Peter Morville, a leading figure in the field of information architecture kicks off Intertwingled by presenting the problem he most frequently encounters while working with clients. Reductionism. This is the deeply rooted tendency we have to consider concepts as separate entities, to acknowledge things often without their whole context.
"In the information age, we are all information architects. Content creation and organization are core life skills." Unfortunately, our society is suffering from a lack of information literacy. Now that such a large part of our lives happens online, the search for truth is trickier and more important than ever. Our collective ability to find and evaluate information in terms of accuracy, objectivity, currency and authority is at stake.
"At the crossroads of capitalism and the Internet, it’s increasingly hard to identify the interests behind the information."
This phenomenon doesn't just happen when we organize and manage digital information, but is constantly reinforced through language in all aspects of our lives. “Words are the interface, not just on the Web, but in our minds.”
For example, this is often a problem in medicine. A concept which the author threads throughout the book, stating that iatrogenics —illness or complications caused by physicians' choice of treatment— is the third leading cause of death in the US. While this might partly be due to big Pharma's funding of medical journals, modern Western medicine is infamous for treating the symptoms and not holistically investigating the connected causes.
Morville counters this dynamic in his IA practice: "Clients often don’t know what’s wrong. Instead of solving the symptom, I dig for a diagnosis. Design is an intervention."
As a potential solution, he draws the contrast between the reductionist mindset and systems thinking. While reductionism breaks things down into parts, systems thinking aims to synthesize the whole by looking at the connections and interactions between parts.
The author relates systems thinking to the theory of embodied cognition; i.e. how the way we think might be shaped by how our whole body relates to its other systems. In this sense, even our own cognition cannot be studied by looking only at the brain. Cognition is deeply connected to the rest of the body.
"Dualism works because it’s simple, but that’s also why it fails."
While this is true for individuals, it also holds for organizations. Reductionism is deeply embedded in the language we use in corporate settings. The way we associate people with their job title creates mental silos between departments and increases friction for collaboration. We cultivate unnecessary dichotomies when we use words like front-back, public-private, in-out, us-them. A consequence of this dualism is that we can only understand one in relation to the other. “Like maps and myths, taxonomies hide more than they reveal. [...] They bury complexity to tell a story, and they always miss someone out.”
Morville suggests the org chart as a starting point to shift this mindset. “Ontology begins with the org chart.” “Is the hierarchy reinforcing the unhealthy division of disciplines? Might a “holacracy” of self-organizing, multi-disciplinary, cross-functional teams work better? In holacracy, authority and decision-making are distributed, and members can be in more than one circle.”
"I’ve been granted the wisdom to question my culture."
With a systems thinking practice, we can make the invisible visible. Bringing to light what had remained unquestioned, we can reframe our perception of the world with more context-awareness and hopefully uncover more holistic ways to organize society.
One final quote I particularly resonate with:
"And while civilization may be headed for collapse, it’s not too late for course correction. That’s why I care about the Web. It’s not only a mirror but a lever as well."
If you’re curious to read more, consider borrowing this book from your local library or buying it from a local bookstore. Here are some suggestions: