08 September 2006
Unfindable (a virtue)
An important and often overlooked consequence of the culling process that indexers hone when deciding what should be indexed or labeled, and how, is that every decision an indexer does not make makes something that more unfindable. In fact, just as there are infinite number of misspellings for any one word, there an infinite number of indexing choice that an indexer can choose. But unlike misspelled words, which by definition are "mistakes," every indexing choice and every keyword is a good keyword in the right context. The information space is too big for mistakes; for each conscious and unconscious inaction, the best we can hope for is "highly unlikely." If we don't do it, perhaps no one will need it.
There's a sign in a general store in Lake George, New York: "If you don't see it, you don't need it." This is the inadvertent motto of all indexers. We can only pray that everything concept we leave unindexed, every word we don't choose, and every relationship we don't articulate is unneeded. Then again, there are an infinity of choices we never even see, aren't there?
Unfindability is a pandemic, a glorious desert that stretches beyond our senses and imaginings. In today's word of RFID technology, in which every object and person (and object-person combination) can potentially be mapped and tracked over an arbitrary length of time, the vast wasteland of unfindability starts to rank up there with a good vacation.
Let's turn the indexing process around. As indexers, what do we want to make lost?
- Systems of belief that destructively conflict with our own. Even if you believe in an open exchange of ideas, perhaps the close-minded ideas and people could disappear to make your world a better place. Some indexers face this challenge regularly, being asked to index materials that they disagree with on political or religious grounds, or to use indexing methods that conflict with their professional ethics.
- Falsehoods. Wisdom is knowing what you don't know, but what if you believe something that is completely untrue? Certainly there are layers of truth, and ignorance isn't inherently bad (e.g., it drives scientific research and discovery), but what of the urban legends and purposeful deceit that scatters our information space? If they can't be labeled as more than 90% false, shouldn't they just disappear?
- Hurtful knowledge from which there is no clear benefit. Constructive truths hurt but spur growth; destructive truths are better left unsaid. We've all had the experience in which someone commented on our selves, perhaps even politely and with good intention; I know a woman who was told she could never excel at tennis without surgery, because her body shape interfered with a good backhand. I'm sure the instructor was trying to helpful, but she's never enjoyed tennis since. If these comments can't be left unsaid, unfound is the next best option.
- Private information, and the deep past. Is my street address on the World Wide Web? What about my childhood photos? Medical and financial records? Candid post-mortem comments about my behavior in past relationships? Or should I accept that my life is an open and Google-accessible book? With millions of blog pages being written by today's schoolchildren, what will happen when someday they run for office and the world (re)discovers their underage exploits? There is no expiration date on personal content, something we sometimes regret.
- Stuff no one needs. How do indexers judge what nobody needs now, or in the future, under any circumstances? And yet we do it every day at work. We tell ourselves that we can take out our biases, ignoring our beliefs and lives and emotions and ethics and needs, just as so many others become detached emotionally when performing their jobs. But unfindability is inevitable; sooner or later (and usually sooner), our choices will have a direct effect on the abilities of others to find something they want, from historical knowledge to insider secrets, from biographical summaries to photographed nudity. I say that it is our responsibility to make these decisions, to apply our beliefs and biases as well as our knowledge, to unmap the information space we want left behind.
As indexers, we shape the worlds that no one sees. Now let's do it on purpose.