My sister was in town from Hay River this week, and she asked me to help her find a new "smartphone." I can't say we were especially successful in our quest, but I did encounter an interesting bit of system analysis in Jon Stokes' review of the new Palm handset:
“in my 15 years of using the Internet I've seen the experience of information discovery and management move back and forth between two distinct paradigms. The first of these paradigms is exemplified by the early Yahoo! directory, and I'll call it the structure-and-browse paradigm. The idea here is that with a small enough data flow, you can manage incoming information by structuring it yourself, the way that Yahoo! used humans to sort newly created webpages into categories, creating a kind of giant card catalog for the Internet. You then browse the resulting structure in order to find what you're looking for.
There's a threshold, though, beyond which the volume of data is so high that structure-and-browse becomes a losing battle. It's at this point that the second paradigm, which I'll call collect-and-query, becomes the best way to deal with the mass of unstructured data. This latter paradigm is exemplified by Google's approach to information discovery, and it always comes second because it involves swapping human effort for a combination of storage (=collect), bandwidth, and compute cycles (=query). So these resources have to become cheap enough relative to person-hours to make this tradeoff work.“
As a modern, emancipated male of the 21st century, I can identify quite readily with this understanding of management principles. Once upon a time, I was satisfied with the sort-and-shelf paradigm; in my first year of University it worked quite well. In the intervening years, I have managed to somewhat unconsciously and quite naturally begin application of the first principle of Stokes' second paradigm, Collection. I have acquired something on the order of one thousand books. I have obtained several bachelor-sized kitchen appliances. I have gained a bachelor-sized (though in this case it means quite the opposite of what it did in the kitchen) stereo system with a corresponding collection of cables and wires and interconnected umbilicals. I have more tools and supplies than I know what to do with. I own a greater number of socks than of music CDs. I own cameras which have not worked in over 50 years.
The dilemma is that human categorization efforts are futile in light of the exponentially collecting (even reproducing) amount of stuff we have to keep track of. Even if I had shelf space for it all, or could find somewhere offsite to store it, it would take almost as long to maintain the catalogue as it would for me to maintain the storage system. Even the most basic organization systems have begun to show a net-negative effect on daily efficiency--I spend more time sorting and folding socks than I do deciding which ones to wear.
The solution, according to maverick souls like the fine folks at Google, is to let computers have access to all of the stuff at the same time, and rely on them to grab it whenever you find a need for it.
The question becomes, how can I organize my bookshelf in such a way as to facilitate random-access of all books equally at the same time? How can I make my tool-drawer readily accessible for instantaneous, un-sorted queries? What would it mean to have higher-bandwidth access to my socks?
I'm working on a solution that might just work. Stay tuned.