Informatics, Architecture and Language

  • Matthew Chalmers
Part of the Computer Supported Cooperative Work book series (CSCW)


Two complementary schools of thought exist with regard to the basic underlying assumptions and philosophies that guide our research in information navigation and access. As with all of human-computer interaction (HCI), and indeed most of informatics, we can place theories and design practices based in objectivity and mathematics at one end of a spectrum, and those emphasising subjectivity and language at the other. The first school of thought sees itself as part of traditional computer science, rooted in models that encompass the individual variations of users and that are often derived from experimentation and observation in controlled conditions. Mainstream information retrieval, cognitive psychology and task analysis exemplify such a philosophy. Complementary views are held by those who hold the sociological and the semiological as primary, and consider that objective categorical models are insufficient to model the complexity of human activity and ultimately of limited utility in guiding system design and development. Collaborative filtering, ecological psychology and ethnography are examples here. The techniques and systems presented in this book do not all lie towards one end of this spectrum, but instead show a variety of choices and emphases. This chapter, however, focuses on theory firmly towards the subjective and linguistic end of the spectrum: tools to let us place, compare and design techniques and systems. Such theory is noticeable by its absence in the majority of literature in this burgeoning research area. Here we try to redress the balance, aiming to build up more abstract and general view of our work.

At the most applied level, this chapter deals with one approach to social information navigation systems, the path model [1], and describes its origin in an analogy with a theory of urban form: Hillier’s space syntax [2]. More generally, we relate the use of and movement through information to use and movement in urban space. While architecture has already affected informatics in a number of areas, for example, in the pattern languages of Alexander, here we use architecture as a stepping stone between linguistics and informatics. Through these links we wish to reinforce the view that all three are instances or subfields of semiology. In so doing, we aim to make more visible the range of assumptions and models that underlie all interactive information systems. We are often unaware of the models of knowledge and information that we build on, and the possible alternatives. Here we aim to make clearer some of those buried layers — the “archaeology of knowledge” [3] that determines many of the strengths and weaknesses of any systems for information navigation.


Search Engine Path Model Information Space Urban Form Recommendation List 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


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© Springer-Verlag London Limited 1999

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  • Matthew Chalmers

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