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Jorge Arango's

No. 26
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Honoring the Scenius

I spent most of last week in Orlando for the 2019 Information Architecture Conference. This is a new name for a gathering that has been happening since 2000, The Information Architecture Summit. (The change had to do with a change in stewardship that I won't get into here.) I’ve attended this conference every year since 2005, missing only once, after my first child was born.

The core group of people who come together at this conference every year constitutes my professional “home” community. We've evolved together and have influenced the development of the discipline of information architecture. Over the years, we’ve seen each other become parents, teachers, students, business leaders, and more.

At this year’s event, a friend and I had a conversation that stuck with me. Why, he wondered, must we expend so much energy traveling to these things? Some of us flew clear across the U.S. to be in Orlando; others came from as far away as Japan. From an ecological perspective, we must be doing a great deal of damage. Couldn’t we do this online?

We joked about the fact that we were having this conversation over a couple of beers on a sunny day while sitting by a swimming pool. While we could probably replicate the content of our exchange online, we wouldn’t be able to reproduce this context. And context, as we know, influences content; our discussion would be much less reflective — perhaps more “practical” — if we weren’t lounging poolside.

It’s important to come together every once in a while, to focus on the same problems as a group. While sitting by the pool, my friend's voice wasn’t lost among a half-dozen other browser tabs competing for my attention. We were both there, and we were both focused — for a little while, at least — on thinking about how we move our discipline forward. This sort of thing matters.

Brian Eno has said that much of the creativity that we attribute to individual geniuses is often the result of a group of people coming together socially. He coined a word for this: scenius, which he defines as “the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene. It is the communal form of the concept of the genius.” There are many examples of cultural and social advances that can be attributed to scenius. Scenius can’t be synthesized, but it seems to erupt when certain conditions are present; Kevin Kelly published a blog post that lists several factors that foster scenius.

When I read Mr. Kelly's list, I recognize many of the things that make the IA Conference such a special gathering. Mutual appreciation. Rapid exchange of tools and techniques. Network effects of success. Local tolerance for novelties. This conference provides all of these. (Although it has my name on its cover, I see Living in Information as a product of the IA Conference's scenius; I called this out in the book’s acknowledgements.)

The group at the core of the IA Conference has come together for yearly for two decades, so there’s a sense of continuity. Those of us who participate regularly derive value in being part of this ongoing conversation. Many of us remain in contact throughout the year via digital channels, but our time together in the real world is special. We grow together in ways that can’t be simulated in an information environment, if for no other reason that they require the relaxed ritual of sharing libations.

Mr. Kelly cites Camp 4 at Yosemite — one of the birthplaces of modern mountain climbing — as a prime example of scenius. He concludes his essay thus:

What Camp 4 illustrated is that the best you can do is NOT KILL [THE SCENIUS]. When it pops up, don’t crush it. When it starts rolling, don’t formalize it. When it sparks, fan it. But don’t move the scenius to better quarters. Try to keep accountants and architects and police and do-gooders away from it. Let it remain inefficient, wasteful, edgy, marginal, in the basement, downtown, in the ‘burbs, in the hotel ballroom, on the fringes, out back, in Camp 4.

When it happens, honor and protect it.

A tall order for a community of architects: to nurture a context without over-architecting it; to give scenius the room it needs to flourish on its own terms. A call for mature stewardship focused on the long-term.

A Good Book About VR

While in Orlando, I had the opportunity to experience The Void, a virtual reality experience that aims to solve one of the biggest problems with VR: the fact that only your sight and hearing are simulated. The Void provides a physical environment that maps to the things you see in the virtual world. So when you encounter a wall in the virtual world, you can reach out and touch that wall.

A group of colleagues and I experienced their Secrets of the Empire simulation, which is set in the Star Wars universe. We donned stormtrooper armors (and blasters) to infiltrate an Imperial base, all very convincingly rendered using Oculus Rift headsets. At one point in our adventure, we disembarked on the lava-covered planet Mustafar, and could (literally) feel the heat and smell the smoke around us. It was by far the most compelling VR experience I’ve ever had.

The Void had me thinking about the best book I’ve read so far about virtual reality, Jaron Lanier’s Dawn of the New Everything. It’s an unusual tome that mixes VR philosophy with a memoir. As one of the primary instigators of the technology in the 1980s, it was fascinating to see how Mr. Lanier’s experiences (especially the death of his mother) spurred his drive for simulation.

This is not a how-to book, but a why-to book. After experiencing The Void, I’m more convinced of the future potential of VR. If you’re intrigued by this stuff, I can recommend this book without reservations. See my book notes or buy it on Amazon.

Catch Spelling and Grammar Problems

I write a lot. This involves typing like a madman into various tools: Slack, Ulysses, BBEdit, Microsoft Word, etc. As varied as my writing ecosystem is, the second-to-last step in my publishing process is always the same: I proofread the text using Grammarly.

Grammarly uses AI to check English texts for spelling and grammar problems and offers suggestions on how to fix them. You can use it as a web-based app, a standalone app (which is really a web client), as an extension on your web browser (so you can check for problems directly in web-based systems such as Wordpress), or, if you use Windows, directly in MS Office. The company also offers an iOS keyboard so you can proofread texts in any app on your iPhone or iPad.

I find many of these means of using Grammarly clunky. For example, the macOS app’s design is peculiar; it requires a lot of screen real estate. It’s also a web-based app behind the scenes, so it won’t work offline. Also, navigating between problems and suggestions is more complex than it needs to be.

That said, Grammarly is very good at correcting problems in texts. It’s served as my day-to-day editorial assistant for the past few years and has saved me from embarrassing mistakes. I recommend it despite its UI issues.

The Informed Life with Kevin M. Hoffman

Episode 5 of the The Informed Life podcast features an interview with my friend Kevin M. Hoffman, author of the book Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone. After a long career as a designer, entrepreneur, and manager, Kevin is now focused on helping people in organizations hold better meetings.

In this episode, we talked about meetings and how Kevin organizes his information environments to manage lead conversion for his business. His description of the process sparked an image from our childhoods:

the metaphor that comes to mind is this... There was also this cartoon thing called School House Rock and the one that I remember -- and I imagine a lot of people who know what Schoolhouse Rock is remember -- is one about a bill. "I'm Just a Bill sitting here on Capitol Hill," and how that bill goes on a journey to become a law.

Kevin goes on to describe the journey through which his leads become customers. This journey has information moving from a physical environment to a digital environment to another physical environment and finally to another digital environment. In all, it was a fun and fascinating conversation.

The Informed Life Episode 5: Kevin M. Hoffman

Have you been enjoying the show?

Have you been enjoying The Informed Life? Please take a couple of minutes to rate and/or review the show in Apple's podcast directory. This helps other folks find it. Thanks!

Other things I’ve been thinking about…


About Living in Information

Living in Information book coverThe book's description and table of contents are on its web page. If you want a succinct overview, my presentation at UX Week 2018 is a good introduction. You can buy the book from... 

... and other fine purveyors of the printed word.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

– H. L. Mencken

Thanks for reading!

-- Jorge

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Copyright © 2019 Jorge Arango, All rights reserved.

Jorge Arango
P.O. Box 29002
Oakland, CA 94604

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