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Book Recommendation: Information Anxiety

By November 28, 2003websites

I’m reading Richard Saul Wurman’s book Information Anxiety and I have to say it really resonates. Richard Saul Wurman started out as an architect, and then in 1975 came up with the concept of “Information Architecture.” I didn’t know any of that when I stumbled across a guidebook for New York city called Access New York City. The guidebook was arranged in a way that makes it easier to navigate and so I wound up relying on the Access guides for every city I went to. Richard Saul Wurman created those guidbooks based on his ideas of “information architecture.”

Wurman is, from what I’ve heard, both a visionary and pain-in-the-ass. Maybe his difficult persona stems from his unconventional way of looking at things. Maybe we need someone with an unconventional viewpoint to help us understand how to deal with our ever-burgeoning information overload. What ‘overload’ you ask?

Well, let’s start with the scope of information that we encounter daily and compare it to what peole used to encounter. Factoid: A weekday edition of The New York Times contains more information than the average person was likely to come across in a lifetime in 17th-century England. In other words, as Wurman puts it “information was once a sought after and treasured commodity like a fine wine. Now, it’s regarded more like crabgrass, something to be kept at bay.” So what can we do about this situation?

One way that people try to deal with information they encounter is to give it order. Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. Wurman explains:

Order is no guarantee of understanding. Sometimes, just the opposite is true. The traditional format for guidebooks calls for chapters divided into neat categories —restaurants, museums, hotels, stories, each with its own chapter. In Access guidebooks, all are jumbled together. They are divided by neighborhoods. This is the way that cities are laid out and experienced. Cities don’t come in chapters with restaurants in one section and museums in another; their order is organic, sometimes confusing, and never alphabetic. To experience a city you have to acknowledge confusion.

Wurman thinks that a fundamental source of “information anxiety” for many people is the inability to admit ignorance. Our culture doesn’t reward forthright confessions of ignorance; there is instead a collective effort to stand on our intellectual tippy-toes and at all times appear knowledgeable. As Wurman points out “one of the things that we all learn in school is how to respond with a look of thoughtful intelligence to even the most incomprehensible information,” explaining he “could probably elicit this look from most Americans if [he] suddenly started speaking Swahili.”

Wurman, as I said, is an unconventional thinker, but for many reasons I find what he says refreshingly honest and provocative. I especially like his guiding principles: “Perhaps the three principles closest to my heart—and the most radical—are learning to accept your ignorance, paying more attention to the questions than to the answer, and never being afraid to go in the opposite direction.” As an example of the latter principle, he gives this example. Barry Diller —when he was the chairman and CEO of 20th Century Fox— asked a junior executive why a certain assignment wasn’t finished. The young man said, “It’s taking so long because I’m trying to do it the right way.” Diller replied, “Did you ever consider doing it the wrong way?”

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One Comment

  • John says:

    Good post. My experience is that we all need to strike a balance between “deep information” and “shallow information.” It’s all too easy to become obsessed with shallow information — newspapers, blogs, 60 Minutes, etc. You have to take time away from that in order to devote part of your energy to deep information, which (still) comes mainly in the form of books, including books that are no longer in print or on everybody’s tongue. Deep information tends to be narrower and to come from people who, keeping a narrow focus, have much smarter things to say about their selected topic(s).

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