In Defence of Discovery

So when we work on taxonomy and search in projects for clients, one of the most common over-simplifications we encounter (and there are many) is the assumption that the sole user problem to solve is a problem of “finding” or retrieving information against a clearly defined need. But if we pause even for a moment to consider our own working patterns, this is only one of several information scenarios. We might have an inkling of something and be looking for similar or connected things, which is where classifications help. We may not know specifically what there is to look for, we might be browsing to discover something that might be interesting or useful to our need. We might be indulging in “idle” curiosity (though I tend to think of curiosity as more active than idle).

Over at Brain Pickings, Maria Popova has a passionate piece on the Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, and how important it is to foster and support open curiosity. It reminds me of a story about Robert Falcon Scott, on one of his Antarctic expeditions. While out sledding with his team, a crevasse opened up and he fell into it. Crevasses in the melting season are dangerous, they can shift and move unpredictably. But Scott frustrated his team mates by not climbing up the rope immediately they lowered it to them. He was busy examining the inner structure of the crevasse. He wanted to see how it was structured, and observe how it behaved.

This was characteristic of Scott, his team mates later observed. He questioned everything, explored everything, even if there didn’t seem to be an immediate need or payoff for doing so. This made him extremely alert to small signals in a shifting, complex and unpredictable environment. He guessed accurately when it was unsafe to cross an ice sheet. He knew how to treat the dogs when they were uneasy. Curiosity pays off in many small ways. And when we organise our knowledge systems, we need to provide for curiosity too.

Hat tip to my colleague Ari for picking up this article.

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