Tag Archives: the information age

A Short History of the List

To-do lists on post it notesOne day I woke up and found lists all around me.

They were telling me what I needed to do, what I wanted to do, restaurants I had to try, the must-read books of the year, bills I hadn’t paid, people who owed me money, action items from meetings I’d forgotten, and other things I absolutely could not forget. The lists covered the walls and lay heaped on the ground, were pouring out of the closet and bursting from drawers.

I was completely surrounded by them and immediately began to panic, the weight of all this crucial information bearing down on me with the force of an anvil, paralyzing me from acting at all or crossing even one item off one list.

So instead of beginning my work, I waded through the lists to my computer and began to procrastinate. I looked up the history of the list.

At the dawn of time, when all the earth’s matter and energy had been vomited up from the great unknown, the sole purpose of each individual bit of matter and anti-matter was this: to become more complex. Billions of years later, after a couple supernovas and other heavy-element producing astrological events, humans evolved and shortly thereafter started wearing trousers. Roughly around that time, the clock was invented. Prior to trouser-wearing and time-minding, the human’s to-do list looked something like this:

1. Survive

Or maybe like this:

1. Obtain food

2. Eat

3. Talk to Mom

At any rate, it was incredibly short because the basic tasks that went into a productive day were obvious and didn’t need to be remembered because if they weren’t, death would result shortly after. But in the time of trouser-wearing, the basic tools for survival became a bit murkier. It was no longer necessary to worry about obtaining food. It was readily available. Survival, too, turned out to be slightly easier than before, due to advances in leeching and humour-reading. All of the sudden, the question of “what do I do now” became much more profound.  It was no longer “what do I need to do today so I don’t die” but “what do I need to do today so I can do what I need to do tomorrow” and so on and so forth in a never ending cycle of perpetual productivity.

That’s when the humans invented lists, an all-powerful demigod that would tell them what they needed to do today in order to prosper tomorrow, or be happy, or avoid debtor’s prison, or remember the things they already knew.

Soon, lists became too complicated to understand, so it was necessary to develop a system where the lists could be listed, organized and distilled into something intelligible. Soon even that was too complicated to understand, so further reduction processes were undertaken and so on and so forth in an eternal battle between existing knowledge, and the desire to remember and act upon it.

There is a legend among the hill people of San Francisco that soon there will be one List that descends from the heavens, restoring order to the world and a sense of purpose, the List to end them all, to forever guide and inform, to comfort and encourage.

Until that day, the list demons proliferate, accusing their victims of sloth, of indirection, of forgetfulness. And the victims accept gladly, and create even more lists. Occasionally, on the most unusual of days, a list gets crossed off completely and disappears. Most often, however, the lists torment the list-maker to a point of madness or indifference, which could be the same thing. It depends on your perspective.

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