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This talk is the result of the last 5 years of me trying to answer this question. I know most people care about this, but for me it became sort of an urgent problem… I really had to throw myself into answering this question because after I finished grad school, I found myself paralyzed by the prospect of getting, and then doing a job. I was really worried, because for the first time, I was going to have the ability to make decisions that were going to impact a lot of people. because I’d only ever done service work where the scope and scale of the mistakes I could make were rather limited. I was really worried
What if I fuck it up? How can I know I’m making the right, good decisions?
As I started to engage professionally, I found a lot of people talking about the risks of what we do, at conferences, online… but no one was offering me any thing to do to mitigate those risks, so it made me feel worse.
I started asking people how they made sure they were ‘Good’ but I didn’t really feel like anyone gave me an answer I could hang on to. It was messy and vague, and everyone seemed pretty sure their work was pretty Good, or at least not Bad, none of the ways the mentioned seemed like a good answer to my question.
This talk is about the solution I’ve come up with. Personal Ontology Mapping, which I think is a tool we can use to help us make our work Good. Specifically I think it can Help you decide what work to do Help you know how to do your work Make you Good at your (Information Architecture) work.
Last year at the Reframe IA round table, someone introduced the profession of ‘baker’ as a foil for use to think about what is we do professionally (sorry I don’t remember who). And I’m going to use it because
We might describe a baker’s job as being to make food for humans, using milled grains and heat. I realize this definition actually would include someone who made oatmeal or grits for a living, but I was trying to make sure it was a definition that included cakes, because cake baking is important to my understanding of bakers. Maybe it’s not for you, and you’d say cakes are made by pastry chefs.
Either way, if we were to talk about if a baker is technically good, we could probably agree that they would have to have an understanding of their materials and control of their processes, such that there was some consistency, or predictability to the output. A good baker should know about how many loaves that much flour can make, and what kind of bread will come out of the oven when they make this kind of dough, and how changes they make to the process, or the context of when or where they do it, will change the qualities of the finished bread (or cake!).
I’m not sure we have a single good definition we agree on for this yet, and maybe that’s ok, because bakers have had 10,000 years to settle what is that they do. We don’t have to be as sure so young. For now let’s just say that we help people make things. When I say thing, I mean it in the sense we often do in IA, like
Maybe that thing is the answer to “we have a bunch of stuff, and we need a thing that lets us people find the specific stuff they want and then buy it from us.” Or Maybe we are making a thing that is a service for families with a member who has a terminal illness? To help them with the logistics and emotions they might go through…
And to know if we are technically good at this… let’s just say it’s understanding of our materials and processes, and control of the output… though we don’t have to talk about how good we are at that right now…
But what if we wanted to know if we were capital ‘G’ Good at information architecture?
It might help to think about what we do like this… We have a responsibility within a human system, for what we do.
So a person in outerspace in a contrived science fiction story, who spends all day baking bread, only to have the loaves dematerialized and replicated back into ingredients each night, so that he can bake again… we probably agree is not a ‘professional baker’. He is a person who is (for some unknow reason) stuck baking. A professional baker exists in a system like this, where a group a people decide that instead of going off into the wilderness every three days to gather food, or whatever humans used to do, they’d grow grains, and that they could grind those grains into flour, and store that and then someone would take that flour, as needed and make it into fresh food again, that people could transport back to their homes to eat. This basing model is true under any economic system, though the particulars of how it works, and the agency of individuals varies. But in any of those overlying systems…
A baker is responsible for making the food for humans using milled grains and heat. The system breaks if they don’t do their part. If a thing is your job, you become responsible for doing it.
And once you think of it this way you can use a bunch of heuristics to measure if you think the baker is Good or not. Like, do they let everyone have some of the bread when they are done baking it? If they don’t give bread to some kinds of people, you can say that they are not doing their responsibility… that they are not Good bakers. Or maybe you are thinking about another overlying system, like the Earth’s ecosystem. And you think you could measure their impact on that system though the metric of a ‘carbon foot print’ Right now, you have a bunch of these kinds of heuristics that are using to help you decide if things are Good or not.
