Monday, May 21, 2012

Being chased by ravening informavores

I posted this a couple of years ago, but the original version is gone; here it is again, in slightly altered form.
Imagine yourself a gentle woodland creature, perhaps a deer. You're peacefully munching on ferns and acorns in the forest, like Bambi, moving from one patch of fresh greenery to another, until...
Well, there's no "until" in this story; you spend the rest of your life in the pursuit of various deer-appropriate activities, and the curtain comes down long before your unfortunate encounter with a pack of wolves.
If we were to ask a group of biologists to tell this story, they'd be able to flesh it out with any number of details: the kinds of plants you find nourishing as deer fodder; your weight, coloring, and other physical characteristics; even what your life has probably been like up until now. They'd be able to describe your deerhood down to the hairs in your coat. This isn't the only way to tell such a story, though. Some of the biologists' mathematically oriented cousins, the behavioral ecologists, have traded in their magnifying glasses for satellite cameras, abandoning details for generality. For example, a behavioral ecologist might say,
Once upon a time, in a forest in which patches of edible foliage were uniformly distributed with such and such parameters, various groups of deer spent x hours on average within one patch before moving to another...
This bedtime story should put you (not to mention your children) right to sleep. But here's the thing: if we can tell such ecological stories accurately, we should be able to answer a lot of interesting questions. For example, "Given a particular foraging behavior we observe, what kind of environment might this animal have evolved in?" Or "If a drought is expected this summer, reducing flora of this kind, is this species likely to survive, given its usual behavior?" Or even a bit farther afield, "Given the rate at which temperatures are rising in the Arctic, along with our knowledge of polar bears, including their swimming range, how far are they from extinction?" And so forth. I've made up these specific examples, but they all fall within the scope of behavioral ecology. 

"But why should I care about any of this?"

Let me tell you a different story...
I'm browsing through Facebook and I come across an update that points to an interesting story in the news. I follow the link to a newspaper Web site, and after I'm finished I see, on the sidebar, other articles that are popular. I move on, happily reading and even commenting until eventually I am eaten by wolves—
Oops, sorry, I forgot which story I was telling. But you can see how I might have become confused. I'm telling the same story about myself that I told about a deer, except that I'm foraging for information. The insight concerning this parallel is due to George Miller (whose name is familiar to Psych 101 students—the magical number seven plus-or-minus two may ring a bell). Miller observed that just as animals consume food, human beings and other higher organisms consume information: we're informavores. One of the implications of this view is that the scientific concepts used to model animal ecologies can also be applied to human information environments.
Peter Pirolli and Stu Card, cognitive scientists at PARC, have explored this idea in detail. Among other things, they've defined some new conceptual terms for Web designers to think about, such as information foraging and information scent. "Information scent is a metaphor for proximal cues that guide users in navigating toward distal information," as I once wrote elsewhere. In other words, we can think of the World Wide Web as consisting of patches of information that we move in and between, trying to maximize the value of what we're absorbing as we go. The little snippets of text associated with hyperlinks that we can click on (or decide not to click on) are the information scent for the Web pages they reach.
These concepts are more than a metaphorical way of describing what people are doing when they surf the Web. They can be used prescriptively. The Web is an artificially designed information environment, one that can be tailored to what is known about human information foraging patterns: how we allocate attention between competing sources of information; how we combine what we see with what we already know; even the mechanics of how we point at and click on information items we find interesting. Our interaction with a given Web site can be optimal, by some measure, if it is designed to be so. In theory, at least...
So if a deer sees a bunch of bright red berries in the middle distance and thinks, "Yummy," he's doing much the same as I am when I see a link and consider following it. More yummy information. And when we've had our fill, or at least grazed for a while, we move on. The next time you hear someone say, "We're closer to animals than we think," you have another reason to agree.

I'll end with a disclaimer: I'm a computer scientist rather than a behavioral ecologist; this is my understanding of the area. I've also written a little bit about the work of Peter Pirolli and Stu Card elsewhere, and I chat with them on occasion.

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