Chaotic Data

Data is chaotic. Our attempts to tame it are largely attempts at dehumanizing ourselves. Here’s a transcript of a piece of cardboard on my Grandfathers wall:

|                         |
|  WALLET    LIST         |
|            ------       |
|   EARS                  |
|             CANE        |
|  WATCH                  |
|                         |
|   SWIM                  |
|                         |

Even by typing it here, I am imposing a fair bit more order than the original had. The original was written with a Sharpie and, although it was very legible, the intent and structure was difficult to parse. “List” may or may not have been the title or one of the items to remember. “Ears”, I assume, meant his hearing aid. All the items seemed like a general checklist for leaving the house until “Swim”, which makes the list seem very specific to a certain day, or day of the week. He has had this list posted by the door for quite some time.

Grandpa’s list was not structured data, but he didn’t seem to bothered by the shortcoming.

This list has a few other interesting qualities that don’t transfer well to the digital domain:

  1. It’s taped to the door. Location and size mean a lot in the physical world.
  2. It has no definite structure. Anything could be added or crossed off the list with ease.
  3. It’s author is obvious. The handwriting is an echo of the mind of the author.

My point is not that my Grandpa has a habit of making strange artifacts, my point is that we are more unique, creative and human when we’re not forced to order our data along the way.

Our attempts to structure and control our data are effectively dehumanizing us. Yes, parsing the messy world of human language and thought is not a simple task for computer systems. It is much easier to build rules and frameworks and force humans to fit their ideas into them; to meet the computer halfway. This has a few effects:

  1. It allows the less creative minds to be efficiently less creative and feel organized
  2. It encourages independant thinkers to constantly sabotage the system for entertainment
  3. It erodes the capacity for beautiful, unstructured and creative enterprises.

I think we too often forget the distinction between the technologies that are built for enterprise and those built for personal use. This is probably because all of the tools are built for enterprise. All of them. The ones that aren’t are garbage. Web2.0 or 3.0 or whatever, only really make sense for businesses and consumers. Not for people.