From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 31, 2007*: Please organize me!

Anyone who glances, even cursorily, at my desk, will quickly and readily, and probably also correctly, assume that I'm quite comfortable living with disorganization. Put rather simply, disorganization has become an integral part of my life. There's simply too much happening around us - too much information, too many events, simply too much stuff accumulating - to make putting things in their place (or even finding a place for them) possible. On the whole, I try to laugh in the face of the threat of this disarray. I'll often claim that I feel quite comfortable with the almost overwhelming randomness of the things that pile up around me. I'm not really bothered by the fact that the second law of thermodynamics seems to be marching through my life with a vengeance.

Yet at the same time that I feel comfortable with this perpetual disarray, I'm also acutely aware that an opposite expectation is competing with my conscience. There's always the lingering feeling, perhaps even the fear, that this isn't the way that grown up people are supposed to behave. I'm supposed to be making order out of chaos, not acquiescing to my inability to do so, and certainly not celebrating it. I'm supposed to be making sense, and "sense" is a factor of organization, of logic, of order.

Making sense may be the opposite of the second law of thermodynamics. If we view a process by which heat dissipates, by which a system moves toward diffusion of energy, we assume that we're viewing it in its proper order. This leads to one of the most accepted definitions of the second law, the simple and straightforward claim that "things fall apart". About 85 years ago, William Butler Yeats, in his perhaps too often quoted The Second Coming, connected this falling apart to a loss of logic:

Things Fall Apart; the Center Cannot Hold
Is it only through Yeats' poetry that falling apart and the inability of the center to hold are connected? After all, perhaps it's only to me that the following reasoning seems rather obvious. It is around the center that things revolve. The center is a focus, and as such it often implies a purpose. When things fall apart they lose their purpose, they're no longer anchored to anything that gives them meaning. It then becomes our job to "organize" (or reorganize) them. But centers seem to have a somewhat unavoidable tendency to get moved to the periphery. What's more, the "falling apart" of things, or in this particular context, the center-no-longer-holding of things seems to be an integral, an inevitable, part of our continuing march toward greater knowledge of our world. As we learn more, we more farther and farther away from any "center" that might exist. Copernicus moved us from the center of the universe to one planet among others revolving around the sun, and later astronomers continued demoting us until we've become no more than a speck within a speck of a galaxy. In a similar manner, Darwin took us away from being the pinnacle of creation, from being the ultimate purpose of life on earth, and told us instead, among other things, that our existence was little more than a successful adaptation, devoid of any actual purpose beyond survival.

But these columns are supposed to deal with the integration of the internet and information technologies in our lives, not with sophomoric philosophical musings. What, if within this context it's proper to ask, is the point here? Well, on a rather fundamental level, David Weinberger's recent Everything is Miscellaneous can be understood as a celebration of our inability to organize things. He tells us that if we really want to find something, the prevailing metaphor of categorizing or compartmentalizing, it isn't the right way to go about doing this. Weinberger traces a history of classification from Aristotle to the present, and tells us that that any attempt at "organizing" knowledge is not only arbitrary, but perhaps even counter-productive. Our intentions may be good, but our attempts to organize lead us to bark up a tree which might not be the one we want to climb. Weinberger seems to be doing for knowledge what Copernicus did for the earth, and Darwin did for humankind. It's no longer "the center cannot hold". Instead, we're told that it's best to hold on to our knowledge without centering it.

What Weinberger tells us, however, seems to go beyond a simple injunction about how we should, or shouldn't organize our knowledge. It also tries to tell us something about our place in the universe. Throughout history or attempts to organize knowledge have been more than just attempts to make it more accessible to us. These attempts have also been a means by which we find our place in the universe. Yet Weinberger now tells us that we don't really have a place, but rather many places, and that all places that we might choose as ours are equally valid. If this is the case, even though what he suggests seems considerably less earth-shattering than the ramifications of the Copernian or Darwinian revolutions, there's a very fundamental threat here to how we see ourselves. Though we may take pride in being disorganized, most of us probably have a deep-seated sense that it's our responsibility to create order, that it's ethically wrong to acquiesce to disorganization.

We seem to desperately want to avoid the fact that living with disorganization is really possible. We constantly seek to establish order, and if establishing that order isn't possible, then perhaps the best we can do is uncover the organizing value of disorder. I don't have any statistics on this matter, but I wouldn't be surprised if many readers of Weinberger's book start out resisting its arguments, but ultimately find comfort in them, along the lines of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em": If we're condemned to living with disorganization, then at least we can acknowledge that through maintaining disorder we're more able to find information that we want or need.

Having more or less examined the almost existential meaning of disorganization, all I have to do now is find some elegant way of ending this column. Often, I write the final paragraph of these columns well before I write the middle. Having a sandwich-like framework, knowing where I've started, and where I intend to end up, I can ordinarily allow myself to drift a bit in between without getting totally lost. But disorganization is as disorganization does. In this particular column, rather than knowing precisely where I'm heading, I've let myself wander (even more than usual). And this means that as I find myself at what I expect to be the end, I'm quite unclear as to how this column should be brought to a close. There's probably a certain degree of poetic justice in letting disorganization get the best of me and in simply allowing this column to drift off into incoherence

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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