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Tuesday, 15 November 2005

Dirt roads and architecture.

Ahh, Harpers, how I love thee. Just when I think I have no imagination left, you whisper to me keep going.

Whilst wrangling with the tapestry and a strong desire to maintain the intimate quiet that can be found on Flickr, reading an article in the latest issue (November '05) about how transitory, purposeful, evolving and non-linear dirt roads can be drew me in as a nice analogy to the sort of experience I hope people find when they visit.
Dirt roads are communal creations, immune from the autocracy of engineers. "They evolved," says Vermont's dirt-road expert, Bob Niles, "from a cow path to an ox-cart path to a horse track to a buggy road to an automobile road. And they used what was close by, not what was good...

...A dirt road is alive, echoing and responding to land rather than flattening it, reflecting in its color the soil of farms and back yards. A dirt road is not the triumph of civilization over nature but a calm contentment, a cohabitation...

People ask to be shown the way; to have a variety of rules and regulations for what's OK and what's not strictly defined; to be told how they should be playing, and what's OK to show. This seems like pretty normal behaviour in a group environment. The trouble with anyone other than the person asking the question deciding, creating and defining this information is that it paves a road for people, painting lines and erecting traffic lights. My inclination has always been to give less structure and more flexibility to allow people to operate how they see fit. (Naturally, there are certain tasks that people should expect to be able to do simply, like sign up or change their email address. Highly structured, process-process oriented. Not exploratory or revelatory.)

I guess I just hope it's the case that people actually want to walk down a dirt road, and explore the space it moves through, seeing bits and pieces along the way that they might not have noticed if they were on a highway.

If you're wandering down a dirt road, it may not even be on a map. This plan we all had before called Information Architecture (IA) could have just become a load of wank (or, sorry, brittle). If IA is a load of wank, then this rich, organic, surprisingly accurate social architecture/hive/group mind presents some really interesting challenges for us as a bunch. We're used to dealing with square pegs and although sometimes round, mostly square holes.

I imagine an info-mush built by groups i'm in: social circles, my habitat, recreational pursuits, organisations or individuals I buy from, the fact that I like cooking, or that i'm generally interested in sleeping in Mondays.

But, when does this info-mush or the constituent communities start to bust, or become beige to me? How do I stay connected to the stuff i'm really interested in? How do I find another road to turn down? And how do I find my way back to that nice one I wandered down last year... or whenever that was... Helpful tools like networks, clusters, friends, tags, long tail-y serendipity of course...

Navigating all this stuff is the trick.

Posted at 6:45 am

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