Why We Make Lists

One of the current exhibitions being held in the Musée du Louvre, Paris has been curated by author and consistent top intellectual, Umberto Eco. The Infinity of Lists, as the exhibition is called, looks at the human fascination with lists and how they have progressed cultures.

What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries.

But why do we feel this need to comprehend and face infinity?

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Suggesting that Google is “a tragedy” for the young as they lack (or, more correctly, they are not taught) basic information literacy, Eco notes his obvious dislike of rote learning.

Culture isn’t knowing when Napoleon died. Culture means knowing how I can find out in two minutes. Of course, nowadays I can find this kind of information on the Internet in no time.

This interview with Der Spiegel ends with a quote I must try to remember:

If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

1 thought on “Why We Make Lists

  1. Zack S

    I would object to Eco and bring up a point. Wouldn’t a more apt description of culture be, not knowing when Napoleon died, but wanting to know when Napoleon died? I can hardly see anybody uninterested in culture having a discussion about Napoleon’s death and quickly jumping to Google to simply settle a bet.

    So as long as it is active searching – I want to know a fact and search for it – the point on education that he raises may not be necessary. Now, in regards to children and passive search – that is for class assignments or whatnot – I completely agree with his point. I think children coming up using the internet do need to be guided in how to discriminate the good from the bad on a Google search.

    Interesting interview, thanks for pointing it out.

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