Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Newfangled works with independent agencies to create lead development web platforms for their clients.

Information is Only as Good as it is Interpretable

at 3:00 pm

Information is only as good as it is interpretable. I think this is pretty much a common-sense notion, but it is made that much more clear through the story told by ancient artifacts.

While browsing the British Museum during a recent visit to London, I was first awestruck by the artifacts themselves. The carvings in stone were of such high fidelity, it looked almost as if some had been laser-etched rather than carved with tools. The ancient civilizations of Egypt, Sumer, Babylon and others had likely mastered the craft--in a way that we are not likely to match today--because of the high value they placed on long-term thinking and communication. (As an aside, I was also overwhelmed by the realization that some of the single artifacts I saw were the result of decades of work by hundreds of individuals. Today, I can easily compose volumes of material, yet rarely consider it all as a whole, whereas the artisans of thousands of years ago may have spent the majority of their lives on one work (like the wall carving below), most likely honoring the memory of someone else.)

After taking in several galleries of these ancient artifacts, I grew accustomed to the objects themselves, and shifted my awe from their physical properties to the information they represented. I wondered, what will be the Rosetta Stone of our age for historians of the future? (The Rosetta Stone is a fantastic example of historical luck--a document represented in three languages. Because scholars could translate the portion inscribed in ancient Greek, the tablet provided an eventual key with which to unlock the meaning behind the pictorial language of the Egyptian civilization.) We may have the advantage of a much larger volume of written material today, but it is far more vulnerable to entropy than artifacts like the Rosetta Stone. Printed on paper, a document is subject to all kinds of destruction: easily burned, eventual rotting if too moist, disintegration if too dry, not to mention eventual illegibility if the pigment used to print the text fades, smudges, or flakes off. Considering how we treat paper today, there is not likely to be a 20th century Oxyrhychus.

But the majority of our text today is not printed on paper. It's stored in bits and deciphered by computers. We can store this material in all kinds of ways, though many are just as vulnerable as printed media. Hard drives are unpredictable, subject to magnetism, and can easily corrupt if not fail completely. Other modern storage media, like discs, are quite vulnerable to heat, moisture, and scratching. Solid state drives are one step forward, in that they have no moving parts, yet are certainly not foolproof. None of these solutions could withstand a haphazard, long-term burial in rock, soil and water. But even if they could, the object itself is only as valuable as it is interpretable. The more important question is not whether our contemporary documents could survive for millenia, but rather if their meaning can survive. Perhaps future civilizations will have left our contemporary computing paradigm far behind, leaving them unable to make sense of our ones and zeros. While that may be a loss to the future, it's not much of a compelling loss to us being so far off. But that doesn't leave our current way of communicating any less vulnerable. As long as we depend upon electronic media to communicate, we are at risk of losing it all to a strong-enough solar flare, or even electromagnetic pulse events, which would render most electronic devices useless.

I don't really have a particular argument going; I'm really just thinking out loud. I'm certainly not advocating that we ditch our computers for stone tablets. Computing has obviously benefitted our society in many, many ways. Yet, for all our expanded reach with communications technology, I doubt the chance of our voice being preserved is very strong. I'd be interested to hear from any archivists out there--what is the current thinking on preserving our culture? What formats and media are hardiest? Or have we outgrown in some way (perhaps in our assumption of the endurance of our civilization) the need to preserve our culture for future civilizations?

P.S. I do realize that I'm writing in very broad terms here, and you may likely be thinking that this couldn't be any less relevant to what you're doing, today. We're trying to speak to people via the web today, not necessarily hundreds of years from now (or even decades). But, if we zoom in a bit, the principle of preserving the message is a relevant one to us, right now.

A case in point: Last week, my brother and I were looking for a fitness center in Earl's Court, a neighborhood of London. I found a listing for one, called FitRooms, but when I loaded their website on my iPad (my default web device when I'm not in the office), I was greeted by this white screen. It turns out that this site uses Flash in such a comprehensive way that, when loaded on devices that don't support Flash (all iPhones and iPads), it's as if there is no site at all. No site, no message. In a much briefer span of time, one medium has died, and with it, the messages of anyone who depended upon it. Sure, I can see the FitRoom site on my laptop, but that didn't do me any good during the week and a half I was traveling in Europe. As long as I was using my iPad, any information delivered with Flash was as good as extinct.


