing Intervention Classification (NIC) to make the work of nurses more visible and legitimate.

During the project, granularity took center stage in a balancing act between the politics of certainty and the politics of ambiguity. "The essence of this politics is walking a tightrope between increased visibility and increased surveillance; between overspecifying what a nurse should do and taking away discretion from the individual practitioner."

Sometimes, the devil is in the level of detail.

5. Physical Access

From ramps and elevators to large print and audio books, librarians are familiar with issues of physical access to traditional libraries. Unfortunately, we're having some problems carrying this experience into the online environment. As you create information architectures, are you designing for universal usability?

6. Persistence

As I mentioned in my IA2000 Keynote, information architecture is not about surface glamour; it's about mission-critical infrastructure. And infrastructure has wide-spread and long-term impact.

As we design the legacy information architectures of tomorrow, shouldn't we consider our responsibility to the big here and the long now? Remember the Y2K bug?

Shaping the Future

As humans, we collectively avoid a huge percentage of ethical dilemmas by defining them out of existence. We decide they are out of our control. We decide they are someone else's responsibility.

As an information architect, you can define any or all of these ethical dimensions as "not my problem." Maybe the responsibility really belongs to the client, the business manager, the authors, the usability engineers, or the users themselves. Or maybe, we'll all just wait for a super-hero to save the day.

Winston Churchill said "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." As information architects, we are shaping the collaborative work spaces and social environments of tomorrow. Are we willing to take responsibility for the shapes we shape?

End Notes

Are you using information architecture for good or evil?

Please send your rants and raves (and confessions) to Peter Morville.

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