What is an Information Environment?

If you’ve been reading my blog for some time, you’ll know I often use the phrase “information environment.” This isn’t a word pair you’re likely to encounter in many other contexts, so I think it’s worthwhile to peg it down. The phrase is composed of two relatively common words: information and environment. You probably have ideas of what these are, but let’s first clarify what I mean by them here.

If you’re like most people, the word environment will evoke the rainforest, whales breaching the surface of the ocean, or smokestacks spewing filth into the atmosphere. In other words, ecological images. This is not surprising since we often see environment in phrases such as “protect the environment” or “save the environment” or “environmental pollution.”

The natural environment is certainly an example of what I mean by environment. However, I also mean it a bit more generally. When I say environment, I mean the surroundings of a system or organism, especially the aspects of those surroundings that influence the system’s or organism’s behavior. This latter condition is important; you could say your surroundings include all of the solar system, but the orbit of Jupiter has very little influence on your day-to-day actions. (Unless you’re into astrology, in which case I’d argue that the belief that the orbit of Jupiter influences your actions is what influences your actions, not the planet’s orbit per se. But I digress…)

Take a minute to look around you right now. Wherever you are reading these words, you’re in an environment. (In fact, these words and the device you’re reading them on are part of that environment.) The environment you’re in affects how you behave; you think and act differently in a library, a sports stadium, or a jungle. We can re-configure our physical environments to make them more useful to help us accomplish our goals. For example, we can design libraries and stadiums to help us study and enjoy sports contests. (This is what we call architecture.)

Now let’s look at information. This is much a trickier word. We usually think of information as something we find in books, newspapers, and websites; the stuff in the world that adds to our knowledge. Information also has a series of technical meanings in various scientific fields. For our purposes, you can think of information as anything that helps reduce uncertainty so you can make better predictions about outcomes. For example, imagine you’re driving along the road and encounter a sign that says that the bridge ahead is out of order and that you need to take a detour. You’re now able to decide on the best approach towards your destination: the sign allows you to update your model of the world to help you predict a (possibly catastrophic) delay if you continue along the current route. We say the sign has informed you.

As you may gather from this example, information is not only something we learn through books and websites; it’s also part of our environment. In fact, you couldn’t make sense of the world without it. There’s information all around you at this very moment. So is it redundant to talk about information environments? In a sense, it is: information is a crucial part of all environments. But when I talk about information environments, I’m referring to the contexts we operate in when we interact with each other and organizations through information technologies such as the telegraph, the telephone, and — most importantly for us — interactive digital media like the internet.

An information environment is where you and a friend “meet” when you’re interacting through Apple Messages. The chat application becomes your shared environment, its boundaries defined by the app’s user interface much as the boundaries of a physical room are defined by its walls and ceiling. You and your friend are sharing this environment, even though you’re not in the same physical place. This environment where you’re meeting is made almost entirely of information; for example, you can’t eat or sleep or exercise there. (But you can find out where you’re going to eat, how deeply you’ve slept, and how much you’ve exercised.)

It’s worth noting that information environments exist independently of any one instance of an app. I access my Gmail using my web browser and Apple’s Mail client; both systems give me different views into this information environment. It’s as though they’re windows with different perspectives into the same space; both are valid but slightly different. The browser-based version gives me access to more powerful search, the app-based version gives me a “unified mailbox” that aggregates all my mail accounts into one. I also access this information environment using mobile Mail apps which present yet another view. This information environment — in the many ways I access it — influences my thinking and behavior in ways that are not dissimilar to how physical environments change how I think and act.

When we say “software is eating the world,” we mean our activities are moving to information environments from the physical environments we’ve optimized over long histories of design and use. “Building” architecture is the design discipline focused on re-configuring physical environments to help us accomplish particular goals; I see information architecture as the equivalent discipline for information environments. While information environment may seem like a somewhat ambiguous term, I think it’s important to give it a name. Key parts of our lives are increasingly happening there.