The Geography of Information

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
28 November, 2017
Editorial: 153
Fecha de publicación original: 2 febrero, 1999

Nobody is wise because of what their father knew

Can you imagine what it would be like to see all the archives and weekly content of by just taking a glance at your the screen? And finding the article you were looking for by just a couple of clicks and with no need to use a search engine, or have any prior knowledge of the site, or even have the vaguest idea as to what it is about? What would you see, how would you be able to recognise the content structure or topic distribution in just one image? The answer is simple: when you open the page in the navigator all the documents in the magazine will have converted into a navigable, topographical relief map. The information content will have turned into mountain ranges, valleys dotted with lakes and bits of ocean dotted with islands, all related to one another according to conceptual abundance and proximity. Is this a scene from a fantasy space game? Or a preview of the 3.0 version of coming out next week? Well, neither (or not yet anyhow), it is a simple example of one of the new ways of displaying information that are certain to revolutionise digital communication once again.

New media in the era of the Information Society will be different from that we knew before in many ways. But one of the most fundamental differences will be their ability to structure and, above all, display their information in a way that is only possible in a world of communication mediated by computers (CMC), or, in other words, in cyberspace. The aim is to display the content of millions of documents on just one screen in an intelligible fashion. And, not only display it, but make it “navigable” too, so that users can get to the exact point where they have to dive down in order to home in quickly on the article they want. Some of this technology is already being discreetly commercialised, while others wait in the wings for Internet-2 to develop so that they can use broad-band services.

Intelligible display of all the information stored in an archive on just one screen was a problem faced by highly developed army intelligence services, particularly the US’, and they dealt with it to varying degrees of success. From the storeroom where the trunks of the lost ark were kept, some of this technology is now coming to light. Others are still in the cocoon stage in the laboratories of private companies. All of them point to the very heart of the new media, in particular, and to the management and treatment of information, in general. And all of them will decisively affect computer operating systems and the WWW as we know it today.

In all of these new technologies there is a common focal thread running through them like the chorus of a song. To begin with, there is the fact that the human mind finds things visually and spatially. As a result, present methods which mean delving through layers and layers of hyperlinks to uncover the information we want, mean that to a certain extent we are going against our “natural” way of finding things. The result is, we are less efficient and we have to go through a forced apprenticeship to start off. In the second place, if we search in other ways, emphasis on wanting to know where it is, which predominates in present systems, is replaced by emphasis on knowing what the subject matter is. Consequently it is not necessary — as is the case at the moment– that information be strictly organised (in files, archives or hierarchical trees). The new way of dealing with and displaying it depends on search engines and other programming tools that are capable of analysing and organising de-structured information such as e-mail, letters, articles, documents, draughts, data bases results of searches on the WWW, etc., and displaying them conceptually.

For example, take SPIRIX, a text processing engine of military origin which was developed at the US Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and whose first commercial version fed Cartia’s ThemeScape system. SPIRIX combines statistical analysis and grammatical rules with geographical parameters. To put it simply –and boldly–, one could take the text and images from today’s newspaper (traditional or digital), throw it at SPIRIX and the programme would come back with a relief map full of mountains, valleys, lakes and oceans dotted with archipelagos, etc. The mountains represent groups of related documents. Those that are not related are dumped into the sea and those which are distantly related become valleys and nearby lakes. By simply clicking on these places, each with its own name (Editorial, Interview,, en.medi@…), other maps appear on the screen with more accurate names: digital journalism, new media, teleworking or electronic commerce. Another click and the screen shows the texts related to the chosen subject. No need to use a search engine or any other device.

This new way of accessing information is what is called conceptual navigation. The end result is that at last we are able to view a whole newspaper at one glance, with all its interrelationships and fragmented bits, and with no need to go through it or read it in part, or have any prior idea of its internal organisation. And when we say newspaper, the same would apply to files of all kinds, which means there is the possibility of being able to rescue forgotten stories from the long lost past and discovering relationships between things that we have not yet begun to imagine. A true exercise in the mining and recycling of information.

The interesting thing about this new technology is that it does not require complex 3D visualisers, nor virtual reality. But they do require present navigators and the processing capacity of computers to change substantially. Inxight’s “Hyperbolic Tree”, for example, launches its own navigator in which information is shown in such a way that the document you are looking for can be found without losing sight of the whole structure of the system at any time. It is as though when you look at something (click on it) it becomes the focus of your attention, but you don’t lose sight of the organised environment it is in.

This is also the way SemioMap works, although the graphic display is different. Semio’s text processor converts thousands of documents into a a fascinating version of the universe. Information is grouped into galactic constellations that are mere pinpricks on the screen. Click on a hub and you “fly” towards the desired galaxy which unfolds to discover cluster of stars that are connected by dotted lines. Each galaxy and star indicates its content through a simple title. When you get to the edges of the galaxy in question, the document you want, or the relevant part of the document you were looking for appears on screen. Or a brief run down of documents related to the subject. 3.0 is not anywhere near these new navigational and information display methods. However, we will be concerned with the analysis of their evolution and the examination of the impact they are going to have on the design and development of the new media, a subject we will be paying special attention to in the new version of the magazine which we are introducing next week.

Translation: Bridget King.