Dave Snowden

Codifying sheep in your sleep

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I have always been interested in the nature of codification, the process in which phenomena are assigned to socially agreed upon categories. Codification is typically presented as a quintessentially soporific activity. Under the tyranny of codification, the habitual insomniac, instead of just counting the sheep jumping over fences to get herself to sleep, is required to classify them as they jump. White sheep versus black sheep, fat sheep versus anorexic ones, sheep chewing gum versus sheep wearing make-up, etc. As the complexity of the classification system grows, the excitement that accompanies the power of classifying (esp. of sheep wearing make-up) helpfully begins to dim. The process is guaranteed to halve the time-to-REM that simple sheep counting can deliver.

I have come to suspect, however, that codifiers are keeping the fun bits of their craft to themselves. An article in the Technology Quarterly section of The Economist, this week, (September 8th, 2007 p9), ‘A plane that thinks it’s a boat’, nicely illustrates my point. The article is about a sleek white machine with two propellers, two wings and a ‘distinctly un-bird-like’ tail: the SeaFalcon. It flies only two meters over water, the air beneath its wings being compressed to give it additional lift. The SeaFalcon is what is known as a ground-effect vehicle (GEV). An earlier (GEV) the hovercraft, relied on creating its own cushion of air rather than having one provided naturally. Unfortunately, as a technological species, the hovercraft has been nearly driven to extinction. A major reason was that it was classified as an aircraft and subject to fairly stringent regulations. In the eyes of the International Marine Organization, however, the SeaFalcon is classified as a ship and, as such, subjected to much lighter regulations than the hovercraft ever was. Its future prospects, therefore, seem promising.

As every bureaucrat knows, classification is power. Putin, no foreigner to the advantages of being able to classify – or reclassify – discovered that many of his potential rivals among the oligarchs could suddenly be reclassified as ‘tax delinquent’ and relieved of their money. It could be worse. In the former Soviet Union these people would have been classified as insane – didn’t you have to be insane to question the charms and benefits of the system? – and committed to a psychiatric hospital.