Kay | July 6, 2010 7:57 PM
I completely understand what you are saying. I like to keep things as simple as I can and try not to keep all of my eggs in the same basket. Someone smarter than I am will figure that out and I will probably buy the program or software to preserve it. It does give us something to think about though. I sometime wish things were easier. In a way they are.
Jack | July 6, 2010 10:35 PM
Tieing together the flash incompatibility with the difficulty historians have had in accessing ancient languages is really interesting. It shows just how fast communication methods are changing and what that really costs. I wonder if this was intentional, but I like the iPad as the "modern" artifact.
Jane | July 7, 2010 6:44 PM
Did you know that the British Museum has a blog? I've been there once and after reading this was inspired to see more and found their blog. It looks like there are some nice stories to go with their artifacts. Very insightful post!
chuck rivers | July 8, 2010 8:57 AM
What's the point of this post? Is this contributing in any way to what your company does? This should be on a personal blog and probably not on a site representing your company.
Chris Butler | July 8, 2010 9:01 AM
Kay: I suppose that's one way of looking at it! But, in a sense, you're right: what's the point of worrying about preserving information if it's not something that everyone can do equally. From that perspective, someone with greater power and influence than me is going to be the one to introduce whatever new technology that will be...

Jack: You're right. This work of progress we call the web is moving faster than our hardware production can keep up with (though in a sense, the production of devices pushes that progress in its own way). We'll see, but my sense is that the iPad will be a brief—very brief—moment in "device history."

Jane: I didn't know, but now I do and am subscribed. Thanks for sharing the link!

Chuck Rivers: I suppose that depends upon what you want your blog to say about your company. We're very intentional about the overall "voice" of the Newfangled blog. We want it to provide a well-rounded look at the world of the web, which means we're going to write about more abstract ideas about technology as well as more implementation oriented concepts related to design, development, SEO, measurement and the like. It's important to us that our clients and prospective clients know exactly who we are and value that. As a reader, you're of course free to disregard the posts that don't interest you.

By the way, I wrote a blog post on this very idea, which I called the "mad scientist" blogging strategy. Here's a pertinent clip from it, but if you read the whole thing, maybe you'll change your mind about what should and shouldn't be on a company's blog:
I believe that the value of a blog is in the long-term relationship that is built between it's author and readers. Blogs take a cumulative approach to tell an ongoing story with many short posts. They are relational. When someone subscribes to a blog, they are making a commitment to getting to know you—one they can break at any point (and are likely to) when a blog loses or never develops focus. The story that is told by a blog, though, is one that, when looked at in retrospect, leaves an impression of the writer's interest and expertise on the reader. At any point in time, I can look at some of the blogs I read regularly and have a sense for who the authors are and what they're about. The seven eighths of the "iceberg" are in that impression, while the one eighth is in each individual post. This is why a blog that is focused tightly by a firm's positioning will be more effective that a "generalist" blog. It will slowly describe that positioning through posts that cover thoughts about practice, new ideas, application of expertise, and the like...

There is an exception to this; you may already be thinking of one. What about those bloggers that write so often that their blog is more of a written document of their thinking—as expansive of or peripheral to their core discipline as it may be—than a deliberately considered marketing tool? There are many, many bloggers like this; you might describe their blogs as "unfocused." In fact, the blogs I look forward to reading most are blogs of this kind. But that's because they are focused, just not in an immediately discernible way. I call the authors of these blogs "mad scientists" because their creative license, freedom to experiment and ask "dumb" questions, latitude, and diversity of content reinforce my perception of them as profound thinkers, which in turn reinforces my trust in the quality of their firm's work. They probably don't talk about work they've done as much as work they want to do. They probably talk about tomorrow more than yesterday. They don't use much marketing language. And they never try to sell "innovation." But their writing definitely fills in the unseen seven eighths of their firm's "iceberg."
Incidentally, I do try to tie back even the more abstract ideas like in this post to more immediately relevant concepts in web development, but I'm guessing you didn't make it to the last paragraph.
Mark O'Brien | July 8, 2010 9:42 AM
I wanted to comment on Chuck's question as well.

As a company we feel that an important part of our marketing is to give people visiting our site a well-rounded idea of who we are as people. While most of the massive amounts of free educational content Chris adds to our site each month is directly related to web development, the truth is that as people we care quite a bit about other things as well and would like our prospects to get to know who we are as people as well as professionals. We think this is good marketing.

Many tech companies keep their guard up on their web sites to the point of not even listing the people that work at the company. This is often times done to give the impression that they are bigger than they actually are, but I see it as a missed opportunity to connect with the site audience in a meaningful and necessary way.

Thanks for bringing this point up, Chuck. I haven't had the opportunity to explain this aspect of our marketing strategy on our site before. And, just to make sure this lives on in posterity, I'm going to etch this whole string out on the brick walls of my office. :)

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