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Ambient Findability by Peter Morville

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Paradise Lost

Have you ever been to Lost and Found ? It's a shadowy place we discover only through loss. It's filled with hats, mittens, watches, toys, and rings of gold and silver. And it smells of hope and fear and musty books. A child's first visit is a powerful experience. A valued possession has been lost. Perhaps in the classroom or on the playground. A frantic search leads to tearful resignation. Finders, keepers; losers, weepers.

But wait. A classmate steps forward. Have you tried the Lost and Found? Understanding is instant. A place for lost things. That makes sense. A short walk to an office with a cardboard box under a table. There it is. That's mine. A happy ending.

Of course, sometimes finders are keepers. Sometimes things get lost between the cracks. It depends what you lose and where and when. The idea of Lost and Found is universal. It's a social institution that transcends place and time. But the instantiation is another matter. A cardboard box in your local school. A steel cage in a foreign airport. The idea adapts to suit its environment. Each instance is defined by location.

Or at least it was until that disruptive technology known as the Internet came along. People from all over can now report and seek items using the Internet Lost and Found. The site sports an international database of pet and property listings, and the stories of success touch the heart and mind. An 83-year-old woman recovers a beloved heirloom necklace. A 10-year-old boy is reunited with his English Springer Spaniel. Dogs, cats, watches, wallets. Lost in the world. Found in cyberspace. Our digital networks locate physical objects. Keyword search isn't just for documents anymore. Technology has entered the shadow lands of Lost and Found, and we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Some speak of a coming techno-utopia, a magical era when all our problems will fade into the sunset. The end of poverty and starvation. No more sickness and disease. Global peace. Eternal life. In the words of Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, isn't it pretty to think so? The human condition won't be untangled so easily, and technology is a double-edged sword. Arthur C. Clarke once said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." His remark conjures both promise and peril.

We can be surprised and delighted by innovation. A vaccine for smallpox. A man on the moon. A computer through the eye of a needle. Sometimes anything seems possible, and yet it's not. Technology remains subject to the laws of physics and the gravity of economics. Unfortunately, false prophets abound, and today's technology is advanced enough that we have a hard time separating fact from fiction.

On the Web, these prophets claim that artificial intelligence will make it easy for us to find what we need, or better yet, for our digital agents and smart services to find us. Indeed, progress will come, but it won't come so easy. Information anxiety will intensify, and we'll spend more time, rather than less, searching for what we need.

These sober predictions derive not from the laws of physics but from the limits of language. For that's what we talk about when we talk about findability. While the Web's architecture rests on a solid foundation of code, its usefulness depends on the slippery slope of semantics. It's all about words. Words as labels. Words as links. Keywords.

And words are messy little critters. Imprecise and undependable, their meaning shifts with context. One man's paradise is another man's oblivion. Synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, contranyms: the challenges of communication are part of the human condition, unsusceptible to the eager advances of technology.

Some speak of a coming techno-dystopia, a brave new world of more ignorance and less freedom. Librarians worry about students who never step foot in libraries, a dot.net generation that goes to Google when they need to read. One woman I met at a conference in Paris even accused the Internet of creating "a black hole in our cultural heritage."

While sometimes funny, these fears aren't irrational or insignificant, but they don't keep me up at night. Because, when it comes to the Internet and the future of ambient findability, I'm an optimist. In Marshall McLuhan's insight that the medium is the message, I see the power of the Internet to engage people as participants in the collaborative, productive enterprise of knowledge creation and dissemination. For information is ultimately about communication. As S.I. Hayakawa once wrote:

In addition to having developed language, human beings have also developed means of making, on clay tablets, bits of wood or stone, skins of animals, paper and microchips, more or less permanent marks and scratches that stand for language...Humans are no longer dependent for information upon direct experience alone. Instead of exploring the false trails others have explored and repeating their errors, they can go on from where others left off. Language makes progress possible.[*]

We take language and the Internet for granted, yet they are testaments to human ingenuity and our ability to enlist selfish genes in remarkable acts of cooperation. So, as the Web rolls on, I don't fear the loss of culture. On the contrary, the Web makes our cultural heritage more accessible. The dialogues of Plato, the sonnets of Shakespeare, and the poetry of Paradise Lost are all findable and accessible, even from a beach in Newport.

Yesterday will not be lost, and we won't find paradise in the morning. But tomorrow will be different. Findability is at the center of a quiet revolution in how we define authority, allocate trust, and make decisions. We won't forget the past, but we will reinvent the future. And as we wander into the uncharted territory between the land of atoms and the sea of bits, we should bring a compass, or even better, a Treo, because the journey transforms the destination, and it's easy to become lost in reflection.

[*] Language in Thought and Action by S.I. Hayakawa. Harcourt (1939), p. 6–7.

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