Ed. note: Each year, the UW Information School (where I’m a grad student) holds its annual Dean’s Club Dinner to thank its donors and board members for their gifts and service. This year, I’m emceeing the event along with fellow iSchool students Amanda Jasso (MLIS, 2013) and Amado Robancho (Informatics & HCDE, 2013).
As part of my duties, I was asked to speak about my life, what brought me to the iSchool, and how I hoped to use information to bring value to people. It turned out to be a bit wonky; keep in mind that I wrote this for information scientists. But it’s also part stand-up comedy, part nostalgia for 1980s tech, and part dreaming about the future.
I’m grateful to the iSchool for asking me to share my story.
Photo © UW iSchool
Hello, I’m Jonathon Colman, a graduate student in the MSIM mid-career program. When I’m not at the iSchool, you can find me at REI headquarters down in Kent, where I serve as their Principal Experience Architect. And when I’m not in Kent, you can find me stuck in traffic on I-5 because I’m trying to get back up to the iSchool.
Now for those of you on Twitter, I’m @jcolman. I mention this because I’m sending out pre-scheduled tweets during the evening with links that are relevant to the subjects of our talks. You can also find them using the hashtag #DeansClub. There’s even a pre-scheduled tweet about pre-scheduled tweets… how meta!
Oh, yeah — and that’s a Thing now: pre-scheduled tweets. They’re perfect for that awkward moment when you just can’t seem to find the time necessary to write 140 characters about what you’re having for dinner… but still need everyone to know that you’re eating something.
…against all odds, all sense of scope, and against all our rational instincts, we love information.
But my point — and I do have one — is that information endures. Yes, even information on Twitter, as ephemeral as it may seem. We can still tell a story with just 140 characters. Certainly information’s been an enduring factor in my own life (and yours, too, I’d wager) and in a way, that endurance is what brings us together tonight.
Not just because the iSchool recently celebrated its centennial (though it doesn’t look a day past its 80th anniversary, if you ask me), but because against all odds, all sense of scope, and against all our rational instincts, we love information. And we love stories about information. That love is what defines us.
And make no mistake: information’s hard to love. Why? Well think on this: every two days, the world creates as much information as it did from its point of creation all the way up to 2003. Yes, all of that information now gets created — by us! — in just two days. Think of all those stories people are telling! In text, in photos, in video, in… tweets.
Photo © Christian Senger
And where others shy away from that scope, from all those terabytes and petabytes, we’re the ones who get excited. We’re the ones who take on the challenge of making all that information accessible, findable, and usable. So when others eschew the complexity, the technology, and the very processes and foundations of the information economy, we look at all that and see… job security.
So information endures, it persists, and it forms the basis for our stories. Every day, every one.
And one night when my mother arrived home from work, I told her a story.
It’s certainly endured in my life. I was raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan by a single mother working two (sometimes three) jobs to raise me and my sister. Even working full-time as a head nurse she was not given equal, worthy pay for the work asked of her. But she somehow found the time and energy to instill in us a love for learning, for reading, for questioning and understanding the nature of things.
And one night when my mother arrived home from work, I told her a story. It was a story about something amazing that had happened in school that day.
They had gathered my class together and taken us to a room we’d never been in before. In the room there were these things called computers. They were sort of like typewriters, but also sort of like boxes. And they had TV screens! Those big, heavy tubes that crackled and hummed and smelled like ozone when you turned them on and that would flicker for a while even after you shut them off.
Next to each computer was a tape recorder. Remember those? And our teacher put a cassette into each tape recorder… but instead of playing music, the tape cassette somehow played on the screen.
And here’s what the cassette did: it made a triangle appear. I found this amazing. I mean, when I put a tape in the tape player at home, it played music — this is back when I was big on music from Disney movies, mind you — but this tape made a triangle on the screen. But it wasn’t called a triangle — it was called a special name: a terrapin.
Photo © Steven Miscandlon
Our teacher had us type into the computer. It would be the first time that I typed anything. I recognized the letters on the keyboard, but was confused by the order in which they were laid out. So I had to hunt and peck one key at a time. Even so, pressing on a key made a terrifically satisfying CLACK! It was so loud that once we really got going, the volume in the room seemed deafening.
The teacher had us type things like
FD 10 and the triangle would move up a bit and leave behind a line to mark its path. And then we would type
BK 10 and it would move back down. And then
PU — which caused a wave of raucous laughter to roll across the room — and then when the triangle moved, it left no line at all. Radical!
And so we learned to rotate the triangle, to draw more complex shapes, to make it go in reverse (I thought this was particularly hilarious for some reason), and eventually to write sequences of commands that would make the triangle do more than one thing at a time.
Photo © Adam Jenkins
I was a shy, introverted kid and I had a hard time relating to my peers. It seemed exhausting, all that constant interaction and ambiguous social rules. But with the computer and the tape and the terrapin… those made sense. They had rules and structure and order.
It seemed safer online, it seemed like there was less risk of getting hurt.
And so I grew up with a fascination for computer technology. I’d steal back to the room with those Ataris whenever I could and play with the terrapin. Later, the school would replace those machines with Apple IIs and instead of Logo, we’d use word processors.
I learned to type with confidence by the fifth grade, when I was writing stories about superheroes using a program called the Bank Street Writer. Anyone remember that? It was the first mass-market computer word processor.
It had a noteworthy interaction scheme: you would do a series of keystrokes to denote some action that you wanted it to take — say, to start bolding text. And then you would do the keystrokes again when you wanted it to stop bolding the text. So you were marking up content, basically giving it a tiny bit of metadata that determined its display.
This was much more fascinating to me than trying to interact with my peers. Or with girls, who were, like, totally gross. So I kept writing, I kept playing Oregon Trail, I kept learning how to interact with the technology.
