May 14, 2009
Chaos the new order
By Gary Hayden
Life used to be so simple.When I was young, I spent years building up a vinyl-record collection. Week-by-week, month-by-month, my collection increased and each new album became a cherished possession. At night, I would lie in bed and listen to my latest acquisition until I knew every song by heart.
Now, in an age of digital downloading, things are very different. My iPod is crammed full of thousands of songs that I no longer have time to listen to. Despite this fact, I keep on buying. The upshot is that I have an enormous 'guilt list' - a backlog of unplayed albums crying out for my attention.
Here is another example of how complicated things have become. When I was young, if I wanted to speak with a friend, I either met him face-to-face or called him on his house phone. With such primitive means of communication, it was easy to lose touch with former school friends and workmates, so lots of casual friendships fell by the wayside. Even so, I somehow managed to maintain contact with my closest friends.
Now, with the advent of mobile phones, text messaging, Skype and e-mail, I can contact anyone, anywhere in the world, anytime. And anyone can contact me. The result? My social network has grown to unmanageable proportions. Every week, I find myself exchanging e-mail addresses with casual acquaintances; receiving invitations to be someone's Facebook buddy; and sinking deeper and deeper beneath a pile of unanswered e-mail messages.
I am not alone. Everyone I know is struggling to stay atop a tidal wave of electronic information. Unanswered e-mail, unlabelled digital photos, cluttered C-drives and disorganised desktops leave us all with a faint but nagging sense of guilt and inadequacy. Almost every e-mail message I receive from friends back in England begins with the words, 'Sorry it's been so long...'. We all seem to be suffering from electronic angst.
Everything is miscellaneous
With all of this in mind, I was interested recently to hear a radio interview with David Weinberger, American technologist, fellow of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, and author of the 2007 book Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power Of The New Digital Disorder.
Weinberger's thesis is that modern technology throws up so much information that we can no longer stay in control of it all. 'We're just never going to catch up," he says. The days of neatly organised documents, photos and videos are over.
So what's the problem? Is there now simply too much information? Not at all, says Weinberger. There is no such thing as too much information. The problem lies not with the quantity of information, but with our outdated expectations about how it all ought to be organised.
In the past, we kept all of our information in neatly organised files and folders. Anything that didn't fit neatly into a category ended up in the 'miscellaneous' folder, which became a symbol of disorganisation and defeat. Now all of this has changed. Now, everything is miscellaneous.
There is no longer a single best way of ordering information. Indeed, there is often little point in trying to order and classify information at all. 'We are better off", says Weinberger, 'putting everything into a huge pile that allows us to sort and order dynamically based on what we are interested in at the moment."
For example, I used to spend a lot of time sorting all of my e-mail into labelled folders. Periodically, I would have to move dozens of messages from my Inbox to the appropriate folders and this was a time-consuming and often frustrating task.
Recently, though, I've learnt not to stress so much. I allow messages to pile up in my Inbox and simply use my e-mail 'search' facility to help me find the ones I need.
A place for everything?
I am beginning to realise that I must let go of my old ways of thinking. I grew up believing in 'a place for everything, and everything in its place'. This was all very well when dealing with a couple of hundred vinyl-records, or a few dozen packets of holiday photos. In the digital world, it is a recipe for failure and frustration.
Personally, I find the realisation that 'we're just never going to catch up' strangely liberating. After all, there is no sense feeling guilty about stuff that cannot be helped, is there?
Gary Hayden is a freelance writer who specialises in education, science, philosophy, health, well-being, travel and short fiction.