We might say that a person doing information architecture as a part of their job, regardless of economic system, is *responsible* for ontological alignment. That is, that the core responsibility of our work is to make sure that the ‘things’ that are made align with the understandings that people already have so we make can things clear, without sacrificing complexity, and also that we make sure the ‘thing’ ends up being what we thought it was going to be.
We can describe ontological alignment as being concerned with the ways that we sort, and the things we support.
Now to convince you that this means that we need to start mapping our own ontologies to be Good at what we do, I need to convince you of three things. I need to do it pretty quick, because we don’t have much time. The three things: Truth is not capital O/O without parentheses Objective, It’s about systems, not states, so small things matter, and that diversity is essential.
Each of us is a human being, and we are each alive, and we each are bodies that are moving through space, and through time. Through we don’t get to control the time. As we move forward through time for whatever reason we do, we have experiences, or rather, they happen to us. We see things, and smell them and feel them through touch, or emotion, and as we do, we learn.
We start to have networks of meaning in our heads; we store patterns in the experiences we’ve had in our neurons, and then use them to direct our actions and get the outcomes we want. We start to understand ‘things’, and ‘kinds’, and ‘parts and wholes’, and relationships between them, causes and effects, and how things make us feel and… much more. We start to know what things *mean* and we use this to interact effectively in the world, mostly without being conscious of it. As we interact with the world our networks are constantly updating and expanding.
But we don’t just have experiences randomly, or make these maps in isolation. We are social creatures, and so from a very young age, people teach us, to give is some of the nodes and connections they think are important based on their own understandings. We inherit the understandings of others in our community
And then, we can communicate with others. We can think about a thing…
And then make the right noises,
And if they have a map for the same sounds, we can activate it. Here’s a quick map of things I know related to squirrels. That is where they sit within my personal ontology, or in my understanding of how the world is. The things in black I assume most people in this room have in their internal understanding of ‘squirrel’ but the things in pink I think few, if any of you have. So at the University of Michigan, squirrels are a capital T Thing, and my parents feed the squirrels in their back yard, and once I watched a video of an American making their German friends say ‘squirrel’, which is quite difficult for a native german speaker, and now it’s in my map.
But if you speak English, your ontology is probably going to be close enough for that you understand enough that I can communicate quite complex things to you, with a very high success rate.
If we each have a different understanding of ‘squirrel’ how can we know who is right? We have to understand truth, and what it would mean to be able to be Objectively real. There’s two ways of thinking about objectivity (per Humberto Matarana) Objectivity-with-no-parentheses and objectivity-with-parentheses.
For a long time I thought about it and talked about it like what mattered was the actual existence (or not) of a reality objective to humans. But that’s not what’s important. What matters is an epistemological argument. It’s about how we know the things we do, and how we can make claims, about how it is, and convince other people. What ever is real, each of us accesses through the experiences we have.
The Objectivity without parentheses model says that the truth is situated in the external reality, and when we make a claim it is either true or not, based on the state of things in that reality. This feels really intuitive, the problem is that when two people disagree, there is no way to verify what is True. It becomes purely a matter of power, one person must submit to the other as having better access to the Truth.
objectivity with parentheses, says that we each interface with whatever reality there is directly, and our experiences create our truth. And each of us can support our truth in arguments using evidence from our experiences. Truth is validated through evidence, and evidence comes from experience. This framing can make people nervous, because they worry that then anyone could say anything is true, but that’s not the case because it still has to validate against the networks of meaning, you can’t just say something and demand others agree, you need to provide evidence that makes sense in your shared networks of understanding, and something either is or isn’t on these networks.
That which goes up must come down.
An we actually have a lot in common as human beings. Our needs for survival, our instincts, our experience of being, and humans on this planet… for instance, we all experience the ground as down, and the sky as up. We know, that things fall down. If you throw something up it comes back down. That is true because there is overwhelming evidence of it from people with very diverse perspectives. But, truth is contextual.
Is this balloon going to come back down? You may argue on technicality, that we can be pretty sure a helium balloon released into the air will eventually pop and fall back to the Earth, but the popped balloon is not the same thing, and in the conversation this parent is going to have with their child it doesn’t matter anyways. That balloon when up, and is not coming back down, because they didn’t hold on tight.
What about the Mars rover…? Did it ever come down?
