UX Australia ‘09 report: Alex Wright Keynote

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“We work in a young field and don’t have a sense of lineage … But we have one”. Keynote speaker Alex Wright kicked off the UX Australia conference with a mind-bending presentation tracing information architecture from ancient pre-written culture to the present day, via Bablylonian libraries and 19th century predictions of technology.

Living folk taxonomies

Wright began with prehistoric man, showing that oral traditions are far more sophisticated than we may give it credit for. Even without a written language, people across all cultures have a fundamental  need and capacity to categorise the world around them to levels 5-7 layers deep, and usually with geneological-like terms (father-child etc). Known as folk taxonomies (Wright is clear to point out that they are not folksonomies), these are even manifested as  ‘living folk taxonomies’ such as villages being arranged by elemental or animal relationships.

Symbolic technology

He also suggested that objects such as jewellery, which emerged in the ice age, are “symbolic information technology” to meet the needs of a new “threshold of social proximity”. These objects help provide status information at a glance.  Similarly, written language came about to allow financial transactions to become more sophisticated. This correlation of money and language would continue through history with the powerhouses of the world (Alexandria, Babylon), also having the largest libraries.


Wright also took an interesting diversion through memory, highlighting a fascinating spatial memory practice by 16th century monks known as the Art of Memory. Disciples would spend years learning how to remember using spatial relationships, the result being that they could recall astounding amounts of information. This correlation between place and memory would be shown in a “mechanical web browser” known as the Memory Theatre, but generally disappear into artefacts themselves as objects such as the codex began to include indexes (something Wright refers to as physical RAM). This collective ‘memory’ would also become more shared as printing presses began to democratise knowledge.

The Internet

Perhaps the most sobering discussion was Wright’s of various luminaries that forsaw parts of what we now know as the internet. These included Charles Cutter, who in 1883 predicted that the library of 1983 would have such things as “desks, keyboards, wire ….”. H.G Wells’ suggestion in 1938 in the “World Brain” that “all of human memory might be networked” and Paul Otlet’s eerily similar vision to today of “the social space of books”.

Eugene Garfield’s system of “weighting ranking of links” also formed the Citation Index, and served as an inspiration for Google, and many of the inventions in the 1960s by Doug Engelbart and later Xerox Parc (their mission: “The Architecture of Information”) such as the GUI interface and computer mouse have gone virtually unchanged in 40 years.

Two people Wright also highlighted for having visions with a misunderstood legacy were Vanjeoly (?), creator of the Memex concept, and Ted Nelson. Vannevar Bush’s Memex was an inspiration to many in the HCI field. However, its three concepts (Selection by association rather than indexing, Two way links,Visible pairings) are not in the internet we have today. Similarly, while Ted Nelson invented the term “hypertext” (along with many other Nelson-isms such as “transclusion”, his words are used in a very different sense today.

However, the most interesting part of this history was its relation to today. Wright suggests that social media is bringing back oral culture into the electronic written medium – Facebook shows social relations and symbolic encoding, Wikipedia the parallel worlds of written authority and oral discussion, and Amazon the way of gauging financial bartering with ratings.

Wright’s talk was a gallop through the ages with a unexpected sense of circularity at the end. Those interested in more on Wright and IA should check out his book Glut.

Top image by stage 88

Vicky Teinaki

An England-based Kiwi, Vicky is doing a PhD at Northumbria University into how designers can better talk about touch and products. When not researching or keeping Johnny Holland running, she does the odd bit of web development, pretends her TV licence money goes only to Steven Moffatt shows, and tweets prolifically about all of the above as @vickytnz.

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