The Shape of Content to Come

Or, Information Architecture, Minimalist music, LEGO bricks, and a visit from the President of the People’s Republic of China

As I sat stuck on the bus yesterday for an hour and a half, crawling through traffic delayed and re-routed by an impending visit from President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China, I listened for the first time to John Adams’ 1987 opera Nixon in China.

I grew up listening both to the masters of “traditional” classical music and to revolutionary 20th-century composers like Copeland and Stravinsky — the first CD I ever bought for myself, back in 1983 (the year CDs were released in Japan), was the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra’s recording of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Later, I learned to love opera when I sang in the chorus for Carmen with the oldest active symphony west of the Mississippi (a fun fact about the Walla Walla Symphony). But despite passionate recommendations from Music Major friends in college, I’d never really dug particularly deeply into Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt, Terry Riley, or John Adams. Hearing The Chairman Dances on the radio over the weekend, I realized I’d been missing something.

Whether writing software documentation earlier in my career as a technical writer, specifications and user stories more recently as a product manager, or poetry and fiction whenever I can find the creative and emotional space to write it, music has always played a significant part in my writing process. From Bach and Beethoven to Johnny Cash and Sigur Rós, just about any music helps me focus and concentrate, while the right music can help me maintain the emotional state I want to explore when writing poetry in particular.

This is not to say that music is somehow subordinate or subservient to writing. Music is in all probability the first art form that we humans created. Paleoanthropologists have excavated Aurignacian flutes from numerous sites across Europe — swan and vulture rib bones, cave bear femurs, and mammoth ivory carefully drilled with finger holes.

Flauta paleolítica
Aurignacian flute, ca. 43,000 BP. Photo by José-Manuel Benito Álvarez, via Wikimedia Commons

With such incontrovertible evidence from 43,000 years ago, there is no doubt that music extends far back into the Paleolithic and may even precede the emergence of our species in Africa 200,000 years ago (I think it’s only a matter of time before the historically understudied African Middle or Later Stone Age reveals no less incontrovertible evidence of our African ancestors making music). Music was likely already a major component of the ritual activities that took place surrounded by the cave art of Chauvet and Lasceaux.

But the written word did not emerge until tens of thousands of years later in the Fertile Crescent and China, and did not evolve to include what we would consider “art” until even later, with poetry such as the “Epic of Gilgamesh” from around 2,100 BCE.

British Museum Flood Tablet
The Epic of Gilgamesh, ca. 2,100 BCE. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Thus, music serves to aid my thought processes as it has for my ancestors for the past tens of thousands of years, and writing is just one potential outcome of the thinking process.

At the same time, what I write myself and work with every day (I’m the director of the planning and design team for a software company that builds tools for writers) has always had a definable shape. I’m not talking about the butterflies and triangles that writers of concrete poetry use or even the hierarchies and so-called structures that luminaries in the content business talk about at conventions and write about in thick books about content strategy. No, visual poetic devices on a page and cascading sequences of technical content are at best two-dimensional (and more often than not merely linear).

For me, content has the kind of shape you can hold in your hands. When I’m writing a poem, the experience is much like drawing a lump of clay up from the potter’s wheel into a plate, a pot, a vase. Carrying the simile perhaps one step too far, the carving, burnishing, and glazing that follows a pot’s drying process are much like the editing process with words — trim here, add there, change this and that.

From Point to TesseractThings get a bit … weirder in my head with complex business content — websites, software help systems, multilingual hardware manuals, drug labels and other pharmaceutical content. Beyond the tangible three-dimensional shapes I perceive when writing poetry, modules of content and their variations, the relationships between pieces of content, the content’s metadata, and the intended uses for the content all combine to begin taking a shape beyond the confines of three-dimensional space. If a poem is a beautifully crafted but rather straightforward cube, a drug label — with its relationships to regional and local prescribing information, varying approval statuses by regulatory authority, and forthcoming indications in Phase III clinical trials — is nothing short of a tesseract (the four-dimensional cube animated here).

