climbing up a swinging ladder
PHOTO: Jason Wong

Modern technology is causing us to lose our capacity to think ahead, to plan, to prioritize, to design with any degree of depth. The cloud says that we can store and save everything. Google says we don’t have to organize anything. And there’s an app for everything. AI is making us dumb.

I asked this question on Twitter recently: “Has the standard of information architecture design for websites and apps gotten better in the last 10 years?”

Sixty-five percent of the people who responded said no. In the last 10 years information has exploded in a Big Bang of Big Data. We’ve created more data in the last two years than in all of previous history. You would think that during such a data tsunami there would be a huge focus on organizing and structuring data because otherwise, how is this data going to be useful? In many ways, the exact opposite has happened.

It reminds me of an intranet manager I knew years ago. When I first met her she was managing an intranet with about 500 pages and she was stressed because that’s a lot of pages for one person to professionally manage. When I met her a few years later she was much less stressed. Now she was managing an intranet with thousands of pages. She had given up on the idea of management and had accepted the role of put-it-upper. She had not so much gone with the flow, as gone with the tsunami.

That’s where we are today with so many organizations putting stuff up, launching and leaving. Recently, I heard from a municipality that they had launched 300 apps over the last five years and a large number of them not currently being used. Just one municipality in one country had launched 300 apps. Unbelievable.

Change has become the great excuse. Innovation has become the great excuse. Agility has become the great excuse. Yes, things are changing, but one of the reasons things are changing so much is because we are changing things so much. Because digital allows us to change things quickly we are changing things quickly. The busyness of change has become its purpose.

Digital practices remind me of a story I heard about a building site in communist era Poland. Everything was going along at a casual pace until a “comrade” from the local Communist Party branch arrived. Suddenly, everyone got super busy. The comrade climbed up some scaffolding to view proceedings and was suitably impressed.

However, after a few minutes he noticed this fella busily maneuvering a wheelbarrow in and out, around and about. The wheelbarrow was empty and remained empty no matter how long the comrade watched. Finally, in frustration, he climbed down and demanded that the wheelbarrow driver stop. Screeching to a halt, his face now streaming with sweat, the driver looked at him in shock.

  • “Comrade! I have been watching you and not once have you filled this wheelbarrow. Why is that!?”
  • “Too busy to fill the wheelbarrow, comrade. Too busy to fill the wheelbarrow.”

Mindless change. Mindless apps, bots, content. Agile meaninglessness.

Structure matters. Organization matters. Metadata matters. Information architecture matters more today than it ever mattered. We must design things on the basis that we want them to last, rather than we expect them to change. Because when you expect nothing to last, nothing does.