In 2004 I attended an information architecture retreat at Asilomar. Towards the end of a very constructive and inspiring weekend, I issued a challenge to my colleagues in attendance: “We’ll know our discipline has arrived when the New York Times has a dedicated IA critic.”
Fourteen years later, my thinking has evolved; I no longer expect that the Times will have a critic dedicated solely to IA. But shouldn’t it have one for information environments in general? After all, these digital systems are incredibly important, as evidenced by the fact that they take much space in other parts of the paper these days.
The Times has sections devoted to reviewing fashion, technology, the arts, theater, movies, TV shows, books, food, technology, and cars. With the (possible) exception of food, none of these things are currently as important to our social well-being than information environments. That’s where we’re spending more of our time every day and where we are forming the opinions that shape the course of our societies. That the “paper of record” doesn’t have a critic devoted to the digital design space seems like a major oversight.
I pick on the Times because it’s arguably the world’s most prominent newspaper, but the point stands more generally. Today, we need more than mere recommendations to which email clients we should be using. We need people with depth and breadth on the subject to cast these incredibly important systems into broader historical perspectives and to help us understand what “good” means in this space.
You could argue that newspapers like the Times must devote space to things readers are interested in. But isn’t the role of writers to make important subjects interesting? You could also say that unlike cars, fashion, and movies, information environments are not consumer goods, and therefore cannot attract advertisers. But isn’t that also the case with architecture? There have been dedicated architecture critics for a long time.
Like buildings, websites and apps serve important social, economic, and cultural roles. Where are the people contextualizing these information environments for a mass audience? Where are our critics?