Most people talk about content in terms of the end products (novels, poems, or documents) and their storage media (books and files). Even when we talk about the rich landscapes of great works of fiction like The Grapes of Wrath or The Lord of the Rings, we fall back to tired, linear mental models like the “inverted check mark” that every English Major has seen scratched on a chalkboard — tension building in a long line to a climax, with a short downward dip for the denouement after resolution of the story’s central conflict.

Inverted checkmark for The Lord of the Rings
A really boring story?

Despite fancy words we use in business content like “metadata,” “reuse,” and “modularity,” the way we actually describe and work with content is no less flat than the boring ways we analyze fiction. If language reflects the way we think, we’re thinking about content all wrong. Content is about complex relationships, tangible structures, and the interplay of ideas and their expression. Every piece of content has a shape.

One way I break out of linear and two-dimensional ways of thinking about content is by approaching it in a literally physical form. Thanks to my lifelong LEGO hobby, both my home and office are strewn with boxes of little plastic bricks from Denmark. When talking about content with colleagues, I often build what I’m describing, with specific colors representing certain content types and different bricks above, below, and behind to represent the relationships between the core content we’re discussing and other, related content. Not surprisingly, this mental model has worked much better with colleagues and customers than lengthy enumerations of content types and metadata in a spreadsheet or a linear hierarchy of elements and attributes.

LEGO Andrew plays with LEGO. Is the white tile the content and the red stud the metadata?

Interestingly, the language and processes of the Minimal music aesthetic also focuses on repetition, modularity, and complex structure. What I discovered this week is that the music itself creates a shape in my mind in the same way that both literature and complex business content do. For example, in Adams’ “The Chairman Dances,” repeated phrases from the piccolos and a pulsing bass rhythm anchor the two ends of the score’s range and build on each other over the course of the piece, with transitions to variations on more traditional musical genres such as Big Band music from the 1930’s. The similarity to the Information Architecture concepts of modularity, reuse, and variation is even more evident in “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” with its persistent wood block percussion and varyingly repetitive trumpet notes. (I’m listening to Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach as I write this post, but my brain hurts a bit processing its shape.)

So, if music influences thinking, and thinking yields writing, perhaps we should be listening to more Philip Glass and John Adams while playing with LEGO bricks, and reading fewer big books about Information Architecture and Content Strategy…

A Paleolithic typology joke

François Bordes on how to tell the difference between a Mousterian point and a convergent scraper:

The best way to decide is to haft the piece and try to kill a bear with it. If the result is successful, then it is a point; if not, then it should be considered a convergent scraper. One of the problems with this approach is that it can quickly exhaust the available supply of bears or typologists

– As paraphrased by André Debénath and Harold L. Dibble in Handbook of Paleolithic Typology: Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Europe (1994)


Grizzly by “Life as Art” on Flickr

The detritus of hominid existence

Debénath & Dibble on the sheer scale of what lies beneath:

Handaxe by John FrereImagine … that during the time of the Acheulian in Europe, which lasted for at least 500,000 years, there was a constant population of 5,000 active tool makers. Imagine also that each of these flintknappers made only ten bifaces per year and perhaps 100 flake tools. Even with such conservative parameters…, this would have resulted in the production of 25,000,000,000 bifaces and 250,000,000,000 flake tools, of which only a minuscule proportion has been collected during the history of Paleolithic research.

– André Debénath and Harold L. Dibble in Handbook of Paleolithic Typology: Lower and Middle Paleolithic of Europe (1994)

Sherding for Jomon pottery in Yokohama

In 1983, my family moved from the medieval castle town of Himeji in western Japan to the outskirts of Yokohama. We had also lived in Yokohama for two years after I was born in Tokyo, and my minister father was being transferred back to work at his church’s headquarters in Asahi-ku. We lived in a mouldering compound of American ranch houses built for western missionaries. Constructed 40 years earlier in an era when American missionaries had Japanese maids, the houses even had a small apartment on the other side of the kitchen, behind the garage — a single tiny room with tatami mats and a bathroom with a deep Japanese furo that I sometimes preferred to the American bathtubs elsewhere in the house.

