12.0065 book reviews

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 10 Jun 1998 22:22:33 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 65.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> (99)
Subject: Close to the Machine

[2] From: Toby Burrows <tburrows@library.uwa.edu.au> (56)
Subject: Book review: Information Architecture for the World
Wide Web

Date: Sun, 07 Jun 1998 08:40:48 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: Close to the Machine

The following is more of a pot-stirring commentary than a proper book
review, but in any case I send it along for, I hope, your enjoyment.

Comments are always welcome, especially about obtuse wrong-headedness and of
course factual errors. Californian readers I hope can be especially
forgiving for my using the name of their fine and beautiful State in
adjectival form as the label for a particular stereotype. (By such usages we
can measure the great cultural impact that Californians have had on the rest
of the world. How many of us would understand any of the meanings of
"Oregonian", or "Calabrian", for example?) I can only plead that as a
multiple ex-pat who was born and raised in California I use the stereotype
with full knowledge of its truths, untruths and ironies.



Ellen Ullman, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents (San
Francisco: City Lights Books, 1997).

Since 1978 Ellen Ullman has been a software engineer and consultant working
in and around Silicon Valley and in a part of San Francisco affectionately
known as Multimedia Gulch. She is thus by location and experience eminently
qualified to write about the culture of computing where it is most
intensively practiced. Her publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights
Books, was one of the Beat poets and so (to paraphrase Jack London) had his
hands on the crowbar that overturned post-war American life in the cultural
revolution from which the origins of Silicon Valley may be traced. Close to
the Machine thus has the signs of an interesting account of and meditation
on the device that is transforming nearly every aspect of modern life.

The book fulfills its promise - though this may not be one's first reaction.
Ullman's style is highly confessional, very personal, very Californian. We
hear, for example, about her sex life and emotional states in some detail.
The confessions are not gratitutous or silly, however; in fact they are
quite insightful, sometimes troublingly so. At minimum they give us a peek
into a powerfully influential subculture that has formed around computing
and provides much of the talent for its development. Her story takes place
at the intersection where the machine, the lifestyle of its cutting-edge
practice and the emotional concomitants mingle. It raises interesting
questions about how these inter-relate.

She asks us to consider, for example, her own 'serial monogamy' juxtaposed
to the technical life as she has known it - "long periods of intense
engagement punctuated by times of great restlessness and searching". New
technologies, she observes, irresistably force abandonment of old, deep
engagements and so require an abnegation, the "posture of ignorant
humility". "There is only one way to deal with this humiliation: bow your
head, let go of the idea that you know anything, and ask politely of this
new machine, 'How do you wish to be operated?'... Once it tells you, your
single days are over. You are involved again... You must now dedicate
yourself to that deep slow probing, that patience and frustration, the
anxious intimacy of a new technical relationship. You must give yourself
over wholly to this: you must believe this is your last lover."

Ullman doesn't make the fundamental error of supposing that her means of
livelihood has caused her social behaviour or vice versa. (Thankfully she
provides no basis for arguing that computers corrupt the morals of the
young!) Rather we are provoked to think about two apparently parallel
manifestations of something rather more fundamental to the contemporary
scene than either.

The postmodern focus on "the construction of social reality" (to quote the
title of a fine book by John Searle) surfaces later when she discusses the
virtual life, "the facade of constructed reality" that telecommunications
have made possible and so in a sense unavoidable. Without the physical and
temporal props of an office, she finds herself each day making up her
existence "from scratch", presenting "to the world the appearance of actual
existence. You must seem to be a company in the usual sense of the word,
with an office of humming enterprise... It is as if I have projected myself
into another universe...some place completely discontinuous with the
universe I inhabit...." Furthermore, "once your own electronic existence is
established, you start to notice how many of the entities around you are
similarly electronic and therefore as suspect in their reality as you are...
And what is a corporation these days but an elaborate verisimilitude spun
round with the gauzy skin of electrics?" The physical coordinates have
ceased to matter. Gone with them is the greater inertia that, one supposes,
made it easier to maintain a sense of settled reality in times past.

