Sorting

ON the table before me lies a heap of hundreds of wood screws, a pile of gleaming, metal jackstraws. Next to it sits a plastic box with dozens of little drawers. My mission for the afternoon: Sort these screws and put them in the neatly labeled trays . . . creating a plastic paragon of order in a world apparently filled with chaos. As my fingers spread the chrome-plated shapes and begin picking through them, an unexpected feeling of tranquility steals over me. There must be something instinctive about creating order out of randomness. Even the apparent tedium is appropriate, for it frees the mind. Connections begin to form.

This apparently mundane task, it comes to me suddenly, is far from trivial. No robot yet invented can perform it nearly as well.

Why should something so simple prove so extraordinarily difficult to automate? After spending several years trying to develop a personal robot, inventor/entrepreneur Nolan Bushnell acknowledged that he had significantly underestimated the marvelous complexity of the human hand.

Looking down at my hands, I feel a new sense of wonder. As I do, my fingers grow hesitant, begin to fumble as if self-conscious. An illustration of the other, even more difficult part of my task: its mental dimension.

Clearly, there is more to sorting than meets the eye. Of course, Richard L. Gregory of the University of Bristol, England, knows that. In fact, he invented a contraption called Pandora's Box which showed this. Using mirrors and lights (but no smoke) it enabled him to measure what people see rather than what is actually there.

Take a common illusion, the one that makes three lines of equal length all look different:

With Pandora's Box, Dr. Gregory had people move a spot of light until it marked each end of the three lines. This allowed him to measure each line's perceived length. Analyzing the results, the scientist made an interesting discovery: The perceptual system interprets these figures as though they are a three-dimensional sawhorse rotated in space. The mind alters the perceived length of each line according to its internal rules of perspective, shortening the apparent length of the bar that looks closer and lengthening the one that looks farther away.

Even at this most basic level, then, we interact with the external world by means of internal images. Imagine an internal television set that we use to process and script the signals from our senses before consciously screening them.

This brings me back to the media stars in my personal drama of the moment, the shrinking pile of fasteners on the table before me. The approach I have followed without thinking is to pick out the largest screws, then the next largest, and so on. It is by differing length that I naturally sort my fasteners. The process, then, is one of differentiation.

Used properly, differentiation is a powerful tool for order. It helps organize and classify. It allows us to break down complex problems into smaller pieces, which we can solve independently, and then put back together. Its application has resulted in many of the technological developments and provided much of the material wealth of the 20th century.

But it is clearly prone to abuse as well. All too easily, differentiation becomes discrimination, dividing people on the basis of trivial differences such as the color of their skin. All too easily, specialization degenerates into mental Balkanization, creating division and conflict. And the secondary effect of viewing the world through mechanistic glasses can be dehumanization.

Many of today's problems, it occurs to me, can be seen as symptoms of the widespread abuse of the differentiation process. While much of the world's attention is focused on treating these symptoms, there are ongoing intellectual efforts to address the root problem of disorder. Whether called ecology, holism, or computer simulation, these are attempts to balance the excesses of differentiation with an integrative function.

This is not a simple task. It is far easier to distinguish differences than similarities. It is far simpler to take something apart than it is to put it back together. Even mathematically integration is more difficult and ambiguous than differentiation.

Viewed in a broader context, the uses and abuses of differentiation are just one manifestation of the cosmic conflict between order and chaos going on throughout the physical universe. The study of this is thermodynamics.

Thermodynamics proclaims the trend toward disorder inexorable. It says that, with virtually every physical interaction, randomness grows and order declines. As I place the last of my fasteners in its plastic tray, I have produced some additional order. But in so doing, according to thermodynamics, I have destroyed even more order in the food energy my muscles burned.

But life is a process of increasing order. And thermodynamics, after all, is just a theory. So may not life, with that crowning capability known as thought, ultimately overcome the tyrannies of disorder? Certainly searching for such an end seems like a worthy challenge. And the small bit of order I have created this afternoon stands as my humble contribution to that end.

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