I will be honest. I found Alison Pope while querying Google with my name and the word semantics. As always, the thin thread of code didn’t let me down. It connected me to a writing of Alison’s where I lost myself in following all the portals her words and thoughts provided.
The moment I read Alison and further checked her pages and professional (and personal) interests, I wanted to engage with her in a dialogue and find out what it was that put her on the bumpy road towards the intersection of the humanities and digital technologies.
In her own words, Alison spends her “working life creating maps and models of invisible, intangible things such as ideas, concepts, organisation structures, systems, information, software and cultures”. She currently works for the University of Reading as a Business Analyst.
With a diverse and broad range of expertise in the fields of information science, arts, history, sociology, design thinking and enterprise architecture (to mention just a few), Alison is a deep thinker, diving bravely into the unknown (think “Holistic Design Thinking in Time and Space) and boldly gathering pearls from the depths of the intangible (imagine ideas, concepts, organisation structures, systems, information, software and cultures).
Whatever I say, would be pale and thin, compared to the dialogue below. When I invited Alson for a short space trip across the worlds of information architecture, arts and humanities, I didn’t know she would take me on a voyage inwards, into an Infosphere, walking across “information gardens, meadows and woodlands” and crossing the giant bridge between philosophy and information technology.
Enjoy our walk. And mind the rabbit holes! Follow Alison’s mindmap All Content! at your own peril.
Alison, your experience and fields of expertise are so broad and diverse. This made me want to think some unthinkable thoughts with you. Let’s brainstorm a bit.
I’m a big fan of Raymond Williams work particularly his idea of emergent, dominant and residual. You can see this in the stubbornness of books, vinyl … analog remains a big residual part of us even as digital dominates.
Robopoetry! Where would this be classified if we were librarians who have just received a book. Maybe a collective of robots?
This presents some really interesting questions around authorship. Would a librarian classify it based on the subject, same as any other author? I think Foucault would love this!
And now let’s continue with some questions, please (ordered in no particular order).
What ink do you use to create maps and models of invisible?
This varies depending on the activity. Enterprise architecture is like lego for intangible things so you have to find ways to represent the building blocks you want to work with and get them out out of people’s heads: post-its, sharpies, pencil and paper, rich pictures and specific semantic visual notations are the most common tools of my trade that help turn the tacit into something explicit you can work with.
If you were to guide me to a direct link between philosophy and information technology what would that be? What bridge would you lead me through? :)
Probably through Luciano Floridi’s work on the Philosophy of Information (PI), the Infosphere and how this is reshaping human reality, and the ethics of information. I’m particularly interested in the way digital inforgs are shaping our understanding of reality and current discourses on computational propaganda and wide ranging misinformation and disinformation and how these can distort our ideas of the truth, potential undermining the basis of democratic societies. This idea that we are experiencing a ‘fourth revolution’, whether metaphysical or merely interesting is very compelling especially in some of the narratives around what it means not just for societies, but even our existence as a species.
As I have a background in Sociology I also found Manuel Castells’ Information Age trilogy, particularly the Rise of the Network Society, very influential early in my academic study. It’s almost impossible to imagine our societies or workplaces without their organisation around electronic networks these days.
These two ideas: the infosphere as a kind of ecosystem and the ‘space of flows’ within networked societies underpin a lot of my philosophy around information technology. They can also create more organic methodological approaches towards the management of information and technology than the more common architectural modes of thinking. One of my favourite books is The Technology Garden, not just for its content but the metaphor of cultivating sustainable and healthy information environments, and finding that balance between order and wildness, is a really interesting metaphor.
I’ve only just discovered Henri-Louis Bergson. I’m interested in learning more about his philosophy. In fact there’s a lot of philosophy I’ve still got to get to grips with. More than a lifetime’s worth :-)
How do we nurture dialogues and the preservation of various perspectives? (the diversity of opinions and thoughts and observations) [From a philosophical point of view and from a business analysis perspective]
Hmmm from a business analysis perspective this is slightly easier to understand in theory though still hard to do in practice. IT is rooted in really good stakeholder analysis and engagement, not just the most obvious stakeholders, or the loudest, or the most important, but really thinking deeply and holistically about everyone who holds a stake in the work area being investigated. Having analysed and classified these stakeholders to ensure they are fully represented you have to engage with them in meaningful ways. This means a bi-directional conversation: not just informing, but also listening and making sure all those perspectives are represented in your requirements and recommendations. The increasing recognition of viewpoints in documentation creates more work for analysts and architects but ensures that the model you build of the work or business situations is documented for a range of views.
