The days of pigeonholing are over – traditional classifications and categorizations are outdated. Algorithms are the order of the day.
Most people love orderliness. The meticulous sorting of everything we experience in the real world into tidy categories is comforting, and offers at least a vestigial sense of peace of mind in a chaotic world. The more complex life is, the more important it is to maintain a least an illusion of controllability – and classification systems have traditionally imparted that impression.
The symbol for this is the pigeonhole, and "pigeonhole thinking" has turned people's uncompromising urge to sort and categorize knowledge into a pejorative. People who succumb to pigeonhole thinking are considered not very flexible mentally – unable to "think outside the box."
Upon closer inspection, however, we must realistically (if grudgingly) admit that our small minds are simply no match for the complexity of the world.
Untamed nature, for example, would never results in the same plants, fruits or vegetables growing year after year, neatly sorted on individual fields and meadows. Instead, we observe uncontrolled growth and creative chaos.
Maybe there is also a secret order in it somehow. More likely is the opposite: The diversity of random combinations represents the power of emergence and evolution.
Instead, it was human beings who tried planting the same grains and vegetables in the same fields year after year – with poor results. This "order" depletes the soil, promotes the growth of detrimental fungi, and reduces crop yields. We rotate our crops to give nature the room it needs to grow. The technique that works in agriculture can also be effective when it comes to our ways of thinking.
Vibrators next to garden shears
It is exciting to observe how artificial intelligence is now challenging human intelligence in its understanding of order. If you think all the products in Amazon's warehouses are neatly sorted and stored by categories, think again.
In storage facilities the size of several football fields, you'll find iPads next to face creams, vibrators next to garden shears. Each product has an individual barcode making it easy to track, no matter where it may be. Products are stored wherever there is space.
Only an algorithm can make sense of this chaos. American journalist Brad Stone described the system, called "Mechanical Sensei," in his 2013 bestseller "The Everything Seller." By the way, the Japanese word "sensei" means "the one born earlier" or "the teacher." And today's mechanical teachers show us humans how to use disorder to increase efficiency.
If all products in a category were stored in the same place, workers would have to travel much longer distances to get individual orders on their way. That costs time and money.
A software system calculates the optimal route to pick, pack and dispatch each individual product. The mechanical teacher is the invisible hand that structures every delivery process – and it does so with a completely different understanding of "order" than a human would.
Disruption of human order
This is just one example of the disruption of human order by digital technologies and artificial intelligence. American technology philosopher David Weinberger analyzed this development as early as 2007 in his remarkable book, "Everything is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder."
His central thesis was that until now, our ability to bring order to things has been limited by the laws of the physical world. Digital technologies provide us with ever new ways of sorting, and allow us to find anything at any time.
This works on the Internet thanks to URLs for websites and hashtags on Twitter, for example. But it also works in the physical world, as the Amazon example shows. The algorithm replaces the inefficient order imposed by humans with the efficient disorder of ubiquitous digital tracking of simply everything.
So pigeonholes are a thing of the past. All you will find in a pigeonhole is a nostalgic relic of yesterday's ghosts. Still, in Germany in particular people still cling affectionately to a sense of orderliness that categorizes things on the basis of their similarities. We could use a bit more chaos.