Chaos and Categories

Everyone who generates paper knows the horror of filing. Half the agony is knowing where to put something: chronologically, alphabetically, by project, by method? Categories make us crazy. Avant-garde writer (and one-time librarian) Jorge Luis Borges points this out:

These ambiguities, redundances, and deficiences recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance. [Essay: “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins” {source}]

So… things accumulate in piles. Finding something requires your visual memory to be blazing sharp. The longer you live, the more challenging this becomes. I hate shuffling through files and piles. We transfer this same mindset to our computers. Did I put that great picture of me in the “Myself” folder or in the “Florida2008” folder?

I went hunting for a better way. David Weinberger wrote a book called Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder. I watched a video lecture by him. My conclusion (for digital files anyway, starting with photos): to hell with categorizing and filing… learn to tag (multiple words of any useful type) and get better at searching by tag.

It seems so simple. My bookmarks at Delicious uses this structure — very useful. But, man, I still have a hard time getting my old hierarchical, filing cabinet brain around putting this in action.

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