Philosophically, diversity of opinion and thoughts and freedom of expression is such a noble and deeply held right and principle but finding a way to practically represent everyone’s truth is so difficult. This is at the root of many current debates around democracy, liberalism and the public sphere, especially digital public spheres. In UK higher education there is lots of current debate about the legal obligation of universities to enable free speech and the ‘no-platforming’ of certain speakers. It’s a really interesting ethical debate and we are still working our way through different aspects of it. Overall I’m generally with John Stuart Mill on this philosophically. We favour liberty but within respectful and social constraints. Our freedom is always part of broader framework, a social fabric and we have to respect not just each individual person, or right but the integrity of the whole.
I do think diversity is really important to vitality, creativity, well being and happiness even though it can be infuriating and difficult; I think alienation in various forms, exclusion, prejudice, ghettos and loneliness is quite damaging.We nurture dialogue through interactions, conversation and by listening and acknowledging. Click To Tweet
We preserve perspectives by respecting their right to exist. Most arguments about this often take place at big abstract, ideological levels. In my family we’ve always found debate to be cathartic, stimulating, even upsetting. We don’t always agree but we still love each other. I’m cheered that people rub along together quite well in the main when they gather in communities, of localities, or practices.
What is the cornerstone lying at the intersection of the humanities and technologies?
I’m not sure I know enough to answer this question. This is more like a description of my life’s quest rather than something I can easily answer!
I think though if I was to start with a simple answer it would be in the idea of networks. They seem to lie at the heart of things.
The way social networks and digital networks have intersected has been the most interesting dynamic of the Web 2.0 era that has shaped my adult life. I think the potentialities of linked things/data, the semantic web and graph databases at a massively connected scale hint at how networks might work in the future and change the architectures of our knowledge and shift computing from the programming into the cognition era. It will be interesting to see how close technologies can come to rivalling biological neural networks.
Another interesting intersection will be immersion and alternative realities and where these may take us. Then if we start augmenting humanity with technology and start encoding information using DNA, well then there are all sorts of radical ideas in play around the blurring or humanity and technology.
One of the things I would like to see more of is the recognition that humanity and technology are intimately linked. I think more interesting spaces are found by ranging across the arts, humanities and sciences rather than privileging STEM over the arts and creative industries, whether academically or in industry. The real intersection of humanity and technology is always in the art and the science of things.
If there was a digital trivium, what would that be. [ref. The grammar, logic, and rhetoric trivium]
I think it would perhaps be code, algorithms and UX. In a digital word you need the basic grammar of being able to write in a programming language or add markup to human languages; you need to understand how algorithms instantiate logic and their power and limits; and for the rhetorical flourishes you need to understand the design concepts that make for really could human/technology interactions.
I’m also quite taken by Christina Wodtke’s A Unified Theory for Designing Just about Anything. Context, Architecture, Mechanics and Poetics is such an easy mantra for analysts or design thinkers.
You work for the University of Reading as a Business Analyst. Where does business analysis fit into the bigger picture of us all searching for meaningful connectedness and a space of constant ideas exchange?
There are many metaphors that have been used to describe the business analysis capability and its function in helping organisations work more optimally. Traditionally these included things like facilitating, bridging or translating. These tended to see the analyst as a mere conduit, or switching device when actually one of the key things an analyst does is use their knowledge, experience and expertise to make connections others might not see. So these days I favour metaphors such as optometry (improving vision) or navigating (mapping terrain, wayfinding and providing direction) all of which work well with finding connectedness in spaces of constant flow. More broadly business analysis is simply a research discipline where the research subject is how a particular organisation works. The research methods I learnt through academic study are as invaluable as the more specific techniques and tools I learned through professional training.
What is the common thread running through your life as hockey captain, Master of Arts Graduate and a business analyst a woven of?
This is a good question. I think they are all connected by different types of systems and how you optimise systems for a greater good. I like figuring out the choreography of things, to find an edge. They are both collegiate and competitive things to do. They encourage excellence but are rewarding just in the doing, the journey, the dedication and camaraderie required to take many small steps and missteps over a long period of time towards a challenging goal.
You worked as Senior Business Analyst at BBC – Where does every systems simplification begin from?
From understanding the essence of the work and questioning every assumption you don’t know you hold. Definitely not from the solution in mind or silver bullets.
How are education and library systems changing these days?
I think they are being buffeted by several challenges: significant changes to the regulatory and funding regimes, an increasingly utilitarian philosophy of learning, an overall cultural debasement of the value of knowledge, facts, truth, expertise and authority and, in common with many other sectors, the influence of globalisation and digitisation.
