From the Tree to the Labyrinth

by Umberto Eco

Civilization has amassed humongous amounts of information, vastly more than anybody could ever memorize or even read. How do we organize that information so as to make it accessible? 

The first step was alphabetization: organizing terms according to the order in which their letters appear in the alphabet. This was a huge step forward and gave Western Civilization a big advantage over other civilizations. 

The next big step forward was the attempt to organize information in a tree structure. Francis Bacon did this with his Novum Organtum in 1620. He attempted to organize all knowledge in a hierarchical tree. More than a century later the Swedish scientist Linnaeus came up with a tree structure for all life on earth, a system that made possible a rational analysis of the relationships between the different species on this planet.

The third huge leap came with the World Wide Web and its system of hypertext. While this permits a broader view of the structure of knowledge, it doesn’t help much in terms of organizing that information; you still need to use a search engine to find the information you want. 

These many ways of organizing information tell a story of how rationalism developed. Thus, when I saw a description of Umberto Eco’s newest book, which presented the book as a history of the organization of information, I pounced and, when it arrived, I eagerly sank my teeth into it…

…and then I spat it out. This book is not at all about the history of the organization of information. It’s about semiotics, Mr. Eco’s speciality. After struggling through it for too many hours, I gave up; there simply isn’t anything of utility to me in this book. I won’t condemn the book — I bought it for the wrong reasons, and I’m sure that somebody buying it for the right reasons would benefit. However, that somebody would almost certainly be an academic specializing in semiotics. If you’re just a typical everyday, finger-in-your-nose clod like me, you definitely do NOT want to buy this book.