Understanding Context: Environment, Language, and Information Architecture (2014)
Appendix A. Coda
So here we are, finishing with a coda. In musical terms, it’s a final passage that brings a movement to an end. It gives the audience a chance to take a breath and reflect.
In musical scores, it has a signifier that looks like this:
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In ethics and psychology, a well-worn thought experiment concerns something called The Trolley Problem. There are various versions, but it goes something like this:
There is a runaway trolley heading down the tracks. Ahead of it, you see five people tied up and unable to escape. You’re standing far from the train yard, but you’re next to a lever. You know if you pull the lever, the trolley will switch to a different track—but that track has one person tied to it, also unable to escape. You have only two options—leave well enough alone, while five people die, or pull the lever, so five may live while one will die. Which option is the right choice?
Depending on how the problem is phrased, people’s answers can vary. But in many cases, around 90 percent of respondents say they would pull the lever—kill the one to save the five.
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In a variant of the trolley problem, the survey results tend to change. This version says there is only the one track, with the five potential victims. And you are on a footbridge over the track. Although you are not near a lever, you are next to a very large person who, unlike you, would surely stop the trolley due to his size. He only needs a little shove.
In this case, the numbers nearly reverse: people have a harder time with the thought of physically pushing someone to his death, even to save more people. A recent study by “neuroethicists” put people in a functional MRI (fMRI) machine to study what their brains were doing during this conundrum. The different stories—just words, mind you—caused markedly different activity in the parts of the brain that wrestle over what we think of as “morality.”
And not only were they just words that caused these people’s bodies to have such varying responses; the words described situations. And those situations presented very different bodily contexts. It would seem the presence of a lever and the distance from what happens when it is pulled allows people to be more detached and utilitarian, whereas the thought of one’s body pushing another body off a bridge is too close for comfort, no matter the moral calculus.
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We are surrounded by levers. Levers that control things we see, and things we don’t. Levers that control levers, which control even more levers. These levers are made of ones and zeros, and they can mean one thing a second ago and a different thing right now. They can even make new levers; they can learn to think. They multiply, ripple, and coalesce into the vast, invisible oceans of information around us...on us...through us.
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For a while, when trying to explain to people what information architecture is, I’d joke that it was really “just getting paid for metaphysics.” It rarely got more than a quizzical chuckle; it’s not a very funny rejoinder, I suppose. My intended effect was self-deprecation—like saying “they pay me to blow hot air.” But then I realized, I was just working out my anxieties about my professional identity. I’m still working them out.
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Anyway, back to metaphysics. It’s hard to define, even though it’s one of the oldest branches of philosophy. Mostly it’s about trying to answer big questions about being and understanding. Not just “what is in the world, and how does it work?” but “why does it work that way, and what does that mean?” Science eventually answered many of the questions of early metaphysics. But measurement can’t answer everything. Even with all our scientific knowledge, when the empiricist says, “this is a brick,” the metaphysician still has to ask, “but what is brick?”
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It’s funny, metaphysics started as merely an editorial label. “Meta” roughly means “beyond” or “after” in Greek. Early editions of Aristotle’s writings usually placed his work on “physics” first, then appended the other work, “after” the physics content, and labeled it as meta-physics. Aristotle himself didn’t call it that; he used a phrase meaning “first philosophy” for the subject matter that his posthumous editors placed (ah, irony) last.
So, even the name of this ancient conversation is tangled with the nature of objects, order, and labels. Of course, in later centuries scholars took this literally to mean “do not learn this other ‘metaphysics’ stuff until you’ve first learned the physics.” Time and context have a complicated relationship.
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There’s really nothing that matters to us as humans that isn’t somehow wrapped up in language. The ancients who first used the word “poet” were using a word that meant “maker”—because they understood that their poets made more than poems. They made worlds.
We’ve always been a linguistic sort of animal, immersed in symbol, suffused with story. But, we now have to call upon our uncanny ability to make sense with a degree of commitment and rigor we might never have summed before. The digital world we’ve made requires it. Where we are, who we are, what we are: these are big questions, not just for philosophers.
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So much of our work is for mundane market needs, operational efficiencies, iterative improvements. Now and then, if we’re lucky, we get to work on “meaningful” projects. At least, that’s one way to look at it.
But from another perspective, we’re always working with meaning. And people spend most of their time in these mundane, everyday places—office cubicles, grocery stores, highways, living rooms. Think of all the meaning, in aggregate, that can be a little more good, a little more clear.Working on the answers to big, hard questions is worthwhile even when it leads to making things better in small, soft ways, where people really live. It seems to me that’s the context where all of this stuff matters the most.
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When I checked the definition for coda, I learned it comes from the Italian for “tail.” It evoked an image I can’t seem to shake: an elephant, wearing pajamas, who has been my companion for many months, nearly filling my rooms as it worked its way slowly through my house.
And now, I watch as my strange companion has found its way, finally, to my home’s rear exit. It squeezes its bulk past the door’s narrow affordance, and its dangling tail—this coda—is the last thing I see as the creature lumbers happily into the world.
I know that’s not what the word really means. I suppose that’s just what I bring to it.