Robert Pirsig

Extract from Lila by Robert M. Pirsig Published by Bantam Press – 1991

In Robert Pirsig’s novel, Lila, the main character Phaedrus lives on a boat and is traveling on the Hudson river. He is writing a book and uses a system of index cards to record and organise his ideas. The following extract is from chapter 2.

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The reason Phaedrus used slips rather than full-sized sheets of paper is that a card-catalog tray full of slips provides a more random access. When information is organized in small chunks that can be accessed and sequenced at random it becomes much more valuable than when you have to take it in serial form. It's better, for example to run a post office where the patrons have numbered boxes and can come in to access these boxes any time they please. It's worse to have them all come in at a certain time, stand in a queue and get their mail from Joe, who has to sort through everything alphabetically each time and who has rheumatism, is going to retire in a few years, and who doesn't care whether they like waiting or not. When any distribution is locked into a rigid sequential format it develops Joes that dictate what new changes will be allowed and what will not, and that rigidity is dead.

Some of the slips were actually about this topic: random access and Quality. The two are closely related. Random access is at the essence of organic growth, in which cells, like post-office boxes, are relatively independent. Cities are based on random access. Democracies are founded on it. The free market system, free speech, and the growth of science are all based on it. A library is one of civilization's most powerful tools precisely because of its card-catalog trays. Without the Dewey Decimal System allowing the number of cards in the main catalog to grow or shrink at any point the whole library would soon grow stale and useless and die.

And so while those trays certainly didn't have much glamour they nevertheless had the hidden strength of a card catalog. They ensured that by keeping his head empty and keeping sequential formatting to a minimum, no fresh new unexplored ideas would be forgotten or shut out. There were no ideological Joes to kill an idea because it didn't fit into what he was already thinking.

Because he didn't pre-judge the fittingness of new ideas or try to put them in order but just let them flow in, these ideas sometimes came in so fat he couldn't write them down quickly enough. The subject matter, a whole metaphysics, was so enormous the flow had turned into an avalanche. The slips kept expanding in every direction so that the more he saw the more there was to see. It was like a Venturi effect which pulled ideas into it endlessly, on and on. He saw there were a million things to read, a million leads to follow...too much...too much...and not enough time in one life to get it all together. Snowed under.

....he spent most of his time submerged in chaos, knowing that the longer he put off setting into a fixed organization the more difficult it would become. But he felt sure that sooner or later some sort of a format would have to emerge and it would be a better one for his having waited.

Eventually this belief was justified. Periods started to appear when he just sat there for hours and no slips came in--and this, he saw, was at last the time for organizing. He was pleased to discover that the slips themselves made this organizing much easier. Instead of asking “Where does this metaphysics of the universe begin?” --which was a virtually impossible question--all he had to do was just hold up two slips and ask, “Which comes first?” This was easy and he always seemed to get an answer. Then he would take a third slip, compare it with the first one, and ask again, “Which comes first?” If the new slip came after the first one he compared it to the second. The he had a three-slip organization. He kept repeating this process with slip after slip.

Before long he noticed certain categories emerging. The earlier slips began to merge about a common topic and later slips about a different topic. When enough slips merged about a single topic so that he got a feeling it would be permanent he took an index card of the same size as the slips, attached a transparent index tab to it, wrote the name of the topic on a little cardboard insert that came with the tab, put it in the tab, and put the index card together with its related topic slips. The trays on the pilot berth now had about four or five hundred of these tabbed index cards.

At various times he’d tried all kinds of different things: colored plastic tabs to indicate subtopics and sub-subtopics; stars to indicate relative importance; slips split with a line to indicate both emotive and rational aspects of their subject; but all of these had increased rather than decreased confusion and he'd found it clearer to include their information elsewhere.

It was fascinating to watch this thing grow. No one that he knew had ever written a whole metaphysics before and there were no rules for doing it and no way of predicting how it would progress.

In addition to the topic categories, five other categories had emerged. Phaedrus felt they were of great importance:

The first was UNASSIMILATED. This contained new ideas that interrupted what he was doing. They came in on the spur of the moment while he was organizing the other slips or sailing or working on the boat or doing something else that didn't want to be disturbed. Normally your mind says to these ideas, "Go away, I'm busy," but that attitude is deadly to Quality. The UNASSIMILATED pile helped solve the problem. He just stuck the slips there on hold until he had the time and desire to get to them.

The next non-topical category was called PROGRAM. PROGRAM slips were instructions for what to do with the rest of the slips. They kept track of the forest while he was busy thinking about individual trees. With more than ten thousand trees that kept wanting to expand to one hundred thousand, the PROGRAM slips were absolutely necessary to keep from getting lost.

What made them so powerful was that they too were on slips, one slip for each instruction. This meant the PROGRAM slips were random access too and could be changed and resequenced as the need arose without any difficulty. He remembered reading that John Von Neumann, an inventor of the computer, had said the single thing that makes a computer so powerful is that the program is data and can be treated like any other data. That seemed a little obscure when Phaedrus had read it but now it was making sense.

...The next slips were the CRIT slips....The next to the last group was the TOUGH category....The final category was JUNK.

Actually, these last two piles, JUNK and TOUGH, were the piles that gave him the most concern. The whole thrust of the organizing effort was to have as few of these as possible....he felt the quality and strength of his entire system of organization depended on how he treated them.....

The hundreds of topics had organized themselves into larger sections, the sections into chapters, and chapters into parts; so that what the slips had organized themselves into finally was the contents of a book; but it was a book whose organization was from the bottom up rather than from the top down. He hadn't started with a master idea and then selected in Joe-fashion only those slips that would fit. In this case, "Joe," the organizing principle, had been democratically elected by the slips themselves.


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