When we make a thing, we use our own understanding of the world to make decisions about how that thing should be. And then the thing gives off information that supports that thing, which gives those that use it experiences they can use as evidence as they constantly update their own internal understandings. And if we focus in deeply on a particular part of how the thing should be, say should socks be accessories, or underwear, we might be missing other overlapping understandins that get built into our thing without us even intending to, like maybe we didn’t even think about if theses socks needed to be designated as ‘mens’ socks, but now that they are sorted that way, they give off evidence that division of socks by gender is true, and real. This matters a lot because most of us interact with things made by people most of the time, and we can inherit their understandings through the evidence provided by the things they make.
As we focus on the part of our understanding we need to do the task at hand, the gaps in the contex are going to be filled in with your defaults… the ontologies and heuristics you automatically use everyday, and sometimes these framings and understandings can change your perception so much, that you aren’t even good at perceiving what you need to to do your task.
For a long time western scientists had trouble describing the way fertilization happened in humans. They had abandoned the understanding their forefather’s had that a homunculus, or tiny fully formed human was ejactulated into the female where it grew until birth, but couldn’t figure out what the one sperm did to allow it to penitrate the egg. Their understanding of social norms for reproduction in humans was preventing them from seeing the evidence that process that allows a sperm to enter the egg, is started by the egg. And it’s more of a cooporative smooshing together than a penetration.
As information architects we are looking at the information an object gives off to determine who will understand it how, and to understand what it allows, what kind of thing it is. We don’t want our service for providing support to the families of people with terminal illnesses to become a data collection platform for funeral homes.
We have to think about what the things we make entail. That is what are the things could or could not happen in the future based on the choice we make. You can think about this by remembering Elizabeth Bennett’s predicament in Pride and Prejudice, an ancestor of her’s has entailed his estate, so that generations later, her father must past it on to a male heir. The architecture of the will cannot support a woman as heir, and so when he dies Lizzy and her sisters will all be poor and homeless unless one of them marries the right person. The way we structure things now *entails* what can be supported in the future, based on the ontologies it is compatible with.
Thinking about these outcomes is a part of our job, but since we only have access to the perspectives we have, we can only determine what choices will make a good outcome in our own perspective. This doesn’t mean that we should only care about outcomes that are good *for* us, but if we aren’t thoughtful and intentions this could happen.
The work of Scott Page at the University of Michigan has found that Cognitive based, non-routine problems are best solved by a team with diverse heuristics. And making things, and making the choices that lead to a thing being good are cognitive based non-routine problems.
We can think of the ontologies people have as being lenses with which they can view the world, and predict outcomes. If we want to make things that are good, we need multiple people with a diverse set of lenses to look at the problem.
We might think we do this, after all, we interview users, and we collect requirements from stakeholders… but we decide who to ask, what to ask, how to interpret the results, and what to throw out. That means that whatever underlying understandings we have, that are ‘filling in the blanks’ as we focus on the task at hand, are actually determining the results we get.
If the pink, purple and blue lenses are the best ones for understanding and solving the problem, say of baking technically good bread, then the person on the left will be the best single person to do that job. But if the other two people team up and work together, they have all the same lenses, plus 3 more… so they are more likely to to make bread that is Good in more ways. But how can the two of them negotiate and prioritize their views as the work to solve the problem?
So I said this talk was about mapping yourontology, so that you could be good…
So I told you that diversity matters because it’s the best problem solving tool, and one of the things people worry about is that taken to the extreme, this means that we have to incorporate all views, and therefore can’t make any choices. But that’s not the case. Some ontologies are opposed. For instance White Supremecy, is an ontology baked into a lot of the things we interact with, and could be influencing the design of things we are working on now, without us knowing. But that’s not an ontology we need to support, and in fact is one we should oppose in my view, because it undermines the diversity of views that I just explained I think is the best way to solve problems.
It pretty easy, I hope, to agree that White Supremacy is an onotolgy you would oppose including in the information architecture of the things you make, because you are sure that it’s one you oppose. But how will you make sure that actually happens? You may think that when the moment comes you will stand up and do the right thing, but unless you’ve already made a habit of it, you wont.
