Everything Goes In The “T-Miscellaneous” File

When I was a student in accounting, we did an audit of a small manufacturing company whose file clerk had an unusual filing system.  It required strict alphabetic order.  The Bell Telephone Company was under “T” of course.  So was The City of Toronto and Tom Roberts Electric Ltd.  There were many more.   T-miscellaneous was an “interesting” file.  In the analog world of 1969, it was unusual.

Back then, file systems were supposed to summarize information not just collect things.  The Dewey decimal system was the standard for libraries.  As time passed, computer filing systems developed directory structures which were not unlike the analog filing system that preceded them.  Today however, analog file systems are more trouble than they are worth.  There is too much information to organize.

Today we toss everything in one place and use a tool to discover what we need.  Keywords are replacing Dewey and file clerks.  The internet or your own network, is the filing cabinet and Google or Bing or Yahoo or a local search tool replaces Dewey.

We don’t care that it is not neat in an analog way, it is cheaper and more effective.

Despite all this, the “T-miscellaneous” file still exists.

When not using a search tool, people tend to tokenize knowledge and use the token to represent the entire matter. Tokens are common and there are people who use them to manipulate your thinking.  There is a good example in the recent presidential election campaign.

Mitt Romney has a “binder full of women” became the symbol for how he was not a promoter of women’s values.  Perhaps even misogynist.  On examination, we find that he did have such a binder when he was governor of Massachusetts and it contained the resumes of women able to fill key positions in his administration.  Hardly misogynist, but the other token sold.

Sometimes, tokens are necessary.  If you were the president of JPMorgan Chase, you would need information to manage the strategic decisions.  You would receive reports that were tokens.   The details are still available but the report is highly summarized.  You can drill down to details if you need clarification.  One of the skills of good managers is knowing when the token is enough and when it is not.

Everyone uses tokens.  Think about the logos you see, use and rely upon every day.   Brands are tokens.  They express the idea of quality, service, reliability and ease of use.  People work hard at tokenizing businesses.  Perfection for your brand is to become a generic noun or verb.  Kleenex, Aspirin, Xerox, Thermos, Jacuzzi, Ski-doo.  It does not always work out well.  Heroin was a trademark of Bayer in Co.  in 1898.

Some tokens are not so helpful.  A black youth wearing a hoodie is not necessarily a threat.  Probably rarely.  Young Arab men on airplanes, blondes, women drivers, Catholics, Protestants, Mormans, Jews, people who own pitbulls, people who drive Hummers, people with facial tattoos, and hundreds more are tokens.  These tokens are prejudices.

The difference between useful tokens and prejudices is that you can drill down to factual detail with useful tokens and you cannot do so with prejudices.  With prejudice you know it because you know it.

Tokens are not going away.  We are inundated with information.  We need to be able to handle big chunks of thought with small symbols.  Without tokens, we could not communicate, or even think about the information, in context of other information.

Be a little careful.  Tokens are pointers at meaning not the meaning itself.  Sometimes it is easy to lose track of how the pointer came to be or worse to think the token is the thing.    None of this is a new thought.  From Zen Buddhism, “All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; and those whose gaze is fixed upon the pointer will never see beyond.  Even let him catch sight of the moon, and still he cannot see its beauty.”

We will need to learn the management skill of recognizing tokens for what they are and develop the insight to know when to drill down and when to accept the token as useful by itself.  The skill is called skepticism.  Not cynicism.  You need to pay attention to the world around you and listen to the little voice that says, “This cannot be right. (complete?)”

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