The meaning of things – information architecture in time and space

Alastair Somerville
4 min readOct 6, 2017

There was a series of ideas I dropped from my workshop at EuroIA17 due to time constraints. This post is just a quick note on one section (there is a second post here on some other ideas).

I was sent an anthropological research paper on the I Ching a few months ago and it discussed ideas of how artefacts pass thru time and space. In their case, the Imperial Chinese coins that are cast in creating the pattern to be read.

That artefacts have meaning is obvious. That the meaning pierces thru time and place is more interesting; if only because many people can only see the version in front of them now.

This idea appears to be about Homology. How artefacts, ideas and time intersect.

This post is just a few ideas around that. I’m not sure how to use this practically but it just feels it may become relevant.

An artefact

An object holding information and intent – a book, a piece of art, a story, a programme, a tool, a thing.

An artefact in place

An object has a physical presence in a place. A thing held or seen, a word spoken or heard.

An artefact in place and time

An object known at a specific time.

An artefact near people

Information only has meaning in the presence of people. The tool must be held, the words must be read or heard.

The people beyond the artefact

Yet that meaning that those people find in the artefact in that place and time must also be contextualised by those people who are not near it. The words heard and the words unheard.

All of which gives a structure for information architecture, now.

This is information experience most people have and which most people design for.

This is contextualised information but it is not enough when discussing artefacts that exist over long periods of time and in many places. Think of the Bible or the US Constitution.

We need to frame those better.

Artefacts framed in time

Informational objects have presence over time. Their meaning can shift.

The US Constitution is probably the best current example of an artefact that has huge relevance now and yet its meaning changes over time. To discuss the Electoral College or the Second Amendment without paying attention to time is foolish. We need to be aware of time as context to make sense of things that seem solid (as they have been around over history) and yet are only meaningful in the presence of people, here and now.

Artefacts framed in space

Some objects can appear in many places at the same time and yet have different meanings.

This is particularly visible now with internet distributed information and apps. Informational things made in San Jose do not maintain the same meaning when they appear in China or wherever.

If we want to design for the diversity of humanity, we need to recognise how artefacts change over place.

Artefacts in time and space

So finally we have a shifting frame of time and space in which we and the informational objects exist.

As I said at the beginning, I’m not sure there is a practical use for this homological framing yet. However, it is interesting to be able to have a framework to place how artefacts and information shift in space and time.

By being caught in the highly specific meaning of arguments now, we lose the ability to understand that this argument uses ideas that have shifted in time and place.

The egotism of being correct now, using that data from that book now, shatters when we see the larger frameworks of societies in different times and places.

Informational diversity is perhaps a thing we can talk about.



Alastair Somerville

Sensory Design Consultant, usability researcher and workshop facilitator. Twitter @acuity_design & @visceralUX