Alex Wright

See you in Vegas?

March 21, 2007

For anyone out there planning to attend the IA Summit in Las Vegas this weekend, I'll be giving a presentation Saturday morning entitled The Web That Wasn't:

What if the Web had turned out differently? In the years leading up to Tim Berners-Lee’s world-changing invention, a number of other visionary information scientists were building alternative systems that often bore little resemblance to the Web as we know it today. The presentation will explore the pioneering early- and mid- twentieth century work of Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush and Doug Engelbart, forebears of the 1960s and 1970s like Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and the Xerox PARC team, and more recent forays like Brown's Intermedia system.

The phenomenal success of the Web over the past decade has overshadowed most research into alternative networked information systems; for most information architects, the Web is all we have ever really known. But if the history of technology teaches us anything, it is that the best technology does not always win (see also: Mac vs. Windows; Betamax vs. VHS). Despite the Web’s current dominance, in many ways it remains, as hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson put it, "the simplest form of hypertext imaginable." As most information architects understand all too well, today’s Web is hamstrung with fundamental flaws: statelessness, the lack of two-way linking, versioning, and the inherent limitations of the two-dimensional page metaphor. To compensate for these shortcomings, we rely on makeshift workarounds like AJAX, metadata repositories, comments and trackbacks, and a host of other gerry-rigged solutions. However much information architects may like to rail against the page metaphor (especially at IA conferences), the lowly page still lies at the heart of the current Web. But what if things had been different?

What would a better version of the Web look like? If we are willing to look just a few years back, we can find answers lying in plain sight. This presentation will invite participants to explore a world of discarded ideas about how electronic information retrieval systems could work, in search of useful concepts and metaphors that could guide our thinking about common information architecture problems. Ultimately, this presentation will look for clues to the future of information architecture by mining our not-so-distant past.
If you're in town, stop by and say hi. Or, come find me later slurping watered-down cocktails at the craps table.

File under: User Experience

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