19 Mar 2012

Digital content: Are we lost without spatial navigation?

The Problem With the Web and E-Books Is That There’s No Space for Them, according to Mark Changizi. Changizi argues that prior to the emergence of the internet and ebooks, our information storage and retrieval mechanisms were primarily spatial in nature and could be physically navigated. That is, to locate a specific piece of information, for example population statistics, you would use your own existing knowledge and visual cues to remember where the relevant information was and to locate it: the census reports located on the bottom shelf in your office, with familiar paragraph structures and blocks of text to act as cues for navigating to the right information quickly. Essentially Changzi believes this type of spatial navigation process harnesses our brains' natural capabilities, but crucially depends on "fixed spatial placement within the book and on the page" - something which, in his view, web and ebook content generally lacks. Similar spatial cues don't exist when you try to find information online for example. Many people don't remember URLs, often they may even be subject to frequent change, and they aren't arranged in a spatial way like shelves in a library. Instead you typically use a search engine to find what you want.

Is finding digital content really that counter-intuitive?
I am not so sure about this. To me it seems pretty inefficient to always navigate information spatially in this way compared to the full text searching capabilities offered by digital content. Is "spatial navigability" really so essential? And does online and electronic content fundamentally change the information search process at such a basic level? I am no cognitive scientist but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that people's information behaviour is changing, and this is not necessarily a 'bad' thing. Kuhlthau's Information Search Process model is also a useful reference point here. Kulthau's research shows that the ISP Model (a constructive sense-making model of the stages involved in the information seeking process) applies as much in the digital environment as it does in the printed world (Kuhlthau, Heinström and Todd, 2008).

Digital publishing can offer added value compared to fixed spatial placement
Navigating information spatially in print may have made sense when this was the only option. Take an atlas for example: the idea of representing the world on a series of static, fixed, 9" X 12" printed pages bound together may have been a useful way of locating places when this was the best we had. However does it make sense to continue doing so, just because your brain might be used to the visual and spatial cues included in a printed atlas, when we have Google maps - an undoubtedly far more suitable way of storing and navigating geographic information? It is hard to imagine that the answer is yes.

Kuhlthau, C.C., Heinström, J. and Todd, R.J. 2008. "The 'information search process' revisited: is the model still useful?" Information Research, 13(4) paper 355. [Online] Available: http://informationr.net/ir/13-4/paper355.html


  1. This post is spot on. As of recently I find myself more and more involved in conversations where people who don't really use technology (at all) believe (based simply on their own opinion) that digital content and the web in general are affecting our information behaviour for the worse. There is a widespread myth/belief that searching digital content or searching the web for information is lazy and generally 'bad' for our cognitive processes. Also, people believe that guessing information and developing arguments on non-factual information is better than instantly discovering the facts and then discussing and building upon them. Funnily enough I tend to be their source of information! I wish more people realised that once one develops good analytic and searching skills (and critical skills!!), digital content retrieval is far superior and democratic than print content retrieval, usually stashed somewhere obscure and only accessible to few chosen ones. Until then it's a battle against lazy late adopters :)

  2. Thanks a lot for the comment. I agree completely with your view regarding the obvious advantages and efficiencies offered by digital content relative to print - subject to the caveat of the need for critical appraisal of such sources.

    Indeed there is even an argument to be made that the shift towards the internet as the main source of information, will *force* people to develop their analytical and critical skills, whereas people often viewed traditional print reference sources (EB for example - http://bit.ly/9dRcHi) as reputable and authoritative without much questioning, such was (is?) the level of trust in the printed word. Surely encouraging this kind of culture of questioning and critical thinking is desirable