Tunnel Vision

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about how people categorize information. This all started in preparation for writing here on Geek Buffet about a topic of particular interest to me. I’ve not yet reached the point where I feel I’ve gathered my thoughts enough to write that post, but I do feel like I should take a moment to share my point of view on categories.

The short version of my opinion of categories is that I worry about their misapplication. I see them as useful, even necessary tools, but like any powerful tool, one that can be used in ways that do more harm than good. What’s worse is that many of the ways that this tool can be used for ill seem like a great thing until you really sit down and think about them.

Perhaps the most obvious example of what I mean is in the news. More and more people are turning away from newspapers and even television, and using on-line news publications as their primary source of information about what’s going on in the world around them. In some ways, this is a fantastic thing. A higher level of faster access to information has the power to change the world for the better. At the same time, the easy access to tools to quickly categorize the information those publications present threatens to drastically reduce the amount of information we actually have available to us. What’s worse is that the tools set us up to do this to ourselves.

It is a fundamental tendency in human nature to want to be able to categorize, divide, and sort nearly everything into categories. Doing so helps us manage all of the information in our lives and keeps us sane. The nature of the internet makes this sort of thing increasingly easy to do. Even here at the Buffet, we tag all of the things we post, linking each post to a set of categories that help to describe their contents. Our hope is that this will make it faster and easier for you, the reader, to find what you are looking for, or to understand the broad shape of the issues a post addresses before you read it in its entirety.

This type of categorization is both easy and helpful. The same goes for dividing news up into categories. Just as the newspaper has separate sections for local news, sports, and classifieds, internet news publications sort their articles into categories which you can browse individually. This helps you to find what you want quickly and easily by allowing you to jump straight into the type of article you’re seeking.

The trouble comes when sites start to allow you to specify which categories you find most interesting. This, in and of itself, is hardly a bad thing. The problem is that if a site uses those selections to determine which categories are even displayed, you’ve suddenly cut yourself off from the vast majority of the available information.

If I go to a news site and tell it that I’m only interested in, say, news about places in the United States, some sites will simply never show me news stories about other countries. While I could certainly go dig out those stories if I made an effort to do so, my default view of the page when I visit it will show me only things in the categories I’ve selected. This effectively means that I will not even see articles in other categories unless I already know they exist and go looking for them. The result is a large but nevertheless subtle contraction of my point of view.

I certainly don’t mean to suggest that information shouldn’t be categorized. My point is that we, as media consumers, need to keep in mind that we run the risk of giving ourselves tunnel vision if we make use of the tools available to us in such a way that it limits what we are exposed to. Instead, we should be making an effort to use the resources available to us in order to increase our exposure to a broader range of types of news.

A simple example from my own life is the BBC’s news page. While it would be possible for me to specify my preferences about what it shows me, or even to consume their content through an RSS reader which only selected news items matching criteria I specified, I’ve chosen not to do so. There are certainly some categories of stories on the site that I read much more often than others. The difference is that I’m still shown a list of at least a handful of articles in all of the other categories every time I look at the site. Often, I find a headline in a category I’m certain I wouldn’t have selected as one of my preferred categories which interests me enough to read the article. In this way, I am at least left with the option of sampling a much wider range of content.

Categorization of information is a powerful, helpful tool. It allows me to see articles related to the one I am currently reading, for example, if I want to learn more. Each of us needs to try to remain aware, however, of some of the side effects of making those categories more manageable for ourselves. The internet , more than any other tool in our time, makes it easy for us to access an ever-expanding diversity of information. Be cautious in how you allow your preferences to limit its utility to yourself.

-posted by Mark

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One Response to Tunnel Vision

  1. akdmyers says:

    I’d never thought about the unintended consequences of tagging before; thanks for alerting us to this!

    This post also touches on a lot of issues that are discussed in libraries as well, where the problem is not so much tunnel vision but loss of access to materials if adequate subject headings are not applied. There are problems with subject headings, of course, mainly that they tend not to follow natural language. On the other hand, unlike most systems that allow you to tag articles, subject headings are controlled so that there is one uniform term for one idea. That way, you don’t have to do two different searches for automobiles and cars – one search will bring up everything.

    More importantly, though, libraries have to think very carefully about what categories to apply to the materials they catalog so that patrons can find what they’re looking for and the materials are adequately represented in the catalog. Most of the time this is not too difficult (or we delude ourselves into thinking it’s not), but there have been some examples of problems in recent years, most notably James Frey’s “autobiography”. There was a lot of debate among librarians about whether this book should have been recategorized as some form of fiction, rather than autobiography after it was found that he had made up parts of the book. I don’t remember whether there was a strong consensus one way or another, but it certainly generated a lot of reflection on how we choose to categorize our materials and what implications that might have on their perception and/or use.

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