Information Architecture meets the Philosophy of Information

On June 27 the Ethics and Philosophy of Information Cluster at the OII hosted a workshop to foster a dialogue between the discipline of Information Architecture (IA) and the Philosophy of Information (PI), and advance the practical and theoretical basis for how we conceptualise and shape the infosphere.

A core topic of concern is how we should develop better principles to understand design practices. The latter surfaces when IA looks at other disciplines, like linguistics, design thinking, new media studies and architecture to develop the theoretical foundations that can back and/or inform its practice. Within the philosophy of information this need to understand general principles of (conceptual or informational) design arises in relation to the question of how we develop and adopt the right level of abstraction (what Luciano Floridi calls the logic of design). This suggests a two-way interaction between PI and IA. On the one hand, PI can become part of the theoretical background that informs Information Architecture as one of the disciplines from which it can borrow concepts and theories. The philosophy of information, on the other hand, can benefit from the rich practice of IA and the growing body of critical reflection on how, within a particular context, the access to online information is best designed.

Throughout the workshop, two themes emerged:

  1. The need for more integrated ways to reason about and describe (a) informational artefacts and infrastructures, (b) the design-processes that lead to their creation, and (c) the requirements to which they should conform. This presupposes a convergence between the things we build (informational artefacts) and the conceptual apparatus we rely on (the levels of abstraction we adopt), which surfaces in IA as well as in PI. At the same time, it also calls for novel frameworks and linguistic abstractions. This need to reframe the ways that we observe informational phenomena could be discerned in several contributions to the workshop. It surfaced in the more theoretically oriented contributions of Andrew Hinton, Jason Hobbs & Terence Fenn, Dan Klyn, and Andrea Resmini, that for instance questioned the role of language and place or described frameworks to direct our thinking about designs and problems within their broader context, but also played a role in the practical challenges described by Vicky Buser and Konstantin Weiss.
  2. The gap, and resulting need to negotiate, between human and computer-oriented conceptual frameworks that are used to describe and manipulate reality. Whereas this theme was explicitly brought up in Luke Church’s comparison of how end-user programming, machine-learning and interactive visualisation each address this problem, it quickly leads us back to some of the broader concerns in IA. It is, straightforwardly, an instance of how computer-oriented frameworks start to shape infrastructures that are means to be manipulated by humans (i.e. when technical requirements dictate the shape of the user-interface), but it indirectly also hints at the challenges associated with the design of cross-channel interactions and of understanding how information flows between different levels of abstraction.

A final concern that cuts across these two themes deserves to be mentioned as well, namely the need for a language for critique.

This workshop was organised by David Peter Simon, Luciano Floridi and Patrick Allo, and was part of the “Logics of Visualisation” project.

Photograph of workshop participants by David Peter Simon.
Photograph of workshop participants by David Peter Simon.

Mapping the uneven geographies of information worldwide

Map of Flickr activity worldwide
Images are an important form of knowledge that allow us to develop understandings about our world; the global geographic distribution of geotagged images on Flickr reveals the density of visual representations and locally depicted knowledge of all places on our planet. Map by M.Graham, M.Stephens, S.Hale.

Information is the raw material for much of the work that goes on in the contemporary global economy, and visibility and voice in this information ecosystem is a prerequisite for influence and control. As Hand and Sandywell (2002: 199) have argued, “digitalised knowledge and its electronic media are indeed synonymous with power.” As such, it is important to understand who produces and reproduces information, who has access to it, and who and where are represented by it.

Traditionally, information and knowledge about the world have been geographically constrained. The transmission of information required either the movement of people or the availability of some other medium of communication. However, up until the late 20th century, almost all mediums of information – books, newspapers, academic journals, patents and the like – were characterised by huge geographic inequalities. The global north produced, consumed and controlled much of the world’s codified knowledge, while the global south was largely left out.

Today, the movement of information is, in theory, rarely constrained by distance. Very few parts of the world remain disconnected from the grid, and over 2 billion people are now online (most of them in the Global South). Unsurprisingly, many believe we now have the potential to access what Wikipedia’s founder Jimmy Wales refers to as “the sum of all human knowledge”. Theoretically, parts of the world that have been left out of flows and representations of knowledge can be quite literally put back on the map.

However, “potential” has too often been confused with actual practice, and stark digital divisions of labour are still evident in all open platforms that rely on user-generated content. Google Map’s databases contain more indexed user-generated content about the Tokyo metropolitan region than the entire continent of Africa. On Wikipedia, there is more written about Germany than about South America and Africa combined. In other words, there are massive inequalities that cannot simply be explained by uneven Internet penetration. A range of other physical, social, political and economic barriers are reinforcing this digital divide, amplifying the informational power of the already powerful and visible.

That’s not to say that the Internet doesn’t have important implications for the developing world. People use it not just to connect with friends and family, but to learn, share information, trade, and represent their communities. However, it’s important to be aware of the Internet’s highly uneven geographies of information. These inequalities matter to the south, because connectivity – despite being a clear prerequisite for access to most 21st-century platforms of knowledge sharing – by no means guarantees knowledge production and digital participation.

How do we move towards encouraging participation from (and about) parts of the world that are currently left out of virtual representations? The first step is to allow people to see what is, and isn’t, represented; something we are planning with this project. After that, there’s also a clear need for plans like Kenya’s strategy to boost local digital content, or Wikimedia’s Arabic Catalyst project, which aims to encourage the creation of content in Arabic and provide information about the Middle East.

It remains to be seen how effective such strategies will be in changing the highly uneven digital division of labour. As we rely increasingly on user-generated platforms, there is a real possibility that we will see the widening of divides between “digital cores” and “peripheries”. It’s therefore crucial to keep asking where visibility, voice and power reside in our increasingly networked world.


Graham, M. and M. Zook. 2013. Augmented Realities and Uneven Geographies: Exploring the Geo-linguistic Contours of the Web. Environment and Planning A 45(1) 77-99.

Graham, M. 2013. The Virtual Dimension. In Global City Challenges: debating a concept, improving the practice. eds. M. Acuto and W. Steele. London: Palgrave.

Graham, M., M. Zook., and A. Boulton. 2012. Augmented Reality in the Urban Environment: contested content and the duplicity of code. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. DOI: 10.1111/j.1475-5661.2012.00539.x

Graham, M. 2013. The Knowledge Based Economy and Digital Divisions of Labour. In Companion to Development Studies, 3rd edition, eds V. Desai, and R. Potter. Hodder.

Hand, M. and B. Sandywell. 2002. E-topia as Cosmopolis or Citadel On the Democratizing and De-democratizing Logics of the Internet, or, Toward a Critique of the New Technological Fetishism. Theory, Culture & Society

Mark Graham‘s research focuses on Internet and information geographies, and the overlaps between ICTs and economic development. His work on the geographies of the Internet examines how people and places are ever more defined by, and made visible through, not only their traditional physical locations and properties, but also their virtual attributes and digital shadows.

Read Mark’s blog.