24 March 2007


The passive-aggressive bullies of the information world

An indexer, while building an index of historical documents for a small township on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, came across an old diary written during the American Civil War. She scanned the pages, filled with small and semi-illegibly handwritten words, and realized that nothing important had been written.

The diary went unindexed.

This anecdote, shared by indexer Marilyn Rowland at the March 24 (2007) meeting of the New England Chapter of the American Society of Indexers, struck me as surprisingly uncomfortable. Certainly I agree that when something seems unimportant to the indexer, it should not be indexed; in fact, I've claimed many times within this blog that one of the biggest failings of computer-generated lists and search engine algorithms is that they cannot identify the true value (or correctness) of content, even when using social algorithms.

Still, not indexing someone's diary? This sounds passive-aggressive. So does this instruction: "Don't index the names of everyone in that photograph. Mention these two important people, and don't bother with the rest."

Just as scientists are often accused of sacrificing ethics and social responsibility in favor of "pure scientific exploration" (the temptation to clone human beings is a fun example), so might indexers be accused of excessive marginalization or trivialization of content. It may be human nature to filter out everything we don't need to survive or enjoy ourselves in our lives, but it is an indexer's nature to impose these filters upon future users. In other words, indexers are responsible -- on a daily basis -- for rewriting history.

Everything we create in our lives -- email messages to diaries, family snapshots to oil paintings, back-of-the-napkin notations to dissertations -- is subjected not just to the entropy of time but also the red pen of the indexers. We may speak about the value of individuals, but in reality it's just a big game of Survivor, where the indexers are the ones to vote our creativity out of existence.

There is no good way to remove indexers from the equation, of course. If nothing were indexed, and no content were ever deemed to be more valuable (worth finding) than something else, content would be lost in the same way a paper cup with a lipstick stain inevitably disappears into a landfill. But who would have believed that indexers are the ones in control, that indexers are the Langoliers, who like the big kids in school get to decide who gets picked first for the schoolyard team, and who doesn't get picked at all. We are, let's face it, the bullies of the information world.

Don't mess with me. I'll erase you.

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