I heard Umberto Eco lecture on the search for a perfect language about 20 years ago and still find myself referencing him (trying to create a taxonomy that suits everyone would seem to be a similar quest). The lectures were nothing to do with my course really, so I benefited from that serendipitous knowledge discovery that just happens when you have time and space to explore ideas. So I was pleased when a few weeks ago this interview with Eco in der Spiegel happened upon me in the twittersphere (what’s the protocol for referencing tweets?). In the interview, Eco asserts that ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die’ .
It’s arguable that we do most things because we don’t want to die, but I was struck by the depiction of how fundamental the urge to collect and classify is to culture. At the LIKE dinner in early December, Cerys Hearsy said “we like hierarchies. We understand how they work” and she was talking about modern records management. Jan Wyllie in Taxonomies: Frameworks for Corporate Knowledge points out that taxonomies have been used for millennia (something I also reference frequently). Perhaps we like dualities because our brain has two hemispheres and we dream of a taxonomy of everything because then we would have conquered infinity and death itself, but such ideas are way beyond what I can speculate sensibly about. What I can say is that lists and taxonomies have been useful for so long that anyone who bets they are going to vanish anytime soon is facing very long odds. We will create them differently as technology advances, and we will manage without them in many situations where they would be helpful (if New Scientist had a taxonomy, I might have found the article about duality and the brain), but when we really need to be sure, we will create them.