Several rows of old school card catalogues at a library

A newspaper is an index

Reflections on libraries, phone books, newspapers, and other models of the world.

Quite apart from the technical and social challenges of running one, I’m in love with community directories. Well, really, I’m in love with indices. Hmm, well, actually, I’m in love with all varieties of models.1

But let’s step back for a minute.

In the small Northern town where I grew up we had gravel roads and stop signs. And telephones. My dad worked for the telephone company back then and the telephone wires were still copper, and you needed two copper wires to send and receive messages. There was a phone book and there was much less telephone spam back then. The phone book was a free-to-use community directory. AGT was wholly government owned and taxpayers and phone bills paid for the phone book.

As a first approximation, the phone book was an index of people in Grand Centre who had a telephone.

Now we also had the Auto Trader. If you wanted to buy or sell a car, The Auto Trader was for you. Sellers would pay for a listing which would usually consist of a photo of the car, truck, motorbike or tractor, and a brief description. The Auto Trader was published monthly, or maybe weekly, in news print. But it looked more like a magazine. It was hundreds of pages and it sat in every gas station and most grocery or convenience stores. As a buyer, you had to pay for a copy of the Auto Trader.

The Auto Trader was a commercial directory. And it was paid for by both buyers and sellers. Sellers would pay a lot. And buyers would pay a little.

As a first approximation, the Auto Trader was an index of people selling automobiles.

There was also the old school card catalogue at the local library, and the school library. Dewey Decimal for the win. Holy hell did I struggle to use those. The index at the school library was different than the index at the public library, and not just because the books in the libraries were different.

The card catalogues at the local libraries were also free. I don’t know who paid for those. Provincial and municipal taxes I guess. But it was up to librarians to type up the cards and expand the indices as needed. I seriously thought that was dark magic.

As a first approximation, the card catalogue was an index of all the books in the library.

Now eventually, we got a mall with an arcade. But it was too small to warrant one of those fancy maps, with a “you are here” sticker. So eventually I would travel to the city, and I would see such a map. Looking back now, I can guess that the cost of that map was covered in rents and leases, which, were covered in turn by the goods and services they sold to the public. I’m curious to know how long it would take to update that map when a stored turned over. Replacing that map was no small feat. Today, those mall indices are often digital. And updating it is a matter of keystrokes, not paint.

As a first approximation, those mall maps are indices of every store and service in the mall.

Now, my mom worked at the post office in Grand Centre. In those days, people had post boxes and we would go with our little key to the post office to pick up our mail. I loved going to the post office. If I close my eyes, I can still smell the paper. And I loved looking through the box into the work space behind. I could see the workers, mostly women, filling the boxes with mail! And because my mom worked there, I would hear all kinds of interesting stories.

One time, a letter came to the post office, from away, without a proper address on it. It was addressed, mysteriously, to “the tall man and the short woman.” The workers at the post office took the address very seriously because, community. And, yes, that letter found its way. Because, wisdom. My point is that the Grand Centre post office was an example of a index, and part of that index was alive in the hearts and minds of that postal team. I guess stamps and taxes paid for that.2

Anyway, as a first approximation, the post office in Grand Centre was an index of people in Grand Centre.

And of course, eventually, I would learn to use Google and other search engines. They’re also indices.

An index is a kind of model, in all of its glorious modelitude

The Auto Trader, like all indices, was imperfect. It was imperfect for the same general reasons that a map is not the terrain.

You would go buy an Auto Trader and find a cool car photo, and call the owner up and find out that the car was sold. Or you would discover that the phone number was incorrect. Or you would discover that the description was, heh, not quite fully honest. On the flip side, not every person who was selling a car would list it.

The phone book was also imperfect. And the mall map. And even my mom’s postal team.

An index, or any model, is imperfect for the same reason it’s also helpful; it’s an abstraction. No model is absolute. Models, even the most objective, have human interests built into them, if only because humans build them to be used, by other humans, with human goals.

Human brains are small, and the world is big, so simplicity is a virtue. Building and maintaining a usable index, is a series of hard choices about serious obstacles and constraints.

This is why I love models. Values and interests are built into every aspect of them. Even the various kinds of objectivity that models have, are out of human interests. We value different varieties of objectivity like predictability, corroborability, fruitfulness, repeatability, mind-independence, multiple perspective taking, and shared frameworks. Not all the time, or in every context, or in equal amounts, but objectivities are nice.

However, when it comes to the many different virtues of models, there are always trade-offs.3

News is an index of stuff that matters

A newspaper is, in part, a record of things that are important. The inputs and determinants of what stuff matters is complicated. And fascinating. And ridiculously human.

They have some good journalists, but, in general, I don’t trust Postmedia. Same, Globe and Mail.

Whatever happens to the dinosaur newspapers, having ready access to an index of stuff that matters is super helpful.

Because we can’t all pay attention to everything. And we can’t all know everything. And living in community is not that different from working in a world wide distributed network of scientists.

We rely on each other’s work and integrity and truthfulness to build meaningful, shared, views of the world. And sometimes so, just to survive.

  1.  For the last several years I’ve thought quite a lot about the various challenges of running a commercial free, community directory. And, on my view, humans and other animals, survive and thrive by virtue of our models of the world. That’s what we do: we model. And because the world is too big for our little brains, we carry our models with us. We have models of models and we have shared models, and science is a really elaborate society of expert modellers. No model is best. Models have different virtues, and different purposes, and different fit for different occasions. Statements, by the way, are never true or false or indeterminate with respect to the world; statements are true or false or indeterminate with respect to models. Anyway.
  2. Another letter came in addressed to “the green house across from Mrs. Hanky.”
  3.  Not everything is an index. Once you start to play this game, everything will start to look like an index. And many things are. But not everything is. A garden is not an index. Unless it was encoded as one. A person is not an index. Unless they are trying to be. But you know what I mean.

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