Largely because you may not know that a decision will turn out to be important in the moment, but only retrospectively based on the outcome So how can you know when to fight for or against an ontology, and when to fold in the different views of others…?
So I think this is a statement we can all agree with here.
And if we wanted to map our ontology to figure out why, we’d have to start defining things
And to keep going
You need to figure out all the way down what are the things, what are the relationships between them, until you get to a point where, “that’s just how it is” The point of this is not to prove anything to anyone, just to know what understandings you already have that are already driving your behavior. You can’t be wrong, though you might be surprised what you find.
So here’s a quick map of the lowest level or organization I use to understand why I think ‘murder is bad’ I think of the world in three nesting types: IS kinds, which are things in systems that persist through time Life kinds, which pass information on how to be to create new individuals of their kind, Self kinds, which have consciousness, and are aware of their own existence.
Not about solving it….. This is your view.. And at somepoint you are going to get uncomfortable. That’s ok. As you go, ask yourself, are there ideas you are using that you don’t like? How could you change your own habits to lean on those less? Reflect on the choices you are making and
When you find yourself in opposition with someone, who has a different understanding about the way things are, ask your self, if you didn’t need to be right, would it still matter that they are wrong?
Does someone else have access to experiences/understandings that I do not? If so, seek them out and listen to them.
Ask yourself if this matters in this particular context. Some sorrtings or understandings only matter locally.
Here’s an example from my life. My husband is from Oklahoma, and one time years into us living together, he asked me to make him biscuits and gravy. I didn’t know what he meant, and the converstation quickly desintigrated into an argument about what ‘gravy’ was. I am embarrassed to say I clung to my own understanding, hyper-focused on the technical process of making the sauce, I was adamant he was asking for a white sauce with chunks of sausage in it NOT gravy. But in retrospect, it didn’t matter in this context if one should technically classify it as gravy, and he did have access to experienes and understanding I didn’t, because he was raised in a different region, and other than my need to be right, it really didn’t matter that he had this other strange sauce that he called gravy.
But if we were trying to reach agreement on which animals we should make sure we never kill, the stakes are higher. It does matter. So I care about not killing self-kinds. And if I’m on a team with someone who cares about not killing things that have names, we might fight about the heuristic, but really they aren’t that different. Maybe they will include pets, of all kinds, and I you know what I can agree that killing something with a name could be bad. As long as they agree to my need for un-named things of some types to be also not killed. And maybe we can both agree with the person who says it’s bad to kill cute things, which I certainly don’t think is enough on its own, but when combined with my heuristic, is maybe better. Theres a reason it’s uncomfortable to kill things that are cute, and maybe it is best if we don’t get ourselves in the habit of pushing through *that* discomfort and killing things that are cute.
But is Morrisey is on our team, he’s going to have a problem with the whole discussion. The very negotiation of which animals we need to not kill is opposed to his ontology that meat is murder. Killing any animal is bad. It might be time for him to move on to a team that wants to build things that are closer aligned with his understanding of how it should be.
Thank you to these people specifically, who let me talk parts of this through with them, in ways that I imagine were sometimes quite exhausting. And thank you to everyone else who’s allowed me the benefit of learning from their experience by sharing it publicly, on twitter, at conferences, and in other forms, or who let me accost them with questions about how they make sure they are doing good work.
Personal Ontology Mapping
The Way– cannot be told.
The Name– cannot be named.
The nameless is the Way of
Heaven and Earth
The named is Matrix of the
-Daodejing, Translation by A. S. Kline
The Tao that can be trodden is
not the enduring and
unchanging Tao. The name
that can be named is not the
enduring and unchanging
(Conceived of as) having no
name, it is the Originator of
heaven and earth; (conceived
of as having a name, it is the
Mother of all things.
- Daodejing, Translation by James Legge
Work, work, work, work, work, work.
He said me haffi
Work, work, work, work, work, work,
This body, this body holding me, be my reminded here that I am not alone in,
This body this body holding me, feeling eternal,
All this pain is an illusion.
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
beyond this point.
He that is faithful in that which is least is
faithful also in much: and he that is unjust
in the least is unjust also in much.
“Would you tell me, please, which way I
ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you
want to get to."
"I don't much care where –"
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland