Ambient Findability … Huh?

How does my mind work? This post is a good example of how the process of writing is, for me, the process of understanding. It was only in writing this post that I arrived at what I really was looking for. I think I knew the answer but was only able to articulate it after writing this. It goes like this (btw … feel free to skip to the end to find what I was actually looking for):

I’m reading Peter Morville‘s 2005 book Ambient Findability, a book about … well, ambient findability. Of course, the question for the layperson is, what in the world is ambient findability? In an online interview with Boxes and Arrows, the author says, “Ambient findability describes a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.”

Well, that tells me what it does, but is what it does what it is? (How’s that for a baffling sentence?)

Perhaps this is a confusion in the interview. The question asked is, “What is ‘ambient findability’?” It refers to the concept. The answer, however, may be a response to “What is ‘Ambient Findability’?, referring to the book. Except, that is also how the book defines ambient findability.

Here’s the thing … I have the book (haven’t finished reading it yet), and I’ve been online looking for a clearly stated definition of the term “ambient findability.” I can’t find one. (It doesn’t appear to be particularly findable, ambient or otherwise.) I don’t really need one. I can intuit a definition from usage. And I can get a sense from the author’s quote above.

What I’m really looking for is the relationship between the word “ambient” and “findability.” From the little I’ve read, it seems the word ambient is unnecessary. It seems as if findability alone would do the trick. Unless “ambient” is meant to imply a world of “… ubiquitous computing and the Internet …” Is the term meant to limit the frame of reference to the environment implicit in that: computing and the Internet? If so, it’s still a bit non-specific. As is findability. Something can be found within the environment that surrounds it – but where is the reference to the Internet, data, bits and bytes?

It sounds picky. It is picky. But I really like clearly defined concepts. I also wonder if the word ambient is the best word to use here. Outside the field of study, I wonder how many people would get excited about a phrase like that, much less know what is meant by it? If the concept(s) behind it are of importance, shouldn’t the phrase be more intuitive, more accessible to everyone?

I’m not suggesting the book was written for a general audience. I don’t think it was. And this isn’t a review of the book – I’d have to read the entire thing for that and I’m only partly through it. This post isn’t to praise or condemn the book. It’s simply a little ranting about the language that tends to come out of the field of technology. It often seems utterly detached from the people actually using the tools of technology and the technological environment that constitutes our daily “ambience.”

On the other hand … perhaps the key is in the book itself, in the definition. The definition in the book is pretty much the same as the quote above, but with greater detail. In defining/describing findability, Morville writes, “Findability requires definition, distinction, difference. In physical environments, size, shape, color and location set objects apart. In the digital realm, we rely heavily on words. Words as labels. Words as links. Keywords.”

He continues, “The humble keyword has become surprisingly important in recent years. As a vital ingredient in the online search process, keywords have become part of our everyday experience … And words are the key to our success.”

I think that pretty much explains the reason for the phrase, and the book’s title. Baffling as it may be to the lay person, the phrase is certainly distinct.

In the book, under “Definition,” he defines the two words of the phrase ambient findability and wraps his explanation with, “Ambient findability describes a fast emerging world …” Again, the definition is about what it does and not what it is. Maybe what it does is what it is. But it keeps buggering me up because it doesn’t read like a definition but a like a description.

So … here’s my attempt at a definition that reads like a definition:

Ambient findability: the ability, or lack thereof, to find or be found within a given surrounding environment. (see, Digital ambient findability, DAF)

Digital ambient findability: (also known by the acronym DAF), the ability, or lack thereof, to find or be found within a digital environment, especially the Internet, often referred to more simply as ambient findability. (see, Ambient Findability)

Yes, I know, I know. Seems a very long-winded way to go just for that. Btw … if you can revise, improve upon or replace my definition(s), please do so. They’re not intended as the be all and end all. They’re just suggestions.

Note: I’ve made an edit, deleting some pointless material at the start of this post. Initially I used strikethrough so you could see how moronic I can be but it made for too much struck text preceding the actual post. Mea culpa.