Music waves (image: Piotr Siedlecki/

In 1990, three-quarters of Americans got their news from thin sheets of paper printed with ink, delivered to their doors and sold on street corners nationwide. It took just 20 years for the internet to surpass the newspaper — and television and radio — as our primary source of information and news. In just a blip of evolutionary time, humanity has seen seismic shifts in the way we create, disseminate, incorporate, and regulate the flow of information. 

“The world has very, very rapidly changed,” says SFI External Professor Paul Smaldino. Technologies and cultures intersect in unprecedented ways. We have more access to more information than in any previous time, which means “we are more uncertain than ever before about what information is relevant to us, what information is trustworthy, what to believe, and what kinds of behaviors to adopt or not,” he says.

Researchers use the term “information architectures” to describe the rules and norms that govern the spread of information, and they hypothesize that these architectures serve as a dominant force shaping society, its interactions, innovations, and ideologies. But we lack a comprehensive vocabulary for these phenomena. Our rich theories of cultural evolution were developed with pre-industrial societies in mind, and say little about social change in the era of smartphones and social media. 

“We need a new language for talking about the structure of society that encapsulates the way information is transmitted, the way people have access to information, the way certain kinds of information is constrained,” says Smaldino. 

It’s a prompt for the SFI workshop he is co-organizing (Information Architectures as Sociotechnical Competitions, May 9–11) with more than 20 participants from diverse disciplines — sociology, anthropology, biology, cognitive and political science, physics, engineering — to address a host of emerging questions: What is the most useful definition of information architecture? How do structures with top-down constraints on information (e.g., China) compare with those with minimal regulation (e.g., the United States)? How do we build theoretical models of social change and cultural evolution that take into account modern complexity — including massive inequality? 

“We’re not going to solve this problem with this workshop,” Smaldino says, but it’s a starting point for exploring emerging needs in this uncertain new world of information. “Are there actionable ways to make things better? I don’t know if the answer to that is yes,” Smaldino says, “but I want to try to find out.”