Categories and their utter impossibility of reflecting the current real world

Screen shot 2013-06-10 at 9.55.51 PMOpen up a "New Post" window, start typing.

Look at the categories on the right side of the screen – my screen, not yours. There's an infinite scrolling list of them, from "Americana" to "zzz Draft Postings". Somehow, categories became the wrong way to describe what is in this blog; aside from "Ann Arbor", there's few of them that have routine postings. But with almost 3000 articles written, it's had to imagine any coherent way to recategorize them.

The problem with categories, buckets, or really any hierarchical system for putting things in one place or another is that there's always the new thing that defies categorization and asks for its own category. I'm not willing to have a big "Other" category, but I am willing to have an "Oklahoma" category that only gets a few posts a year (earthquakes, tornados).

I've used systems that depend heavily on categorization to make them work. You set up some kind of ongoing task depending on how things or (worse) people are sorted into buckets. Suddenly the world needs bright divisions between one kind of thing and another kind of thing, and any ambiguity about status has to collapse into a single value to make the system make sense.

Some tools in my experience have been better than others for recategorization. I've written before about Maxthink, a 1980s era MS-DOS "idea processor" (still available in Windows) that has a concept of "binsort", which is an extraordinarily rapid and keyboard-driven way to shuffle and reshuffle items into a hierarchy. That system never really got enough traction to be copied wholesale by any other system, and so it lives on in the world only through dim memories and hardcore users.

Reshuffling a tree with lots of existing categories is really hard work, because short of wiping out all previous categorization and starting anew you are almost guaranteed to have some vestiges of the old order in place as you're trying to assert a new set of groupings. Even the infinitely flexible Wikipedia has this problem, as it inherited some parts of its classification system from older encyclopedias like Brittanica.

So I struggle with sorting through the contents and give up more often than not, relying instead on search rather than careful categorization to unearth old things and to draw relationships among nominally related works. It's the problem that everything is miscellaneous and too many things are interrelated and that my knowledge of the world too often seems a mile wide and an inch deep.

Compounding the problem of miscellany is the tendency of our Internet to rot out from under us, with old sites and old links disappearing as people redesign or move on or give up. There's hardly any way to refer to something without quoting it nearly in full, for fear that when you want to go back to it there will be nothing there to see. 

I seem to be rambling, what was the point again? Oh, categories and their utter impossibility of reflecting the current real world and the horrific difficulties of rethinking them half way through your efforts to use them. It so happens that I have a categorization category, which hopefully has some relationship to this brief essay.

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One thought on “Categories and their utter impossibility of reflecting the current real world

  1. F. Andy Seidl

    Hierarchical taxonomies (especially when categories are mutually exclusive) are typically useful only within well defined domains. But how would you categorize a post about an oil painting by Andy Warhol of Albert Einstein playing poker with Erwin Schrödinger on the grass in Champ de Mars?
    Of course, there’s an massive science (and art) to this sort of thing, but for blogging, I like to stick with a small number of very broad, mostly non-overlapping “categories”–like, “Science”, “Politics”, “Religion”, “Software”, “General”–and resist putting a post into more than one category. But then, have a large number of (hierarchical) “tags” that can be freely assigned wherever relevant.

    Reply

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