I think here of the work of Raymond Williams and the layering and swirl of emergent, dominant and residual systems. There is a lot of innovation as the novel possibilities of technologies and techniques are picked up, played with, examined, adopted, adapted but often discarded. There is a lot of very public, political debate about the purpose and form of educational and knowledge institutions.
I do think these are combining into a potentially epochal shift but we are not quite there yet. I think certainly in higher education is thinking about how to remain rooted, in place and tradition, and become more routed, by offering more diverse and flexible pathways to learning across a variety of channels from the traditional campus (residual) through various forms of hypermedia (dominant) towards immersive teaching, through augmented or virtual reality technologies and smart spaces, and artificial intelligence and robotics in education (emergent).
Preoccupations include: diversifying the organisation models to keep new types of student satisfied and offer more accessible courses that retain their academic integrity; bringing people and data together in smart, secure spaces that more seamlessly fuse digital and physical environments; how to use more sophisticated data analytics for greater insight but in a way that is assured and appropriate. I would say the key themes are around strategy, agility, analytics and security.
Beneath the froth of the hype cycle, exacerbated these days by 24/7 live news gathering, change happens more profoundly but much more slowly, almost glacially at times punctuating by sudden shifts. I am still currently working on many of the same or similar projects to a decade ago.Complexity takes a long time to crack before rapid visible innovation and consensus spills out into the mainstream. Click To Tweet
However, the fundamentals pretty much stay the same and I meet so many lovely people in universities and libraries diligently, quietly carrying out that work of researching, experimenting, evidencing, validating, verifying, collecting, cataloguing, curating and teaching regardless of the contours of current systems.
The first vice-chancellor of the University of Reading sums up the enduring qualities of education and libraries best for me:
Universities are living things: they think and feel and do. They are centres of intelligence; they are concerned with ideas; they have outposts on the frontiers of knowledge; they sometimes do beautiful and remarkable things; they dream and imagine. They stand daily in the presence of two of the greatest challenges that can be addressed to Mankind: the challenge to teach and the challenge to inquire.” – W. M Childs
What is the most challenging thing when dealing with and designing digital content management systems?
All the content! I first drew this in 2010, it hasn’t changed much though it probably needs expanding.
Our delusion that we think they can be utopian. We think that we can create rule-bound perfect order. We think of them as clean, structured spaces free of entropy. But they are information gardens, meadows and woodlands. They grow or languish in unexpected ways. They require constant cultivation and managed navigation.
Nearly every digital content management system I’ve worked on has started and ended with a technology implementation that will solve all known content problems and not how we want people to tend the information over time.
What is design thinking about and why did you choose to explore that field?
I’ll allow Tim Brown to introduce design thinking, after all he does it better than anyone:: “Design thinking is fundamentally an exploratory process” that is based on “a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps” (from his book Change by Design). These spaces are:
Inspiration – the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions
Ideation – the process of generating, developing and testing ideas
Implementation – the path to market/operation
I’m not sure I did choose I think it just crept up and seeped into me. There are many methodologies, attitudes and principles that frame the work I do from the formal to the informal. They are all maps but they are not the territory. There have been lots of discussions throughout my career about the choreography, perhaps false division, between analysis and design.
I like design thinking because it is more of a mindset or a framework than a formal methodology so allows you to be consistent but creative in your approach without being fixated on a linear process. It’s based in storytelling which is very human, and less mechanistic. I like the way Brown describes prototypes are “plausible fictions”. It helps you keep an open mind and deal with things as they come rather than as you would like them to be. It’s still very rigorous though: it places an emphasis on experiential, experimental design rather than anecdote and assumptions.
It’s also very simple. It’s just about insight into problem situation, generating, developing and testing ideas and then implementing what the evidence suggests will work. Combined with Wodtke’s unified design theory it’s very memorable set of dynamics and structures for working through a problem space.
So it’s a framework of starting points, review points and helpful landmarks along the way for orientation but is open-ended, open-minded, iterative and nonlinear so ultimately more pragmatic. It is a journey rather than a transaction. It allows for the foggy moments, so it’s incredibly reassuring when you really have no idea what you are doing!
Here is my Crib Sheet for Holistic Design Thinking in Time and Space:
Analysis (break down)
Synthesis (put together)
With all the beauty of the fluidity of language, why are we so attracted to classification, i.e. to fixing. [ref. Your sentence: “Ernesto’s metaphor that trying to fix documents in the more fluid world of hypertext is like ‘pinning butterflies’.” ]
Categories – so powerful and yet so harmful when we need bridges. How do you keep categories away from killing (freezing) the subject?
