Book Review: Ambient Findability
Ambient Findability: What We Find Changes Who We Become. By Peter Morville, O'Reilly Media, 2005, ISBN 978-0596007652, 208 pages.
Ambient Findability is to all external appearances an O'Reilly book. It boasts the familiar line drawing of an animal, on this occasion a Verreaux's sifaka, a large and engagingly thoughtful-looking lemur. Judging the book by its cover would suggest that it be placed on the shelf together with O'Reilly's classic line of reference books, upon which developers all over the world depend for sparsely presented, accurate information and advice. But this book is of a different breed. This is not nearly so much a reference book as it is a guided stream-of-consciousness tour through thought, idea and research into information search and retrieval.
Inside, the book is unusual; it's the first O'Reilly book I've read to be printed in colour on rather pleasant glossy paper. Reading on, though, this is by no means the only detail that makes it a unique piece of work.
Introducing Ambient Findability
The inevitable question that comes to one's mind at once is what the author means by ambient findability. Rather confusingly, the book does not define this phrase as such. Instead, it defines findability as:
'a. The quality of being locatable or navigable
b. The degree to which a particular object is easy to discover or locate
c. The degree to which a system or environment supports navigation and retrieval' (p. 4)
and defines 'ambient' as:
'a. Surrounding; encircling: eg., ambient sound.
b. Completely enveloping.'
The author clarifies that 'Ambient findability describes a fast emerging world where we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.' The rest of the book, on the whole, is a tour through this vision of the near future.
The book is structured in such a way as to be easily readable. Given the span and scale of its content, it is an extremely short book - only 188 pages in total - and as a consequence, most subjects are handled only briefly.
Research is frequently mentioned and usually referenced in a footnote. In a book so densely packed with ideas, a bibliography would have been a useful addition. Many mentions of sources, research and researchers are dropped into the text without a footnote, meaning that one must rely on a Web search using the information provided - perhaps intentional, in a book about locating that which is not comprehensively described!
Pop. Sci. and Research Intertwingled
Second only to the need for a bibliography is the unfortunate lack of a glossary; although there is an index, the book is packed with Wired magazine cyberpunk-era terminology that may confound the unwary or uninitiated. From the noosphere to the memex via the brilliant future promised by ubicomp and eventual cybernetic transformation, this book is a treasury of occasionally encountered additions to the language of cyberspace. Several acronyms, such as 'RFID', are identified only in the index. Partially as a consequence, reading this book is not unlike reading a sequence of blog entries. It is to be read cautiously, with an Internet-connected PC nearby, as an interactive process of information discovery and further research.
Intertwingularity is described, although no definition is provided, as fluid and non-hierarchical interrelation between different objects - 'pages, documents, sites, authors, formats and topics' (p. 64). Wikipedia helpfully explains that the term is an expression of 'the complexity of interrelations in human knowledge'. This book itself is a remarkably good example of intertwingularity; research ideas from various domains, shorn of their context, are mingled with dissimilar domains, and thence with popular science and science fiction literature. Therein is much to inspire thought, accord, controversy and disagreement.
Under the topic 'intertwingled', ubiquitous computing (the aforementioned 'ubicomp') is introduced, followed by a discussion of the role of various existing technologies - such as mobile telephones, GPS, and RFID (Radio Frequency Identification).
At the end of this chapter, wearable computing receives just three pages, which seems short indeed for a book that handles the question of findability. As a research student in the field, I read this section with great interest. Within that space, a few examples are held up; Steve Mann's wearable computer, Xybernaut's wearable computing platform, Motorola's wireless glasses for video display and Microsoft's MyLifeBits project, which looks into the capture of life experiences. There, the subject is dropped, with the statement; 'we shouldn't get too hung up on wearable computing, which is really only a stepping stone on the path to cybernetic transform'.
This vision of wearable computing owes more to the satirical vision of Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash than it does to today's research in the field - 'the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt' (p. 124) .
It is true that fashion events showcasing the fruits of today's wearable research are more likely to induce laughter than jealousy. Prototypes, as clumsy and ridiculous as they are, represent platforms upon which ideas may be put to the test. The essential goal of wearable computing is not hip-mounted PC104-format Pentium processors twinned with suspiciously uncool-looking head-mounted displays; it is the generation, capture and reuse of contextual information, to serve the needs of situated and pervasive or ubiquitous computing.
Wearable computing research is all about applications, not technologies, including but not limited to context sensing, augmenting reality, providing on-time services with minimal disturbance to the user's concentration, and information mediation between the user and his/her environment . Ideally, the technical details of the wearable itself should pass largely unnoticed by the user - who nonetheless benefits from the services that the system provides.
HCI, Evolutionary Psychology and the Pleistocene Brain
Chapter 3 of the book, 'Information Interaction', introduces a number of explanations referring to the theory of evolutionary psychology (EP) that are returned to periodically throughout the rest of the book.