Through the power of satellite photography, I can see my old home, the easternmost house in the row of four toward the center of this screen capture (sent to me by a friend in 2011).

My childhood home, from space

The first thing I learned in Yokohama was to drop my Kansai accent and start talking like the Kanto children around me.

One of the next things I learned was that we lived atop a giant Jōmon midden. A midden is the kitchen scrap-heap of an archaeological site. Like the famous Tells of Middle Eastern archaeology, kitchen middens can grow to enormous proportions over the millennia as humans live near or on top of their growing garbage heap. Shell middens specifically include shellfish remains, but in Japan the term 貝塚 (kaizuka) is used as a general term for various types of archaeological middens, regardless of any evidence of actual shellfish processing at the site.

The Jōmon period (縄文時代) began about 16,000 years ago and lasted until the beginning of the Yayoi period (弥生時代) in about 300 BCE, with the introduction of rice-based agriculture. The Jōmon people made some of the earliest pottery in the world, but despite their sedentary lifestyle in villages and their intensive use of earthenware (土器), they were a predominantly pre-agricultural society of hunter-gatherers. Thus, the Jōmon period is considered transitional between the Paleolithic in Japan (旧石器時代) and the Iron Age Yayoi with their bronze bells, iron swords, and rice paddies.

How did the people of Japan leap from the Paleolithic straight to the Iron Age? The general consensus among archaeologists, geneticists, linguists, physical anthropologists, and historians is that the Jōmon people represent Japan’s aboriginal inhabitants, while the Yayoi people were an immigrant population of East Asians from the mainland, who moved into Japan (probably from Korea, though that is a controversial hypothesis for a variety of reasons) and then pushed out or intermingled with the native population.

Hokkaido, 1976Starting around 2,300 years ago, the Yayoi culture and the later Yamato culture steadily replaced the Jōmon culture, until the Ainu people alive in Hokkaido today remain the last descendants of Japan’s original Jōmon. With the colonization of Hokkaido following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the invasion of the Yamato people across the islands of the Japanese archipelago was finally complete after more than two thousand years.

As I learned myself while attending Japanese elementary school in Yokohama, every Japanese child learns key archaeological details about the Jōmon period. Crafted without a wheel using coiled clay and fired in an open bonfire at fairly low temperatures, Jōmon potters often applied designs to their earthenware by pressing or rolling twine onto the wet clay. This is where the archaeological period gets its name: “Jōmon” means “rope-marked”.

Archaeological sites are so common in the densely populated country that some go unexcavated. Near my home in Yokohama, modern machines with their ever-deeper plowing turned up more and more Jōmon potsherds in each furrow. Nearly every weekend for three years, I scoured the fields for these potsherds, hauling home plastic shopping bags full of broken pieces pressed with the classic, rope-marked pattern of pottery from the Early Jōmon phase (between 6,000 and 4,500 years ago).

A few years after we moved away from Yokohama, on a day when I must have felt particularly bored or lonely, I went through one of my boxes of sherds and managed to assemble a larger section from 6 different pieces. The hours I spent trying to fit potsherds together indicate just how seriously I took my future as an archaeologist.

Jomon potsherds (1)

Every so often in Yokohama, I would find a more substantial potsherd, usually from a thicker vessel with the kinds of beautifully embossed patterns more typical of the Middle and Late Jōmon phases. Given their beauty, these were rare and exciting finds, even if the farmers didn’t seem to think so — they were usually tossed to the edge of the field like troublesome stones.

Jomon potsherd (7)

The vast carrot fields atop the hill to the north of our little American neighborhood yielded the most pottery — from small fragments to large sherds with ornate, swirling patterns.

