Monday, October 22, 2007

Ordered Chaos and the Information Revolution

The way we create, categorize, archive, and retrieve information is being drastically redefined in the digital age. The idea that order and structure alone is not ultimately the best solution to deal with organizing information, but rather a healthy dose of order and chaos might work better. What I mean is that within the digital realm it is no longer necessary to think of information as being stored in a physical location for which we would need an orderly way of finding it again. No, when systems are built on a digital infrastructure we need not worry about organization so much as we ensure that information is tagged or labeled appropriately. When information is tagged or labeled appropriately we can create relationships and categories between information that previously was impossible. We can also retrieve it within milliseconds thanks to the powerful device known as the "search engine."

When thinking through this idea I can't help but compare the "information revolution" to cleaning up a messy room. What do we need to do to clean up a messy room? Some people just throw their clothes into a big pile in their closet and then scramble through it to find what they are looking for. Others use drawers, dressers, and closets to organize their clothes so that they can easily find it. This however, takes a lot of time to separate your socks, underwear, t-shirts, dress shirts, dress pants, jeans, sweatshirts, etc. into different piles and put them away so that you can find them easily next time. Now, the ultimate solution of order and chaos. Imagine that you want to change into your jeans, tee-shirt, wool socks, and hiking boots, however, your clothes are packed into an infinitely large closet. Every time you get something new you just label it and throw it in the infinite closet without concern for where it goes. Without panicking, you take one look at the closet and say out loud "white, tee-shirt", "blue, jeans", "wool, socks", "brown, hiking, boots" and instantly you are wearing everything you called out. Everything that was tagged/labeled was retrieved in milliseconds. The physical location of the clothes did not matter, only that they were out of the way AND extremely easily accessible. This is analogous to the information revolution. At the center of this revolution is the "Search Engine." It is powerful and useful when information is appropriately tagged/labeled. It is annoying to those that do not understand it because the chaos can be overwhelming until the order shines through the darkness of it all. For example, I hated using the Google Photo application Picasa at first because of the way it handled folders. I thought in order to have an effective way of finding my photos I should personally go through all my pictures and create folders and then put the pictures into the folders so that they would be neatly organized. The system laughs at that logic and says why not just use your folders as a dumping ground for your photos and use categories to organize your photos. After all you might want to put the picture of you and your friends on a camping trip into several categories such as "hiking", "friends", "Red River Gorge" and "2007". The photo only needs to be on your computer once but you can access it many different ways based on your categories. In addition, you can use the search engine to find the photo you are looking for in seconds and not because you new how to structure your photo albums, but because you tagged your photos using the categories effectively. Once I realized how to harness the power of the ordered chaos I was blown away by the genius within the system. I no longer had to go to one particular folder on my computer to find a picture. I could, in fact, find the same picture in three places at once. The following video does a great job of explaining the information revolution in a very visual way. If any of this interests you and you have an opinion, let us know by leaving a comment. Thanks to Mike Kudela for gtalking me the video link earlier today.

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