Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Junk Drawer and Knowledge

I'm convinced every home has a junk drawer, and I always figured someone out there somewhere must study the contents of these drawers. In my mind I see an Indiana Jones bravely working layer by layer, sifting through paper clips and old receipts and broken pencils, recording the presence of stamps and scissors and that cheap broken camera no one will get around to actually throwing away.

Seriously, people do study this stuff.

And I also found today people who study clutter in the home as an analogy for home computing. Here's one example, the abstract at least.

Our brains work pretty much the same way. Oh the clutter -- the stuff you can never quite find when you need it (co-worker names, wedding anniversaries, etc.) and the stuff you can always find but never need (the names of all the members of Grand Funk Railroad, the phone number of an old girlfriend). We toss information in the drawer, be it social or political, and hope we can root it out when it's needed.

Is it any wonder, then, we tend to do a lousy job answering telephone surveys that ask such vital political knowledge questions such as, "who is Nancy Pelosi?"

For many folks, the answer is: "Who cares?"

So we cram these bits and pieces of info gleaned from the news or from casual conversations into our junk drawer of a brain. Some if it is organized, but we often don't understand how it's organized. Everyone knows how a smell will set off memories. Luckily we don't have scratch-and-sniff politicians, but that might help on these survey questions.

Now don't get me wrong. Anyone who has read this blog knows that I believe political knowledge is important, that is helps people organize their political world and that it makes them more likely to efficiently participate in the political process. And I've published a lot of research on political knowledge, and what I haven't published I've read by others much smarter than me. But the junk drawer analogy, at least today, works for me. Tomorrow I'll probably have another.

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