'More recently, research in human-computer interaction has further exposed the soft underbelly of the people problem. A Stanford study entitled "Silicon Sycophants" showed that people respond positively to flattery from computers.[...]In another Stanford experiment, Clifford Nass showed that people are polite to computers. [...] But why are we so susceptible to these superficial elements? How can such smart beings be so shallow? The answers reside in the fields of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology. [...] The brain is "an ecosystem with modules simultaneously competing and relying on one another."'  (p. 56)
'[Y]ou can take the person out of the Stone Age, but you can't take the Stone Age out of the person. Our neural circuits and natural instincts were designed to solve problems faced by our ancestors over millions of years of evolution.[...]The information age has just begun. We have transformed our environment but not ourselves. Technology moves fast. Evolution moves slow.'
These references are perhaps the most jarringly incongruous details in the book. Based largely on a referenced 1998 article from Harvard Business Review, 'How Hardwired is Human Behavior?' by Nigel Nicholson, these statements taken together do not represent scientific consensus. Provided with neither extensive references nor appropriate discussion, these assertions are castles built on sand. Novel application of evolutionary psychology to the field of HCI (Human Computer Interaction), whilst certainly of interest, could and ideally should be published first in a peer-reviewed journal.
To quote Buller and Hardcastle , 'The term "evolutionary psychology" is ambiguous in common usage. It sometimes refers to a field of inquiry encompassing a range of work so broad that it is united only by a desire to understand the evolution of the human mind. More frequently, however, the term is used in a more specific sense, designating only work conducted within a particular set of theoretical and methodological commitments shared by a prominent and highly influential group of researchers.[...] In this narrower sense, "evolutionary psychology" designates a Kuhnian paradigm - a shared and unquestioned framework of theory, methodology and exemplars.'
Discussion of the 'massively modular brain' suggests that the author is referring to the EP paradigm. This is a subject debated in great detail over the last few years, sometimes in a decidedly pointed tone of prose. No attempt will be made to discuss the subject in detail here; an introduction to the field may be found elsewhere . Refer to Buller and Hardcastle , or Buller  for a critical viewpoint.
The existence of controversy surrounding the field of EP does not, of course, mean that the explanation is incorrect; in many applications of EP, the jury has not yet returned a verdict (and may never reach unanimity). Either way, these are unnecessary details to this discussion, which may mislead the reader, and which certainly distract from the central themes of the book. A realistic discussion of HCI research would be less controversial than this 'pick and mix' approach, and of greater immediate value to the student.
The charm of this book is in its informality. It is tremendously readable. It touches on all sorts of topics that most definitely should be required reading for site designers, and showcases the strange mixture of research and popular science underlying today's Internet. This book covers most of the concepts that make up the 'common ground' of today's Internet pundits, the conversational basics underlying discourse in the field, in a way which is both accessible and eminently readable.
That lack of formality is also the book's weakest side, which may dim its reception among researchers and lecturers in related fields. The section referring to EP, as mentioned above, references a single 1998 article from Harvard Business Review; there is nothing wrong with the source, of course, but such a new field of scientific enquiry could be expected to move on a great deal in seven years. A more balanced and factual approach, combined with pointers to general introductions to the various related fields of work, would have done a lot to increase the value of this book to researchers and students.
At the head of my 'wish list' for the next edition of this book would be a more rigorous approach to discussion, identification of associated research areas and specific examples of research within each topic, in that bibliography I mentioned earlier, and the invaluable glossary of terms. I understand that a new edition has been planned, and look forward to seeing it.
Read this book for background information, quotable quotes from personalities such as Lao Tzu, Bruce Sterling and Clay Shirky, and a wealth of miscellaneous facts. The reader will learn the background behind the Monty Python 'Spam Song' sketch, Bell curves, power laws, the Semantic Web, metadata, information overload and much else besides. Where you arrive at the end is one thing, mostly dependent as it is on yourself, but isn't the journey half the fun?
- Stephenson, Neal, "Snow Crash", Bantam Spectra, 1992, ISBN 0553562614
- Abowd, G. D. Ubiquitous computing: Research themes and open issues from an applications perspective.
Technical Report GIT-GVU 96-24, GVU Center, Georgia Institute of Technology, October 1996.
- Johnson, Steven, "Mind Wide Open", Allen Lane, 2004, ISBN 0743241657
- Buller, David J., and Hardcastle, Valerie Gray, Evolutionary Psychology, Meet Developmental Neurobiology: Against Promiscuous Modularity,
Brain and Mind, 1 (2000): 307-325.
- Buss, David, ed. (2005) The Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. ISBN 0471264032
- David Buller, Evolutionary Psychology: The Emperor's New Paradigm , Trends in Cognitive Sciences 9 (2005): 277-283.