Photo © The Pug Father
Later, in college for a technical communication degree, I would learn HTML, which relied on this same markup model. And it would display on the NCSA Mosaic browser. It seemed to come naturally to me, and I would recall those Apple IIs with gratitude.
Later still, as a tech writer for IBM, I would write books in SGML — yeah, I hand-coded software manuals in that! — and it wasn’t much different from word-processing in the 1980s.
By that point, girls were no longer gross, but I was still cripplingly shy and introverted. Social interaction seemed so much harder than HTML, than Gopher, or than USENET, where there were FAQs, where these was structured information, where there were moderators. It seemed safer online, it seemed like there was less risk of getting hurt.
That there’s what you’d call irony.
Relearning How to Play
People don’t tend to respond well when you try marking them up and tagging them with metadata.
Risk aversion often accompanies a lack of information as well as a lack of ability to learn from it, to wield it as a tool. But I sensed that I needed to get better, to be better with people. After all, I genuinely liked people, but I didn’t understand them. And people don’t tend to respond well when you try marking them up and tagging them with metadata.
So on a lark, I tried out for a comedy improvisation group, the Michigan Technological University Troupe. I’d always liked theater and I enjoyed trying to step outside of myself and become someone else, someone different, someone who was confident enough to interact with others as part of a structured story.
This was a key turning point. Joining the improv troupe turned out to be the best decision I ever made (…apart from applying for the iSchool, of course!). With improv, I developed skills that were just as technical as the ones I learned in my communications program, and yet far more applicable in the world at large because they helped me connect with other people. Mostly for the point of storytelling.
I learned how to listen, how to become part of a present moment, how to overcome my fear of interacting with others. And I learned it all by playing. Rather, by relearning how to play in a safe place with supportive colleagues who coached me through my stifling fear of failure. As a matter of fact, it’s a lot like graduate school!
They were the ones who helped me learn something else that stays with me to this day: playing, listening, and empathy are the key to understanding and working with people. Once you play with someone or once you observe them in a state of play and take in all the aspects of their experience, you can develop empathy and build a relationship with them. In fact, it’s hard not to. Telling a story with someone builds a deeply human bond that endures, that lasts, that persists over time.
Exchanging Information, Exchanging Stories
Do you remember where you were for Y2K? I was escaping a Coup d’Etat in Cote d’Ivoire.
When you learn how to move beyond a fear of failure, the whole world opens up to you. In my case, that’s a literal statement.
By gaining the confidence necessary to work with other people, by discovering the empathy required to see life from their perspective, I was finally able to realize a life-long dream. So I joined the Peace Corps and served in Burkina Faso in 1999.
It was quite a switch for a nerdy technophile with a fondness for Star Trek to move from writing software manuals for IBM in Minnesota to Peace Corps public health service in a land-locked country in sub-Saharan West Africa. Do you remember where you were for Y2K? I was escaping a Coup d’Etat in Cote d’Ivoire. Good times.
You might think that I wouldn’t find any technology, any information at all in a remote, rural village on the shores of the great desert. But of course this audience knows better than that — because information endures, and it is pervasive even in its simplest forms.
Photo © Eric Montfort
My tiny village was awash in technologies, though they weren’t digital. Carts, hoes for farming, bicycles, water pumps, needles and thread, even soap all became essential technologies. And while paper was scarce — even my handful of notebooks were likely more paper than anyone else in the village had — but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t any information. The barren landscape served only to heighten the presence of the rich information you’d expect from any group of people: language, stories, culture.
Working as the first Peace Corps Volunteer in my village, my job was to connect with the community and collect their stories as part of a broad public health study of the region. So I’d ride my bicycle through the sand and mud, across the fields and hills, stopping at each courtyard and hut to meet with people and start building a foundation. And that foundation would result in a relationship. And with that relationship would come an exchange of information.
I asked the people in my village to share with me their experiences with illness, endemic diseases, and the quality of their health and local medical care along with their outstanding needs. But they also shared stories about their culture, their history, their land, and their families. In return, I shared my stories about the outside world, stories about America and our culture, stories about hope for the future, and stories about how we could work together to make that future a reality.
Stories like I’m telling you tonight. Stories that last.
Coda: “The iSchool is My School”
…the iSchool produces not just information professionals, but information ambassadors.
So I used to be a shy, introverted kid hanging out in the computer room. A kid who could barely tell you his name, let alone his feelings and ideas. And now — with help from the iSchool, REI, and a strong and extremely generous social network — I speak at conferences and events all over the world. I tell stories about information, about web experience, about findability and discoverability and usability, and about how people can work with information and technology to produce value and change.
In essence, I’m trying to help people create organizations that are capable of using information to learn about their situation in the world and what their users and customers need to meet their goals. I’m trying to help people create organizations that are truly built around — and driven by — information. In a way, it’s not much different from building relationships and driving positive change back in my village in West Africa.
Photo © Carlos Porto
And in another way, it’s not too different from playing. Or, rather, from relearning how to play. But instead of telling a story on a stage, I’m telling stories in cubicles, in aisles and rows, in meeting rooms, in offices, in hallways, at meetups, on blogs, and at events. Stories about using the endurance of information to synthesize and build ideas that last.
So we see that the iSchool produces not just information professionals, but information ambassadors. And these ambassadors — we, the people in this room, the students on campus, our local community, all of us together — tell stories about how people can use information and technology.
This has been a core structural element of my studies in the iSchool, where we balance people, information, and technology in equal parts. But the whole is greater than the sum of these parts because in achieving our balance, we fulfill the promise of our vision to “help people achieve their potential and to harness the capacity of information as an agent for positive change.”
Information endures. It persists. And it is pervasive. And so are the stories we tell.