If (to shift from Searle to Heraclitus) the river that we step into is the
same as well as constantly changing, wherein lies the continuity? In
hardware? To what degree does the computer determine how people use it? "I'd
like to think that computers are neutral, a tool like any other... But there
is something in the system itself, in the formal logic of programs and data,
that recreates the world in its own image. It is a projection of a very slim
part of ourselves: that portion devoted to logic, order, rule, and clarity."
And control, of course. She recounts the story of working for a company boss
who discovers he can now track the keystrokes of his long-time, loyal
secretary minute-by-minute and so discover her inefficiencies: "once the
system gives you this power, you suddenly can't help yourself from wanting
more." Many of us would, I hope, dispute one's powerlessness in the face of
such temptation. There are greater temptations, and people still resist
them. The question here, rather, is how one uses this "very slim part of
ourselves" better to know what isn't so slim, or so easily known.

Interestingly, tellingly, Ullman's gloriously sloppy, disordered existence
(the 'real' one she lives, in sweat pants behind the ordered facade) gives
us the undetermined counterpart. Her very human document of discontent with
technophilia one can thus find greatly reassuring, that beyond the
simplistic "logic, order, rule, and clarity" of the machine lies a much more
interesting order of things which these mechanical virtues push us better to

Willard McCarty

[Republished from Humanities Computing News, King's College London,

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 873 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 873 5801
e-mail: Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk

Date: Mon, 08 Jun 1998 17:32:55 +0800
From: Toby Burrows <tburrows@library.uwa.edu.au>
Subject: Book review: Information Architecture for the World Wide Web

Rosenfeld, Louis, and Peter Morville. Information architecture for the World
Wide Web. Cambridge: O'Reilly, 1998. xix, 202 p. ISBN 1-56592-282-4 US$24.95

Far too many Web site are hard to navigate. The icons are ambiguous. The
headings use too much jargon. The conceptual structure is messy and
confusing. There are complicated frames within frames. The information you
need should be there somewhere, but it's not clear which path to follow to
find it. The site, in short, is badly designed.

Though there are many books about "Web site design", they invariably deal
with graphic or technical design: how to give your Web pages a glossy and
colourful appearance, with lots of tricky moving images, or how to use
various kinds of clever programming techniques. But the organization and
structure of the information contained in a Web site require careful design
too. Often taken for granted or ignored, this "information architecture" is
critical to the usability of a site.

Rosenfeld and Morville discuss organizational schemes for Web sites. They
recommend a hierarchical structure with between five and nine options at the
top level, and no more than four or five levels before detailed information
is reached. The structure should enable the user to create a mental model of
the site easily. Hypertextual and database structures can be employed at
suitable places within the site but are not advisable as its basic
organizational scheme. Exact schemes (with known-item searches) and
ambiguous ones (with browsing and associative learning) should both be used
wherever possible.

Other important structural elements are navigational techniques, search
engines, and labelling systems aimed at producing consistent and appropriate
headings. The authors emphasize the importance of user-centred structures
and terminology, and illustrate their recommendations with a case study and
various examples.

While this coverage of structural design is thorough and sensible, the book
is even more valuable for its realistic treatment of the political aspects
of developing a large Web site. "The biggest challenge", according to
Rosenfeld and Morville, "is often the degree to which organizational
politics intrude into the process." Each section within an organization may
want to ensure its presence on the main page, and may try to develop its own
Web pages independently of the overall design. Both these tendencies will
have a detrimental effect on the quality and usability of the site.

The authors recommend a method for combining these "archipelagoes of
information" into a cohesive whole, bound together by a clear vision of what
the site will be, which audiences it will aim to reach, and how it will
work. They recommend extensive discussions within the organization, helped
by critiques of other sites, before moving on to conceptual design,
architectural blueprints, mockups of major pages, design sketches and
mapping of existing content.

This book should be compulsory reading for anyone engaged in constructing a
Web site, particularly one on a large scale. The wise advice on many points
of design and method, combined with an exemplary realism and an emphasis on
the user's point of view, make this an indispensable guide. Above all, the
value of the book lies in its welcome insistence on the crucial importance
of the conceptual structure and information architecture of Web sites. All
too often, these features are taken for granted or ignored entirely.
Effective Web sites require effective organization and structure. Rosenfeld
and Morville show how it should be done.

Toby Burrows
Scholars' Centre
University of Western Australia Library

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