Accidents of Information

Alan Dix
Computing Department, Infolab21, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK
< Alan on the Web >

Keynote Talk at Healthcare Information Giving Services and Future ICTS, 6 April 2005, Lancaster UK

Download: slides (PDF, 138K)


In this talk I addressed the ways in which documents, books, lists etc become observably arranged as a part of ordinary work. The ways in which information can be observed play an important role in working meaningfully with information.

The word 'accidents' in the title does not refer to mistakes or failures, but is instead picking up on the philosophical distinction between accidents as observable attributes as compared with substance as the inner essence. The informational substance of a piece of paper may be that it is a report. However, the accidents of its form, the fact that one edge is yellowed, the lack of a fold mark by its staples, tells you it is old, has been in a pile (near a window), probably intending to be read, but has never been read at all. Sometimes the accidents tell you more than the substance.

The dispositional accidents - how an artefact is placed and orientated in its environment also tells you much about it. For a piece of paper it may say "urgent, please don't forget me" if placed on a keyboard or your chair. For a sign or notice, the location becomes part of the semiotic frame, the things surrounding the sign and of the sign that suggests how to read it - what interpretative scheme or language to apply to it.

Keywords: artefacts and paper, semiotic frame, information systems

Full reference:

A. Dix (2005) Accidents of Information Invited talk at Healthcare Information Giving Services and Future ICTS, 6 April 2005, Lancaster UK.

The workshop was organised by the Ideal Project

My understanding of the importance of semiotic frame has developed in meetings of the Non-place Network. In addition just after this talk at a meeting in Stanstead airport the reflexive way in which signs talk about who they are for and when they should be read also become apparent.

An extensive analysis of properties of artefacts can be found in:
D. Ramduny-Ellis, A. Dix, P. Rayson, V. Onditi, I. Sommerville and J. Ransom (2005). Artefacts as designed, Artefacts as used: resources for uncovering activity dynamics. In Special Issue on Collaboration in Context: Cognitive and Organizational Artefacts, P. Jones, C. Chisalita, and G. van der Veer (eds.), Cognition, Technology and Work, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp: 76-87 web site for paper

Alan Dix 25/3/2006