Confessions of an Information Materialist

Do you know the popular ice-breaking game Two Truths and a Lie? Let’s play a version in which I list three works I’ve read recently, and you choose which two I’ve found to be stunning, if unintentionally brilliant, works of information science:

  1. Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences by Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Star.
  2. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo, trans. Cathy Hirano.
  3. Official Comment 4a to UCC 9-102 by the ALI & NCCUSL.

OK, have you guessed? This was kind of an easy one, since Option 1 is an intentional (and very good) work of information science. Yes, a self-help book about decluttering and a comment to a UCC section are the two works that have most stunned me with their brilliance lately. All three works address the same phenomenon — loosely, categorizing — and, while I recommend Bowker and Star, I think law librarians and other legal information professionals might feel more satisfied, if not pleasingly surprised, by the latter two works.

Much has been written about Kondo’s little book, which raged through my little family unit and is now rippling out to relatives and friends alike. Shane Parish’s review over at Farnam Street (“The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”) is what got me interested in the book in the first place, so, if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you should probably read that. The linchpin of Kondo’s strategy is the idea of tidying by category. As an information obsessive, this naturally appealed to me, but as I started on my decluttering journey — and I’ll note, I would in no way at the time, outwardly, anyway, have been considered a “cluttered” or “messy” person — my ideas began to be challenged in a way I hadn’t imagined.

I’ve found a latent materialism awakened in me. After my more radical years of reading the Transcendentalists, the more recent anti-Globalizationists (Charles Bowden, R.I.P.), the Buddhists, and the Ancients. I derided materialism and those who used material things to define their their very sense of personhood. I remember hearing Dana Vachon calling these people, in neo-Marxist terms, the denizens of “lifestyle nations,” a concept he articulates, unironically, in an article for a major airline’s in-flight magazine. In any case, it’s safe to say I did not like stuff, which I often called “my shit,” or see any joy in its acquisition. I ordered what clothes I bought in bulk annually from L.L. Bean, for instance.

What I realized reading Kondo, though, was that I had a problem with consumerism, not materialism. In fact, I actually love materialism, or at least, materials. I appreciate high quality craftsmanship, durability, and style in goods. To love a thing is to respect it — well, in many cases, that is — and with the respect for the possessions I kept after purging my house of things that did not bring me joy, I have come to love what I have. More important, I have come to think of it differently. Now, I think very acutely about fabric, color, and size. I think of filling holes in my wardrobe through targeted, category-by-category acquisitions. It is thrilling.

The UCC comment hits me two ways. First, it shows how inexorably linked law and the organization of information really are. The profession seeks to explain or justify what is what, what belongs to who, how much of it, and so on. The comment also shows how the logical process of categorizing involves deductive, inductive, and analogical reasoning. With the UCC specifically, practice came before formal classification, and seeks, much like a foreign-language textbook, to explain a living thing by reducing it to categories of words and phrases — nouns, verbs and their tenses, and adjectives (really, the meat of descriptive vocabulary), among others. What are goods and the subordinate types of goods? Comment 4a to 9-102 will tell you!

This brings me hurtling to a conclusion. First, accept a premise: Information is always transactional, in the sense that it has value to more than one person, and tends to be sold or at least traded given the costs of its acquisition or creation. (And if you haven’t read the OED’s post about the etymology of “information,” please do.) It is a commercial item, a good, a thing.

It is not bad to like things so long as they are capable of sparking joy. For law libraries and legal information vendors, make sure the information sparks joy in some form for any reader or researcher, which must be the unspoken 6th Rule of Ranganathan. Further, don’t hesitate to look outside the categories already built for us, perhaps to the world of consumer goods, for ideas on providing our information to patrons or customers. Oh, and read the Kondo book. You won’t regret it.