Arbitrary Taxonomies and The Illusion of Precision (Pt 1)

18 04 2010

I’m often amazed at how the insights I mine from books suffer from an embarrassing lack of sophistication (my own, not the books’).  I recently completed Getting Things Done, a popular productivity self-help book and reading assignment for a management class I took.  The best thing about most business books is that their titles don’t beat around the bush.  They aren’t written for impressing people with clever turns of phrase; they’re written for busy people who walk into a book store and ask for “that book that will help me get stuff done” or “that book that will teach me the secrets of highly effective individuals.”

Since the management crowd is very sophisticated and wordly sort, their literature is supposed to posses what politicians call gravitas.  That leaves me in the awkward position of admitting that yes, I read Getting Things Done, but the the best thing I learned from it is that I should store all my reference material using a single alphabetic storage system.  Is owning up to learning seventh grade level organizational skills from one of the most popular executive handbooks worse than just saying that I never read the thing at all?  After all, in the latter case I can perpetually complain that I am so busy (because I’m so important) that I haven’t gotten around to it.  In the former case I am revealing myself as the dog who just drank the single malt you’ve been saving.  Then again, maybe the corner office set just isn’t as polished as they appeared from down the hall.

I can help it.  I love alphabetic filing.  And I love that Getting Things Done reminded me that I love alphabetic filing.  And I also love that alphabetic filing  has made me feel that I may just be wiser than lots of people who are smarter than me, from programming language designers to Olympic judges.  And I always love a book that makes me think I’m smart.

The modern world urges us all toward obsessive compulsiveness.  I know you think you’re the easy going guy or girl who doesn’t care if the pictures hang straight, but our collective corporate culture may have you so confused that you don’t even recognize the other OCD gremlins who might be barking up your tree.  Let me give you an example.  Rate the movie “Avatar” on a scale of 1-5 stars, with 5 being the best rank.  Was there any part of you that was compelled to saying something like “3.5 stars” (or “1.5 stars”)?  If not, can you think of anyone you know that you’re sure would respond with a number that includes a decimal point?  I’m sure that if you didn’t put it in there, you can think of more than a few people who just might.

Why is that? I asked you to rank something using stars, which are objects that come in whole numbers.  What’s 3.5 stars supposed to be?  Were you not satisfied with the choices I gave you?  Even giving you 5 stars was too much.  The idea that the human mind can rank anything as subjective as movie quality with anything that even approaches the need for fractional increments is absurd – and a little silly too.  If you require more than 4 or 5 choices to produce a ranking that you cannot base on quantifiable numbers, you are deluded into believing your judgments posses more precision than is biologically feasible and should therefore forfeit your signed copy of Good To Great.

I’m teasing you, but I hope you can see my point.  We know that we cannot hold more and five or six things at once in our short term memory.  And that’s just for simple memorization.  We probably need to reduce that number if we’re expected to process these entities.  Assigning rankings, considering alternatives and all the other tasks that go along with making decisions with our knowledge can only be processed in small chunks and then synthesized into a whole.  Each step of the way, we need to identify the appropriate way to process each chunk.  If the chunk can be evaluated objectively, then hooray.  If not, then we need a means of simplifying the problem and limit the unavoidable effects of subjectivity.

In my next post, I’ll talk about how I learned to do that, and what all of this has to do with alphabetic filing.




2 responses

18 04 2010
Productivity, Motivation, and Personal Development Links – 18th April 2010 - DIGTD - Making You More Productive

[…] fourth link is a link to a great titled blog post, Arbitrary Taxonomies and The Illusion of Precision. This is listed as Part 1 and is based on the view of a reader who has just finished the Getting […]

27 04 2010
Arbitrary Taxonomies and The Illusion of Precision (Pt 2) « Candid Folly

[…] Taxonomies and The Illusion of Precision (Pt 2) 27 04 2010 In my first post on this subject, I made a fuss about how we fool ourselves into thinking we’ve made imprecise things precise […]

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