The Perils of Premature Pigeonholing (or, What Shape is the Internet?)

By Gordon Rugg

This is a picture of my scroll boxes.

scroll boxCopyleft Hyde & Rugg, 2014

I use them to keep my scrolls in.

They’re a good example of the problems that arise when someone tries to cram a new idea into an old pigeonhole. A lot of the problems in current debates, such as the debate about the future of education, arise from that type of problem.

Some background: In case you’re wondering, I have scrolls because of my work on visualisation. Among other things, I was wondering about the possibilities that might open up if you escaped from the “one side of A4” format that has quietly taken over much of the current world.

My scroll boxes in context; note scrolls hanging above the coffee table

scroll box contextCopyleft Hyde & Rugg, 2014

The scroll boxes used to be wine boxes. They’re a good size for keeping scrolls in. The separate compartments prevent the scrolls from getting tangled up with each other. They’re not exactly the same in shape and layout as traditional scroll boxes, but they get the job done neatly and efficiently. If I was using the scrolls frequently, I’d adopt the traditional approach of giving each scroll a label, attached by a length of thread, which would hang down the front of the scroll box. It’s all very sensible and practical.

That’s how information used to be stored, back in classical times.

So what happened when the first books were produced?

It’s pretty obvious that the scroll compartments aren’t a good size or shape for holding a book. For book storage, you need bigger compartments. Also, because books have flat faces, they can easily be stored either on top of each other, or stood vertically right next to each other. It’s so familiar to us now that it’s hard to imagine this being a new idea at some point in the past.

Books stored horizontally and vertically, on my bookshelves

gordon keele bookshelf

Copyleft Hyde & Rugg, 2014

So, when books came along, the storage infrastructure had to change. When you’re dealing with a tangible object like a big heavy book, you can’t use dodgy definitions to claim that in some sense the book fits into the scroll box. It’s pretty clear that something like the Gutenberg Bible is never going to fit into a compartment that’s only just big enough to hold a standard wine bottle. That sounds trivially obvious, but it has far-reaching implications, as we’ll see later.

If we fast-forward a few centuries, we see numerous changes in information storage media – the gramophone record, the audio cylinder, the audio tape, the CD, for example. All of these could be conveniently stored in some variation either of the pigeonhole or of the shelf – they were all either basically cylinders or basically flat boxes.

And then the Internet came along. It’s not something that you store in a pigeonhole or on a shelf – those concepts are meaningless in relation to the Internet. Instead, you need to use a completely different set of concepts to handle it; the old concepts simply can’t be applied to it. In technical terminology, the Internet doesn’t fit within the range of convenience of the old concepts.

Mental pigeonholes

So far, I’ve looked at physical pigeonholes. They demonstrate clearly that you can’t simply shove every new thing that comes along into one or two structures that you already have available.

You encounter exactly the same problem with mental pigeonholes. The trouble with mental pigeonholes, though, is that they make it much easier to tell yourself that something is a fit, even when it isn’t.

This happens a lot with public policy discussions. It’s common for people to try to cram different arguments into pre-existing pigeonholes that are the wrong size and shape. Because ideas are intangible, it’s much harder to show that this cramming is a gross distortion.

One common form of pigeonholing involves trying to force ideas into one or other of two categories, with no other possibilities allowed – for instance, “traditional” versus “modern”. I’ve blogged about that in earlier articles.

Another common problem with premature pigeonholing is that it’s often combined with a smugly complacent belief that the new idea is just another reinventing of the wheel by some new kid who doesn’t have the pigeonholer’s experience and wisdom. One common manifestation is along the lines of “Oh, that was covered by Plato” as if all subsequent research is either fine-tuning of Plato’s core idea, or is wrong because it disagrees with Plato. This belief is irritating enough when it’s held by an arrogant student. When it’s held by someone who can influence public policy, then it’s a serious problem.

The traditional way of tackling the premature pigeonholing problem involves lengthy discussions about definitions. It hasn’t exactly been a brilliant success, largely because it involves verbal arguments about invisible, intangible concepts.

That’s one reason that we’ve been working on ways of mapping concepts systematically and rigorously onto diagrammatic representations, so that there’s an unambiguous physical representation of what each person means. This makes it much easier to see whether the new idea does fit into the old pigeonhole or not.

My previous article about concepts of illiteracy is one example of this approach. Another is my article about visualisations of concepts of gender, which I exhibited as art.

There’s also a chapter about this in my book Blind Spot (details below), which applies systematic visualisations to forensic statistical information, among other areas.

With luck, this approach should reduce the pigeonholing problem. There are, however, plenty of other problems associated with policy debates. We’ll be tackling some of those in later articles.


You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.

There’s more about the theory behind this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese

In case you’re wondering about the model gorilla head on the filing cabinet, the background story is that it was a Christmas present of a forensic reconstruction kit containing a plastic model gorilla skull and black modelling clay. Quite why anyone would decide that a forensic reconstruction kit for a plastic gorilla skull was a good idea is another question…



5 thoughts on “The Perils of Premature Pigeonholing (or, What Shape is the Internet?)

  1. Pingback: In-groups, out-groups and the Other | hyde and rugg

  2. Pingback: The ones that don’t fit in the pigeonholes | hyde and rugg

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  4. Pingback: The Knowledge Modelling Book | hyde and rugg

  5. Pingback: Mental models, and making sense of crazy uncles | hyde and rugg

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