I’m going to answer both of these together because I think they are two sides of the same thing.
I think the dichotomy between fixity and fluidity is the delicious tension that runs through a lot of my work and thinking. I was writing about it as applied to documentation in that article but it occurs in so many places and is an undercurrent to some many of the questions in this dialogue and contemporary discourse.
If we have no fixity we are lost in an uncharted sea of uncertainty. What strength, purchase, resilience or direction do we have? We can flex or be flattened in the winds of change. If we have no fluidity we are frozen in place. What agency, flexibility, movement or purpose do we have? We can be steadfast or snap in the winds of change.
I think we are attracted to classification because we are comforted by order and certainty but eventually some some will chafe beneath it and seek the exhilaration of creative disruption. Entropy will erode it and create liminal fissures that give us incremental or seismic shifts. We are attracted to the power of classification because it provides us with a shared model of understanding. We prevent categories from killing the subject by being willing to revisit them when faced with new information.
It is a Goldilocks problem: how much is just right? That’s not a question you can answer once … you have to keep on answering it.
The most interesting way this is playing out recently is in discourses around misinformation and disinformation that have led to neologisms like ‘fake news’ and ‘post-truth’. Many information professionals feel the factual basis of our shared reality and public sphere is being eroded so that there is no foundation of commonly agreed knowledge underpinning democratic debate. To others this is a freeing up of the political sphere from established thinking and authority. It is “telling it as it is”. There is a certain authenticity to both science and myth the clash between them and there is a quaking in many of the certainties that have held true since the western enlightenment. It’s both unnerving and fascinating.
The Web is such a beautiful tapestry of shared experiences, and yet there are so many cat gifs and noise, what do we miss?
I think we would miss the cat gifs and noise if they weren’t there. They are part of the buzz of a public sphere but they do steer us towards instant gratification. There’s also increasing concern they lead us to darker places than that .. to anxiety, addiction, depression. We are a long way from understanding the web we’ve made.I think we miss standing back. We miss the journey towards discovery. We miss longitudinal patterns. We miss genuine debate. We miss social interactions. Click To Tweet
Where do you think meaningful connections live?
In people, in nature, in networks, and in linked open data!
- Favourite utopian vision of the future – I don’t like any of them! So I’m going to go for Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman as a clever intertextual mythical antidote to all those visions of perfect rule-bound order.
- Favourite language paradox – the impossibility of describing reality
- Favourite philosopher – Hannah Arendt
Who will interview the interviewer
And last, I have this section Who will interview the interviewer and would like to ask you to ask me a question or two.
Alison: My current research preoccupations are digital realities, the history and future of automation and cultures of information in liminal times so I have a question about each of these!
How do you think our digital realities are changing the nature of being human?
Teodora: As far-fetched as this may sound, I believe digital is unveiling the very nature of ourselves: the connected zoon. And connected we thrive.
Why has automation not set us free?
Teodora: Because it is not meant to set us free. We need limits to break. And this is a constant. We are not going to change it with automation. Automata (I am thinking Homer here too, see: The Homeric Automata and Their Implementation ) are good and delightful and will give us a helping machine-hand, but the work of freedom will always stay unfinished. Also, on a less metaphysical note, because we are, as everything, overusing it, forgetting to infuse it with HUMAN.
Can we trust information in uncertain times?
Only if we learn to trust us and our bones (knowing in our bones) as the ultimate information beaters and culture (understood and enacted through connectedness) as our best container for storing knowledge.
And just for fun …
What should I read next?
Teodora: The forward of Terry Pratchett to a book I unearthed, called Creative Writing fro the Web. Oh, and the mention of a Douglas Adam’s speech on a Bush’s symposium in 1995 – 50 Years After “As We May Think”: The Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium (link by the amazing Dan Brikley). And… Oh, my. You will love this: Switching codes. I am enchanted and even frustrated by the beauty of the thoughts gathered in this corpus.
What are you optimistic about in 2018?
Teodora: Everything! Always on the bright side.
You taught Latin, how would you compare the digital public sphere to the Roman forum?
Teodora: :) Maria Popova has done it beautifully in Cicero’s Web: How Social Media Was Born in Ancient Rome. I would only add I like to compare social media and the Web to the Stoa Poikile and the Peripatheion.
And speaking of anachronous parallels, just wanted to tell you (and with that put a non-existing end to this magnificent Dialogue) that I see the Web as a giant, endless, digitally interconnected papyrus.