Jomon potsherd (3)

In the years since a former neighbor emailed me a screenshot of our old houses on Google Maps, a new imaging pass has revealed that our four American-style oddities have been torn down, replaced by a modern neighborhood of over thirty proper Japanese houses. Similarly, the carrot fields to the north of the missionary compound have been replaced by the Wakabadai apartment complex — a convenient, one-hour train ride straight into downtown Tokyo.

Yokohama, 1975I can take a virtual walk along the Tomei Expressway to my old elementary school, and I can even see the shadow of the Japanese lantern where I had my picture taken when I was a baby. As I peruse photos taken from space of the Japanese streets I knew so well, while connected from my living room in Seattle to a global network of computers, it becomes clear how much has changed in just 30 years. Our satellites also look outward, finding unseen planets and revealing a universe of limitless wonder.

Yet, as I hold a 5,000-year-old Jōmon potsherd in my hand, I wonder what we’ve lost beneath all those apartment buildings, the bank, the ramen shop, and the train station with its express service to Shinjuku. What do we destroy when we pave over ten thousand years of history for another hamburger joint?

And how will future archaeologists assess these first layers as they scrape away our present and reveal the past we share with them?

Of mammoths past and mammoths future

In the entrance hall of the Historical Museum of Hokkaido stand two enormous skeletons — a mammoth and a Naumann’s elephant, another type of woolly, Pleistocene proboscidean native to Japan. By the time I visited the museum at age three or four, I had seen living elephants at the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo and the Maruyama Zoo in Sapporo. The enormous curved tusks arched over my head, and I knew instantly that I was in the presence of something altogether different and wonderful.

Historical Museum of Hokkaido ticket

An artifact: My mother saved the entrance ticket to the museum

We walked past cases of Jomon pottery and through the dark halls of ethnographic dioramas depicting Ainu lifeways. The museum opened just a few years earlier, in 1971, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Western-style colonization of Hokkaido by ethnic Japanese people following the Meiji Restoration. Hokkaido today is full of beautiful Victorian buildings that would be at home in any of the nicer neighborhoods of San Francisco, Chicago, or Seattle. As is typical the world over, the process of colonization did not go well for the aboriginal peoples. But I’ll save a discussion of the complexities of modern Japan as a multiethnic society for another day…

I got scared of the strange, dimly lit mannequins with their beards and furs, so my mother took me outside to walk around on the museum grounds, where we encountered a rock wall of hand stencils like the ones I’d see when I grew older, a motif that ties together Paleolithic cultures the world over.

Despite my fear, from that moment on, I became fascinated with humanity’s shared past. I needed to understand those other people who lived in a time when mammoths and aurochs roamed the open steppe. By the time I was 5 had learned that people who studied deep human history were called archaeologists, and the people who dug up mammoths were called paleontologists. As awed as I was by that mammoth, it was the people who intrigued me. Following the invariable fireman phase and a brief flirtation with wanting to be a ballerina (after seeing the Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake), I knew I wanted to become an archaeologist.

When adults asked me, I would inform them of this fact, to which most would say, “So you want to dig up dinosaurs? That sounds like fun!”

“No,” I would reply, “That’s a paleontologist, like Louis Leakey in Africa. I want to become an archaeologist.”

By the mid-80’s, adults would then follow with “Oh, of course, like Indiana Jones!”

I’d sigh and say, “No, not like him. Indiana Jones is just a grave robber. I want to be like Heinrich Schliemann. He discovered Troy.”

Large proportions of my education having consisted of back issues of National Geographic and old sets of Encyclopædia Britannica, I was, in hindsight, rather insufferable.

There really are moments in the course of your life when it shifts to a new direction. In the years since, I’ve collected Jomon potsherds from carrot fields in Yokohama, participated in digs (the Tategahana Paleolithic site at Lake Nojiri and Tall al-`Umayri in Jordan), held Neanderthal tools in my hand, and pondered axial precession under Newgrange.

And yet, nothing will ever compare to my first sight of a mammoth skeleton that day back in Hokkaido. Some day, perhaps I’ll see one in the flesh…

The official word-hoard of Andrew Becraft