Chapter 3. Information Interaction


Chapter 3. Information Interaction

Documents are, quite simply, talking things.
They are bits of the material worldclay,
stone, animal skin, plant fiber, sandthat
we've imbued with the ability to speak
.

David M. Levy

University of Washington iSchool

Let me tell you a story about the laws of Moore and Mooers . Once upon a time, in 1965 to be precise, an engineer named Gordon Moore boldly predicted the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits would double every year. In his landmark paper for the journal of Electronics, Moore conjectured:

Integrated circuits will lead to such wonders as home computersor at least terminals connected to a central computerautomatic controls for automobiles, and personal portable communications equipment. The electronic wristwatch needs only a display to be feasible today.[*]

[*] "Cramming More Components onto Integrated Circuits" by Gordon E. Moore (1965). Electronics, vol. 38, no. 8.

Though his specific prediction was a bit optimistictransistor density has doubled roughly every two yearshis overall vision has played out remarkably well. The number of transistors per circuit grew from 50 in 1965 to 410 million in 2003 and is fast approaching 1 billion. In the four decades since his paper was published, Gordon founded and grew a rather successful company called Intel; home computers, the Internet, mobile computing (and electronic wristwatches) became reality; and Moore's Law attained mythic status. Its exponential growth curve has been a favorite prop among techno-evangelists for implying the imminent arrival of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the paperless society. Faster is better, they arguemore is more.

This brings us to the second law, first formulated by Calvin Mooers in 1959.

An information retrieval system will tend not to be used whenever it is more painful and troublesome for a customer to have information than for him not to have it.[*]

[*] Remarks by Calvin N. Mooers during a panel discussion at the Annual Meeting of the American Documentation Institute, October 24, 1959.

Sometimes we don't want new information, he arguedless is more. Now, Calvin Mooers was also a computer pioneer and entrepreneur. He coined the terms "information retrieval" and "descriptors," wrote some of the earliest interactive programming languages, and founded the Zator company to develop and market his ingenious automatic punch card information retrieval system. But despite his significant contributions, Mooers is little known outside the information science community, and neither is his law.

Even within this small community, Mooers' Law is often misinterpreted as a maxim about the importance of information system usability. In the words of online information industry pioneer and Dialog founder, Roger Summit, "Mooers' Law tells us that information will be used in direct proportion to how easy it is to obtain."[] Though this insight is accurate and important, its not what Calvin Mooers had in mind. Consider the author's explanation of his own law:

[] "Mooers Law: In and Out of Context" by Brice Austin. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, June 2001.

It is now my suggestion that many people may not want information, and that they will avoid using a system precisely because it gives them information....Having information is painful and troublesome. We have all experienced this. If you have information, you must first read it, which is not always easy. You must then try to understand it....Understanding the information may show that your work was wrong, or may show that your work was needless....Thus not having and not using information can often lead to less trouble and pain than having and using it.[]

] Remarks by Calvin N. Mooers on October 24, 1959. Reprinted in the Unfortunately, nobody pays much attention to Calvin Mooers these days. And yet, Mooers' Law only becomes more relevant with every advance of Moore's Law. Fast, cheap processors powered a personal computer revolution and enabled the information explosion we call the Internet. Five exabytes of information. Half a million new libraries the size of the Library of Congress. That's how much new information we create in a year92% of it stored on magnetic media.[§] It's time we shifted our focus from creating a wealth of information to addressing the ensuing poverty of attention. Because Moore's law doesn't apply to the human brain. In fact, we haven't upgraded our wetware much in the past 50,000 years.[*] Technology moves fast. Evolution moves slow. In recent years, the friction between these layers has given birth to usability, user experience, and user-centered design. Make it simple. Make it easy. Don't make me think!

[§] "How Much Information" by Peter Lyman and Hal R. Varian (2003). From http://www.sims.berkeley.edu/how-much-info-2003.

[*] "How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?" by Nigel Nicholson. Harvard Business Review, July/August 1998.

Calvin Mooers reminds us that design of a useful information system requires a deep understanding of users and their social context. We cannot assume people will want our information, even if we know they need our information. Behind most failed web sites, intranets, and interactive products lie misguided models of users and their information-seeking behavior. Users are complex. Users are social. And so is information.